What does it mean to sound like a place?
By Julia Shiota
For a decade I drove down Highway 5 through Chanhassen, Minnesota nearly every week. It’s a fairly uneventful drive; much of that part of the highway was framed by low, non-descript office buildings and warehouses, a flat monotony periodically disrupted by clusters of big box stores and chain restaurants. If I was lucky, I would hit a string of green lights and zip my way through a series of crossroads: Dell, Market, Powers. Once I made it to Audubon Road, I’d take a left turn, driving past a large white complex with a peaked opaque glass roof to get to my therapist’s office. For several years I had thought the building was some sort of research facility, nestled as it was near a public works building and a manufacturing plant. Back then there was no Love Symbol in the entryway, no sign from the highway telling you this was Paisley Park. If you knew, you knew, and if you didn’t, you could drive by it none the wiser.
Growing up, I always knew Prince was from Minnesota, always felt that twinge of pride at the association, and while I knew he lived in the state, a part of me had a hard time believing it was true. It’s difficult to describe the sheer incongruity between the place and the icon. Built in 1985, the complex is a massive fifty-five thousand square feet, housing multiple creative spaces, such as a sound stage, multiple recording studios, along with Prince’s personal residence, where he lived until his death in 2016. It has since been retooled slightly into a museum, now complete with a clear sign from the highway indicating where to go.
Now, when I mention that decade-long trip past Paisley Park, people laugh—how could I not have known? But the truth is, I was so used to hearing of musicians who were born in Minnesota and ultimately left for larger hubs (Bob Dylan, famously born in Duluth and raised in Hibbing, is the standard) that the thought of someone like Prince deciding, in the mid-1980s, to move to this particular industrial park in rural Minnesota never occurred to me. But his decision to stick around has come to define my own experience in the state—and the soundtrack of the story so many still write in this place.
I am not originally from Minnesota. I was born in Osaka, Japan, and a series of happenstances landed my mother, my brother, and me in the state where we would live for the bulk of our time in the United States. It was, in many ways, essentially at random. Yet, I found that even when I left Minnesota for years at a time, the state would follow me. When I attended graduate school in Chicago, I was in classes with a number of students from the East Coast. During one class, a PhD student turned to me abruptly and said, “You have the most hardcore Minnesotan accent I have ever heard.” I remember being taken aback by her comment because, in the most stereotypical way, I had never noticed the way I spoke, had never considered that I brought any sort of Minnesota sound along with me.
For many outside of the state, Minnesota—or, more specifically, Minneapolis—does have its own sound. In his retrospective on Prince’s legacy in the Star Tribune, writer Chris Riemenschneider describes the Minneapolis sound as “a discernible blend of electronic dance music and the new wave sounds of the era with traditional funk and R&B styles. Beyond those layers of synths, Prince’s self-made genre featured electronically processed and often sped-up drum parts, and clean, crisp guitars that gave way to hard-rocking solos.”
But Minnesota has always been a sonic landscape for me, with so much of my memory bathed in sound. I began playing the viola, that odd middle sibling of the violin and the cello, as a child living in Bloomington. My mother almost immediately signed me up for lessons at one of the tiny, independently run music schools that pepper the Greater Twin Cities metro region. And, whenever possible, I would go to concerts performed by the Minnesota Orchestra, with Osmo Vänskä as the creative director. His nineteen-year tenure, which will conclude at the end of the 2021-2022 season, echoes in my ear as a series of symphonies: the usual classical music suspects of Berlioz, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky, the five-year project to record the complete Beethoven Symphonies, and the performances of Sibelius’s First and Fourth Symphonies, for which the orchestra won a Grammy for Best Orchestral Performance in 2014.
For several years, the thrum of strings and the timbre of brass and woodwinds were the sounds that came to mind when I thought of Minnesota. The soundtrack to so many family outings, extracurricular activities, and first dates reverberated against the acoustic white cubes that emerge like porcelain sculptures from the stage of Orchestra Hall, floating up to the textured white ceiling. And Vänskä himself often drew on his Finnish heritage, peppering in work by Scandinavian, and specifically Finnish, composers throughout his time—pieces by Jean Sibelius, like the symphonies and his violin concerto, were staples in the orchestra’s repertoire. Even after nearly twenty years of life in Minnesota, Vänskä carried the sounds of home with him.
But music is almost always a collaborative, multi-modal thing and it is impossible to dip your toe in one part of the scene without inevitably colliding with another. While most of the concerts I attended took place in Orchestra Hall, located in downtown Minneapolis, a number of smaller concerts and recitals took place at the Orpheum Theatre, about half a mile from the hall. Often, we would arrive early to make sure we were able to find parking and then wander around the area to kill time. One afternoon, I ambled about three blocks north of the Orpheum and my eyes were pulled towards a squat matte black building densely covered in an array of stars: First Avenue.
Today, First Avenue’s curved architecture is iconic both within and outside of the state. But the building itself began as a Greyhound Bus Depot in 1937, only beginning its transformation into the musical space it is today in 1968, when it became a rock club. The club would change its name, its management, and even the type of music that it featured as the years passed. But by the 80s, First Avenue pulled more from its local connections, shifting the focus to live performances by local acts. I didn’t go inside First Avenue that very first time I saw it. Instead, I loitered around outside with other sightseers, moving along its curved wall, pointing out the names of artists and performers we recognized and loved. But a few stars garnered more selfies and excited shrieks than others. One of them belonged, of course, to Prince.
When you pull into the parking lot of Paisley Park, the highway is a mere stone’s throw away. The Chanhassen of the early 1980s would have been decidedly rural, the big box stores and chain restaurants nothing but an expanse of prairie grass. Even now, a part of me can’t help but marvel at why an icon like Prince would choose to live here when other superstars ultimately left. But, in an interview with Billboard, Bret Thoeny, Paisley Park’s architect, stated that Prince didn’t want to build anywhere else, that “he wanted to do it in his hometown. Being there to creatively support and give back to his town what it gave him, I don’t think he’d ever want that to change.”
What I love about Prince’s music is the exploratory, generative nature of it. How he never stopped following his own artistic impulses, while also collaborating with so many artists who went on to their own successes. And how, in the midst of this work, he found himself drawn back, over and over, to the place he called home, the resonances of Minneapolis sound ringing through. Minnesota has long been a haven for music lovers and it continues to foster communities of hip hop artists, classical musicians, and pop singers alike. The sound I hear when I think of my home state is a tapestry of all these artists, choosing to create and grow and collaborate where they are.
I have no lineage, no generational history tying me to this place, just my mother and my brother who happen to live here still. I even have a number of close friends who have left the state to follow careers or put down roots elsewhere. And yet I find myself drawn back, too. I have left the state twice, and each time I come back, even turning down editorial jobs in larger cities, all because something about this place sings to me. When I think of giving back, as a writer, I think of supporting outlets like The Star Tribune, organizations like The Loft Literary Center, and publishers like Graywolf Press.
Perhaps belonging is, at least partially, deciding where and who you want to lift up and give back to. And maybe sounding like a place is less about falling into stereotypes or set tropes, but rather about adding your own voice to the soundscape that already exists. To some extent, each of us, like Prince, could take our sounds wherever we want. But there’s something special that happens when we choose to keep it rooted here. ■
Julia Shiota is a writer and editor living in Minnesota. Her fiction and nonfiction work has appeared in Catapult, Poets & Writers, the Asian American Writers Workshop, Electric Literature, and elsewhere.
Cover image by Chris Harvey (sources here and here).
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