On Air
Open In Popup
MPR News

The bands get the lyrics

Share story

Matt Wilson on the keys
Minnesota Public Radio has a new project that explores the creative process and you have a chance to participate. We want to find out what happens when you ask a bunch of people to each compose a song using the same lyrics. We're calling it Songs from Scratch.
MPR Photo/Charlie Knutson


The Roe Family Singers write songs that could have been penned 100 years ago. It's old music, rootsy, organic.

It's the kind of stuff you'd imagine families playing in their living room to keep themselves entertained in the days before TV and radio. That's sort of how they write their songs too.

"I'll be sitting on the couch with my banjo, coming up with an interesting melody, and I'll often hear Kim singing along from some part of the house," says Quillan Roe, referring to his wife, Kim.

Band leader
Roe Family Singers frontman Quillan Roe, right, and his wife Kim Roe.
MPR Photo/Charlie Knutson

"Her melody will get stuck in my head. One of us will start coming up with words," Quillan adds.

"Quillan is the wordsmith," Kim replies. "I just brainstorm. I say, 'Hey, how about this? How about this?'"

Kim and Quillan Roe have been married for four years, and played together for five. Kim sings in the group and keeps rhythm with a washboard or an autoharp.

They both admit there's definitely a signature sound to the Roe Family Singers. There's something dark and a little creepy about their music. But also something out of place, like a radio signal from the past. Quillan says that's because for him, their songs don't start with music, they start with an image.

"In my head I see green and fog. Like these lyrics are rolling green valleys and hills, and the words are in the air. And they just exist," says Quillan Roe. Maybe it's a little goofy, but that's where all these songs start for me in my head. I play the banjo and that world opens up inside my head."

Quillan Roe says his band plays lots of songs written by other musicians. They have a way of making a song their own. He's got a good feeling that they'll be able to do that with these lyrics.

"I would never write anything like this. It's sunny. I don't write sunny songs."

"Take a blade of grass between your teeth, see the sun it's all alone and blue with nothing underneath," Kim begins reading.

"Kids on skateboards take the residential corners so fast they watch each other like comets from the distant past," Quillan continues.

Then pauses.

"I would never write anything like this. It's sunny," Quillan says with a laugh. "I don't write sunny songs. This song is a neighborhood. I don't write neighborhoods. I can't relate to people."

"The hard part will be finding it inside ourselves, and the place we can relate to it," Quillan adds.

When asked if he has any thoughts on how to do that, he says "No."

"I think The Owls are going to do a great version of this. I think it's going to be awesome. It's going to be a challenge. I think it's going to be a real challenge."


The Owls make these great pop songs. They're a melody-driven band with a lot of layered vocals, and the songs sometimes have a kind of sweet dissonance.

This is a band with a lot of songwriting muscle -- three out of the four members are songwriters.

Brian Tighe
Owls guitarist and singer Brian Tighe gets ready to rock at a rehearsal in St. Paul.
MPR Photo/Charlie Knutson

Allison LaBonne is one of them.

"I'd say I'm a lyric-driven songwriter," LaBonne says, comparing her style to that of her husband Brian Tighe, another Owls songwriter. "That's a little bit different than what Brian does, because he usually starts with a chord progression."

"I have these really sort of hyperactive times when I'm churning out lots of ideas," says Tighe, "and I just record them on my minidisc, like having a bunch of canvases around and doing quick gestural studies."

Then there's Maria May. Her songs don't come in quick bursts like Tighe's. This is how she describes her style.

"Not really a lightning bolt, more like a night light. But, if i'm really being aware of it, I notice there's this thing that needs my attention and then usually those are the ones that really pan out for me," says May.

But when the night light dims or somebody hits a creative block, the others help out. And working together like that seems to be what the Owls like best about songwriting.

Allison Labonne
Owls' bass player Allison LaBonne listens to bandmates during rehearsal in St. Paul.
MPR Photo/Charlie Knutson

"We all enjoy singing together so much that we really try to work that into all the arrangements," says May.

When they got Stephen Burt's lyrics and saw what they would be singing, something clicked.

"This is definitely an upbeat song, it's very poppy," says Brian Tighe.

"But you know what's interesting about it? It has this darkness," Maria May adds. "I really enjoy this lyrically, if there's a sort of obvious surface to something that's very bright, but the subtext -- even if it's just mentioned once -- is actually wickedly dark. And it's in here."

So, we leave The Owls giddy with possibility. They are all very excited about the project. Not so -- at least at first -- with singer/songwriter Matt Wilson.


Matt Wilson has had a long career in the local music scene, and has done a lot of different things.

People may remember him as the frontman for the quirky, art rock group Trip Shakespeare. He was a solo artist for a while; he's also been a member of the acoustic duo, The Flops.

Wilson was really excited about participating in the project when we first approached him, but he also expressed a few reservations. Going into this he probably had more doubts about it than the other musicians.

Matt Wilson at home
Singer/songwriter Matt Wilson talks about the creative process at his home in Edina.
MPR Photo/Charlie Knutson

But as an artist, Matt Wilson has always had one main goal.

"I want to be involved in making something beautiful," he says.

But Wilson is also candid about how wrapped up his ego is with songwriting.

"And then I want to publish it," he says. "And I want everyone to know I made this beautiful music, and I want to sing this beautiful music and be the face of it."

Wilson has rarely let his music be guided by anybody's vision but his own. That might be why he sounds a little hesitant as he reads Stephen Burt's lyrics out loud for the first time.

"Afternoon Song," he says. "Take a blade of grass between your teeth. Check the sun, it's all alone in blue with nothing underneath."

"I'm a little bit crestfallen, frankly. It's a very static bunch of words. Not a lot of thrust to them."

After just a quick glance at the words, Wilson can't hide his disappointment.

My first thought is that this is not me," Wilson says. "I'm a little bit crestfallen, frankly. It's a very static bunch of words. Not a lot of thrust to them."

Wilson also thinks the lyrics contain language he would never use -- words like "residential" and "crisp," from the phrase "crisp pollen interference patterns."

"Just that word 'crisp.' I would never write that or probably even be a part of crisp," he says.

Even though he was somewhat scathing in his critique, Wilson admitted Stephen Burt had captured a melancholic mood, almost like a forgotten childhood memory. The lyrics had set his songwriting wheels in motion.

"I'm kind of calculating strategies in my mind, how I can somehow chew through all these words and not have some kind of 10-minute monstrosity," he says.

And that is where we leave Matt Wilson, a little disappointed in what he has to work with, but determined to make it into something beautiful.