Finding Lifelong Inspiration From Lake Superior

Dave Simonett is a singer-songwriter and frontman of the bluegrass folk-rock band, Trampled By Turtles. Simonett has long drawn inspiration from Lake Superior.

We asked him to share what the lake means to him.

In his book, Blue Mind, marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols describes what he calls the “Blue Mind Effect”: The “calm, peacefulness, unity, and sense of general happiness and satisfaction with life in the moment” that the human mind receives in the presence of a large body of water. Psychology Today writes about a study in which cancer patients suffering chronic pain were shown a video that included 15 minutes of water sounds; ocean waves, waterfalls, creeks etc. According to the study, they all experienced a 20-30% reduction in the stress hormones epinephrine and cortisol. Water has a profound effect on all of us. Not only are we composed mainly of the stuff, its presence in our presence brings us a great level of serenity. I imagine deep in our DNA the sight of clean water evoked such a feeling of relief and safety that it has traveled through eons of human generations right here to you and me. Here in Minnesota, Lake Superior is our largest stress-hormone-reducing-satisfaction-with-life-in-the-moment mecca. When I started my life’s work as a musician that lake composed the entire view out of my otherwise shabby apartment window and I’ve often thought about its relationship to artistic creation. Why do I enjoy simply staring at that thing? Why do I feel such a magnetic pull by her even when I am far away? In my experience, the entire lakeshore is filled with artists, though they are of course much more physically separated than their urban counterparts. Even now, though I live in Minneapolis, I still often travel north to be near Lake Superior when I want to write. There is just something about that enormous, frigid lake that brings to life a deeper part of those who gaze upon her.

In the early 2000s, being a musician in Duluth was, to me, quite an exciting experience. There was a dedicated and wonderful DIY music scene in which originality and grit were encouraged, if not downright demanded. Like the well-worn building and bumpy streets of the town itself, a certain blue-collar mentality was married to the music there, and polish and perfection were looked upon with suspicion. Duluth is a dusty city. Echoes of its past life as the wealthy home of mining magnates still bounce off the hillside, but little of that life remains today. Duluth is also a beautiful city. Perched on a massive hill overlooking the connection of the St. Louis River to the biggest freshwater lake in the world, its views are dramatic. The peace and the violence of the Lake is in the forefront of each day.

Dave Simonett
Photo: Zoe Prinds

Though I don’t remember feeling any competition with Minneapolis (our state’s much more well-known music hub) I do believe there was a bit of an underdog mentality behind Duluth’s more edgy and collaborative music scene. Besides, let those city people have their traffic and noise and greed, we have the Lake. There was enough music to foster a music scene, but it was a scene small enough and proud enough to rarely let two bands sound alike. That being the case, many of the first TBT shows occurred alongside punk bands, rock bands, hip hop artists, you name it. I don’t remember playing with another string band in our early days in Duluth. That taught me a very important and oft-remembered lesson about not underestimating an audience. Most people enjoy a variety of music, and playing with a variety of bands allowed so many influences outside of our “genre” to infiltrate our music. A gift for which I’m eternally grateful. Now I could be wrong, but I don’t recall many Duluth bands at the time ever playing outside of Duluth. There have always been a few, but the vast majority only played Duluth. We felt very separated from the outside world and I do believe we preferred it that way. I still feel that separation set in whenever I reach the peak of the entry hill on Interstate 35 and begin my descent into the Zenith City. At that point, it feels like I have left one place and entered another. Even the weather changes. The venues back then ranged from punk rock basements to many attempts at larger, more official spaces. Several weekly gigs were successful in several different times, and venues would open and close with some regularity. However, the Duluth music scene’s crown jewel was and is the Homegrown Music Festival. What started as a small birthday party has grown over the years to be a two week city-wide festival with over 100 local bands playing everywhere from train stations to kickball games to bars to backyards. I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but I would venture to guess that in a city of roughly 85,000 people, a music and art scene of such vibrance is a bit rare. And I blame the Lake. In my youth the Nor Shor Theater was the dead on center of the scene. An aging vaudeville theater, its beauty and obvious need of maintenance mirrored the music and the musicians it housed. When I say housed I obviously mean for the duration of their performances but it also may have literally housed one or two from time to time I’m not sure. The Nor Shor contained a large room of maybe five or six hundred capacity, but its real magic took place on a small stage in the mezzanine. Any night of the week a passerby could stumble into the old theater and up its brass-railed stairs and see a wide variety of acts from free jazz to garage rock to hip hop to poetry readings to hours long drones. A burgeoning music scene, especially in a smaller city, must have a place like the Nor Shor Theater of the early 2000s. It has to be a place that, through its openness, all manner of creation can occur. It must be run by someone fully dedicated to fostering something larger and deeper than a few bucks (and may well lose all their bucks in the process). If the Duluth music scene was a many-spoked wheel then the Nor Shor was its hub and I know it heavily influenced my musical life following my exposure to it. Would a place like that be possible elsewhere? I cannot say. But it was possible in Duluth. It was possible there because of the people that the citybred and attracted. The latter being the full responsibility of Lake Superior. And generations back, the former was her responsibility as well.

The Lake (capitalized here and throughout in deepest respect) not surprisingly, is the center of all culture in Duluth. The sun rises over her in the morning and in the deep night she looks like the edge of the world. One cannot walk a block without witnessing her, and her moods and motions are a constant and primal reminder of our frail human form. Living near Lake Superior is not for everybody. Spring comes a month later than it should, summer often doesn’t show up until July, and fall begins in August. Then there’s the oft-mentioned winter. All of this bringing about the old cliche, “The coldest winter I ever saw was summer in Duluth.” I have not done a psychological study of its residents, but I’d guess that there would be some similar personality traits threading through the entire population. At least those old enough to be there by personal choice. There is a mental toughness and a physical durability needed to live there. I have heard more whining about being cold in my time in relatively balmy Minneapolis than I ever heard in Duluth. No one whines about the weather there. Of course you’re cold, you’re in Duluth. If you don’t want to be cold don’t be in Duluth. Even the musicians don’t whine about the weather and we a group that is famous for whining. When people get sick of it they simply leave. And, many times, they return; unable to live happily away from their mother. One’s relationship with the natural world is magnified in the presence of that seemingly borderless and mysterious Lake. To live next to her is to move with her, to put it simply. I believe this is translated directly into the music, that is made there. Even the beautiful and peerless harmonies of the Duluth band Low are brought about with a certain darkness… there is a sharp edge underneath a lot of the music in that city. Like my parents are out of work and I am doing this because I fucking want to kind of bands. Whereas a more peacefully weathered locale may produce a folk singer, Duluth produced Charlie Parr. One food in the grave. There were bands that were legendary in the Central Hillside of Duluth that was never heard of even as nearby as the Twin Cities. Giljunko, ed by brilliant and somewhat understated songwriter Mark Lindquist, was one of my favorite bands in the world. Their shows, when they all got on stage anyway, were the picture of Duluth grunge rock intensity. The Lake is a symbol of infinity and mortality. It’s bound to leak into the songs.

There is still a tradition among Duluth bands that when someone does have a show in Minneapolis, they will drive home to Duluth after the gig. My eyes get hazy on the road in the middle of the night so I rarely performed that rite, but I like its romantic nature. There is also an aversion to haggling or even conversing about payment for playing music in that scene the like of which I have not found elsewhere. That’s the thing with Duluth and maybe any town its size, one can rarely make a living playing music there. But, I think I could argue that one can rarely make a living playing music in simply any one locality. It’s probably more attainable in a large city, but for most people, the open road is the only hope. That being the case, there is something about the absence of a lot of monetary motivation in a music scene that I find interesting and I learned about it in Duluth. I would like to state here clearly that I would prefer all artists be paid a living wage. That not being the case however, there is something interesting about a community in which art is created purely for the act of creating it. It doesn’t make paying the rent any easier, but it also avoids a lot of other complications which come from its alternative. It has been some years since I have been a daily participant in the Duluth music scene. I still pop in as much as I can and every time I do I can hear echoes of urgent and iron wrought music rolling down East Superior Street. Venues long closed still hold a perfectly smelly place in my heart and I say a prayer of thanks to the water for allowing me to be there at all. As is to be expected, the city has changed quite a bit in the last 20 years, but there is still a lively music and art community brought together by the simple desire to have their creations born within view of Lake Superior. And, I believe, there always will be.

The synth driven indie pop bands of Brooklyn have their romantic, grimy city. The trust-funded Americana rockers of Silver Lake in Los Angeles have their palm-treed Pacific and their mysterious desert. We music makers here in Minnesota have our freshwater rivers and lakes. And there’s no lakier lake than Lake Superior. It is the landscape that gets inside our beings and our creations. As civilized and technologically advanced as we have sadly become, we still cannot escape the effect that our natural surroundings have on us in all we do. We may beat Mother Nature back with a fiber optic whip and block her advances with iPhone-shaped shields, but she doesn’t need much space to get in. One window shaking clap of thunder on a humid Jul evening and we’re right back to cowering in our painted-wall cave. We’ve climate-controlled our way into thinking we are somehow separate from the Earth instead of just another living part of it. Art is a reflection. There may be a multi-sided mirror involved, but in my opinion, it’s impossible to separate art from the environment in which it’s created. And I think that is very beautiful. Local accents are a national treasure and should be celebrated. Lake Superior has been one of the most important influences on my musical and creative life. I now bring my kids to her shore and watch their complete awe with a very proud heart. I can’t wait to see what the Big Lake inspires them to create.

Find Simonett’s music here, and shop the Cold Wave collection here.

Duluth image: Reece Hickman

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