photograph by Jim Brandenburg
If you’ve heard Michael Monroe perform, then you understand why "soul" is an integral part of any review. With a soothing voice – the friendly kind, not unlike that of two of his musical inspirations, Cat Stevens and James Taylor – and an incredible technical ability to sample his own voice and instrumentation and create a multidimensional soundscape, this native son of Minnesota bares his soul in every song he sings.
Sometimes described as an "eco-folkie," Monroe is simply a musical artist. He creates music, and in the process of doing so, his true nature is revealed. He displays courage in sharing who he really is with his audience, not relying upon flash over substance. Not relying upon fiction over truth.
His latest and tenth recording, Simple Life, envelopes the listener into the artist’s love for nature, disdain for urban chaos and quest for peace. It takes you into his world and invites you to stay for as long as you like. His new songs are a strong statement delivered without angst, punctuated by a flawless version of Cat Stevens’ "Peace Train."
Monroe, 53, is known in environmental circles for having recorded his music in a solar-powered studio not far from the Canadian border in Hovland, Minn., and performing on the road with power generated by the sun. When he sings of living the simple life, Monroe walks his talk. For years he lived without hot, running water. He has chopped wood and carried water. And when the supply grew low, he chopped wood and carried water.
And then it was time to change. He and his partner, Deb Mueller, recently bought a house – with heat and running water built in – giving him a needed rest from the challenges of roughing it. And then his father suddenly died, giving him pause to reconsider the meaning of life.
Following a highly proficient performance of songs from The Simple Life, during the Sunday Service at the recent Edge Life Expo, I sat down with Michael Monroe on steps overlooking the floor of the Minneapolis Convention Center and talked with him about music, about his dad and about the simple life.
How do you feel when you write and when you perform?
Michael Monroe: I feel differently in each state. The best place for writing for me is when I’m away from people and alone. Lately, I’ve been taking walks in the woods to get ideas and let the music come into my head. Or I’m in my studio with my instrument, just allowing myself to be in more of a play sort of space. If I like, I can just go with whatever chord comes out of my guitar. Maybe I will find a progression of chords or a few notes that go together nicely – and sometimes the words will just come with that if I’m working on a lyrical piece.
Sometimes the words come later, and sometimes I get a word idea first and I just sit down with that thought or that phrase for a while until it happens. I’ve been doing more instrumental music lately, so I’m finding that it works better for me to be away from my instruments at first and just let the music happen in my head without limitations of what I can actually do on the guitar.
Then do you find yourself re-creating what you heard in your head?
Monroe: Yes, then I try to best give the true expression of what it was that came into my head.
Now, when I’m in front of people, I’m enjoying the fact that I’ve already written this song and I’ve played it maybe a hundred or a thousand times, so I’m very comfortable with it. I can be in the space with the audience of experiencing the music as it is. Sometimes that gets me into trouble, because I allow myself to get emotional with the music and then I can’t perform it as well, because I’ll get choked up or I’ll get way into it.
Performing is a whole different thing, because there’s this energy exchange with the audience as I’m expressing and letting my energy flow out. It’s like a mirror or a circle that starts to happen with the people, and if I look at them, if I can see them, it helps because I can see in their eyes what’s going on with them or their facial expression or if their bodies are moving with the music.
And that changes you.
Monroe: Oh, yeah, it gives me energy to do more and to feel better. If I’m getting a blank wall out there, or if the lights make it harder to read what’s going on, then I have to use sort of a sixth sense as to what is going on with the people.
I notice that you have some interesting guitars. Tell me about those. Are they new?
Monroe: Two of them are. My friend, David Seaton, who lives on the Gunflint Trail up in Grand Marais, close to where I live, is a guitar builder by training and now he runs Hungry Jack Outfitters in the summertime. In the winter, he builds these instruments. So, I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to connect with such a creative, artistic luthier.
He custom builds these guitars for me. I tell him, "I want a tenor guitar, one that’s higher register than the standard guitar and this is what I kind of like" and then I set him free and he builds what he wants creatively within those few parameters. He comes back with this gorgeous instrument made out of bird’s eye poplar from northern Minnesota, spruce from his backyard that was blown down during the straight-line winds several years ago up in the Boundary Waters, and birch that is hundreds of years old, brought up from the bottom of Lake Superior.
He puts together this instrument and hands it to me and I fall in love with it – and it spurs my creativity. He handed me that guitar and I wrote "Simple Life" on it and I wrote "Calling" on it, and I wrote "Oneawa" on it.
And then I say, "Well, now I’d like a baritone guitar, one that’s even lower than the standard guitar." The baritone and the tenor guitar are both made out of the same woods. The baritone is rich and full and it just feels like I’m holding part of a tree – and I literally am. I’m hugging a tree. I’m a tree hugger.
The first song that came out of that guitar is "As It Should Be," which is a song about how we can take a lesson from the trees, about how wise trees are. They don’t need to go anywhere. They stand in one place and they recycle our waste and turn it into life. And they take sunlight and with their leaves turn it into air we can breathe. They create beautiful spaces where we can sit – either in the tree or under the tree – and they’re just naturally always giving. It’s taking a lesson from the trees.
I have a verse about the poplar tree that fell to create this guitar. Even when they die, they keep giving. They don’t really every die. It is a living wood that we have in our homes, and you can feel the life of the wood. My guitar sounds different when I pick it up and strum it after I’ve played it for five minutes. When holding it, it reacts to me being with it. Whether that’s a spiritual thing or a temperature thing or whatever it is, a vibrational thing, there’s a reaction there.
Monroe: Oh, very much so. So, these are my family. I’ve got four guitars on stage and I say, "I’m a solo. What am I doing complicating my life?" But I’m just so in love with these instruments that I have to bring them whenever I’m going to play.
Who has inspired you artistically?
Monroe: Well, I’m going to say first, my dad. I just lost my dad two weeks ago. I wouldn’t have given him credit several years ago, I don’t think, but the fact is that he was very creative with his hands around the house, creating things in the house. He loved to carve, but he was also musical. Loved to sing. He would sit in his room and play his ukulele and sing, and I used to hear him sing in church and sometimes just around the house I’d hear him singing.
So he inspired me to know that it was okay, that this is something that’s normal, for a person to just sing. I talk to so many people who say, "Oh, I like music, but I can’t." I never felt the "I can’t." I always felt like it was a part of life. So, he was inspiring.
What was his name?
Monroe: Bob. Robert. Robert Monroe. When he was younger, he sang in roller rinks throughout southern Minnesota. There was an organist who would travel with him and he would help people skate, but then he would also stand and sing the popular songs of the day for the people at the rink.
Other musicians who inspired me were Peter, Paul and Mary, James Taylor, and Cat Stevens was a huge influence. Steve Tibbetts and Mark Anderson have been really influential from the standpoint of improvisation and breaking away from the normal form of music.
When I went in my instrumental direction with the Chased by the Light project with Jim Brandenburg, I drew on that a lot, not having to be form-oriented in the way that I normally would write a song with lyrics, with verses and a chorus and some kind of bridge. The instrumental stuff is very freeing, especially working with a documentary where you’re creating a sound track to what is going on. It’s like giving an ambience, so the music can go in a whole different direction and any way that I really wanted it to go.
Was that the first time you did any kind of a sound track?
Monroe: It was.
So you watched the image first and then you sat with that?
Monroe: Yes. They gave me early cuts of the documentary and at first I just spent time looking at it. Then I was given some lists of, "Here’s what we need, where we want transitions, where we want music behind Jim talking, where there’s going to be no talking and just showing of his images." Jim’s work is so inspiring and we share the Boundary Waters as a back yard, so I identified a lot with what he does and where he lives. Even though I went into it a little bit nervously because I’d never done it before, I was amazed at how free-flowing the music was. I’m really happy with the music that came out of it, in fact, to the point where I decided to expand on some of the themes that came from that experience and make my own sound track album of it.
When did you write the songs on your newest recording, Simple Life, and what inspired that collection?
Monroe: I wrote those during the last year or year and a half. They were inspired by the simple connection that I feel with nature, for the most part. The album goes there.
"Calling" is probably the oldest song, written not quite two years ago. I went hiking down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and staying at Phantom Ranch. I didn’t think I would write a song, because it was such an awesome, huge experience and such a huge place that it is difficult to capture, even with a photograph. But I did find myself with these chords going around in my head. I was playing them on this new, beautiful, little tenor guitar – a tiny guitar – about a big place.
It’s about that calling that I felt as I was hiking down. You want to go deeper and deeper. I was being pulled to the bottom. I wanted to go all the way to the bottom. I hear that only 1 percent of the people who visit the Grand Canyon actually hike down to the bottom – and I was just drawn to do that. We went with the plan to do that.
You have to make reservations if you’re going to stay at any of the campsites or at Phantom Ranch and our friends had made plans years ahead of time, so we got to jump in on their plans.
So that hiking experience called me in, and it led to a slowing down, in a way, of my appreciation of what’s around me. I was into motorcycles for a few years. That was a way for me to be alone and just be out on the road. But I discovered that it’s a lot more fun to be walking when you’re doing that, not worrying about traffic or flat tires or crashing or rain or anything. If you’re hiking, you can deal with just about anything.
You can stop at any moment.
Monroe: Yeah, you can stop and look and appreciate the view as you’re walking. So I’ve been hiking the Superior hiking trail more and more, which is right in my backyard now, and feeling very fulfilled with just that simple experience.
Then I wrote a song about going to Hawaii and coming back ("Oneawa"). It’s an almost satirical little song dealing with the intensity of winter compared with the beautiful warmth of paradise. The title cut, "Simple Life," is about living in the woods and getting back to basics. For 11 years, we hauled our own water and chopped wood for our heat and used solar power. I was maintaining that system so we’d have electricity for the recording studio. I felt very fulfilled in being that close to the woods and not being near the city.
Do you enjoy winter?
Monroe: I do. And maybe it’s true for everyone, but for me somewhere around February it gets to be a little bit of more work than fun.
Monroe: Yeah. And part of that has to do with where where we lived. We just moved. Our place in Hovland had a three-quarter of a mile driveway that I had to plow out. I had to keep my wood supply up, so there was a lot of physical labor and a lot of shoveling and a lot of dealing with the elements, which is good. I think it’s important to be in touch with nature, but we took a step to make that a little easier for us in this new home where there’s not as much to plow and I won’t be chopping wood this winter and we’ll probably put a wood stove in next year. We have running water. We entered into the 19th century, and now we have hot water, which is a wonderful plus. So, I think this is going to make winter a little easier for us. And yet, we’re still right there next to the woods and can go cross-country skiing. We love to do that. We’ll do that every day or so when we’re there.
Maybe you’ll have time and energy to do other, new things.
Monroe: That’s what I’m thinking, that I can spend more of that time writing and just appreciating nature and less of the actual hard work side of it.
Would you say your spiritual path is the fuel that drives your environmental efforts?
Monroe: Yeah, they go hand-in-hand for sure. I feel that my spirit and my body are working together. My spiritual nature inspires me to want to be environmentally conscious, and I would like to do more than I am. I’m always wondering when they are going to put out a hybrid van, because I have to haul my gear around to do my performances. So far, I can’t fit it into the hybrid vehicles that are out there. They’ve gotten a step closer with the hybrid SUVs that are out.
Hauling water for 10 years felt spiritual. If you think about the Zen masters, chopping wood and hauling water was part of the practice of being in your body and yet being aware, keeping your awareness in the moment. It doesn’t have to be the chopping of wood or the hauling of water. It can be whatever you are doing at the moment – if you are keeping the presence of spirit within your body and being both places at once.
We were just talking earlier with some friends here about a quote from Rajneesh, who changed his name a few times, and ended up as Osho. He passed away some years ago, but when he was alive I went to see him in India and he had a favorite phrase, encouraging people to be Zorba the Buddha. In being Zorba, you experience life to the fullest and you love life and you have this zest and you shout, "Yes! I’m here! And I’m glad I’m here!" – AND, you’re the Buddha. You are the spirit. To renounce life is cheating yourself out of part of the experience and cheating your spirit out of part of that experience. So, I’m loving both sides.
It sounds like you’re in a good place.
Monroe: Yeah. I’m feeling more centered and happy and focused than ever.
With the passing of your dad, how has that changed you? It must make you think about your own mortality a lot more than ever before.
Monroe: It does, and I definitely have had moments of sadness and a sort of depressed outlook, if I look at aging only from the standpoint of his ride and my ride slowing down and coming to the end. Plus, so many of my friends this year have lost parents. I used to see other people going through this, and now I’m going through this. Obviously, I’ll be at that place and my daughter will be going through what I am.
My dad lived until he was 85. I look at dad’s life in its big picture – at how he lived it very fully and did so many things and let himself explore new ideas and options. He had several different careers throughout his life, going for whatever pulled him the direction he wanted to go. And he died feeling great that morning. He was in his own yard being active, and he had his wish. He expressed to me, as most people will express, "I don’t want a long, drawn out, painful, horrible thing where everybody’s got to take care of me and I’m a blob."
So I feel a mixture of the sadness at his passing, the awareness of the mortality, how finite life is in one way, and a gratitude for the time that I had with him. I’m grateful for the fact that I could clean the slate with him. As we go through life, we have disagreements with parents and have judgments against each other. In the last 10, 15 years, I cleaned up a lot of that baggage and was able to ask forgiveness and thank him and express all the great things that I got out of that relationship.
There was an almost mystical feeling as I touched his body, knowing it was finished, and behind me I could almost hear him saying, "Why are you wasting your time here? I’m not even in that vehicle anymore – and I’m excited about this next phase!" That was the feeling I got. So, there’s also that incredible elation, the joy of what he’s on to next. I don’t exactly know what it is, but I got a sense of excitement from what I felt was his spirit in the room as we were saying goodbye to his body.
Monroe: Yeah. Pain and joy. They go hand-in-hand a lot of the time.
Can you imagine that these ideas you were just talking about will affect your music in the next couple years?
Monroe: I feel it will, yeah. I’m selfish in that my music can be one of the things that allows me to express my emotions and deal with what’s going on in my life. What’s an honor with that is when a song does come out of something and I share it with people, then I find the connection and how much we are one. Other people will hold onto that song or be touched by that song and be moved the same way that I was moved when I wrote it.
In a recent Rolling Stone interview, Bono says of the concept of oneness that "it’s so hippie-shtick." He says he wrote the opposite song, that "we’re one and we’re not the same."
Monroe: There is that sense that we are all unique expression of creation and it is hard to look at two people that seem very different and say there’s oneness. I used to think I was really different from my dad, and I see more and more how many similarities there are in the ways our lives have been led, the kind of adventures we liked, the fact that we both loved music, we both loved working with our hands with wood.
I’m really wanting to understand that oneness thing, because I do believe it’s true, and I’m working on it with people that I totally disagree with and can’t see anything in common with, like George Bush. I want to not feel this push-away "No, no, no!" towards someone like that and see where the "Yes!" is. I have to start at the roots levels. He’s a human being. He grew up in the same country that I did. He probably loves his wife. There’s probably a lot of good there that I would want to connect with, more than the pushing away thing, and still allow myself to totally disagree.
I think everyone can admit that we have disagreements within our own selves, where we want to deny part of ourself and say, "No, that’s not me." And then we find, "Yes, I guess that was part of me."
I’ve heard other people say that the only way that we are going to solve our problems is if we can agree to disagree, but we can’t make it so personal, like we are in politics. We can’t let hate become part of it.
Monroe: People protesting more ends up being a self-defeating exercise. I love how Deepak Chopra has a peace website and a book about peace, Peace is the Way, that has been so helpful for me, because he points out so clearly that fighting war is like using guns to stop war. It’s like the logic of fighting for peace, starting a war in order to create peace. It doesn’t work that way. You live the peace. Just like Gandhi said, "Be the change that you want to see in the world." You be that peace.
What are your dreams? What do you hope to do that you haven’t done yet?
Monroe: Well, for years I resisted travel and wanted to just be here in Minnesota and not go anywhere. Now I would like to travel more and share my music with more people on a more global basis – because that’s my job, that’s what I’m here to do.
I feel fortunate that I know what I’m here doing, that music is my thing to do and it’s enjoyable for me and I find that it’s a gift for other people. There are a lot of people right in this little area of Minnesota that I still haven’t sung to, but I would like to go farther than that and sing to anybody who can be touched by it and helped by it.
For more on singer-songwriter Michael Monroe, visit www.michaelmonroe.info