Portrait of Sufjan Stevens, courtesy of Asthmatic Kitty Records

I have always been obsessed with the role that geography plays in music, or more specifically, how musicians’ experiences growing up shape their work. 

And over the past few years, I have fallen in love with one particular place and their artists: the American Midwest. This leads to my new proposed genre categorization — “Midwestern Indie”. Of course, musicians from the midwest vary greatly. After all, the geography of your hometown has little to no effect on what genre of music you enjoy or what instruments you decide to pick up. But even still, all my favorite midwestern artists share some sort of intimate, undefinable commonality that brings them together and makes their music so appealing to me.

I will be attempting to define that undefinable commonality in this article with a list of shared principles.

Midwestern indie artists…

  1. … have a strange, honest allegiance to their home
Sufjan Steven’s Michigan album art, courtesy of Asthmatic Kitty Records

On the surface. It feels like devout loyalty and pride to call the midwest their home. But a deeper exploration reveals that their allegiance is actually more self-aware and pessimistic than plain patriotism. Not the fond wistfulness that characterizes traditional country music, like in “Take Me Home, Country Roads”, but a more callous, nuanced characterization of home. Midwesterners won’t stop talking about where they grew up, but they don’t really seem to want to go home. They have so much to say, but they can’t say whether it’s good or bad. 

Take Sufjan Stevens, for example (who said he would make an album for all 50 states, but decided he said all he wanted to say after Michigan and Illinois). In Illinois, Stevens curiously focuses a lot of attention on odd historical events like a UFO sighting and serial killer John Wayne Gacy. Sun Kil Moon possesses a multifaceted love for Ohio, who views it as simply being “home”, despite spewing on about all the tragic things that have happened to his loved ones there. Slipknot’s love for Iowa fuels the hatred in their songs, and Conor Oberst’s strained relationship with his hometown, Omaha, definitely plays a role in what he chooses to sing about.

Midwestern artists are brutally honest about where they’re from. They don’t hate it or love it in the midwest. But it is home, and that at least is important.

“Daddy wanted me to leave it, Indiana, Indiana in the cold
Said ‘you know you really don’t need it, leave the fame for the road’
I remember when I was leaving, I was only six years old”

“Indiana” by Adrianne Lenker, from Indianapolis, Indiana
  1. … have a story to tell and tell it well
Sun Kil Moon’s Mark Kozelek, courtesy of Sun Kil Moon

It was midwestern indie that opened my eyes to the fact that the purpose of music was more than to just sound good (which oftentimes isn’t even the case), but it could also tell a story, conjure a memory, evoke an emotion. 

Midwestern artists are amazing storytellers. Their music is not a display of good voice or elaborate instrumentation, but rather a showing of the musician’s life and personality itself as something to be enjoyed. 

Bright Eyes’s Conor Oberst is not your conventional lead singer. As he trembles and quavers through his lyrics, we may cringe at his anxious voice. But his voice and lyrics reveal everything we need to know about Oberst’s life. In Bright Eyes’s latest album, Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was, Oberst openly alludes to his recent divorce and older brother’s death. In one of his solo records, Oberst talks about living with a brain cyst that was just discovered. He doesn’t need to have an angelic voice to conceal us from his issues. In fact, he shouldn’t. It’s one less thing that separates him from the us — the illusion of normality. It tells us: here is a man who is troubled, who has been weathered by life’s battles and can do nothing about it than sing his heart out and tell his story. He’s not trying to lift us up with some motivational monologue or make us pity him with a sob story — he just wants to tell us a story. 

Sun Kil Moon’s Mark Kozelek isn’t your average singer, either. But that is to say, he is an average singer. He doesn’t have a showy voice, and he practically talks on some of his songs over a bare guitar melody. But like Oberst, he has a story to tell, and making music is his way of making sense of the absurdity in his life. It’s one of the reasons why I think “Carissa” is one of the most hauntingly beautiful songs, even if it’s just seven minutes of a man’s rugged voice and his warm guitar strings.

“Carissa burned to death last night in a freak accident fire in her yard in Brewster
Her daughter came home from a party and found her
Same way as my uncle, who was her grandfather
An aerosol can blew up in the trash goddamn, what were the odds?
She was just getting ready to go to her midnight shift as an RN in Wadsworth
And she vanished up in flames like that but there had to be more to her life’s worth”

“Carissa” by Sun Kil Moon’s Mark Kozelek, from Massillon, Ohio
  1. … have a profound appreciation for nature
Midwestern corn fields, creative commons

I don’t think the midwestern landscape has any more to offer than any other region of the US. The area is mostly dominated by open, flat plains, small hills, and big lakes. But midwestern indie artists do seem to have an obsession with it, since nature seems to be the main subject of a lot of midwestern indie songs. Why?

Maybe it has to do with the fact that the vast, open landscape literally makes people feel small. It humbles them and makes them feel like a miniscule part of a giant world. It puts their life in perspective. It might make them feel like they belong in nature and not in some organized society, and these little revelations definitely come through in their music. Midwestern indie artists seem to be disillusioned with some aspect of the world, whether it be the struggle to find the meaning of life or the banality of everyday routine, and the grandeur of midwestern nature may have some role in shaping that sentiment. 

Maybe this appreciation for nature’s magnitude is what inspired Wisconsin-born artist, Julia Holter, to create Aviary, an ambient art pop/jazz album she described as “the cacophony of the mind in a melting world.” Or what motivated Illinois-based musician, Andrew Bird, to challenge America’s manifest destiny and its desecration of the earth through oil drilling in “Manifest”. Or surely this is what made Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon question his self-worth in “Holocene”. 

“Christmas night, it clutched the light, the hallow bright
Above my brother, I, and tangled spines
We smoked the screen to make it what it was to be
Now, to know it in my memory
And at once, I knew I was not magnificent
High above the highway aisle
Jagged vacance, thick with ice
I could see for miles, miles, miles”

“Holocene” by Bon Iver, from Eau Claire, Wisconsin
  1. … grapple with doubts in faith and religion
Map showing church/synagogue attendance by each state, wikipedia commons

It’s no question that a musician’s religion growing up has a profound effect on their music. Musicians from the extremely Christian south are more unwavering in their religiosity, praising god in every line for their beautiful world and life. Musicians from the more secular west coast might not even touch the subject of religion as it never really played a role in their life.

But the midwestern US appears to be some curious middle ground where enough people were raised under some religious persuasion but also had the capacity to challenge it later on in life (refer to map above). This dichotomy plays a huge role in midwestern indie music. But as I’ve mentioned earlier, midwestern artists also possess a sort of disillusionment with their life’s meaning. This conflicting intersection between past faith and present frustration make for some of the most thought-provoking songwriting I have ever heard.

Bon Iver’s entire discography seems to be a journey of self-exploration and a search for life’s deeper meaning, if religion really does hold a place in the world. Chicago-based band, Wilco, describes another sort of crisis in faith in their most famous song, “Jesus, etc.” as the singer can’t seem to find the answers to certain questions about life and the world. Sufjan Stevens tells a story in “Casimir Pulaski Day” in which the death of a friend causes a crisis of faith.

“All the glory that the Lord has made
And the complications when I see His face
In the morning in the window
All the glory when He took our place
But He took my shoulders and He shook my face
And He takes and He takes and He takes”

“Casimir Pulaski Day” by Sufjan Stevens, from Detroit, Michigan
  1. … hold onto the past
Adrianne Lenker’s Abysskiss album art, courtesy of Jacob Daneman

Midwestern indie is timeless. The music scenes across the world will continue to change. People will want to hear new things. New sounds will come and go. Popular songs will sound out of fashion by tomorrow. But as for the stories that midwesterners want to tell us — there will always be someone there to listen. 

The midwestern indie genre lives in the past. Song lyrics are backwards-facing. It’s an old story, or a childhood experience described in such vivid detail it feels like it happened yesterday. These musicians don’t think about the future, they only reminisce, reflect, and grow. They take their life day by day. And that’s why this genre will never die, because the emotions that this genre convey are universal and perpetual. 

The midwestern indie artist is likeable, but cynical. They’re trying to find meaning in the world, and they find beauty among all the suffering around them. They’re not sure of anything themselves, so they tell us their stories and ask us to find out what it all means. They’re humble, romantic, and you’d love to be their friend.

I’ve lived in Southern California my whole life, and though having only been to Chicago once, I feel like the midwest holds a special place in my heart. When I listen to midwestern indie, the songs bring out memories I never experienced. I feel warmed by the music’s everlasting fire, and it makes me glad to be alive.

“Poison oak, some boyhood bravery
When a telephone was a tin can on a string
And I fell asleep with you still talking to me
You said you weren’t afraid to die
In polaroids you were dressed in women’s clothes
Were you made ashamed, why’d you lock them in a drawer?
I don’t think that I ever loved you more”

“Poison Oak” by Bright Eyes, from Omaha, Nebraska

Check out my favorite “Midwestern Indie” albums and artists here: