A Marble In A Wooden Maze

Chris Koza’s new album “In Real Time” follows the songwriter down his alt-country path

by Grant Tillery

For his new album, “In Real Time,” local singer-songwriter Chris Koza made a wooden maze to accompany early press copies.

The maze features a small, shiny marble and 20 holes designed to trap the player. The objective is to sink the marble in the final hole without hitting any of the others along the way. But hitting the finish is difficult — even Koza hasn’t done it.

“People were like, ‘Hey man, I got that maze. That shit’s hard to solve,’” Koza said on Thursday morning at the Common Roots Cafe. “I can [only] get to the 10.”

“In Real Time” is Koza’s sixth solo album. He’s also the lead singer for Rogue Valley, whose song “The Wolves and the Ravens” made an appearance in the 2013 Ben Stiller film “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”

Koza’s solo work is a far cry from Rogue Valley’s drone-based Americana sound. While his roots still play a prominent role, Koza’s acoustic guitar drives the simple, catchy melodies reminiscent of acts like Wilco and recent work by the Jayhawks.

The rock melodies of “In Real Time” are inflected with bits of country. Songs like “Wishing Well” sound straight out of the Laurel Canyon scene of the 1960s and ’70s, and the guitar riff sounds like an early Eagles tune. Slower numbers like “Radio Wave” highlight Koza’s breathy, nonchalant vocals that belie the simple yet infectious two-chord harmonies.

The theme of the wooden maze carries throughout the album as well. The opening track is called “A Marble in a Wooden Maze,” and Koza said he almost used the title for the album.

“Originally, the album was going to be called ‘A Marble In A Wooden Maze’ because I like the notion that you have some control about your life, but there’s also some stuff — like pitfalls and other hard corners — that you can’t navigate very easily,” Koza said. “I liked thinking about that balance of intention versus fate. Some friends of mine suggested, ‘That title sounds too juvenile,’ and [they] were totally right.”

Koza grew up in Portland, Ore., which is known as an indie rock hotbed. He ended up in Minnesota to study music at St. Olaf College, but he graduated with a degree in philosophy and studio art.

“St. Olaf had a great music program, and I thought it would be a good fit for me,” Koza said. “There [are] people there who are so insanely talented at their instruments, and I was OK. I really wanted to focus on pop songwriting. Now, I wish I had gone through all that stuff, because so much of what I work on now, when I’m not doing pop songwriting, is music for film or working with other musicians, so all that theory knowledge would be very important.”

Despite that feeling, Koza believed moving to Minnesota was beneficial, adding that the Minneapolis music scene is more conducive to substance than the oddity and novelty often found elsewhere.

“Because of the volume of people with a higher profile [in Portland], you’ve got to be weirder to stick out,” Koza said. “You can’t make some nice folk music and think that people are going to give a shit. Out there, you’ve got to weird it up.”

Koza’s placid folk-rock twang veers toward normality without sounding too mundane. The tunes showcase his musicality at a more tempered stage than his first three solo albums do.

“I feel like working on this solo album has given me a new perspective on how to use time and perspective as members of the collaboration process,” Koza said. “Before, I was like, ‘I got to get this out.’ There’s enough music out there in the world. If somebody hasn’t heard it yet, it’s new to them. For the people that are really hanging out for that new thing, let’s make sure it’s worth their wait.”

 

Chris Koza

 

When: 7:30 p.m. Sunday

Where: Cedar Cultural Center, 416 Cedar Ave S., Minneapolis

Cost: $12-15

All ages