MUSIC | "I want it to be relevant": MJ Kroll's music takes a turn

They don't make too many like singer-songwriter MJ Kroll. It's as much fun to hang out with her as it is to watch her perform or listen to one of her CDs. On-stage and off, she's an original.

Her debut Resonate and the follow-up, Wondering, establish Kroll as a singular talent. It's a rich quality, powerfully emotive, threading strong melodies to intriguing lyrics. The music is state-of-the-art country rock and soul. The down-to-earth words are wry, dry. As in shoot-from-the-hip, hit-‘em-right-between-the-eyes. All showcasing, clear, ringing vocals fueled by seething passion. Take "Believe," from Resonate. Soulful, driving, with a hook you can hang your hat on. Hear it once. Ten minutes later, can't get it out of your head. She doesn't need the studio to make you feel her. Fine as her recordings are, you lose nothing by catching this artist first-hand. Whether solo or with a backup band. In person, MJ Kroll flat-out burns.

She's also a pretty interesting piece of work just hanging out. Came by the crib for an interview and, well, the woman could walk into an empty room and a good time would break out. Charisma for days. Incorrigible wise-ass. With a warm sense of humor. Ultimately, a remarkable self-possessed free-wheeling spirit. We talked. Watched some of Cadillac Records on DVD. And talked. Petted my cats, Butch and Sundance. And talked.

You're a featured artist at Twin Cities Radio. Where else are you getting airplay?
I have been on college radio, probably 90 stations. Also, I got over into the European market. Twin Cities Radio is part of Worldcast Productions, a collaborative of Internet stations putting indie music out there. There's one in Gotham, New York. One in Cleveland, where I recently went and performed at the world famous Wilberts. We did a show there [broadcast by] Rock Capital Radio. Those are some of the places. I've been on KFAI as well. It isn't something I've been pushing, because I wasn't touring. [I'm going to] spend at least a full year focusing just on music.

You headed up a songwriter showcase at The School of the Wise II; got artists, including myself, some nice exposure with it being broadcast on YouTube. How'd that come about, your hosting it and playing there?
I had performed there a couple of times with Tony Ortiz, just doing a few songs with his band. And had met Ann [Clifford, The School of the Wise II owner]. Really liked the place. And liked that they were [presenting] original music from Minnesota. Some covers as well, but they were trying to get some of the indie artists in. That were in what I would call the Folk Americana genre, which I sometimes like to put myself into. The old Minnesota sound. Like the Honeydogs. They were trying to do that kind of music. And there weren't a lot of places doing it. Not since the Honeydogs or Tim Mahoney, there hasn't been a lot of that kind of music scene here. I came out [to the club] on Wednesdays and ended up being friends with Patrick Ireland. And he was going to be leaving that slot. Ann said, "Well, I'd like to get more artists in here." I had done a number of showcases for Twin Cities Radio. We put the idea together to showcase featured performers and then have an open mic portion as well. For some reason the open mic didn't take off. So, it ended up being mostly about the showcase. And at the end of the night, you know, a jam, do whatever. It was a fun thing. Became a good places for artists to network. I know I'll be doing more of that kind of thing, but, right now, the School of the Wise showcase, it wasn't turning the kind of profit they needed to see.

So that's over.
I'll be doing something involving showcases with Minnesota artists this coming year. Another venue. I'm actually looking into things.

What influences are there on your music?
I really started enjoying music when I was kid. It was real fun. On a small farm, a family farm, it's second generation, now, third generation. My mom would always have the radio on. You know, whistle as you work, right? We'd always be listening to the radio. And I grew up with the Grand Ole Opry. It's funny, because I was listening to Olivia Newton-John back when she was country. I basically switched over to pop music when she did. I always had a passion for music and all kinds of music, you know. Some of my favorite artists, today, are U2 and Madonna and Patty Griffin. And, if you look at all three of those, they're very diverse. Then, you go over and I've got Bonnie Raitt, Keb Mo', John Hiatt, all that kind of rootsy music. And I like dance music. Edgy music. Blue October, Third Eye Blind kind of stuff. A lot of influences. It's all over the board.

Looking back on Resonate and Wondering, how happy are you with how they turned out and is there anything new you want to try for your third disc?
Well, I'm real happy with how they turned out. Resonate got some number one spins on college radio. And when I started working on the arrangements for that and spent some pre-production with my arranger Benji Conklin whose been by my side for a long time. I ended up co-producing [both discs]. For sure, there are songs or elements I listen to and think a real talented producer could take this to another level. But I'm pretty good for a novice, you know? Might have a knack for this. That has been the experience of those two albums. Find out what you can do, where your strengths are. That's where we're at with album three. I've kind of done my learning experience. Now, how am I going to use those skills I've developed?

Okay.
So, album three. I'm doing some weird stuff and I'm almost hesitant to announce it.

Why?
Because people are going to be, like, "Okay, whatever. She's flaked." I'm doing a dance-based album. And, you know, in our society, people want to put you in a box. You're either a folk artist or you're a pop artist or whatever you are. [Audiences] will listen to different concepts and different song ideas as long as the rhythm is moving them. So, I'm trying to do a pop album that is dance driven. [I want] it to be a little more relevant than I think a lot of today's pop music is. There's a lot of fun music out there, but, at the end of day, what did I learn? For example, the first dancey tune, which we're polishing right now, I wrote for the foundation "Half the Sky." The title of the song is "Now and Then." I was inspired to write the song because of the gravity of the numbers, I guess, is the only way to describe it. To give you one statistic, there's approximately as many as ten million women, right now, that are in sex-slave camps. It was basically stating that the biggest crisis we face as a world community is the current state of women. That's what I'm talking about. It's about fun, about dancing. But there's a message. I'm just trying something a little bit different than my last two albums.

MJ Kroll performs at the Fine Line, 318 North 1st Avenue in downtown Minneapolis, Jan. 9th, 7 p.m. She's at Barfly, also in downtown Minneapolis, 711 Hennepin Avenue, Feb. 23rd, 8 p.m. for Party For Life II, to benefit musician Michael McElrath in his fight against cancer.

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    Dwight Hobbes's picture
    Dwight Hobbes

    Dwight Hobbes (dwight [at] tcdailyplanet [dot] net) is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the TC Daily Planet.