“To me this isn’t just a collection of songs,” Peter Himmelman says. “It’s more like a theatrical experience.” Himmelman is explaining Are You There – the first album released under the collective moniker Minnesota. Indeed, Himmelman’s latest project defies easy categorization – standing as far apart from his acclaimed discography as it does the typical creation of a rock album in this day and age.
Himmelman remains one of the most revered singer-songwriters of his generation: USA Today hailed the him “one of rock’s most wildly imaginative performers,” while The San Francisco Chronicle said of the Grammy-nominated artist “he probes all the passions, from anguish to lust, to depths few rockers can even imagine.” Of Himmelman’s 1991 solo album From Strength To Strength (which yielded the memorable radio hit “The Woman With the Strength of 10,000 Men”), Time Magazine praised “songs written with the same emphatic edge and aesthetic urgency that impelled the Lost Generation to write novels.”
That same iconoclastic drive, however, pushed Himmelman to move beyond his own boundaries on Are You There. For one, it isn’t a solo album – a rare occurrence from someone who hasn’t released a “band” album in over 25 years; then again, it isn’t exactly a “band” album, either. Are You There is cinematic in ambition yet defiantly frayed in execution with boldly raw performances jumpstarted by subtly modernist production featuring a diverse set of musicians including Jake Hanson (Halloween Alaska) on guitar, Noah Levy (BoDeans/Brian Setzer) on drums, Jimmy Anton (Johnny Lang) on bass, Jeff Victor (the Honeydogs/Andrew W. K.) on keyboards, and the front-and-center vocals of Kristin Mooney and Claire Holley. The album hybrids all these contradictions into one of the year’s most startling, evocative musical journeys
That’s in part due to the album’s unlikely conception: a collaboration born of an equal partnership between Himmelman and accomplished filmmaker David Hollander, who is best known for creating the venerated TV series “The Guardian” (which propelled lead actor Simon Baker to his current fame), and directing independent films like 2009′s critically-praised Personal Effects, which starred Ashton Kutcher and Michelle Pfeiffer (which Hollander adapted from a Rick Moody short story).
“We had our own trajectories in our respective worlds, so we weren’t competitive,” Hollander notes. “Peter was getting ready to make a record, and he needed a little direction and change. I wanted to hear Peter with no smokescreen – to create a world around him that’s physical and visceral, but also enveloping and spacious. I wanted to toy with the constructs.’”
The two did have common ground to work from. Himmelman is no stranger to the moving image, having received an Emmy nomination in 2002 for his scoring work on the TV show “Judging Amy”; he also created the music for Hollander’s 2007 series “Heartland.” “Peter isn’t a cautious writer,” Hollander notes. “He’s impulsive and quick, whereas I’m more long form, prone to circling endlessly. I wish I had his qualities, and I expect he wishes he had a bit of mine.”
Hollander’s storytelling instincts, honed from years of television and film work, bring a fresh perspective to Himmelman’s music – a process that kicked off when the two longtime friends got together in fall 2011 to listen to songs Himmelman had demoed for a new record. “I immediately heard a larger narrative in the songs, saw a story within that felt compelling,” Hollander says.
This concept allowed Himmelman free range beyond his usual songwriting concerns and allowed the album to introduce new sonic rules into his work. Previously renowned for his literary, spiritual explorations, Are You There finds Himmelman still asking questions both sacred and profane – but now imbued with a new, edgy fervor. In “Deep Freeze,” he reveals an apocalyptic but all-too-familiar world where “the devil is coming out of deep freeze”: “They’re stringing up the niggers, the faggots, and the Jews/They’re never out of victims – it’s getting’ hard to choose,” he sings.
“How can you not feel on the edge of some kind of chaos today?” Himmelman says. Himmelman’s approach reflects his primal, contemporary spin on themes embedded in rock and roll’s roots. “I tend to be interested in more basic blues these days: Howlin’ Wolf, Blind Blake, Leadbelly,” he notes. “I want to find out how these guys rocked juke joints with just one acoustic guitar. Working within the narrowest of melodic and lyric structures – I find great freedom in that.”
Even the recording environment would also factor into the album’s thematic sweep. In January 2011, Himmelman and Hollander traveled to Himmelman’s hometown of Minneapolis in the midst of a record breaking cold-snap to record the album. “We placed it in and called the collective ‘Minnesota’ to give Peter his due,” Hollander says. “For Peter, it is a homecoming. The record that he created, that I then curated, is very much about someone finding his home.”
Together, the musicians and production team partnered to achieve Himmelman’s most immediate sounding recording yet. “I love how this record feels,” Himmelman says. “I hear a sheen on a lot of newer things; this feels handmade, more spontaneous.”
Himmelman and Hollander chose the album’s title from a particularly resonant line in the song “Call From the Road.” “For any artist, it’s an important question,” Himmelman notes. “Is anybody there? Are you in this relationship, or just going through the motions?”
“Minnesota’ represents the whole experience,” Hollander says. “It’s not a Peter Himmelman solo album, or ‘A Film by David Hollander’; it’s a larger collaboration, well beyond the two of us. We pushed each other out of our comfort zones and into new territory.” Himmelman adds: “I was sometimes frustrated by the new approach, but a great producer – and David qualifies as that – can make you become yourself again.”