Singer-songwriter Katie Dahl doesn’t want to change minds in Portage, but if her music gets people talking — that’s OK.
“I write some songs that are political in a way, though I’d like to think they’re never heavy-handed,” said the folk musician from Door County, set to perform in Columbia County for the first time at 7:30 p.m. today. “I do my best to deal with public issues through a personal lens and vice versa.”
Dahl’s concert is the second in the Portage Center for the Arts 2017-18 Festival Foods Concert Series. Dahl, who plays guitar, will perform on the Zona Gale stage with her husband, Rich Higdon, who plays upright bass, as well as the spoons and washboard.
The show will feature music from Dahl’s three studio albums, the artist just two years removed from having her song “Crowns” hit No. 1 on the Folk-DJ charts. In 2015, Dahl was also selected for Falcon Ridge Folk Festival’s prestigious Emerging Artists Showcase.
According to Dahl’s biography on her website, her path to becoming a successful folk singer started several years ago when she slipped on a patch of ice and broke her wrist. Unable to play the oboe, Dahl taught herself how to play the guitar, strumming the strings “with her stiff right hand.”
Dahl answered several questions about her music for the Daily Register in an email.
What do you know about Portage or the Portage area?
“I know very little about Portage, other than that you have a lovely performing arts center that invited me to play,” Dahl wrote. “But it’s always fun to be in a new town, even if it’s a quick trip. In my perfect world, we will find at least one opportunity to eat some delicious food or drink some delicious coffee during our time in Portage.”
“I have played in Madison a number of times, as well as a couple of times at the Cafe Carpe in Fort Atkinson.”
What should the Portage audience expect on Saturday?
“Most of the songs we play will be songs I wrote, pulled from my three studio albums of original songs, as well as a few new unrecorded ones and maybe even a song from a new musical I’m working on. My husband and I also recently released an album, along with our friend Eric Lewis, called ‘Solid Ground: The Songs of Fred Alley.’ Fred Alley was a big player on the music and theater scene here in Door County (though, in a twist that’s perhaps relevant to your neck of the woods, he was a Mount Horeb native) until he died suddenly in 2001 at age 38.
“Fred was a great songwriter, and we’ll perform at least a few of his songs from the new album. And finally, we’ll throw in a couple of traditional songs that will allow Rich (Higdon) to show off his prodigious skills on washboard and spoons.”
How would you describe your music to the uninitiated?
“I write original folk music. My music tends to be thoughtful and lyrical, though it’s sometimes playful, too.
“I think one way that it might differ from most singer-songwriters’ stuff is its engagement with the outside world. I do write about things like lost love, marriage, parenthood, friendship — but I think my lens is usually outward-facing, so I engage the world in my songs rather than being navel-gazing or solipsistic. And then I’ve also written songs about things like an unrequited love affair between a Lazy Susan and a dumbwaiter. So there’s that!”
How would you explain the subject matter of your songs?
“Maybe a helpful example is one of my biggest ‘hits’ (to the extent that any folk musician these days has a hit), ‘Hometown Tables,’ which I wrote to perform at a town board meeting when they tried to put a Subway restaurant in my town.
“Door County as it currently stands has no chain restaurants — they’re all locally owned, and I was worried about what a chain restaurant would do to all the locally owned places I love. So that song is really a celebration of my community — its landscape, its businesses, its people. I think it primarily invites people to think about the places and communities they love and what it is they value about them. So in some ways that song is political, but I try to go about the politics of it in a way that’s inclusive and personal.”
Do you aim to generate discussion with your music?
“What I most value about folk music as a listener is the way that it elicits thoughts and feelings from me that I don’t have as often in my normal life — that feeling of familiarity, thinking, ‘Yes, I totally feel that way!” I always hope my audiences leave with that same sense of fellow-feeling.
“It’s helpful to have thoughts and feelings articulated in a way that you hadn’t articulated them before. … (C)onversations are vital these days, when politics feel so divisive. I aim to have people think about things in new ways — to help people find common ground in their conversations, to do a little less demonizing of each other.
“And I also think just coming together with other people in the same room, thinking about the same music, is always a community-building, life-affirming thing. I need that these days.”
For more information about Dahl, visit her website at katiedahlmusic.com.