Memory is fertile soil for Chris Koza.
Much of the Minneapolis singer-songwriter’s catalog is based on moments, places, or people from the past. As he embarked on Sleepwalkers Part 1, his first new solo album in five years, a guiding memory involved the days he’d hit up Cheapo with his $25 monthly music budget and take a chance on a CD he’d only sampled briefly in-store. He also tilled emotions from visiting Portland, the hometown of his youth, only to find the city doesn’t resemble the one he grew up in. “Some buildings aren’t there anymore,” he says. “Whole city blocks are different.”
Koza wondered: What does it mean to have memories of places you can’t go back to? He addresses that question via the “thought experiment” that became an Americana-tinged double album, the first installment of which drops Friday in tandem with a live performance at the Parkway Theater.
“Memory has always been important to me, because I think for me it informs my sense of self so profoundly,” Koza says. “I just want to hang on to the important things—the nuances of a relationship or of a place.”
Koza uses whatever memories are most meaningful, be they painful or joyous, though he tries not to linger too long on either emotional extreme. His songs incorporate a combination of autobiographical and fictional elements, often starting with specific images pulled from real life.
“For me, as a writer or as an observer, those are the details that I often am trying to latch on to,” he says. “It’s not so much the shirt that someone’s wearing, but the hem on the arm of the shirt, some little thing that makes it as specific as it can be.”
The song “Sleepwalkers” waxes nostalgic about a bygone relationship; the duo was young and unsure what to do with what they had. If only Koza had known then what he knows now, he says, things might have turned out differently. “If we had another run, we’d blow that scene apart,” he sings. It sounds like the relationship could be professional or romantic in nature—though he confirms it’s the latter, if you interpret it otherwise, that’s OK, too. “People often tell me what my songs mean and I had no idea,” Koza says. “I’m grateful for that.”
Other songs are clearer cut. The wistful and contemplative “Music to Me” takes place among hordes of people in New York City, where the infrastructure blocks out natural elements. “In an age where all that is/Awaits your fingertips/How does one bear the weight/And keep from slipping through the cracks?” Koza asks.
Like many, Koza finds it difficult to unplug and concentrate on the moment. “There’s this safety net of distraction in our possession at all times. Whether that’s good or bad is up to individuals to decide. I know I’ve experienced in many social situations that it can be such a distraction and it can really be a barrier to having those in-between moments where silly things can happen and organic connections can be made,” he says.
While the album has a dreamy feeling overall, there’s some healthy skepticism among the songs. The vintage-sounding “Station Wagon Blues” recalls “crawling through zip codes in wood-paneled chariots” and declares, “Only in film does the good side succeed/Only in song does the party go all night/Only in fantasy does the spell break.”
Though Koza’s music has an intimate, familiar vibe, you don’t immediately feel like you know him after you’ve first heard his lyrics. “I like coding personal information in the song, but I’m not so quick to claim it,” he says. Even in conversation, he plays it close to the vest, a concept he explores in “Man of Stone,” the instrumentally rowdiest track on the new album. Koza wrote it about the emotionally closed-off Scandinavian nature common in longtime Minnesotans. “It’s the anthem for the people that are a little bit less inclined to sing at the top of their lungs,” he says.
Koza originally migrated to Minnesota to attend St. Olaf College, where he studied music theory and composition before shifting his focus to studio art and philosophy. “I was interested in my own songwriting,” he explains. “I just had all these ideas and ambitions that I wasn’t able to align with the music program there. But that’s my own immaturity, probably.” He was in various bands in college, and after graduating, he followed a group of musicians to the Twin Cities and dropped his first solo album, Exit Pesce, in 2004.
A full-time musician for eight years now, the frontman of indie-rock band Rogue Valley has extended his creative reach into education, theater, composing, and side projects like his pop-electronic alter-ego, Nobody Kid. His understanding of producing and recording has also deepened and become more refined.
“When I was first starting out, I was happy to have anything represent me that I thought was ‘good enough.’ Now I really try to do everything I can to make sure I’m presenting and saying what I want to,” he says. Working out of his Minneapolis studio or on the go, he acknowledges that “the opportunity to take 10 years on an album is there.”
Luckily for his fans, it didn’t take that long for Sleepwalkers Part 1. But they will have to wait for the second installment. Koza knows people are inundated with media these days, and he feels grateful that listeners would spend time with his music given how much media is vying for their attention.
“No one really needs more music in this day and age,” he says. “But at the same time, everyone needs music all the time.”
With: The Twins of Franklin
Where: Parkway Theater
When: 8 p.m. Fri. Apr. 26
Tickets: $15/$20; more info here