Northern Minnesota musician prepares to release album

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VIRGINIA, Minn. — If you want to know how to accomplish creative goals during a pandemic, ask Karl Sundquist, who managed to finish an entire album in the hinterlands of northern Minnesota.

Sundquist is a St. Louis County Assistant Attorney. He’s also a musician who has decades of experience performing songs before live crowds on the Iron Range and elsewhere.

On a recent afternoon, he played several of the 14-songs from “Goodnight Sun,” his new album scheduled for release Aug. 28, the Mesabi Tribune reported. The big yet calm and gregarious man laughed in delight through his beard when talking about how his young son lent his own talents to the record to soon become available on iTunes, Spotify and Google Play Music, among other digital outlets.

Sundquist, who is 45, grew up in Virginia where he listened to working-class tales from the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Greg Brown, an Iowa based folk singer. In college, he turned to Jack Johnson, a professional surfer turned singer-songwriter whose laid back beats evoke a flip-flop mellowness found on the beaches of Hawaii, where Sundquist had frequented on family trips as a boy.

Between 1994 and 2001, he joined his first band, Heyday, and played gigs in southern Minnesota and throughout the Twin Cities and cut “Created to Be” and “From the Hill,” their first two albums. The musicians opened up for several big acts including the Minnesota-based rock band Gear Daddies and the California born rock country group, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

Sundquist, who was in college and then law school while playing shows, enjoyed touring and the times listening to his music with his family. It was in the mid-1990s, he recalled, when the father and son were in a truck and happened to catch the Heyday song, “The Mishaps of Johnny and Jenny,” on 93.9 WTBX-FM radio. It was a remarkable moment for the young guitarist and lyricist, whose dad became inspired enough to attempt guitar, harmonica and even the mouth harp.

But eventually Sundquist found himself brewing over a decision: continue touring or complete his law degree and marry his then-girlfriend Stacey, who also desired to become an attorney.

The two earned their degrees, got married and moved to Virginia, where he eventually joined Four Horse Johnson. The band played regional shows and went on to release, “Transmission,” an album in 2009, before separating in 2014.

In 2016, Sunquist was playing solo gigs when he decided to quit drinking alcohol and begin his recovery. “Getting sober brought the music back,” he recently said. “I found more enjoyment in playing and writing.” That same year, he linked up with guitarist Dan Boyer, drummer Sam Papin and bassist Josh Palmi to create the Americana rock band, Big Waves and Bonfires. (Papin also played in Four Horse Johnson.) The group had an acoustic vibe, citing a variety of influences from Jack Johnson to Tom Petty to the Beatles, the Grateful Dead and Alice in Chains. The band added violinist Jill Burkes and released its first full-length album, “Belly of a Whale,” in 2019.

Later that year, in the fall, Sundquist, several years sober and married with three children, got to talking with Christopher David Hanson, an accomplished guitarist and vocalist who invited him to record at his basement studio on the Birch Lake north of Babbitt. “It’s the Music Mecca,” Sundquist said. “It’s right on the lake, where the ideas flow and everything is organic, as much as we could be.”

With Hanson’s help as recorder and producer, Sundquist brought his family and friends including Burkes, Papin and Palmi, in addition to vocalists Eli Little and Rob Wheeler, his son, Mikko, and even Hanson’s dog, Minnow — to the remote studio to help him fine-tune songs that he worked on for years as well as new songs he wrote as COVID-19 began spreading across the state in mid-March.

During that stretch of time, he found solace in the music of Bob Dylan, The Band, Jack Johnson and Sean Rowe, an alternative singer-songwriter from New York. He opened himself up to his fellow musicians who helped him tweak his older ballads of small town life and create newer messages about nature and positivity that he had strayed from in the past.

“The ether opened up,” Sundquist said.

Many of the new songs are slower-paced than his earlier ones. A lot of the metaphoric-style lyrics deal with his sobriety. “The newer songs on the album have messages for people in recovery, because I’m in recovery myself,” he said. “I wrote a lot of songs about the challenges we meet in recovery and some of the struggles that people have, including myself. I write about seeing the hopes and challenges they have.”

In “Goodnight Sun,” the title track of the latest album, he flips the meaning of previous songs about hunting to sing from “the perspective of an injured bird looking for support.”

In “Paper Boats,” which he described as “two people sitting on the side of the river, and one saying, ‘Tell me what’s on your mind,'” he sings about the benefits of “releasing” oneself by talking about experiences.

Down by the oak, where the river bends

The night can be our friend

Secrets we share float away in the drift

On paper boats we’ll send

Ultimately, Sundquist’s album represents the organizing of many parts of himself into one cohesive work, a matured collaborative pursuit involving his own support team.

Retired Judge Mark Munger from Duluth sent north a poem for him and Burkes to shape into the song, “Ballad of Olli Kinkkonen.”

His daughter, Maedi, 10, created the album art and his son, Mikko, 12, sang and played percussion on the song, “Jelly On It,” a fun-loving song reflective of his finding a sense of positivity despite the times.

Stuck in a moment

You wanna rewind

Flashlights and summer nights

There’s hope to find

Some say, oh just let it go

Then you’re left, oh, with the taste of dry toast

So put a little jelly on it

Put a little jelly on it

Put a little jelly on it

Put a little jelly on it

And make it sweet

Make it sweet

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