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"All our love and all our pain/is gonna make us precious/if it don't make us insane/You have a calling."
For Cloud Cult bandleader Craig Minowa, these lines are his favorite to sing live. They're from "The Calling," a particularly hard-charging anthem on Love, the band's ninth album, a tune that has whipped mostly sold-out club audiences into a frenzy on the first leg of the tour. These lines are the most telling of the auteur's headspace.
"It is a pretty big, personal piece for me," Minowa says from his home studio in Viroqua, Wisconsin, a small, rural city carved into the glacial hills east of the Mississippi River. "We're all put through the obstacle course of life but given the blessing of another day in front of us to do something really positive and loving with our time."
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These types of bumps and bruises chronicle a major part of the Cloud Cult story. One night in 2002, Minowa and his wife, Connie—one of two artists who paint during shows—found their 2-year-old son, Kaidin, dead in his crib. Medicating himself with his songwriting, Minowa penned what would become the band's college-radio breakthrough record, They Live On the Sun. The tragedy surfaces in Minowa's every recording and at every performance. "In a way, he's a bridge between two worlds," he says.
Probing the link between the corporeal and the ethereal has been a constant in Minowa's art and life. Before fatherhood—before musicianhood, even—Minowa's metaphysical search manifested itself dead-center in the scientific realm. He earned a degree in environmental science from the University of Minnesota, built a studio on his geothermal-powered farm (where he started Earthology Records in 1997), sold digital songs in days of dial-up, and toured in a biodiesel van in the days before hybrid vehicles. Minowa's studio is even built partially from reclaimed wood and recycled plastic. And his nonprofit label uses only recycled materials and donates all proceeds to environmental charities.
He loves to talk about how he is still holding out hope for a sustainable way to record on vinyl, about "places that are working on grinding out old vinyl and making new records out of it."
"We're optimistic that we're going to have something in the next year here," he reports.
The 13 songs strung together on Love tie into that overriding theme. Musically, it combines the bold artiness of Arcade Fire with the broad bedroom pop of Broken Social Scene. Just listen to the bubbling intensity of "1x1x1"; the harmonious anthem of "Good Friend"; the bold, noisy experiments of "The Calling"; and the tender ode "Meet Me Where You're Going"—which Minowa says he wrote for the band's sound tech/tour manager Jeff Johnson's wedding. As the cover art of a broken heart being stitched together illustrates, the album is a document of one man's mental state that taps into the universal emotion that assures the listener that everyone's looking for their own form of desire, especially after traumatic events that can shake us to our core.
These days, the joy and challenge of beginning again with a new record is also reflected in his personal life. Minowa finds himself in the beginning stages of fatherhood again with two little girls: Iris, 3, and Nova, 1. When he and Connie go out on the road, their daughters come along, too. "On a good night, you get five hours of sleep," he says. "On a bad night, you get three." He likes to call the perspective he gets from having a young family out on the road with him "the bigger calling."
Clearly, his family is his source of inspiration, being at the heart of Minowa's creative process. He writes and records much of the band's material at home and scores out the music for an eight-piece multi-instrument ensemble that is scattered about the Midwest. When Minowa finishes a batch of songs, Cloud Cult meet for a few days on the farm to learn the tunes and jell as a band before hitting the road.
"We accomplish a lot because we can get a really good focus going," he says, with genuine contentment in his voice. The kind of contentment you hope would come from following a calling to its fullest.