It’s another Wednesday night at the Aster Café, and about 60 patrons are staving off the December cold with mulled wine, hot toddies, whiskey, and warm meals. Outside the windows behind the stage, winds whip up from the frozen Mississippi, and a horse-and-buggy trots past on the cobblestone street—a romantic backdrop to the sight of a single guitar-wielding man sitting behind the soundboard.
Few in the boisterous room pay attention when he starts to sing, but slowly and steadily, the chatter subsides. His husky voice implores all to listen, and as they do the man epitomizes the age-old ritual and role of the troubadour, experienced in both bars and life, and the power of a single soul to hush a room with just voice and guitar.
“I think the raspy voice kind of cheats through at first,” says the singer, Nick Hensley, sitting in the Aster’s River Room earlier that day. “But then after about a minute that goes away and so hopefully eventually you hook ’em with something other than that initial shock of, ‘Whoa, that guy doesn’t look like what he sounds like.’”
Hensley has spent the last 12 years providing stages for himself and other up-and-coming songwriters. He organizes and hosts the Minnesota Songwriter Showcase series (Sundays at Plums in St. Paul and Wednesdays at the Aster in Minneapolis) and hosts the MNaked songwriter series (one Saturday a month at Flat Earth Brewing and one Thursday a month at the Green Lantern in St. Paul). Both events have become the lifeblood of the ever-fertile Twin Cities singer-songwriter scene.
“Late 2005 is when we first started, but it didn’t take off right away,” says Hensley. “It took a long time, and a lot of doing it for free. And not that we pay the mortgage now, but it took a long time for us to convince [bar owners and sponsors to support it], and now it’s grown into something that I realize is as important to me as it is to other people: provide quality sound and make it really easy. I’d been to a bunch of open mics that I didn’t really care for, where the [host] just [introduced a songwriter] and then went outside and talked to his friends and didn’t listen and didn’t care. That drove me crazy.”
Hensley cares. Seriously. He introduces, listens to, and pays performers for their time—no small feats in clubland. Ask any of the area singer-songwriters traversing the solo road and they’ll likely tell you that ripping their hearts open in front of strangers for few people and fewer dollars can be an alternately lonely, exhilarating, meaningful, and humbling experience. Hensley knows as much, and his encouraging words and respectful demeanor provide comfort and courage.
“He creates a safe environment for people to come, whether they’ve been doing it a long time and they know everybody in the room or whether it’s their first time,” says songwriter Graham Bramblett, who sits at the bar as Hensley turns the mic over to the first songwriter of the night. “I’ve been a regular since 2013. I was really at a point where I wasn’t writing a lot and I had some insecurity about what I was doing as far as songwriting, and it created a consistency and rhythm for me to challenge myself, like, ‘You need to get out and you need to play.’ By doing that I met other songwriters and they said, ‘Hey, I’ve got a slot. You should come play a show with me.’ So a lot of really good energy flows from the songwriters’ nights, and Nick is kind of the nexus of the scene.”
It’s an oft-repeated accolade among area singer-songwriters, be it up-and-comers or vets who’ve broken through to media coverage and radio airplay. As songwriter Averil Bach puts it, “The singer-songwriter community here is well and warm, like a down comforter, and Nick has a constant invitation to get as many people under that blanket as possible.”
“He’s not like, ‘This is my kingdom, my fiefdom.’ He’s, ‘This is everybody’s,’” says songwriter Doug Collins. “For as busy a musician as he is, he is the most supportive person I know—to everyone. He’s really fostered this community that so many of us singer-songwriters rely on, both for gigs and basic human emotional sustenance. He honestly cares about every single person that goes up there, and he wants them to succeed. He’ll background sing or play harmonica or do whatever or do nothing if that’s what you want. He’s a very sympathetic musician and person.”
Hensley grew up in Detroit and Chicago, where he attended a Waldorf school and was first introduced to music. He moved to the Twin Cities to attend St. Thomas in the ’90s, but dropped out to sing in the District, a college-rock band that regularly played the Fine Line and other Midwestern clubs. After the District split up, he picked up the guitar and started writing solo songs for the first time in his life, but he missed the community of a band, and so his collective Love Songs for Angry Men was born—along with a desire to bring songwriters together.
Now 41, the newly married Mac-Groveland homeowner helps make ends meet with day gigs as a voice-over artist, jingle writer, and club booker. He’s unassuming about his role as a scene-maker, and he stammers away praise before it even hits the ether.
“I hope I don’t make myself out to be anything that… I think that it’s all of us together,” he says, post-stammer. “There’s a solid crew of 30 to 40 that I see month to month, and tying all these genres together and seeing all these people start bands is really cool. It’s not even the scene or specific genres—it’s just a bunch of people that care about something coming together to even have a scene. Because you can see that things are closing and changing rapidly, and that’s a scary thing, so I think we all… I’m just proud to be a part of something once in a while.”
Still, why does he do it? Most songwriters who choose the solo route prefer solitude and the freedom of a one-person operation; most musicians don’t carry an entire scene on their shoulders. But Hensley has made the act of championing artists into a gift that gives back.
“I love to keep busy. Like, I get anxiety attacks on the beach—not when my head’s in the game,” he concluded. “But I’m so afraid that I’m annoying. I literally have [sent] strange texts like, ‘Thank you for letting me text and tag you throughout the years, thank you for loaning us your talent, I apologize for the texts.’ But this is where we are, and this is what we have to do. And now part of it is, I get to watch all these great people from when they first started to now they’re blowing up. We all get a kick out of it.”