Traveling soul 

click to enlarge Laura K. Balke - ERIKA LEWIS
  • Laura K. Balke
  • Erika Lewis

We took to the highway with a county map in hand.
It’s been years in the making and we are executing plans”

— “Limberlost,” by Laura K. Balke

Local folk singer-songwriter Laura K. Balke is a perfect fit for Oranje. Balke’s new project combines her pen and ink concrete poetry drawings with her delicate, lush songs. For her, it’s a new development in a year full of them. Balke just passed her one-year mark as a completely independent, full-time musician.

“I’ve been in almost every state east of Nebraska this year,” she says. “It’s kind of kicked me in the butt in a lot of ways, but good ways. Reminders about what’s important, why I play music. It’s made me grateful for every single person that listens.”

Balke, who has played somewhere around 100 shows this year, booked the majority of her tour herself, which she describes as the biggest hurdle as an independent musician. But she’s had lots of help, in the form of talented local musicians who’ve contributed both to records and tours. A guitarist herself, she mostly performs with her “utility man,” Zachary Jetter of Humans and th’EMPIRES who rotates between guitar, bells and percussion. She’s also been joined at various points by pianist Kurt Friedrich, New York-based producer Jon Autry and other notable locals.

These are the same performers who contributed large parts to Balke’s newest release, Rumors and Legends. The 11-track album was released in November at the now-closed Earth House.

Before the release, Balke created custom pieces of art for each of her tracks. The pieces used the lyrics for the tracks to create dynamic portraits; each pen and ink drawing is illustrative of the song’s content, and, in the translucent gold vinyl and CD releases, is included in track order for the listener’s perusal. [Editor’s note: See the art for her track “Not for This” below.] The release show was the first time Balke incorporated her art into her performance.

The recording itself was done in parts in places near and far.

“We recorded at the Murphy Arts Building, in my apartment, in New York City, in Northern Indiana in an old piano warehouse. All kinds of places,” says Balke.

“We could only be at [the Murphy Building] during non-business hours, so we spent a couple long nights recording there, powered solely by Taco Bell, Woodchuck Cider and candy,” says keys player Friedrich.

The resulting album is both exuberant and measured, showcasing Balke’s powerful voice and animated instrumentation.

“Laura had a very clear idea in her head of each song’s identity and what direction she wanted them to go, even before anything was recorded. So, it was easy to bounce different ideas and sounds off her until we found the ones that fit best,” says Friedrich.

Her strong sense of musical identity has powered her solo machine thus far. Excepting an appearance on Flannelgraph’s 2011 holiday release, Balke says her DIY mentality keeps her longing to be completely independent.

“If I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it exactly how I want to do it. There’s something very cool about self-releasing, since you’re on your own timeline,” says Balke.

But the grind can be lonely.

“I have done three full-length self-releases completely independently. I think I would like to have some label support for the next record,” she says.

But for now, she’s happy making her own way.

“The whole concept of having a day job and security is so pounded into us. I took a detour, and I’m glad I did it. I live off my record sales now,” says Balke. “I don’t regret anything; it’s always been my dream to be doing this.”

Balke will bring new songs and new art to the NUVO Stage at Oranje at 8 p.m. Then, she’s off to Ohio, Michigan and the far reaches of Northern Indiana.

Is she ready for another year?

“I’m ready for infinite years,” she laughs. “It can only get better from here.”

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Katherine Coplen

Katherine Coplen

Always looking for my new favorite band. Always listening to my old ones, too. Always baking cakes. Always collecting rock and roll dad quotes.

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