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From folk to rock, Johnny Hermanson's mastered it all

John Hermanson (left) with his Storyhill cohort Chris Cunningham. Submitted photo

John Hermanson is a workaholic, and an ambitious one at that.

Not only has the Minnesota (by way of Montana) musician released a dozen records with Chris Cunningham as the beloved folk duo Storyhill, but he's also pumped out albums by pop/rock-leaning outfits Alva Star and the (Olympic) Hopefuls. And who could forget his self-titled solo disc, which, stylistically, fits somewhere in-between his myriad projects?

Needless to say, it didn't really come as a surprise that when the Budgeteer called Hermanson recently he was in a recording studio hammering out some "sound problems."

Budgeteer: Are you working on a new record?

Hermanson: Yeah, actually, I'm working on a bunch of records.

Are they your records or projects for other people? (Hermanson has lent his expertise to a number of records, including releases from Mighty Fairly and Mother Banjo.)

Well, I work out of a studio in downtown Minneapolis, doing commercial music and TV stuff. ... I just finished a record called "Psalms" -- kind of a translation of the psalms. Then I'm working on an Alva Star record and writing for Storyhill. We're going to start recording in a month or so.

At your solo shows, like the one coming up at Beaner's, is the material you play mostly Storyhill, or do you pull from the other records you've made?

I've played a number of solo shows over the last half year, I guess, in the Cities area. Originally I got the desire to do it to try all my new songs out, and songs that I've had for awhile that don't really fit in any of my other groups. So, it's a lot of ... I guess it would be solo stuff, potentially, if I could find the time to do [another] solo record. Those are the songs that would probably be on it.

But if there happens to be some Storyhill listeners in the crowd, I'll do Storyhill requests; a lot of times I'll do Alva Star stuff as well.

Do you do any Hopefuls songs?

I haven't done that yet, no. That would be pretty cool. [Laughs] Hard to pull off, but I guess there's one or two songs that might work.

When did you start getting into non-folk music? Did you grow up listening to a bunch of different stuff?

I was in a rock band in college and high school. I actually probably started more in rock -- I think they were probably simultaneous to some degree. ... It sort of depended on whatever I was playing. I started acoustic and electric at the same time, but I've always been a bit schizophrenic [Laughs] when it comes to which genre I'm in. I've never really been able to figure that out. I think it's fine; I've come to terms with that.

Did you record anything with Tread Water, your band in college?

We didn't do any CDs, but we have live recordings and stuff. ... It was fun. We really did all kinds of music. We did some covers and some originals -- we'd go from reggae to hard rock, basically. [Laughs]

Do you find it difficult to juggle so many different groups and sounds?

Yeah, definitely. ... Sometimes I go through a phase where I really need to focus on one thing, and then, fairly soon, I'll realize that I want to get back into other directions as well. I've kind of given in to the idea that I'm basically going to be doing a lot of different types of music for good. I think, for me, if I focus on one thing too much I start to miss the other things.

Alva Star has kind of become my catchall group in a way. I want to allow Alva Star to be whatever I really want to be doing at that time, so that's why the Alva Star records are so different from each other -- and then the next one will be different again. That's kind of where I put whatever I feel I'm most into at the time.

There are certain songs that don't feel right with Storyhill and the Hopefuls.

So, instead of releasing a second solo album, you think you'd probably just put out another Alva Star record?

Well, right now I'm trying to figure that out, because I have a lot of material. Lyrically there seems to be some sort of common theme, but, musically, it's all over the map. So I'm trying to figure out if the next Alva Star record will go from solo voice and acoustic guitar to full-on produced arrangements -- or if I will do a solo record that has more of that intimate stuff. I really haven't figured out what to do with that yet.

I feel like I'm getting close: I have all the material and most of it's recorded. I'm just figuring out how to present it. I've thought about doing a double Alva Star record that would have kind of the more rock for the Side A and then the folkier stuff as a Side B. ... I think that's where I'm kind of headed right now, but I'm not totally sure, so we'll see. [Laughs]

Do you get a different kind of rush when you're up there playing folk with Storyhill as opposed to rock with the Hopefuls?

For sure. It's a different game altogether. With the Hopefuls, it's obviously more energetic and, musically, it excites you. With Storyhill, I think it's more about the lyrical content, the intimacy and the connection you can have with the audience.

After shows with Storyhill, we tend to talk to people a lot. The songs can spawn different types of conversations -- thinking about the world and whatnot. But, with the Hopefuls, that really doesn't happen. [Laughs] All the action happens onstage, and you don't necessarily feel like you have the same connection you have in Storyhill. I love both, though, and I want to keep doing both.

Before Storyhill started playing at Weber Music Hall, what venues would you guys come to?

There was a period of time in the mid-'90s where we played a lot at the theater in Fitger's (Spirit of the North). That was really cool. We played once in [Fitger's Brewhouse] and, when we were starting out, we used to play at LakeView Coffee a lot. Amazing Grace was also a favorite of ours.

You guys have played here a lot, haven't you?

Yeah, over the years. I guess we started playing there while we were still in college -- '93 probably.

When you're writing a new Storyhill record, do you guys come together or do you and Chris write separately?

Well, Chris lives in Montana now, so we sort of have to do things more on our own first. But we've always kind of done that. We have a couple of songs we started together, but the vast majority are songs that one of us will start and the other will write his part for it.

It's just sort of a question of when you let the other one in on the song and it starts to become a Storyhill song as opposed to your own song. And, lately, we've started doing that a little bit sooner. On the last record, there was a lot more collaboration.

There were a couple songs on "Storyhill" where I changed almost every word and made it about a totally different thing. We'd sort of argue about it and, luckily, we agreed that it was a good direction to go into. Because Chris and I have our other projects going now, it's easier to kind of let go of certain songs and allow them to be Storyhill songs fully -- let the other guy really influence the end result.

When Storyhill broke up a couple years ago, was it just because you wanted to explore these other outfits and sounds?

Yeah, a lot of it was artistic. Even now, Chris tends to write more toward the folky side of things and I'm more musically drawn to things that are a little bit more out of the box, I guess. At the time we broke up, I think we'd both just had enough of feeling [Trails off] ... I think we had maybe nine CDs together at that point, so it was definitely time to explore other sides of ourselves musically. That was a big part of it, I think. Also, the main thing though, was just having been on the road for four-and-a-half years straight. We were just sort of missing our other life. [Laughs]

So, now we tour a lot more reasonably and try to keep things in balance.

Did you and Chris come back together because the fans kept on bugging you guys?

That helped. [Laughs] Over the period of time that we were apart, we were able to hear our music for the first time from an objective perspective. It's easy to forget -- or to not understand -- what it is that you do together musically when you just do it night after night and you really never get to see it or hear it yourself.

A big thing that actually happened was this group of Canadian women, a quartet (Rhubarb Pie), that started covering our songs. So, I got to hear somebody else's interpretation of our music, and it was really inspiring.

It was like hearing our music for the first time. Hearing what it means to other people -- or what they hear in it -- is important. It was kind of a revelation, like, Wow, I can understand why people want to hear Chris and I play together -- and the difference between hearing Storyhill play and one of us play solo. It's a totally different experience.

How did you guys pick Deerwood for the inaugural Midwest Storyhill Fest?

There's a good friend and a fan that runs a camp up there. We had sort of shared with him that we were thinking about doing a Storyhill Fest out here, and he had said he had the perfect place for it. It's a Minnesota version of the Montana one: there's a lake, hiking and different activities to do.

What can first-timers expect from the festival?

It's pretty much Chris and I decide who we want to play -- it's usually just our favorite musicians that we've met on the road, at different festivals and music gatherings around the country. There are a lot of great touring musicians that we run into, so we compile two nights of music; it's our chance to share our favorite musicians with people who like our music.

The hope is that, if they like our music, they'll like this other stuff as well because we like it. ... It's a great chance to bring all of our friends together from around the country.

Do you guys just play two headlining shows at the festival then?

Yeah, we play both nights. We're the last set of each night, then we all go to the campfire and everybody plays in the round -- all the artists that played that day, and artists from the other day are often there as well. We basically just have a long jam, and it lasts into the night. A lot of people make requests, and we all play on each others' songs. It's really, really fun.

NEWS TO USE

Storyhill's John Hermanson will perform at 8 p.m. Saturday, April 18, at Beaner's Central. Danny Schmidt and Chris O'Brien are also on the bill. Cost is $15. Then, in September, the inaugural Midwest Storyhill Fest will be held in Deerwood. Details at www.storyhill.com.

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