photo by Sara Montour

photo by Sara Montour

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The rare cornfields-to-culture ratio Minnesota affords might just create the perfect atmosphere for an overachieving songwriter and musician to wrestle with life’s dilemmas: Solo acoustic or full-on rock-and-roll band? Pop hooks or blues riffs? Oil painting, Existentialism, or baseball? So many options. In any case, the combination has certainly proven an auspicious one for Portland native Chris Koza. His first stint in the Midwest came during his college days. He left central Minnesota in 2001 with a studio art and philosophy degree, and after a few years of dividing time among Portland, Brooklyn and Minneapolis, he made the Twin Cities his home for good. Here are the top 5 reasons Koza stays put in the Land of 10,000 Lakes:

1. More clubs, recording studios, and music festivals than you can shake a drumstick at.

Sure, Koza has headlined the legendary First Avenue Mainroom. But he’s rocked all of Minneapolis’ famous venues—including the Varsity Theatre, The Fitzgerald, the Fine Line, the Cedar Cultural Center … and really too many others to list here, but he can recite them in alphabetical order. In 2015, his band, Rogue Valley, played both the Pizza Luce and Kräftskiva Block Parties in downtown Minneapolis—because Minnesotans know the only thing better than outstanding live music is outstanding live music at a really good crayfish party. Koza doesn’t just dazzle the well-fed locals, however. He spends a lot of his time on the road, in fact, playing places like the SXSW Music Festival. Or the country of Iceland. Or that one time he toured nationally with Ingrid Michaelson in support of his 2014 solo album In Real Time.

2. An entire metropolitan area of multitasking musicians and artists.

Although he has six solo albums and a film score under his belt, Koza does plenty of writing and performing with Rogue Valley—whose song The Wolves and the Ravens appears in Ben Stiller’s acclaimed film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Koza & Co. have toured (or shared a stage with) artists such as Brandi Carlile, the Jayhawks, James Vincent McMorrow, Stephen Kellogg, Martha Wainwright, Andrew Bird, Tift Merritt, Field Report, Blitzen Trapper and Ingrid Michaelson. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Koza regularly collaborates with and produces fellow artists both far-flung and close to home. Some of his recent projects have included work with STRFKR, Becky Shaheen, and McKnight-winning composer Jocelyn Hagen.

3. Some of our fair nation’s finest schools, arts centers and media innovators.

Koza isn’t merely a songwriter, solo artist and multi-instrumentalist. He has also scored films (Beyond the Divide), composed pieces for multimedia installations (McKnight-funded interactive iPhone app “Leav”), written original liturgy settings, and done his fair share of commercial work (original songs for Cougartown, Jersey Shore and Bates Motel, and the 2013 Superbowl pregame show). 

Koza spent Winter 2013 with the Hopkins High School Orchestra as its artist in residence, a collaboration that ended with Koza producing a performance for the entire group. Later that same year, Rogue Valley visited schools Koochiching County, hanging out with students before performing at the Backus Community Center in International Falls. A Minnesota State Arts Board Arts on Tour recipient, Koza regularly plays and guest lectures at McNally Smith College of Music in St. Paul and at the Institute of Production and Recording (IPR) in Minneapolis.

4. Four crazy seasons.

Minnesota’s is a climate of extremes that demands frequent and dramatic costume changes. And each season offers its own flavor of artistic inspiration for anyone brave enough to stare down a cold front and a heat wave with equal conviction. The inspiration wasn’t lost on Rogue Valley, who began a cycle of four full-length albums in 2010 dedicated to each of the seasons and recorded over the span of a year. Spring’s Crater Lake debuted at the historic Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul. The albums for Summer (Bookseller’s House) and Autumn (Geese in the Flyway) followed. Winter’s False Floors brought it all home to the Varsity Theatre in April 2011 with a multimedia dance/video/music performance.

5. That unmistakable “Minnesota Sound!”

Just kidding. Koza doesn’t actually sound anything like the Replacements or Hüsker Dü. His style most often gets described as Americana or acoustic folk, but it segues seamlessly from polished pop to groovy blues. His music can recall Aimee Mann just as easily as Rufus Wainwright or Only Son. Between solo pursuits efforts and Rogue Valley, Koza seems determined to keep pushing his own songwriting boundaries. To encounter his work chronologically is to hear an artist consciously exploring different sides of himself thematically, rhythmically, and emotionally—and finding out just what he’s capable of.

There is a common thread to be found throughout the songs, albums and eras, and it’s Koza’s gorgeous voice and a sly, winking wit which demands the full attention of a listener. In other words, no casual observer will miss Koza’s great hooks and compelling arrangements. But the magic of some of his most subtle and exquisite musical moments come to life with a committed ear, and a deeper listen.
Chris Koza is a fiscal year 2015 recipient of an Artist Initiative grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. This website, and some of its contents were made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation by the Minnesota State Legislature; and by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.