There’s something about Eau Claire’s music scene that sets it apart from other cities.
That’s what keeps Minneapolis-based Jonathan Sunde (known in the music world as J.E. Sunde) coming back to perform in his college town, where he said he started his music career and in doing so discovered an ambitious, supportive community.
“From my perspective, it does feel ... like it’s a pretty unique energy,” Sunde said. “The city’s history and also the contemporary work being created in terms of bands and music being made feels unique.”
He’s traveled to the East Coast and lives in Minneapolis, and though he can’t compare it to every city in the U.S., Sunde said his experiences have shown him that being a musician in Eau Claire is just ... different. So when Eau Claire native and photographer Spencer Wells asked Sunde to be one of six musicians featured in a book exploring Wisconsin’s vast music scene, Sunde said he was immediately drawn to the project.
“I do really believe in and around Eau Claire and other parts of Wisconsin, there’s legitimately interesting art going on and, I suspect, a tone that’s distinct to us,” Sunde said. “I love the idea of somebody interested in exploring that, legitimizing it by framing it in this way.”
Wells was born and raised in Eau Claire and graduated from Memorial High School in 2008. A practicing photographer, Wells found local musicians to be the perfect subject and began documenting performances everywhere from basement shows to music festivals.
When he attended college at UW-Madison, he found himself drawn to the same thing. In 2012, Wells moved to New York, but said he missed Wisconsin’s music scene and continued to make trips home to photograph his favorite subjects.
Over the last decade, he’s captured thousands of photographs of musicians. But he didn’t realize until 2015 that he was sitting on a treasure trove of Wisconsin’s rich music history. So he partnered with his friend, San Francisco-based designer Matt Riley (a UW-Madison graduate and Janesville native), to create “Forward,” a photo and essay collection documenting the state’s diverse music scene, from folk musicians to rap artists.
“I thought I should tie up some loose ends, because it’s not something that gets talked about or seen enough as a cohesive scene and cultural phenomenon,” Wells said. “I really wanted to represent the Wisconsin music scene in a way that hasn’t been and that I had seen first hand.”
The book is currently printing, but once it is published, Wells said it will be available “on both coasts” as well as at the Local Store, 205 N. Dewey St. He’s also hoping to get it into a few other Eau Claire area businesses and is finalizing plans for a book release in early 2019 at the Local Store.
“Forward” is divided into six chapters, each one featuring a musician Wells and Riley think helps characterize the state. They asked writers, journalists and poets to craft an essay about each musician. Three of those musicians have ties to Eau Claire, as do at least two of the writers.
The book documents the musical journeys of: UW-Eau Claire alumnus Sunde; former UW-Eau Claire student and Madison resident Thomas Wincek; Rory Ferreria, a Milwaukee-based musician who raps under the name Milo; Eau Claire native and UW-Eau Claire alumna Adelyn Strei; Janesville-based Whilden Hughes; and percussionist Jon Mueller, who now lives in Door County.
Wells said artists were chosen in part based on their talent but also by how involved they were in local music scenes. He also addressed the obvious elephant in the room: Why not Justin Vernon, Eau Claire native and front man of the Grammy Award-winning band Bon Iver?
“As much as Justin’s music was influential to me and so many people, we wanted to show the context of that,” Wells said. “When you go outside of Wisconsin, everyone knows Bon Iver and maybe related bands, but they don’t necessarily know the people surrounding that and this wider network of musicians.”
What Wells and Sunde were most captivated by was how musicians supported one another, whether it was playing backup at a show or driving hours across the state just to see a friend perform. That, and the genre-crossing and experimentation that seemed to go on.
“Even though it’s not extreme, I think people took liberties and went places sonically that you just don’t hear in bigger cities because there’s pressure and expectations,” Wells said. “And there’s something to be said for the Wisconsin winter that can just drive you into your studio or wherever you make your music and just go for something different.”
Vernon, he thinks, would agree.
Eau Claire origins
When he was asked to write a piece on Strei for the book, Thom Fountain, an Eau Claire copywriter and journalist, said he was excited about the prospect of Wells’ project.
In his piece, Fountain said he tried to capture Strei’s dedication to collaboration. He added, “anyone who’s familiar with Adelyn’s work” knows how talented she is.
Though he hasn’t seen the final version of the book, he said he’s known Wells for close to a decade and is incredibly impressed with his work. He’s also humbled that, even though Wells moved to New York, he still cares so much about his home state.
He sees “Forward” as one piece of the state’s musical story.
“I want people to see that this state has such immense talen. Even beyond what’s in the book there is so much going on in the music scene across Wisconsin,” Fountain said. “It’s so easy to focus on places like New York or Los Angeles or Chicago, but there is so much talent right in our own backyard.”
Though Riley said he had visited Eau Claire many times, working on this project really opened his eyes to the city’s music scene. He thinks Eau Claire has a significant part in the state’s music history.
“In building this book ... I built such a fond idea of what Eau Claire is and means, especially in this book,” Riley said. “If I were to put an origin of where this story starts and ends, it would be Eau Claire. It has such a deep history with music, and often people outside of Eau Claire don’t know how deep and amazing that is for a smaller town to have such a rich history.”
While he said three of the musicians in the book have direct connections to the city, many of the musicians he interacted with also either knew or worked with artists from the area.
Though there are only six musicians featured, Riley said “Forward” includes hundreds of photographs that depict many shows and musicians that go unnamed. However, those stories are also important, and he thinks readers will be able to use those photos to place themselves in the book’s storyline.
That’s how he felt when he printed out pages of the full book a few months ago and read through it for the first time.
“It was pretty emotional because you start to see all of these names and stories, and I’ve been able to place myself in the story in a way, even though I don’t know some of these musicians personally,” Riley said. “Many bands did not get mentioned, but that is a very good thing because I think a lot of people will read it and know, ‘I was a part of that, I know these bands or I was at that show.’ They see themselves quite literally on the first page.”
Sunde thinks “Forward” also can serve as a tangible piece of evidence documenting music in the state.
Though it may seem small in the vast music scene across the country, he thinks it is important those stories are told.
Sunde added there’s something special about the Midwest, and thinks Wells and Riley felt similarly. That’s captured in “Forward,” and he hopes not taken for granted.
“I have a lot of pride for Midwestern art, and we’re often dismissed in the broader artistic world,” Sunde said. “Spencer’s book contributes to that effort of chronicling and articulating what it is that’s happening, and elevating and honoring the fact that it’s valuable and important that art is being made in the Midwest.”