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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Feature Thu Nov 30 2006

The beauty of the Rodeo Queen: Chicago's duo Utah Carol

Utah Carol, the Chicago wife/husband duo of JinJa Davis and Grant Birkenbeuel have earned an international following with their two previous albums, Wonderwheel (1999) and Comfort For The Traveler (2002). Despite their popularity in Europe, they remain relatively underground in the United States. Their third release, Rodeo Queen, is poised to earn them the following they deserve.


Rodeo Queen will release on December 12, just in time to give us a cozy antidote for the bitter Chicago winter. The album will include a 12-page booklet complete with liner notes and lyrics, artwork commissioned by up-and-coming national artist, Heather Culp, and a band portrait by Chicago-based photographer Hayley Murphy.

Writing music together since 1995, JinJa and Grant produce, arrange, perform, publish and self-release their albums at their studio and publishing company, Stomping Ground, in Chicago. They also create, promote, design and produce the band's music-related projects, such as album, t-shirt and poster design, videos, press materials and band merchandise at their graphic design company Birkdesign Inc.

The name Utah Carol is taken from a traditional song about a cowboy that dies in the process of saving his friend from a stampede. But in fact, their latest musical offering, Rodeo Queen, sounds like two entwined souls playing music on a city rooftop at night, imagining the patchwork of rooftops is the prairie and the city skyline is a mountain range in the distance. JinJa and Grant's lilting vocal harmonies provide Utah Carol's backbone. The songs are deceptively simple. You'll find yourself humming along, but then a well-placed, unexpected instrument comes along and you listen a little closer: organs ebb and flow, reverbed guitars comment here and there, a vibraphone waltzes in for a spell, synthesizers sparkle and fade, a slide guitar meanders by, a horn section waits for the perfect moment...there is a subtle, lush world inside these urban prairie songs. Lyrically and sonically this is an intimate album; the perfect soundtrack for breaking up, making up, or making out.

Here's a breakdown of some of my personal favorites from "Rodeo Queen": "Come Back Baby" saunters and sighs with the hope of a returning love. "Ruby" substitutes a singing chorus for a catchy, toe-tapping trumpet/snare drum section. The back-yard-under-the-stars feel of "Whisper To Me Sweetly" would pair perfectly with Yo La Tengo's "Green Arrow." "Sam's Ranch" sounds like American Analog Set fronted by Simon and Garfunkel. "Twilight Time" sounds like Utah Carol covering a song from Yo La Tengo's "Fakebook." "In The Lake" is a nocturnal, mysterious instrumental that seems custom-made for This American Life. (Are you reading, Ira Glass?)


JinJa and Grant were kind enough to answer a few questions for Gapers Block: Transmission.

Matt Dufek: Could you tell us a little bit of Utah Carol's story? How did the two of you meet and start playing music together?
JinJa: We met in our college dorm as freshman, got married a few years after graduation. Then, Grant started recording songs on his 4-track recorder in his spare time. I became interested in learning to play the bass, which I did for a few months but then switched to guitar so I could start writing songs. Later, I took a class at the Old Town School of Folk Music. The final class assignment was to perform an original song at Schubas Tavern. I thought how perfect, I have a guitar player husband, his co-worker plays drums and I can sort of play guitar and definitely sing. So I dragged Grant on stage for my class project, and that night, our band was formed. Soon after, we recorded our first 5-song demo and came up with our band name, Utah Carol. We sent the demo out to a few clubs and got our first gig at Schubas.

MD:The two of you do everything from writing to promoting your music. What are the reasons for this DIY stance?
JinJa: We like to control everything, all the way down to our publishing rights. Plus, I own Birkdesign Inc. With my design business background, I have marketing skills to produce the work, and also the resources for finding professional art talent. We like to work with artists that enjoy our music and want to work with us, and we like to work with artists that we admire. Also, we promote their work and they promote our music too. We've also made great friends. That being said, if Warner Brothers wants to sign us, they can do it all!

MD:Since your last album, you two have become parents. How has becoming a parent affected your music?
JinJa: I have become far more liberated in my thinking of what is important and what is a priority. I work more creatively and I work faster, I believe my work—songwriting and design, has improved. I used to have fears of what I now consider small things. Now my fears are transplanted into making sure my children are safe, healthy and loved. Things that I used to obsess over, I let go. I just don't have all those hours anymore in the day. I believed my design work now is better than it has ever been, and the songs on our new album I think are our best ones so far.
Grant: We have less time for the band, but that makes us more focused and productive.

MD:Do your kids listen to your music? Do they like it?
JinJa and Grant: Our first son Dexter, who is almost three, seems mesmerized with our music. He has actually listened on multiple occasions to all 13 songs on Rodeo Queen in one sitting without a break. He knows the titles, and sometimes he will sing a lyric. He will ask to hear mummie and daddy sing. Or, he'll say, "Play it louder! Play Utah Carol!" We are so lucky that he likes our music! We think he is our biggest fan. Dallas, our second child is only 7 months old, but we are proceeding with the Utah Carol brainwashing!

MD:What is in heavy rotation on your CD player/iPod?
Grant: Don Gibson's Greatest Hits; Latin Playboys; Jackie McClean, Destination Out; Califone, Roots and Crowns; the Modern Lovers.
JinJa: Ray LaMontagne, When The Sun Turns Black; Tribe Called Quest—Anthology; the song by Elvin Bishop, "Fooled Around And Fell In Love"; Umi Says by Mos Def; Gotan Project, Lunatico

MD:You've toured Europe on the strength of you last albums. Do you have a larger fan-base in Europe than in the states? What about Japan?
JinJa and Grant:We do have a larger European base because of our European record deal for Comfort for the Traveler and also from the positive reviews of both of our albums published in major European media rock magazines Mojo Magazine and Uncut. We would love to break into Japan and other parts of Europe. Heck, we'd love to suddenly find ourselves with a million fans here in the States.

MD:Lyrically, Rodeo Queen is a sweet/sour affair. What is the inspiration behind the lyrics?
JinJa: To me, love is confusing, crazy, unreliable, heartbreaking, and painful. But I also feel like love is also a dream, it's hope, it's an endless desire. Everyone I know seems to be struggling in relationships. That's partly where some of my inspiration comes from.

MD:What bands or musicians have been most influential to the Utah Carol sound?
JinJa and Grant:Many different artists influence what we do, but our music doesn't sound anything like those artists. Sure, if we say Hank Williams is a great inspiration to us, well, we don't sound anything like Hank Williams. Beach Boys, huge inspiration, again, we sound nothing like them and aren't trying to. Miles Davis, Neil Young, Jimi Hendrix, The Carter Family, Stevie Wonder, Al Green, Bob Dylan, Lindsey Buckingham, Chicago House music, Lee Hazelwood, Loretta Lynn, Memphis Soul, Meat Puppets. See what we mean? People will see this list and be like huh?

MD:Utah Carol songs have been in several films (All the Real Girls –2003 Sundance Film Festival Award Winner, Anna is Being Stalked – 2002 Sundance Film Festival Premier Selection, Independent Animated Film Shorts – 2001, and a number of television advertisements). Should we be on the lookout for more Utah Carol songs on the silver screen?
JinJa and Grant:Yes. A song from our debut title Wonderwheel, will be in an upcoming full-length feature film called Kabluey starring Lisa Kudrow of Friends fame. The writer and co-star of Kabluey also produced and starred in Anna's Being Stalked the film we mentioned earlier.

MD:How do you approach songwriting?
Grant:We write songs together and independently and then we build on the songs with instrumentation and harmony vocals in our home studio. We always go back and edit and add parts, create new vocals or lyrics. Whether they are horn or string parts, we write everything. Then, if needed, we rope in other session players for the live recordings or bring in a professional to transpose notes and conduct.
JinJa: Oh, did I mention the fighting? Lot's of creative fighting going on! Grant and I fight a lot in the studio. It can get pretty wild.

MD:Has living in Chicago help shape your music?
JinJa and Grant:Living in a big, busy city like Chicago sometimes you forget about open spaces, starry nights, mountains, spirituality, the deserts and oceans, sensuality and natural (not internet) human connections. Our songs are the anti-city and the anti-homogeny of the suburbs, of being slightly out of place.

Utah Carol is a sure pick for fans of Yo La Tengo's quieter moments, Don Gibson, The Melody Unit, Low and The American Analog Set. Be on the lookout for future local appearances by the band which are in the planning stages now. In the meantime, check out their award-winning site where you can buy their previous (and soon, the new) albums, or visit their MySpace page where JinJa occasionally posts messages, new pictures and videos. They also have two creative videos posted on YouTube.
-Matt Dufek

About the author: Matt Dufek is constantly amazed by how much good music there is out there. He spends his day as a graphic designer and his nights with his lovely wife Holly and their two beautiful children, Noah and Vivian, who, despite their young age (3 1/2 and 1 1/2 respectively), are already music connoisseurs. Some of their favorites include: the White Stripes, Stereolab, Sam Prekop and the albums A Charlie Browns Christmas by Vince Guaraldi and White Christmas by Elvis Presley.
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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

Our Final Transmission Days

By The Gapers Block Transmission Staff

Transmission staffers share their most cherished memories and moments while writing for Gapers Block.

Read this feature »


  Chicago Music Media

Alarm Magazine
Big Rock Candy Mountain
Boxx Magazine
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Can You See The Sunset From The Southside
Chicago Reader Music
Chicagoist Arts & Events
Chicago Music Guide
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Country Music Chicago
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Dark Jive
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Fake Shore Drive
Gowhere Hip Hop
The Hood Internet
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Live Fix Blog
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Oh My Rockness
Pop 'stache
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Sound Opinions
Sun-Times Music Blog
Theft Liable to Prosecution
Tribune Music
UR Chicago
Victim Of Time
WFMU's Beware of the Blog
Windy City Rock


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