Jim Walsh Q&A

December 28, 2020
Jim Walsh loves Minneapolis more than anyone.

“I’ve always firmly believed in quiet and collaboration. I’ve learned that both as a writer and singer. This time has been good for the quiet part. Meaning, creativity for me has been a process of getting and staying quiet with myself so I can hear myself think and feel, then collaborate with others who help bring that little seed of a vision to life.”

Whenever I hear the term “sexy south Minneapolis” I think of you. When did you first start using it? 

Haha! That would be Sexy South Minneapolis, m’dude. I put it on the very first Mad Ripple Hootenanny poster in 2005 or so. It could just as easily be Sexy North Minneapolis, Sexy Northeast Minneapolis, or Sexy Southeast Minneapolis. I went to De La Salle High School on Nicollet Island, and taking the 4 bus there every day and making friends from all over the city really hard-wired me for a lifelong love affair with all of Minneapolis and St. Paul. But South Minneapolis has been my home, and I am never not wonderstruck by the lakes, creeks, rivers, seasons, people. I’ve been reading a lot of Minnesota history in all the down time we’ve had with the pandemic, digging deeper into the beginnings of the city, state, and country, and it’s been a revelation.

One of my most memorable show-going experiences was Wellstone World Music Day in 2003, which you organized. How many phone calls did that take to pull off? 

I was devastated when the Wellstones were killed, and instantly I knew I wanted to help honor them with something that spoke to their exuberance and passion for doing the right thing. It started with an essay I wrote, suggesting we all get together to play music on the one-year anniversary of the plane crash, that went viral via email. A friend made a cool logo with a fist that suggested the “Stand up, keep fighting” Wellstone message of yore. It was a great day, sun-up to sundown. People from all over the world booked gigs or sang/shouted in their showers or on street corners in tribute to the great Paul Wellstone. It was an amazing day and night, and I spent much of it at the Turf and Lee’s with my brothers and our bands. We did a second WWMD at the Turf a few years later and that was also epic.

In the book you tell the stories of an eclectic collection of city-dwellers, such as the man who drives around in a van with a neon sign recording soldiers killed in Iraq. What is your secret to getting people to open up to you?

I always have my antenna up for people who are doing interesting work, or for small but cool stories. I’m not a big press conference guy. I can and have done tons of them, but… ugh. I have a pretty easy way with people in general, and I’ve always been a good listener—to music and in conversation. I’m generally more interested in what other people have to say. I’m not always waiting to get my two cents in. Writing/singing is how I do that. So… I make good eye contact, which is very intimate, and I make sure my voice is warm, authentic. It’s just being honest, and honestly conveying that, and also conveying my genuine human interest that goes beyond journalist-source.

You write about such public spaces as the Rose Gardens. If someone were to visit the city for the first time do you have three places you would make sure they would see?

The Rose Gardens, Pike Island, and the Chain O’ Lakes. And First Avenue/7th St. Entry and the dog parks, of course: the happiest places on the planet.

No one loves Minneapolis as much as you do. Have you ever come close to moving?

Not really, but: I’ve lived other places for small stretches of time—Paris, Palo Alto, Colombia, Florida—and I’ve loved getting away and getting a new perspective. But my family and friends are here and I love being with them. Roots have never felt more important during the pandemic, but at times it feels too small and too crowded and I pine for a long trek outta here to someplace utterly foreign to me and I probably always will.

Does the city feel different to you after George Floyd?

Yes. George’s face and name is everywhere, for starters. We could talk about this for days. His murder at the hands of the Minneapolis police changed the world, as Rev. Al Sharpton said, and 38th & Chicago became the epicenter of a new movement towards racial equality, equity, and justice. Now comes the work, for me, and I’ve taken that seriously. It’s been a profound moment of reckoning, with all of the city’s red-lining and institutional racism and Minnesota Nice bullshit exposed for all the world to see. I drive, bike, walk and shoot baskets around the city, and the pandemic and George’s killing and the aftermath and rise in crime has contributed to an eerie, cold, and suspicious vibe that feels new in its intensity. Beyond that, Islamophobia is widespread and regularly finds a target in our friend Ilhan Omar, and I will never shut up about that, or about how people were brainwashed by the GOP to hate her. The state feels different, too. I was always aware of the quote-unquote urban-rural divide, but the presidential election proved that outstate Minnesotans are fearful of cities and people of color. I love Minneapolis most of all because of its people, and there are amazing people here of all shapes, sizes, and colors; and while I love this state, it feels like we’re fighting a passive-aggressive city-country Civil War. The more I read about Minnesota history, the more it feels like a microcosm of the United States and all its original sins of slavery and genocide. I’ve never witnessed a more urgent moment of change. What does it mean to the fabric of this city when beloved pubs and restaurants etc. go under along with the shuttering of City Pages and the Southwest Journal? Where do those stories and their writers go? New seeds are being planted as we speak, but this limbo time feels uniquely frigid. That said, I think Tim Walz is a great governor and, call me crazy, but hate and anger are exhausting to even the angriest haters, which is why I think weak-sauce Trumpism will fade.

I have such fond memories of the early days of the Hoot at Java Jack’s. Do you remember who were the first guests?

I’m so glad you were there! Utter magic, the Hoot. That first one was in November, 2004 or 2005. It was me, Marc Perlman (Jayhawks, Neglecters), Neal Hagberg (Neal & Leandra) and George Scot McKelvey (B Team, Hookers & Blow). All white dudes, yes. But: We were all playing pick-up basketball together regularly and I asked them all and they all said yes right away. That’s what the Hoot has always felt like: More pick-up ball than official game. We played for three hours that night, did it again the following Friday with another line-up, and for every Friday for the next two-plus years. Amazing to think about that now. I have a picture of that first night somewhere. I remember Marc, the showbiz pro, telling me how nervous he was, and I agreed, thinking it was just me. But the truth is, when it’s just you and a guitar and your song without a band, even with the camaraderie of the fellow Hoot songwriters, it can be terrifying. And intimate like nothing else, too. I was just in there getting take-out a couple weeks ago, it’s a Brasa now. We played so much amazing music there, in the basement and on the stage upstairs that the late great David Hussman built for us when he and Andie Thomas resurrected it as Studio 2 Cafe, and now it’s an indoor food truck. Time marches on, but in these days of disconnect and isolation, I’m glad the Hoot stood as an example of good organic neighborhood everything, and that people knew as much and appreciated it as a one-night-only blast that landed in their laps, free of hype.

Connection is a big theme in the book, which is no surprise to all of us who have read you through the years. What is your advice to those of us who are worried that those skills may be atrophying during the pandemic?

In the spring, I called my oldest baseball-loving friend from grade/high school to see if he wanted to get together to play catch, the perfect game for socially distanced ballers. A few more of our high school buddies joined, and we played catch/batting practice/etc. every Saturday this summer. It was fun, and the conversations afterwards were beautiful: Five old high school friends talking about life and these times. It was reassuring to see these guys who’ve known me for so long and vice versa. It simplified a very complicated world for a couple hours a week, and I only pulled one hamstring. Not sure how we can continue now that the weather has changed. I’ll miss ‘em. Other than that, one day at a time. Make the effort to call your peeps regularly. Yes, I do worry about my social skills atrophying. I need and crave my solitude, and I’m lucky to see my partner, kids, and parents regularly, but I miss friends. You mentioned the creative process, and I’ve always firmly believed in quiet and collaboration. I’ve learned that both as a writer and singer. This time has been good for the quiet part. Meaning, creativity for me has been a process of getting and staying quiet with myself so I can hear myself think and feel, then collaborate with others who help bring that little seed of a vision to life. In terms of communication skills atrophying, I’m a firm believer in embracing the here and now and what is, but this has been grueling at times. For me, it’s been a steady diet of reading/writing and listening/playing and they center me in the same way a good one-on-one conversation can. So… my advice? Hang in there. And call or FaceTime a pal RIGHT NOW.

Joe Henry mentioned that the book has a haunted feeling in parts. Accurate?

I put it together as a collection but it’s a history book at this point, from a different time, place, city, and writer. So, yes. Haunted in a good way. Stories that have more to do with the human condition than current events. Also, God bless Joe Henry.

What’s the latest with The Mad Ripple? I’ve always loved your lyric “Don’t be careful with your love.”

Thanks, man. The Mad Ripple lives! At the moment I’m writing songs and made a record (“Songs For The Band To Learn”) a couple years ago under Jim Walsh & The Dog Day Cicadas, which is what my latest song “Folk Song For George Floyd (Minneapolis Weeps)” came out under. My band The Dog Day Cicadas are a lovable and expanding bunch of guys and we hope to play out again someday. I’ve got a bunch of new songs I want to record, and I’d love to make a record with Rich Mattson up at Sparta Sound, but I’m masked up and staying home. So for now I just play ‘em to myself and the birds and squirrels at the Rose Gardens, a very appreciative audience indeed.