NORTHERN MAGNOLIA
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NORTHERN MAGNOLIA

Schiller Park, Illinois, United States | SELF

Schiller Park, Illinois, United States | SELF
Band Americana Rock

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In this week’s local brews section, we meet Chicago-based Americana band Northern Magnolia. Their music can bring a tear to your eye and get your boots stomping on the barroom floor – sometimes in the same song. The band’s twangy alt-country rock pulses with heartbreak and longing, and you can hear it all over their debut album, Dreams to Reckon With, recorded by Neal Ostrovsky at B-Side Audio in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village.

We drank beers (and took a shot of Jameson in honor of bassist Jerry’s birthday) at the Ten Cat Tavern where we talked about the band’s recording process, the Chicago scene and why music is their drug of choice.

The Band: Northern Magnolia

The Drinks: PBR, Guinness and Whiskey

The Bar: Ten Cat Lounge

Kristen from A Beer with the Band: How did you get together as a band?

Tony Piscotti: The story starts with Dave and I. We’re brothers if you can’t tell, and we’ve played in a few bands together over the years…In September of 2010 I was planning on moving to Los Angeles—I had lived there some years back and had a bunch of musician friends and actor friends out there—and I needed mountains and was sick of Chicago winters. I was ready to go. Dave still wanted to play music and posted an ad on Craigslist. Rory ended up replying to one. We found some links on her music, took a listen, and Dave and I really dug what we heard so we asked her to sit in and jam with us.

Rory Miller: And I said, “Well, I have a bass player. Should he just come along?” So, we had a full band our first practice and it was just good vibes. It worked out.

Tony: Yeah, it just clicked. That’s pretty much when I was sold and knew I wasn’t going to be leaving Chicago anytime soon. That was December of 2010.

Kristen: When did you record and release your debut CD, Dreams to Reckon With?

Tony: We started recording in March of 2011. We started on St. Patrick’s Day. It was just before our very first gig.

Jerry Rinard: It went from just an EP into keeping on recording, moving along, and we had every intention of stopping at some point, but we ended up rounding out a ten-song record.

Kristen: That’s a lot of material and a lot of time.

Tony: It was a labor of love, that’s for sure. We recorded mostly on weekends. We would book ten to twelve hour blocks of time in the studio. Most of us have day gigs, so we couldn’t do it during the week.

Kristen: I imagine it was hard to pursue something creatively while working full-time.

Jerry: Yeah, this is pretty much a full-time job on top of a full-time job. And starting out, it was all weeknight or Sunday night gigs. You would try to get up the next morning after being up until 2 am and it was really rough.

Rory: But we’ve moved up to weekend dates now!

Tony: We played The Abbey Pub the other week (a rare and early weekday show for us), and I thought that was a great show.

Kristen: Did you open?

Tony: We opened for Lauren Mann and the Fairly Odd Folk. They’re an indie-folk band.

Rory: Awesome, the sound guy over at The Abbey, called them a hippie orchestra.

Kristen: It’s pretty awesome that his name is Awesome.

Tony: Yeah, and he lives up to it. He’s super-accommodating, even helps us load in our gear. You need it, he delivers.

Kristen: What’s the hardest thing about being a musician?

Jerry: Part of being a performer is getting past those day-to-day mistakes that only you are going to get in your head about. The crowd doesn’t necessarily care—unless they’ve seen you 50 times—if you play a sour note for a second. It’s never going to be a perfect set. It’s all about having fun and owning it.

Tony: If I’m too much in my head thinking about how perfect [a set] is going to be, that’s when I screw up. If I go up there and get into a zone where I’m having fun right out of the gate, then that’s the auto-pilot that keeps me playing pretty well for the rest of the night.

Rory: If I drink too much I can be a mess, if I think too much I can be a mess. Can’t drink too much and you can’t think too much.

[Everyone laughs]

Kristen: Let’s talk about the creative process with your recent album, as well as what you’re working on now.

Dave Piscotti: Rory comes up with the material first and then we all vomit our input on top of it… We’ll write our individual parts around it and make it whole.

Rory: I build the foundation or put up the studs if you will, and then they paint the room, put up the drywall, hang the lighting fixtures, lay the rug down.

Jerry: With this band, it’s a formula that still really isn’t set in stone. For the previous album, it was definitely a lot of Rory’s backlog…and then we made our own type of Northern Magnolia arrangement around it. Who knows what’s going to happen moving forward? There are a lot of directions we could take this, and I’d like to see us explore each of those possibilities. We’re really going with what we know and trying to get as creative and experimental as we can in a sort of deliberate fashion.

Rory: Some of the songs [on the album] I wrote a really long time ago with The Rory Miller Band, which I played in from 2007-2008. When I got together with Northern Magnolia, the style was so much different that all of the sudden those old songs were brand new again. It came out totally different playing with these guys.

Tony: “Missouri” was one of those. Once we arranged it, it was clear that that needed to be a first song [on the debut record].

Rory: I think our second record is going to sound a lot different than this one.

Kristen: That’s what I was going to ask you. How do you feel like you’re progressing?

Rory: I think our second record is going to be a little more rock. This one is more folk-rock than an alt-country rock.

Kristen: Does it still have the alt-country vibe?

Tony: It does.

Rory: But I think less.

Tony: It’s not like we’ve shifted gears completely. It’s still twang-inspired but it’s a little more pop or folk oriented, a little less country.

Jerry: Yeah, and I think a lot of it is formed by what we’re listening to and where some of the big potential is…We’re trying to find those head-nodders. We have a lot of good tunes, but we’re still trying to find out where the audience wants us to go. It might sound good to us, but what would get someone in a bar across the way to hear us and come in and see us? We want to find that audience.

Tony: I think we write songs that we would love to hear ourselves, and although we love all the songs that Rory brought to the table when we did this album when we first started as a band, we’re now writing more collectively for this next record.

Kristen: In terms of songwriting, do the lyrics always come after?

Rory: It totally goes both ways. Most times, I sit in my kitchen, drink my beer, smoke my cigarettes, hold my guitar and stare off into space. And then I’ll strum…

Kristen: What about content wise? Where do you feel like you draw inspiration from?

Rory: A lot of it is over exaggeration—I might have a feeling about something or someone will tell me a story and I’ll just over exaggerate. It’s like emotional fiction. Emotional exaggeration maybe. But we could also be singing about total nonsense, as long as we’re saying it with the right inflection. It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.

Dave: The point of music is for the listener to have his or her own perspective. It’s not supposed to mean the same thing for you as it does for the person who wrote it.

Rory: It’s poetry I guess, right?

Kristen: If you had to describe your sound to someone in a few words, what are some that come to mind?

Rory: I always say folk-roots-rock. I never want to say alt-country, even though there is that tinge to it, because all people hear is “country” and they think of Garth Brooks.

Jerry: And I’m afraid Americana doesn’t mean enough to people who don’t know what Americana is about…So, I kind of have to go through the hyphenated terms like “alt-country,” “folk-rock” or “roots-rock,” depending on who I’m talking to.

Dave: There are like 500,000 different genres now.

Kristen: It’s all the music writers needing to come up with terms to describe bands. What would you say your band philosophy is?

Rory: No vodka cranberries for Rory! Keep Rory away from the bar!

[Everyone laughs]

Kristen: Don’t think too much, don’t drink too much.

Tony: Have a good time, all the time.

[Everyone laughs]

Jerry: The band is my pill I take at the end of the day when I’m practicing that really makes the rest of the day kind of melt away. You hang out and practice, play some music, maybe you go over something you haven’t played in a while or you write something new…

Rory: Maybe you play the same song over and over again for three weeks straight.

Jerry: But it’s all still fun and very therapeutic. Just to hang out and play.

Kristen: And you all like each other so that still helps.

Tony: All things considered, we’re pretty stable as far as the liking each other is concerned.

Kristen: Yeah, three years is a lifetime in band years. Let’s talk venues. What’s at the top of your list in Chicago—either venues that you’ve already played or some that you’re hoping to play?

Rory: I want to play Hideout and I want to play Schubas. We haven’t played those. I would love to do more street festivals because summer is coming and I love to play outside. There’s always a shit ton of people there.

Tony: Those are definitely the venues we’re still shooting for.

Rory: The Abbey is always fun because Awesome [sound guy] is so awesome.

Tony: That’s my top place. I love playing there.

Jerry: The Double Door and Martyrs’ are my other favorites.

Kristen: You mentioned earlier that your sound is influenced by who you’re listening to a little bit. Who have you listened to in the past and who are you listening to now?

Tony: Our collective musical taste spans a pretty broad gamut. David Rawlings and Bo Ramsey have heavily influenced by guitar playing so I listen to them a lot. Some artists I’ve been digging regularly these days: Gregory Alan Isakov, Samantha Crain, Blitzen Trapper, Feist, Iron and Wine, Son Volt, Fleet Foxes, Phosphorescent, Strand of Oaks…this list goes on. I came into some great vintage vinyl a few months back and fell in love with Jackson Browne’s “For Everyman” album.

Rory: We all love Edie Brickell, Wilco, Ryan Adams, The Heartless Bastards.

Jerry: I’m falling into love with Dawes again. The new record is crazy. It’s pretty good shit. Bowie, Wilco, Low, patiently awaiting the new Daft Punk…I’m all over the place.

Kristen: You guys are doing this independently now. Would your end goal be to sign with a record label?

Tony: Yes and no. I have no aspiration of getting a major label, but a cool in-town indie label would be great to get some distribution and have somebody to book tours. It’s hard to work all day and try to book and get your name out there.

Dave: But playing shows comes first before finding a label.

Tony: In the short-term, one of our bigger goals is to expand our reach, to get the word out to listeners. I think we have great stuff and we keep writing better and better stuff. We get genuine, positive feedback from people we’ve never met before and that’s encouraging. But the reach is still very short. And at this point, a major label is kind of a shot in the foot. Nobody’s really doing that anymore. They own you.

Dave: The ‘80s and the ‘90s are over. The majors are dead. They’re only there for big pop acts.

Jerry: I personally live for shows. I want to perform for people and I want people to come see us perform. I want people at our shows regardless of album sales. That’s what we’re in it for.

Tony: Genuine fans, not just friends and family.

Jerry: We do have some people that come to every single show.

Tony: The key is just to really connect to those people and play the music very well and hope that they’re singing it in the shower the next day.

Kristen: What do you think about the music scene in Chicago? Is it hard to break into?

Rory: I think there’s a big Americana scene in Chicago.

Tony: And Bloodshot Records sort of led that charge.

Jerry: And Hideout. If you play there as an Americana band, people start to take notice…There are definitely some tiers to where we’re playing, and we have “ins” at certain places. There are definitely some growing pains where we feel like we should be at a certain level, but for whatever reason we’re not there in some areas…It’s like trying to orchestrate a lightening strike. We’ve had gears going at certain velocities throughout the process, but getting them all in sync at once is tough for four people that have jobs to do. You just have to keep going and hopefully everything is in the right place at the right time.

Dave: People always say, “It’s probably not going to happen at this point for you guys.” I don’t need to make it big; I don’t need fucking fame and shit loads of money. I just want to be a full-time musician and making the rent.

Kristen: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Rory: Quit tuning your guitar for so long in between songs. Less tuning; more song.

[Everyone laughs]

Dave: Don’t stop playing. Don’t stop doing it. It’s easy to get frustrated, but you keep doing what you do because you can’t stand doing anything else. That’s the biggest one I always listen to. And get out of your head.

Tony: Yeah, exactly. Don’t over think. Do it because you love to do it.

Rory: My dad would always tell me, “ I know you don’t feel like playing right now, but just come play. We’re going to have fun. Trust me, you’re gonna like it.” And I’d always say, “I don’t feel like it, Dad.” And then we’d start playing and it would end up being awesome. And with these guys, every time I play it ends up being fun even when I don’t feel like it. Afterwards, my day always feels complete.

Tony: I had a theatre professor of mine in a directing class say, “To be an artist, you need to be more than just be an avid admirer of the art that you’re a part of. You have to ask yourself, ‘Do I want to do this or do I HAVE to do this?’” And when you realize that, then you know you’re on the right path. I did a lot of theatre for a while, and I enjoyed it, but I don’t feel like I have to do it. But when it comes to music, if I stopped playing, I would just shrivel up.

Jerry: Never doubt what you do; just do it.

Rory: I’m full of doubt, always.

Dave: I don’t think there’s an artist that doesn’t doubt themselves and everything they do. Unless you’re a cocky prick.

Rory: Even cocky pricks doubt themselves. That’s why they’re cocky pricks.

Tony: Playing music is extremely subjective. We have people who might say [about our music], “It’s pretty cool I like it” and others who will say, “That’s not really my thing.” And then we had super fans come out at The Abbey.

Rory: That makes it worth it for me. There could be two people out of a million and if they’re touched somehow, it’s like, “I’m so glad I played tonight.” - A Beer with the Band


How do I begin to describe the sound of the Chicago alt-country foursome Northern Magnolia?

Bassist Jerry Rinard (far left in the photo above) puts it like this: "We give a wink and a nod to that old Americana."

Northern Magnolia is made up of Rinard, singer/guitarist Rory Miller, and brothers Tony (guitar) and Dave (drums) Piscotti. Collectively, their influences include Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Neko Case, Gillian Welsch, Edie Brickell, Crowded House, Neil Finn, Jonatha Brooks, Ryan Adams, Wilco, and the Jayhawks. But they struggle to come up with a succinct description of their sound.

"We sound like Northern Magnolia," Tony jokes. If pressed for a description, Dave would say their sound was "the lovechild of Neko Case and Whiskeytown."

Northern Magnolia hit the ground running at the end of 2010, after Dave answered an ad Miller put out looking for bandmates. He quickly recruited his brother to join on guitar, and Miller contacted her longtime friend Rinard to fill in on bass. The group of seasoned musicians convened at the brothers' practice space under the El and the rest is history.

"As soon as we started playing together, I felt pretty awesome about it," Rinard said. They formed a quick camaraderie in that space under the Brown Line. Miller said about the space, "We practice under the El and it sounds like thunder. It brings kind of an ambiance to the science lab."

The band has made an impressive transition from the science lab to many popular venues in Chicago, including The Double Door, Abbey Pub, Marytr's and Beat Kitchen, with upcoming shows scheduled at Subterranean and Fitzgerald's. They agreed that their favorite "big" venue so far was The Double Door. But their old standby is undoubtedly Lincoln Square Lanes.

"We get to bowl for free, and the whiskey flows like water," Miller said. I caught Northern Magnolia at Lincoln Square Lanes in April and I could feel the warmth between the band, the bartenders, and the audience. The casual atmosphere is great for bringing in guest musicians and creating some real show magic. Tony says about that magic, "There's so much that happens at a show that you can't rehearse, it just happens."

Recently they took their magic on the road, up to the festival Music in the Park, in Ontonagon, Michigan. Miller described the festival as a kind of precursor to the Porcupine Music Festival, where they will be performing at then end of August, on a stage that was built into a ski lift. Past performers include Kelly Joe Phelps and That One Guy.

In the meantime, the band is looking forward to returning to Champaign on Saturday night for their gig at Luna, 9 p.m. on the patio. Northern Magnolia aren't strangers to Champaign-Urbana. Miller and Rinard premiered on the scene in 2001 at an open mic at The Canopy Club. Rinard then settled in Champaign and played in a couple of local bands (Humpty Dumpster, The Idle Hours) in the early 2000's. Fast forward to this decade, the band debuted their sound live in C-U last fall on 88.7, promoting their show the next day at Exile on Main Street, part of the Pygmalion Music Festival. That gig was soon followed by a show at the Iron Post during the Folk and Roots Festival. I, for one, am really stoked for their return to C-U.

Northern Magnolia are both dreamers and realists. Tony says while they are realistic about the music industry, "We'll take this as far as it can go."

Miller agrees, "The ultimate goal would be to be able to play music full time and not have to work a day job. It doesn't matter if we are famous."

Rinard is more focused on the short term. "We really just want people to buy the record."

Northern Magnolia's debut album, Dreams to Reckon With, should be out by the end of the year.

[EDIT: Dreams to Reckon With is now available as of 9/25/2012!] - Smile Politely (Champaign-Urbana's Online Magazine)


FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:

Chicago, IL – November 5, 2012 – Northern Magnolia can bring a tear to your eye and get your boots stomping on the barroom floor – sometimes in the same song. The Chicago band’s twangy alt-country rock pulses with heartbreak and longing. And you can hear it all over their debut album, Dreams to Reckon With, recorded by Neal Ostrovsky at B-Side Audio in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village. Fans of Neko Case, Heartless Bastards and Alabama Shakes should find plenty to dig into.

Credit singer Rory Miller, who’s hurt but hopeful voice is the hallmark of the record, for living out the lyrics of an old country song. Fortunately, her romantic travails inspired songs like “Brown Eyes and Levi’s;” Miller’s yearning, slow-burning ode that bears all the traits of a classic country ballad. On hard-driving tracks like “Whiskey on the Ledge” and “Hold On,” the band revs its engine, echoing the muscular rural rock of Whiskeytown and Son Volt.

Some listeners might recognize the warm and glittery pedal steel of Ken Champion, whose credits include Mavis Staples, Jim O’Rourke and Jeff Tweedy. Everyone will recognize the raw Americana seeping through the album.

In less than two years, Northern Magnolia’s hit-the-highway tunes have already taken them from Chicago’s Double Door to venues across the Midwest. So while Dreams to Reckon With is their first album, it’s just the latest stop in the journey of a band that won’t quit until it finds salvation.

Contact:
For inquiries, please contact Northern Magnolia’s management at:
booking@northernmagnoliaband.com

### - Press Release (distributed through Beat Wire)


Discography

"Dreams to Reckon With" - released 9/25/2012 (see links below for Spotify, Soundcloud, iTunes, CD Baby and Amazon)

Photos

Bio

Northern Magnolia can bring a tear to your eye and get your boots stomping on the barroom floor – sometimes in the same song. The Chicago band’s twangy alt-country rock pulses with heartbreak and longing. And you can hear it all over their debut album, "Dreams to Reckon With", recorded by Neal Ostrovsky (The Webb Brothers, Local H, Urge Overkill) at B-Side Audio in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village.

The band formed like a happy accident, as brothers Dave and Tony Piscotti’s previous band was winding to a halt. Taking its helm, Rory Miller responded to the Piscotti’s call for an original and unique songwriter. Rory had just returned to her native Chicago after honing her music in Florida. Getting back to her roots, Rory recruited her first bass player and longtime friend, Jerry Rinard. The four fell into place like the pieces of a puzzle.

Rory belts out powerful, confident vocals over the driving rhythm of her percussive guitar. While Tony weaves melodic, tuneful, and twang-filled tapestries on his telecaster, Dave adds dynamic snap behind the kit. The quartet is rounded out by Jerry Rinard with his in-the-pocket bass groove and complimentary backing vocals. The group plays with spontaneous maturity as Rory keeps listeners wondering what turn her melodies will take next. Northern Magnolia’s growing audience is drawn to the band’s exploration of musical territory staked out by Whiskeytown, Neko Case, Heartless Bastards and Alabama Shakes.

In less than two years, Northern Magnolia’s hit-the-highway tunes have already taken them from Chicago’s Double Door to venues across the Midwest. So while Dreams to Reckon With is their first album, it’s just the latest stop in the journey of a band that won’t quit until it finds salvation.

Band Members