When I think of music, I think of place. When I hear a song I associate with my past, I see the scenery of that past come alive again. When I think of Seth Hanson’s music, I think of dormitory basements. I’ve seen lots of musicians play in basements. Most of them got drunk and yelled. Seth was different; his show was both subdued and exciting, each song featuring new guest vocalists and musicians who helped make an enlivening performance of a bunch of melancholy, introspective songs. I saw Seth play many times after that basement set my first year at Grinnell College. With each performance his music grew on me. His meditations on life, on family, on his surroundings, deceptively simple, kept returning to me.
When I left Kentucky for college in central Iowa, I thought a lot about place. My perception of the prairie region and Midwest at large was largely shaped by a few negative stereotypes; Iowa in particular seemed to me a flat, culturally milquetoast place that people only noticed when presidential candidates came to play acoustic guitars on top of tractors and woo farmers by eating corn. My only exposure to prairie culture that existed as something outside of pastiche was that of the Prairie School of architecture. When I was a child my mother, an architectural historian, took me to buildings designed by Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Marion Mahony and Walter Burley Griffin, and other prairie-adjacent architects. Designed with strong horizontal lines and thick beams meant to blend organically with their surroundings, these buildings, ornamented yet stark, full of light yet heavy, spoke to me. They felt informed by a world that I did not know.
There’s a generic image that the word “prairie” evokes—meadows, glutted with Indiangrass, dry in autumnal light and extending in all directions. Compass plants rise above the grass and follow the sun. Sparrows dart. This image is certainly not wrong; the time I spent on restored native prairie largely fit the picture. It is, to a degree, what the Prairie School was trying to capture—wide, open expanses full of air and light rising out of soil choking with flora. Yet it is not, alone, what “prairie” means, or should mean. The prairie is the dynamic cultural interaction that occurs between people and the land of the tallgrass region of North America.
How closely the Prairie School truly aligned itself with this dynamic interaction is questionable. At the peak of their careers, Frank Lloyd Wright left the prairie for Europe, Walter and Marion Mahony Griffin for Australia. I reference the Prairie School, though, because it is the only obvious example of a mainstream movement within the arts that takes up the prairie moniker. Coming to Iowa for college has changed my perception of the Midwest; I now recognize it as a region whose cultural diversity and depth frequently go unrecognized on the national level. What remains yet mysterious to me is what this word “prairie” really means for the culture around me, especially as so much of the physical tallgrass prairie has vanished. Living in rural Iowa has profoundly impacted my aesthetic as a poet and artist—I find myself increasingly drawn to minute details and wide-open spaces. When I became an associate editor for Rootstalk this spring, I found myself trying to pin down what exactly I found so appealing but ineffable about the prairie. Bereft of any answer myself, I returned to Seth’s music.
Seth Hanson makes music rooted in place. His latest album, Not Too Deep, released last summer, reflects Grinnell, Iowa, on a variety of levels. It captures the scenography of life in a rural prairie town—car windows opening in the spring warmth, a family walking by an artificial lake, a group of friends playing music on a couch. Not Too Deep also features field recordings—Grinnell and the prairie appear auditorily as well as lyrically. Seth released Not Too Deep right after he moved from the prairie region, where he had lived all his life, to Boston, Massachusetts. The album is not only a reflection of his life in prairie towns, but of his musings about moving away from them. As my time at Grinnell College draws to a close, I find myself thinking about and listening to Not Too Deep regularly. Like the architecture of the Prairie School, it has a levity that I treasure. I interviewed Seth recently to get his thoughts on how place impacts art.
Rootstalk: I’m interested in how artmaking relates to place. Part of the allure of Not Too Deep, for me, is how your lyrics evoke a sense of timeless place. I’m thinking specifically of the last two tracks of the album—the first about leaving Grinnell and the latter about staying. Are you still writing music now that you’re living in Boston? Does it feel different from Grinnell or Northfield, Minnesota, where you grew up?
Hanson: I am still writing music, though it took me a little while before things had settled in enough that I felt ready to start processing things into songs. I personally don’t feel particularly different (yet), so the songwriting process doesn’t feel too different either. I have still been writing observationally, so certainly some of my new Boston experiences have made their way into the content of the songs, but I guess I’ve managed to find a life here that doesn’t feel too different from my life in Grinnell. Back when I was writing songs in Northfield, I was not writing quite so observationally or introspectively, so a lot of those songs feel very different to me now, much more distant.
Rootstalk: What you said about observational writing is interesting. What do you think made you shift into writing songs that are observational concerning your surroundings? How much of it do you think was your surroundings versus simply growing and changing as a songwriter?
Hanson: Certainly a lot of those changes happened after moving to Grinnell, but I would attribute them most to personal growth, which then filtered into songwriting growth. I do think it was Grinnell (the space, the people, the feeling of it) that created the opportunities for that change… the change being that I began to see little things around me and in my life that I felt were worth sharing, which I had not seen as such before.
Rootstalk: I’m interested in how musicians and artists use field recordings in their work. It seems like the ultimate observational way of writing. You use a recording of a train on the last track of Not Too Deep. Have you done other field recordings? Do you think Not Too Deep was impacted by the sounds of Grinnell and the prairie?
Hanson: I was definitely thinking about and reacting to the sounds of Grinnell while writing those songs. That recording is of a train on the east-west track, recorded from the apartment I had downtown, so it is exactly how I would hear it from my home. From the same window, I also recorded the sounds of Broad Street for the track “Spring,” which is about looking out my window on an early spring morning. Nothing too deep about that one. But when I listen to the track now I am so happy I took the time to make that recording and include it because it brings me right back to those little peaceful moments. I have always appreciated field recordings for their ability to add depth to a mix and ground a recording in the feeling of a specific place, though I haven’t used them much. But I think, to a similar if more subtle degree, all of my recordings have been made in bedrooms and living rooms— in the same places that I lived. I enjoy having the faint imprint of those rooms on the recordings as another little note documenting the context of the recordings and my life at the time they were made.
Rootstalk: I like what you said about having the “faint imprint” of your life at the time of recording in your music; obviously location impacts any sort of artmaking to a degree. Do you think that there’s a particular aesthetic to music that’s written in the prairie region that’s different from that of the Midwest in general?
Hanson: I guess I don’t feel particularly aware of what is happening in “Midwestern music”…. I don’t really know how to answer that…sorry.
I left my interview with Seth Hanson feeling more knowledgeable about his process as a musician, and less clear about what the prairie aesthetic is. I took this question to Rachel Eber, a friend and musician who helped Seth to record Not Too Deep. The two had met at a crossing point in their lives; Rachel had just moved from Boston to Grinnell, Seth was about to leave Grinnell for Boston.
Eber: I don’t think that there is a specific prairie aesthetic. I think that all musicians are all pretty different, the prairie aesthetic maybe is folk music, or at least is what I would think of, but I don’t think people from this region necessarily write the same kind of music. I think whatever prairie aesthetic means is different from just the Midwest. The town of Grinnell, to me, has been very inspiring just in terms of what it feels like to walk around and see the same places during different times of the year and stuff like that… and that’s definitely very specific to Grinnell and being a very small town in the Midwest, and that’s definitely connected to the prairie region. One thing I’ve been thinking about is being at Grinnell the school and in Grinnell the town. I think both are so small that the music scene is immediately recognizable. It’s held together by the fact that we’re all together in a small town. I think that’s something pretty special and different about being in a small town, in terms of a music scene, than being in Boston, when you could hear a new band anytime.
I listen to Seth when I want to hear songs about Grinnell; it is not like New York City or something where I could listen to anyone. What that means is that each individual song becomes a lot more powerful and embodies a lot more things. Using New York, you might see a landmark and be like “Oh yes, so many people have written about this landmark,” and it might remind you of a song or many different songs but I think Grinnell, being small, has fewer things that would catch your eye…so when they do catch your eye it’s a bigger deal. I feel like there’s probably not many people besides Seth who would write a song about sitting on a bench in Miller Park. Songs about small towns often feel a lot more personal than songs about places that tons of people have been.
In follow-up questions, neither Rachel nor Seth indicated that there was a clear or specific impact the prairie had had on their songwriting. Rather, it was the small prairie towns, and the people they encountered in those towns, that left a tangible mark on their music. At first I was disappointed by what I found. Small towns are not unique to the prairie region. Neither Seth or Rachel seemed comfortable being described as Midwestern—let alone as prairie—musicians. This makes sense. I don’t feel comfortable being described as a Southern writer, however much my childhood in the South may reach into or shape the writing I produce while living in the Midwest. If the prairie is, as I wrote earlier, the dynamic cultural interaction that occurs between people and the land of the tallgrass region, then perhaps it cannot be distilled into a singular “aesthetic.” For, like Rachel and Seth, the prairie moves. Its foliage shifts in color and form with every new season. When you drive down Iowa’s roads, you see prairie plants rising anew in areas that were newly mowed. It cannot be stilled. This is what makes it ineffable.
Listening to Seth Hanson’s “Spring,” I walk into town. It is bright, but the sidewalks are still dark with rain. Birds call and doors open. I walk into the Merchants National Bank—now a branch of Wells Fargo. It is a late building by Louis Sullivan—one of a series of “jewel boxes” scattered across the Midwest. They appear in small prairie cities, sturdy brick rectangular prisms full of resplendent color and light. The terra cotta molding morphs into flowers vining around the brick, a griffin’s mouth opening. Inside, rays of light travel through the stained glass cathedrally. People are filtering into the building like seedheads leafing out of Indiangrass.
Album cover for Not Too Deep courtesy of Seth Hanson. To listen to “Spring,” a cut from the album, either download a fully interactive PDF of this review and click the image above, or follow this link to Seth’s Bandcamp page: https://theadditionalsix.bandcamp.com.