Artist Spotlight: Dana Thompson

I met Dana a few years ago at an event for the Aster Café, where she is the talent booker. As we started chatting I learned that not only is she a talent booker, but she is also the talent. You see, Dana's a successful working musician--one who has received the City Pages’ Best Female Vocalist award and toured internationally in support of her amazing solo album, Ox. She is also a founding member of The Strawdogs, Hot Head Fiasco, Marina Glass, The Minor Planets, and fronts her own band: Dana Thompson and the North Coast. But aside from her rich musical résumé, Thompson dons many other hats. Her face lights up when she talks about her 17-year-old daughter Evie, for example, and she is earnest yet candid when discussing her first book. These many parts that make up Dana Thompson give way to a strikingly beautiful whole: an all-around genuine spirit who, when I asked if we were still on for the interview, replied, “ready to rock!”

S&TF: We notice you ordered rosé. Why do you love it?

Because it kicks ass! Rosés have had a huge renaissance, and I’m a big Francophile. When I was over there in the summertime, I found out most people have always have box of rosé on-hand in the fridge, like lemonade!

S&TF: When did your solo, Ox, come out?

That was almost 10 years ago now, and I’m really proud of it because I think it’s standing the test of time. I’ve been recording in the interim, and I released a record with my band The Minor Planets two years ago. It’s been kind of difficult lately because I’ve been working so much that it’s hard to dedicate the time. When I released Ox, it almost gave me a nervous breakdown because I was working fulltime and I was a fulltime mom, and being a band leader takes so much energy. So I think I got a little bit scared away from it, although I think I have enough songs for a new record now. So I’m on the verge of something.

S&TF: It’s so hard to be a musician these days, especially dedicating the time it takes.

It was so much easier to live cheaply back in the 90s when you could actually make money off your music. Now people really have to depend on merch sales or get to a point where you’re making a certain amount of money for each show, which you can’t do if you’re staying in one town—you have to be a touring musician and put in that year of just getting by with nothing.  It’s really uncomfortable and exhausting. But, if I don’t do music, then I feel like I’m dying! [laughs]

S&TF: Did you always know you wanted to be a musician?

Yea, from birth pretty much. I had a really musical family except for my brother. My older sister’s a really phenomenal singer, and both my parents were really good singers, and there was never a time when I wondered: “am I a good singer?” I would sing in choirs and then as soon as I could do community theatre I tried out.

S&TF: What was your first part?

I think it was one of the orphans in Annie. And then shortly thereafter I got the part of Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, and the director was a really big influence on me. He was really supportive and encouraging—I’m pretty sure he Secret Santa-d me. I would go to school and practice the piano while the piano was there but I couldn’t afford lessons, so one Christmas in December I got this card typed on both sides that said “you have a gift—I’m going to pay for a year of lessons for you.” And it was just signed “Santa.”

S&TF: That’s so generous!

Yes! So that was when I was 13 years old. I played pretty frequently up until 16—I used to accompany people in talent shows. But then I knew I had to move away from Hibbing so I moved to Duluth, but I couldn’t take my piano. I was going to move in to low income housing. The good thing is, I became friends with these heavy metal guys who were guitar players, and they would all lend me their guitars! So I took maybe three lessons and then taught myself how to play guitar after that.

S&TF: Do you favor guitar over piano?

I don’t play very much piano anymore. I’ve gotten myself out of my comfort zone a few times over the last couple of years, though. Eric, my writing partner, got the opportunity to score a ballet last year, so I played primarily piano with him and sang a little. It was a full five day spread of shows, being backstage and practicing with the dancers, experiencing that true theatre showbiz lifestyle. Those dancers would be on stage like gazelles or swans or something, and then they come off stage and are instantly like “oh fuck, my goddamn feet are going to fall off.”

S&TF: Ha! That’s hilarious. What do you hope to instill in your daughter?

She is so good at being a hard worker, and I think she just saw me being a hard worker and thought that’s normal. That’s all I can hope for. However, I do have this kind of litmus test I use; if there is something in life that I deeply want to do but it scares me, that is how I know I have to do it. Because it gets you outside of your comfort zone, which is how you grow.

S&TF: I think there are so many people who sense that fear and don’t differentiate between evolutionary panic and a feeling of “I’m scared of this because I have the potential to actually do it.”

Yeah, it’s the dichotomy of fear of success and fear of failure. It’s the same thing.

S&TF: Well that’s really good advice.

The thing is, as in writing, with parenting, you have to show, not tell. So I can’t just say “Evie, when you feel afraid…blah blah blah.” What’s going to work for her is seeing me get out of my comfort zone, seeing me struggle through it and achieve something. With writing it’s kind of the same. I taught a songwriting class at Macalester and one of the things I was saying to them is that, similar to life, their words have to seem natural. So I told them if you read through your lyrics and you can’t hear those words coming out of your mouth, then they’re probably not good lyrics.

S&TF: Can you tell us what your book will be about?

It’s a memoir. It’s kind of about my weird childhood. But a lot of it is just about being raised in a chaotic environment and not letting it eat you alive…leveraging adversity. You can either see yourself as a victim and that’s how you’re going to live your life, or—and I say this to people who think it’s bullshit all the time—but I kind of feel privileged because I came from this really eccentric background, and because of it I have such rich life experiences.

S&TF: You certainly can’t buy that or fake that.

It’s also about my dad, who had some mental illness issues, and how it may seem impossible to have compassion for someone, but that’s who really needs your compassion. It’s not like you can say “oh I’m going to have compassion for everyone, except for you!” Once we get all this GLBT stuff with equality figured out, I think the next big thing will be mental illness. There’s so much work to do on it, so it excites me to bring awareness to that.

S&TF: What advice would you give your younger self?

I think it would be to have a sense of yourself. For so many years I was throwing creative stuff at the wall and seeing what stuck and just letting that define me. So for a long time I didn’t really know who I was. And I certainly didn’t know my worth. That is so much of a battle, especially being female. There’s just this weird cultural thing where we don’t really ask for what we’re worth. So for many years I would just try to not make waves even though I had great ideas. To take a leadership role as a woman is a really important thing—to really OWN it. I see a lot of women say “I want to be a leader, but what do you guys all think?” They’re second-guessing themselves. My daughter isn’t perfect but she’s better at it than I am. She has this feminist club at school—

S&TF: Um, hold up. That is awesome.

I know! I would love to be a fly at that wall. But anyway, she has boundaries already! And I didn’t really have boundaries. I mean, for example, there was a long time in my life where if someone came and sat too close to me, I wouldn’t say anything. I’d just be like oh, this is weird. It never occurred to me in my twenties to say don’t put your arm around me!

S&TF: That’s the good thing about getting older. It’s nice when you can look back at yourself with compassion but still say, oh that was silly.

And we always want to be evolving, right? What are you doing if you’re not evolving? Nobody has this checklist that says, “now I’ve learned self-esteem, now I’ve learned self-actualization, and now I’m done!” It doesn’t work that way.  I’m really inspired by my mother, who’s 75. She’s a delegate for the DFL, the president of gardening clubs, and really social and jogs and bikes. In May she had a massive aneurism and it’s amazing that she didn’t die. They got her down to HCMC and were able to get 4 neurosurgeons to do surgery on her brain to clip the aneurism and it took them 11 hours. But a 75 year old person would normally fail under general anesthesia before then.

S&TF: But she’s okay?

She is, because she’s so mentally and physically active that she totally withstood it. She came to my gig last Saturday night! That was just an inspiring thing to me—not only having that incredible constitution, but she had some really hard times too. She came from a really crazy background—it was peaceful, but very, very poor, and she dug her way out but then had her fair share of worries with my dad. As she got older, we started having these Come-To-Jesus’s, where we would talk about self-actualization or boundaries or why it’s okay to say no to someone. We would have these really long conversations and she as an older person has totally evolved. She would be the first to admit that, so it’s definitely inspired me.

S&TF: Scientists used to believe your brain stopped being able to make new connections, but now they say that our brains can change no matter our age.

Yes! I’m really interested in the concept of demystifying aging. There’s so much of a focus on youth, and it’s just the most mind-numbing bullshit. Apparently you get less valuable as you age? And especially women? It’s crazy! It’s total madness and we’ve got to figure out a way to get around that. Because in most cultures, as you get older you get more respect, because you have more information.

S&TF: Right! It is a privilege to get older.

That’s why it makes me so excited to see women like Elizabeth Warren or Christine Lagarde. They’re such strong role models, so beautiful in every way, inside and out, on a cellular level. So brilliant! When my daughter turned 13 I had all the really awesome women in her life write her a letter about what they wish they knew when they were 13. I wish every girl could have that.