A Musical Collective : The Music and Art Von Strantz
by E.A. Poorman
When I first heard the musical collective known as Von Strantz I couldn’t believe they were from the same general area where I’m from. But alas, they are from an area known as Michiana. Michiana refers to the towns of South Bend, Mishawaka, and Elkhart. These are working class towns with a grit from industry covering everything there. They are also just a stone’s throw from Michigan, hence the Michiana name tag. Years ago this was a thriving area with the trailer and RV industries thriving and those not lucky enough to be able to afford a college education could work, make a decent wage, and even afford to take the family to Cedar Point in the summer over in Sandusky, Ohio. Unfortunately the years and certain Presidential administrations haven’t been kind to these industries and Michiana now cries on the shoulders of other economically-sacked US cities, like Flint and Milwaukee to name just a couple.
One area that Michiana hasn’t been hit is the arts. In particular some amazing music has come out of this area over the years. This brings me back to Von Strantz. They create a very personal and roots-y kind of pop music that says so much, yet is vague enough to allow the listener to put themselves in the song and make it personal to them and their own lives. Acoustically-based, but not against putting some reverbed-guitar in the mix to add aural depth the Von Strantz community of musicians have created their own little world filled with emotion, passion, and beauty.
“I started making music at a very young age”, says Jess Strantz, lead singer, guitarist, and head songwriter for Von Strantz. She took the time to tell me about the band and their music in-between a two-week tour with Dena Dena Dena. “I was always a curious child. I remember trying to build a guitar out of rubber bands. I would find different ways to tighten the bands to get different tones. I also had a little recorder and would sing along with my recorded voice and make beats. Whatever I could do to create music, at any time or any place. Because of all the music I was making without instruments my parents bought me a keyboard when I was 6 years old, and then shortly after they got me the keyboard I begged for piano lessons, and so I took piano lessons from age 7 till I graduated from high school. I also took guitar lessons at age 13, sang in choirs from age 8 until high school , furthered my studies as a musician and took voice lessons in my early 20s , and also drum lessons. I just recently got a banjo and I am continuing to further my studies as a musician constantly . I love learning and hope to learn and play music till I absolutely can’t!”
Jess’ passion for music is evident in not only the music itself, but in how she talks about music and her love of the discovery of music. I wondered who might’ve inspired her to want to play and write at an early age. “Because piano was the first instrument I learned, Billy Joel, Elton John, and Carole King…oh and The Beatles all inspired me to play music. I loved coming home from lessons and sitting down at the piano and playing their music. But When I was 15 years old I went to a music festival and saw Over The Rhine perform. Listening to Karin(Bergquist) sing and Linford(Detweiler’s) piano playing made me realize that I was made to write music and not just play the music I enjoyed by other artists. I had something within me to write and from that moment on I had to get it out! So that ignited a fire in my heart and helped birth a passion to write with all I had.”
So the passion had been created for music -and to create music- at an early age. Did Jess remember the first time she started writing her own songs? “My little brother and I started writing songs when were about 5 and 6, but I started writing complete songs when I was in my later elementary years and got really serious about song writing when I was in middle school.”
The seeds were sewn, and passion created. Von Strantz is Jess’ vehicle for that passion. I wanted to know the scoop about Von Strantz, and lucky for me Jess is happy to oblige. “So the thing I love about Von Strantz is what we all come up with. Here’s how it works, I come up with a song idea, a chord structure, a vocal melody, and then we sit down and start working on our parts. From their it takes on this unique character. I love it. Each person in Von Strantz has amazing creativity and ability to bring into the writing process, and we all want to create music that sounds beautiful. We all are learning how to write more together. I love bouncing lyric ideas off of everyone, and often ask the question, “What does this song feel like it’s saying?” And then we write out of that. I am looking forward to growing as songwriters, and love what we all come up with, parts-wise. We are constantly looking for ways to move together as one unit, and I believe with time and experience we will continue to grow in that. It’s difficult because there are so many of us, but we are learning and it’s a beautiful thing.
Von Strantz has had many band members over the years, but currently consists of Jess Strantz, Josiah Gaut, Kelsey Horton, Alyssa Neece, Nicolas Leatherman, Kristen McDonald & Isaiah Brock. I wondered what inspires Jess and her community of collaborators to write. Life? Spirituality? Is she more of a storyteller or a reporter of the human condition? “Well I used to write off of inspiration, but realized over time that if I only wrote when I was inspired I would miss out on the practice and art of song writing. I try to write as much as possible and train myself to write and embrace the process of writing. There is always something to write about, regardless of how I feel. I am always trying to be observant of my surroundings and the people in my life. A lot of times in the past I would write out of my own personal life, and my songs were very one dimensional, but as I am stepping out of myself and looking beyond my current situations I am learning how to write and be inspired by the people’s lives around me, however I see a deep connection to each person’s life and mine. We are all very connected as human beings and when I write I try to find our commonalities as humans. When I write music I want to write music that connects all of us, even if we haven’t experienced the same things; write something that resonates with each person.”
Von Strantz recently released Narrative Chapter I: Troubled Souls. A four-song EP that will be followed by two more chapters. I asked Jess what the strategy was behind the three EPs, as opposed to one 12-song LP. “Honestly, because of money. We only had enough money to put out 4 songs. So we are going to start an Indie Go Go fundraising campaign on April 23rd so we can complete the rest of our album. We are hoping to have all the money by May and then to have all of the songs released by January of 2015.” Sound-wise, the music is looser and has more of a roots-y sound on ‘Narrative’ compared to the self-titled Von Strantz EP from 2013. I asked Jess if this was just a natural progression or something more planned. “Yeah when we first recorded our self-titled EP, there were only 4 members of Von Strantz, Chad Campbell, Nicolas Leatherman, Kelsey Horton and then me. So our arrangements were much more simplistic. Now that there are 7 of us, and with additions of Josiah, Alyssa, Kristen and Isaiah to our recordings and writing process this is the sound we created. None of us really have experience in writing roots or americana music but rather we just write what we think sounds best, and this is what you have! Pretty cool!”
Currently a truncated version of Von Strantz is on a mini-tour with fellow South Bend artist Dena Dena Dena. Despite having van issues the tour is going well. I’d wondered if the touring and live performances were as important as the album releases. “Absolutely! It’s all important. The music we make won’t be heard unless we go out and share it! It’s dangerous and risky, because when you’re on the road you have to roll with the punches. It’s expected to have car trouble, it’s expected to have canceled shows, it’s expected to make money, to lose money, to have great shows and to have crappy shows. But regardless I always expect and anticipate the new connections, friends, and new fans, even if it’s just one.”
I wondered if there was an artist that Jess looked up enough to that she’d love to have a career like they had? Someone she felt that did things right and stayed true to themselves and their art. “Rich Mullins. That man was given so much talent and success, and he never once let his fame and fortune get to his head. He wanted to change the music industry and show people a different way of living as an artist. He was a giver, cared for the poor, and wrote amazing music. I desire the same; to give, to create, to inspire, to change the industry. Music isn’t about me as an individual. It’s about you and me. It’s about the us.”
So how does the rest of 2014 look for Von Strantz? “The rest of 2014, God willing, touring. Well from April 23-May 20 we will be working very hard to get our funding through Indie Go Go for our album ‘Narratives’, and to pay off our van. We are also working very hard to build tours that will get us all over the United States and Canada. And then towards the end of the year if we make our financial goals through Indie Go Go and by touring we will be focusing on the release of our full length LP, which is set to release in it’s entirety Winter of 2015.” And what about further in the future? “Touring full time with the full band. We currently aren’t able to tour with everyone due to expenses, school, college, work, etc. I also foresee us traveling with husbands, wives, kids, etc. Also have 3 albums under our belt. I also want to help other bands with touring and recording. I’d love to be able to making enough money to support other artists and musicians on the road. Whatever I can and we can do to help others pursue their dreams and goals.”
Lofty goals? Maybe for some. But if you ever meet Jess Strantz in person you’ll know the sky’s the limit for that girl and her Von Strantz crew. Head over to http://vonstrantz.bandcamp.com/album/narrative-chapter-i-troubled-souls-2 and download a copy of their ‘Narrative’ EP. It’s an amazing preview of what that full-length is gonna be like. Also follow them at https://www.facebook.com/vonstrantzmusic to find out where you can catch them live.