La Crosse Distilling

We spent three years at St. Olaf, playing weekly at a pub, making a record every year…we were making CDs and developing towards the idea of going full-time…(on early beginnings).

Chris Cunningham

Singer-songwriter, Storyhill

We had a great time getting to know Chris and Johnny from Storyhill, we talked about songwriting, recording, favorite festivals to play, early formations of the band, adapting to covid, their Holiday album and more.

La Crosse Local is proud sponsor of the La Crosse Winter Roots Festival.

Balancing Act.
Transcript

John Hermanson 01:55
Yeah. I’m John Hermanson and I’m one half of Storyhill and was born in Bozeman, Bozeman, Montana, and met Chris in seventh grade. And then we became friends and started playing music in high school together. It’s a brief bio of mine.

Brent Hanifl 02:16
That works.

Chris Cunningham 02:17
Yeah, mine would be similar, pretty much mirrors that. Well, I’m Chris Cunningham, the other half of Storyhill. Born in Bozeman, yeah, pretty much grew up here. And I remember seeing Johnny in middle school. So fifth and sixth grade, but we didn’t really like connect as friends until World Geography class. And when we were paired off, as we were like, the last two men standing didn’t choose partners for this project. And the teacher made us, you know, like work on a project together. And that kind of started our working on projects together career.

Brent Hanifl 03:02
So when did the music come into the mix with everything and you guys?

John Hermanson 03:06
We’d always kind of been into music and stuff. And for me, my sisters were a big influence. And my parents were always pushing me towards music and stuff. And then I think it was sophomore year of high school that I picked up a guitar at a garage sale, started kind of writing these kind of folk songs that I wasn’t really listening to folk music, but I started writing folk music and probably about the same time Chris did or?

Chris Cunningham 03:33
You mean like that song about the girl from Minnesota that you met at camp?

John Hermanson 03:37
Yeah. Yeah, we don’t play anymore. I don’t remember how that goes now. But yeah, that would have been the first and then. And then Chris. started playing piano along with me is kind of how I-

Chris Cunningham 03:52
Yeah.

John Hermanson 03:53
Recall it. And then Chris got a 12 string guitar a year later., or so like junior year.

Chris Cunningham 03:58
Yeah, you convinced me that guitars were cooler than pianos and lighter weight than pianos to carry around. We played a lot in high school for friends and churches and started doing coffee house stuff back then. And then we made them in your parents basement.

John Hermanson 04:19
Yeah. And for graduation, our parents gave us money to put towards studio time. So we went to a local studio here and recorded our cassette tape back, back then.

Chris Cunningham 04:32
Our faithful cassette.

John Hermanson 04:33
Right.

Chris Cunningham 04:34
We called it Chris and Johnny because we didn’t know what else to call it.

John Hermanson 04:37
Yeah. And we had we thought we were just basically making a record of all the songs that we had done and then we were gonna go our separate ways. And we made 100 copies of the cassette night and I played out a couple times at St. Olaf when I was in Minnesota, sold out of the cassettes and then convinced Chris that maybe he should come to St. Olaf as well. And that we might be able to start working on a career in music. Yeah, it seemed to be working.

Chris Cunningham 05:09
I was in Spain after high school while he was in Minnesota. And Johnny had been playing that whole year solo, and people had been buying the cassette and wondering, well, who’s the harmony? You know, what would that be like? So I got a letter in the mail from Johnny, you know, saying, hey, swing by Minnesota, on your way back to Montana, from Spain. And check out this school has a lot of great people here. And we ended up playing, I don’t know, once or twice during my visit, and then I grabbed an application. Didn’t think I would actually get accepted, but they had room. I don’t know what to say. I guess my grades were good enough. But yeah, we spent three years at St. Olaf playing weekly, at a pub in Northfield, and making a record every year. And CD format came online back then. So we were making CDs and kind of developing towards, you know, the idea of going full time after, after we were done with school, which ended up happening. We got a booking agent, and manager and all that. Bought the gear and the van and hit the road.

Brent Hanifl 06:26
You know, I remember the cassette, from I think it was around 1996 When my brother was going to U of M. And it seemed to be like there was just a Chris and Johnny fan club there at the time. But I actually do remember the cassette.

Chris Cunningham 06:42
That’s awesome. It’s funny. Yeah, for a while we were printing both cassettes and CDs, because you know, it was still in that transition zone. We kept the name Chris and Johnny for the first two albums.

Brent Hanifl 06:56
Why did that change?

Chris Cunningham 06:58
Why did that change? Because we kind of grew uncomfortable with this sound of it. It sounded pretty folky and kind of Sonny and Cher, you know, sort of old school.

John Hermanson 07:10
Yeah.

Chris Cunningham 07:11
And we were just also it was nice to think of like, if we had a band name, then you don’t feel like you’re as personally identified as I don’t know.

John Hermanson 07:23
Yeah, I think creatively, we just wanted something to call it, you know, because we feel like when we make music together, there’s like a third thing that comes out of it. That’s neither one of us. And neither one of us could have done it without the other one. So we kind of wanted to name that. And we threw all kinds of names around. And then Storyhill just stuck because it is, it’s where we’re from, or sort of the Storyhills surrounding our town here in Montana. And the other part of that, I think it’s the story word is, is a really, I think what we sort of tell stories, you know, and like, tell our own stories and tell other people’s stories in song. And so it just seemed like a good name for us.

Chris Cunningham 08:04
Yeah, a lot of good reasons for that name.

Brent Hanifl 08:06
So kind of speaking of that kind of third part of Storyhill, what is your process for songwriting, and recording? And has that changed over the past 20, 30 years? Is it fast and furious? In some ways? Are you work, do you work collaboratively? Or is it individual and the person who wrote it kind of leads?

Chris Cunningham 08:24
It’s changed a bit. It’s gotten much more collaborative and exploratory, abstract in a way. It did begin with like, you know, Johnny would write a song and Chris would add to it pretty cut and dry, usually.

John Hermanson 08:41
And I think it’s still kind of has that. That’s kind of still the basic, it starts that way. One of us writes a song and brings it and the other one writes their part to it. That’s the easiest way to say it, but it doesn’t tell the whole story, I guess.

Chris Cunningham 08:53
Yeah. Because what’s been happening in the last, I don’t know how many phases, but what’s been happening is we’ll begin with that and then start kind of pulling back objectively from the song and just like looking at it with less personal attachment, less ego, and just seeing what possibilities are for each song. Yeah, which can lead to basically a Storyhill version of an original song, you know, then you can go any different direction. So yeah.

John Hermanson 09:27
I mean, I think we’re both just kind of driven by lyrical, like it has to kind of resonate lyrically. Not always, you know, I mean, sometimes there’s little songs that we just like because they sound good or feel good to play. Yeah, I think the lyrical stuff is it’s certainly the thing we struggle with the most by a longshot.

Brent Hanifl 09:46
Did COVID have an effect on it? I mean, you guys are it sounds like you guys are pretty much in the same town now, right?

Chris Cunningham 09:51
Well, just recently.

Brent Hanifl 09:53
Just recently?

John Hermanson 09:54
I moved back home in August of this year. So yeah, that’s been great.

Chris Cunningham 10:00
It’s kind of like the start of a new, we have a whole, like new trajectory that’s possible now that we’re able to meet up, like every week.

John Hermanson 10:10
Right, you know, not just on the road.

Chris Cunningham 10:11
Yeah.

John Hermanson 10:12
So we’re able to do stuff.

Chris Cunningham 10:13
Yeah. So I mean, but yeah, during COVID, you would have to travel out here. We did some online shows.

John Hermanson 10:21
We kind of made a go of it by just going online like a lot of people did. And we did kind of what four? We did four shows over the course of that time.

Chris Cunningham 10:32
Yeah, like we released our Christmas record last year. Online.

John Hermanson 10:36
Right.

Chris Cunningham 10:37
Bethleham its called.That went really well. And later in February, we did a celebration of our double album, or live album reunion. It was a 20 year anniversary of that. And that we just played the thing, the whole, I think we played the tracks all in order, maybe.

John Hermanson 11:21
Yeah, that was great. Because it feels like the our fan base kind of like, stepped up to kind of I mean, I think they were also excited to see us play. I don’t think they were just paying us money too you know, because they felt bad for us or something neat that they had as well. You know, it’s just kind of cool that yeah, some of the songs just kind of speak to the time in a way that, you know, wasn’t intended when we wrote it, but then it has resonance. And so I think people appreciate it that I think what we discovered was like, this sort of a new way of doing music, you know, like a playing an online show. You know, there’s downsides to it, obviously. But there’s upsides too because audience members, you know, so they can just kind of be hanging out doing their thing, but it’s also they get to see a live show.

Chris Cunningham 12:10
Yeah, and we still feel as artists kind of connected to the listeners, just because you can see people interacting a little bit. And, you know, we can kind of watch a little bit, you know, when people are saying that in the comment section. And also, we’re just so used to performing together that, you know, we just once we start playing, just feel like we’re on. So we just kind of put on that energy. And we just did one last week on Thursday. From this very room, we have our expensive gear setup, you know, we can give really good audio and a camera and all that. And it’s going well, we announced it like the night before, and there’s 100 people or something that tuned in. So we’re like, well, maybe we should just think of doing this like on a weekly like resident, what do you call them artists and residents?

John Hermanson 12:59
Yeah, so we’re actually taking kind of like that whole COVID experience of doing live shows on the internet and translating it into, I mean, it sort of feels good to kind of keep doing that, even though we’re going to be doing. We have a bunch of shows coming up in Minnesota.

Chris Cunningham 13:15
Thankfully.

John Hermanson 13:17
Yeah, and that’s great. Yeah, I mean, it’s this is the internet will not take the place of live shows for sure, you know, but it adds there’s a cool dimension to it. So yeah, we’re, we’re doing this weekly, Thursday night thing now, which is kind of fun. Yeah.

Brent Hanifl 13:33
You know, just talking to artists, there’s some that have taken a lot from this experience in 18 months, I mean, just, you know, reconnecting with your guys’s music over the last couple weeks here, when I noticed that it was beat you guys are playing at the Pump House. Something that people are busy with their lives in some sense. So you know, I used to listen to you guys about 20 years ago. And then revisiting now and having that extra opportunity to check you guys out kind of keeps people updated from those fans that are now have young children to busy lives. I think actually can jump online and watch you guys play, chip in and donate and that sort of thing.

Chris Cunningham 14:08
Totally relate, you know, and like I have a fairly young kid at home right now and in school and stuff and just a busy life overall. Running a business and stuff like that. And so yeah, it’s great to be able to step away from that for an hour or two and hook up with Johnny and play a show online and also make plans for you know, a new record and new tours to support the record and you know, and get ready for year end shows here. So.

Brent Hanifl 14:36
So kind of moving from you know, COVID , you uys probably went for a pretty busy off and on couple decades of music. What are you excited for over the next year or two?

Chris Cunningham 14:46
Oh, well, we have a lot of we have an albums worth of new songs that we’re really excited about. So there’s a lot of like, kind of fun musing going on like, who should we involve in this process? Besides, it might just be the two of us, or it might be us reaching out to a producer like Dan Wilson again. You know, we’ve done fun work with other people before. We had a great turnout at our Storyhill Fest last summer. I think we just agreed this morning. We’re going to do it again.

Brent Hanifl 15:16
You heard it first.

John Hermanson 15:17
Right.

Chris Cunningham 15:18
Next summer. Yeah.

John Hermanson 15:19
We have this Storyhill fest that we do up in the Brainerd area in Minnesota, where we bring in all these artists that we’re fans of. And the idea is like, if you’re fans of art, music, you’re gonna like the music that we like, and it’s kind of worked out. So it’s been kind of cool to share our favorite artists with their fans.

Brent Hanifl 15:41
You guys will also be you know, hitting the stage here, the Pump House here in November, what should people expect from that show? Are you guys tapping into to the favorites, is it gonna be holiday focused? What’s what’s happening?

John Hermanson 15:52
Kind of all of the above? I think if anybody you know, a lot of times, we’ll just be like, hey, guys gonna play such and such song. And we’ll usually try to honor that if we can, you know, sometimes they’re requesting songs that are really, really bad catalog, like really hard to remember something. But yeah, it’ll be a mix of stuff. That’s part of the joy of playing now that we’ve been playing together for what, 32 years?

Chris Cunningham 16:17
We have a lot to choose from.

John Hermanson 16:18
Yeah and all these different eras. And they and they just, yeah, it’s really fun to kind of go through all the different eras. And then you see certain parts of the crowd light up, you know, for different songs.

Chris Cunningham 16:31
I remember the Pump House I mean, really well, like we played there pretty regularly.

John Hermanson 16:36
Its been one of our favorite venues.

Chris Cunningham 16:37
Yeah, and just La Crosse and hanging out downtown after the shows, you know, just, it’d be fun, we’ll probably bring a big basket of older fan favorites. And then, you know, tossin bunch of our newer ones too, and perhaps a sprinkling of, so we call it our Christmas record. But it’s really more than that. It’s, we did our own take on a lot of things. And then a lot of them are originals, based on like, Advent season scripture, and it’s kind of its own. It’s hard to even call it a Christmas record.

John Hermanson 17:15
Yeah, there’s a lot on there that, you know, four or five songs that aren’t necessarily Christmassy, you know, but that we felt like they fit and they I think they really fit the themes of the other stuff that are Christmassy on there.

Chris Cunningham 17:27
Sort of subdued and reverent. You know, it’s like a, like, in a lot of ways he, it might be nice, like, the way Bruce Springsteendid his solo Goes to Tom Joad shows, he was like a no applause thing, because he just wanted people to go through the experience of listening to each of the songs and kind of like living in the character that he was singing about, and how the songs flowed from one one to the other. And that’s kind of I mean, we don’t say please don’t clap. But you know, it’s that.

John Hermanson 18:00
We haven’t had to, because we’ve been on the internet.

Chris Cunningham 18:03
Yeah, we have.

John Hermanson 18:04
We have played it as if we didn’t, yeah, we didn’t talk in between, right.

Chris Cunningham 18:09
Right, we just just get into its own space and kind of go through it.

John Hermanson 18:14
And we’re thinking about so when when it does become the holiday season, we are going to we’re doing some shows that are just sort of sit centrally focused on that record will still play some other tunes as well. But when we do it, I think we might do that in the live setting.

Chris Cunningham 18:30
Right.

John Hermanson 18:31
Yeah. For this, you know, we’re going to play the entire record now. And please don’t-

Chris Cunningham 18:35
Right, we’ll politely set it up.

Brent Hanifl 18:38
I think we just you know, your meet I’ve seen you guys play before and what a great show it is. But I think you guys should be really strict about it. And be you know, for people who’ve never been there before. And just you know, they’ve only heard your music and then they show up to the show. And then you guys are just really really mean.

Chris Cunningham 18:53
Yeah. Yeah, that’s like don’t clap.

Brent Hanifl 19:01
Just boot some people. No, just kidding. So if people you know, want to follow along, stay up to date with you guys. You know, maybe check out some of those older albums on cassette. Where can people find out more?

Chris Cunningham 19:13
I mean, I’d like to encourage people to go to our tune into our upcoming weekly shows. So that’ll be announced on our Facebook page.

John Hermanson 19:23
Yeah, cuz it’s a pretty laid back thing. And it’s a lot of like, like last week, we found ourselves just kind of like talking about a lot of stuff. And that’s where we will talk about like things that we’re about to be doing like shows we’ll be playing and different things will be engaged in probably from there. So that’ll be kind of a weekly update or something as well as a concert kind of experience. And then our website is storyhill.com. Storyhill Fast has a Facebook page.

Chris Cunningham 19:55
It has its own website too.

John Hermanson 19:57
And then all the streaming places you can hear them easy.

Chris Cunningham 20:00
Yeah, our Bandcamp page has every album for download and stream. So Bandcamp Storyhill, and then our Patreon community you asked earlier about COVID, that really was a lifeline for us, and a lot of fun to interact with this community of listeners and fans that, you know, joined in and we did a lot of like, you know, Zoom calls with them and posted sort of, you know, rare gems all the way back to high school kind of recordings. You know, it’s pretty loaded, our Patreon page.

John Hermanson 20:39
And then all those posts are still there and then people that sign up to become patrons will get free admission to the online concerts that were doing. So that’s kind of a cool benefit.

Amy Gabay 20:55
La Crosse Local Podcast is a production of River Travel Media. Do you have an interview idea you’d like to share with us? Message us on Facebook at La Crosse Local. Find out more about us at lacrosselocal.com and you can subscribe to the La Crosse Local Podcast on your favorite podcast app. If you like us, rate us five stars. We appreciate it.

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