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Poetry in Motion
Slow Dakota's Musical Odyssey
By John Hubner
Fort Wayne Reader
PJ Sauerteig makes music under the name Slow Dakota. The music is a mixture of chamber pop and idyllic folk. You get a feeling of tranquility come over you as you listen to the newest album titled The Ascension of Slow Dakota. It's a literary journey scored with a bevy of instruments, both acoustic and electric (and electronic.) Sauerteig writes songs with a poet's heart. He paints characters and stories like a cross between Sherwood Anderson and Sufjan Stevens. A recent nomination for the Pushcart Prize for some of his writing is further proof of his adoration for the written word.
Sauerteig was born and raised in Fort Wayne. A recent graduate of Columbia University, Sauerteig is going back and attending NYU Law School. On a recent trip back to the fort I sat down and talked to the Slow Dakota mastermind about his poetry and music.
J. Hubner: So how was your childhood? Were you a curious child?
PJ Sauerteig: I had a really idyllic childhood in the suburbs of Ft Wayne. I was lucky that our house was filled with art and incredible music: Peter Gabriel, African music, a little Bjork, Janet Jackson, YES, U2, Vangelis. I was an outgoing kid, polite, with a strange fixation on drawing monsters, wars, dragons, sieges.
J. Hubner: When did music become something more than just noise coming out of the radio? What was the first album you bought? What albums had the biggest impact on you?
PJ Sauerteig: Britney Spears was the first album I ever asked my parents to buy me. NSYSC, too. Years later, it was The Killers' Hot Fuss. Vampire Weekend's first album had a huge impact on me as a high-schooler: a big reason I ended up going to Columbia. Then I found In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, which grabbed me and never let go. Still my favorite album, and some of the best lyrics ever written.
J. Hubner: Has writing and literature always been a big part of your life?
PJ Sauerteig: Ironically, I'm a super slow reader - when I was a kid, my parents had to read books to me aloud because I could never finish them myself. I wasn't a bookworm at all. But in high school I got turned onto TS Eliot, who took my literary virginity, and helped me to love words. Today I'm still a slow reader, so I listen to audiobooks.
J. Hubner: You seem to be adept at quite a few instruments. Did you take lessons when you were younger?
PJ Sauerteig: I took piano lessons from a young age, and got pretty good at it. But when I showed up at college, I quickly realized piano wasn't enough; all the musicians around me could hop from bass to drums to piano, and sing better than I could. I felt like a dunce, so I bought a ukulele and taught myself. Then a mandolin (I still suck). Then a dulcimer. I can fake it on drums and guitar, and I'm getting more comfortable with my voice - I hated my voice for the longest time.
J. Hubner: How did Slow Dakota come about?
PJ Sauerteig: I first started writing as Slow Dakota when I came back from a failed volunteering trip to India - the first album, Our Indian Boy bloomed from the diary I kept in India. I was in another New York band at the time - Jeffers Win - but this new material felt somehow different, and far more personal. I bowed out of Jeffers Win, and it's been Slow Dakota ever since.
J. Hubner: Let's talk about The Ascension of Slow Dakota. Is this a concept album? Listening to it the record feels like stories being told, especially with the mix of both traditional song structure and spoken word pieces.
PJ Sauerteig: I love concept albums - the first two Slow Dakota records were very strict concept albums - but The Ascension is a little looser. Instead of telling one story, The Ascension tells a bunch of interconnected stories - with lots of overlapping themes, reappearing characters (like the white dove), and images that keep popping up (suicide, people walking into water, lilac flowers). If the album has a single overarching question, it's this: is there a grey area between music and literature?
J. Hubner: Can you tell me a little more about those spoken word pieces. Who did you get to help out with the readings?
PJ Sauerteig: I wrote all the different pieces, but I wanted other people to bring them to life. I recruited three readers - each of them has had a profound impact on my education, and on the ideas swirling around The Ascension. The old British man is Philip Kitcher - a fabulous scholar and philosopher. The female reader is Margaret Vandenburg - the author and librettist to whom the album is dedicated. And the last piece is read by a mentor of mine - the American poet and professor, Joseph Fasano. They're each like gods to me.
J. Hubner: Who or what are some influences on the overall work?
PJ Sauerteig: A huge influence was Sun Kil Moon's Benji and Universal Themes: sprawling, poetic musings on his Midwestern roots, with really thoughtful, witty spoken word sections. Joanna Newsom's The Milk-Eyed Mender, too: she buries brilliant riddles in her lyrics. I also spent some time farming in Austria while writing the record.
J. Hubner: How quickly did the album come together?
PJ Sauerteig: The songs came together slowly, piece by piece, in different countries, over a year and a half.
J. Hubner: Have you ever taken these songs out into a live setting?
PJ Sauerteig: I've only tried to perform stuff from The Ascension once, actually! Last summer, at the B-Side in Ft Wayne. I brought in a female vocalist and a trumpet player, but it was still nearly impossible to recreate any of the songs as they appear on the album. That's a big reason I rarely play live. Another reason is that I'm terribly nervous and hard on myself.
J. Hubner: Do you see yourself as more of a poet the writes songs or a songwriter that writes poetry? Are they one in the same? Is it right to even draw a distinction? Art is art and creativity is creativity, right?
PJ Sauerteig: That's a great question, and one The Ascension tries to grapple with! I think it's very strange that we keep poetry and songwriting in separate camps, although 2016 felt like progress: many great albums this year incorporated spoken word (Beyonce, Solange, Frank Ocean), Dylan got the Nobel for Literature, and we were reminded of Leonard Cohen's legacy - a poet/author before he was a songwriter. Think farther back to Homer - before The Odyssey was written down, it was performed / sung by bards.
J. Hubner: You're currently in New York going to NYU Law School. How does music and Slow Dakota play into your future?
PJ Sauerteig: NYU Law is keeping me crazy humble; everyone there is smarter than me, and one of my buddies just had a film accepted into Sundance. Sometimes after a night of studying, I'll tinker around on the piano, and record it on my phone. I've got ideas for a new album - and after the melodies and lyrics marinate for a while, I'll start reaching out to people about mixing, recording, playing instruments. It'd be a dream to work with Garrison Keillor one day. Or Louise Gluck.
What are you waiting for? Step into the beautiful world of Slow Dakota. Head over to Slowdakotabandcamp.com and give it a listen. Keep up with PJ and Slow Dakota at Slowdakota.com