Life and death and Roma di Luna

Originally a husband/wife duo, the expanded group stuck together like a family through the up-and-down making of its new album.

When songwriters talk about the ways having a child changed their music, it's usually on a poetic level. Channy and Alexei Moon Casselle certainly found deep inspiration in the birth of their daughter, Pelagia, nearly two years ago, but the bigger impact might be simply on a logistical level.

"We used to sit down and write songs together," recalled Channy, who started Roma di Luna five years ago as a duo with her husband. "Now, I'm writing during nap time, or we do it any chance we can get -- which is almost never together."

The story explains a few things about Roma di Luna's elegant new album, "Then the Morning Came." It's a clue why Channy did a lot more of the writing by herself on this album than on RdL's two previous full-length releases. It's also part of the reason the eclectic folk/soul/rock group, now a seven-piece band, spent almost two years recording the album.

Not only did Channy and Alexei have a baby in that time, but so did guitarist Ben Durrant and drummer Ryan Lovan and backup singer Jessi Prusha. Talk about logistical problems.

The demands pulling at Roma di Luna were evident from simply trying to set up an in-person interview with the whole group last month. Bassist James Everest (ex-Lateduster) was in Portland, Ore., touring with his wife Emily Johnson's Catalyst Dance Company.

Durrant got tied up in a session at his Crazy Beast Studio, which has been used by Andrew Bird and countless local bands. And Prusha was on full-time mom duty since her husband, Sean (Slug) Daley, went on tour with his little hip-hop group Atmosphere.

"We go through bouts where it gets pretty crazy like this, but they don't last," explained Alexei, who also left town for a week last month in France. A producer there invited him to record wearing his Crescent Moon cap, the rapper alias he has used with Atmosphere, Oddjobs and the ongoing Kill the Vultures.

One thing made obvious upon hearing "Then the Morning Came," though, is how Roma di Luna maintained focus and even wound up becoming a tighter-knit crew amid all the chaos. And there were some heavier moments tugging at the band's seams, too. Channy lost a man she called her second father, Dan Mack, who was also close to Alexei. And Durrant's mother died after a two-year fight with stomach cancer.

"We were pretty close to begin with, but I think all these things pulled us a lot closer," said Durrant. "Everyone made a point of helping each other out through all of this."

Perhaps the most intimate connection came when Durrant brought the band out to his parents' house to perform in the living room, after his mom couldn't make their gigs anymore. "It was hard," he said, "but also a beautiful moment for everyone."

It's hard not to think of that moment during the pristine new track "Below Our Feet," which Channy wrote following her own family's funeral. "Strange living with the dead below our feet / All my friends and family bury this grief for me," she sings in her soul-siren voice, with Prusha warmly singing along.

Two other songs from the record, "The Moonlight Is Ours" and the rollicking gospel march "Mars," are also laden with funeral imagery. Other tracks stem from the dizzying life of new parenthood ("Baby Hotel") and search for financial security ("Before I Die"), while "Miss You Too" is a long-distance love song Channy wrote while Alexei was touring with Kill the Vultures.

Everest brought up "Miss You Too" while explaining how the expanded lineup maintains the intimacy that Roma di Luna had as a duo.

"Alexei and Channy have a deep, loving relationship, and that still comes through in the music," he said. "You hear a song like that, and you appreciate how neither of them is afraid to dig into their personal lives and open up. It's hard enough to write a good song, but it's really hard to write an honest, open song like that."

For their part, the couple credited the band for making them even more confident as songwriters. Said Alexei, "The reason we started out as a folk duo was because that's really all we knew how to do together."

Channy also cited another change in RdL's evolution: "A part of me struggled with the idea of being in a band now that I'm a mother, but then another part of me thought, 'I delivered this baby. I can do anything now.'

"There are a lot of sad things on this record, but ultimately I think it's a joyful thing to be able to release these feelings and to think that someone else might be comforted by the music. That's something we all accomplished together."

Beak rock

Local audiences already know Lazerbeak (Aaron Mader) as one of the primary beatmakers behind the Doomtree hip-hop crew's densest, craziest tracks, and as one of the howling co-vocalists in stormy teen-punk band the Plastic Constellations. Turns out we didn't really know him at all. His first solo album as Lazerbeak, "Legend Recognize Legend," is an eclectic, ear-opening electronic-rock affair in which he sings on every track and arranges everything from horns and pedal-steel to choir-sized choruses.

Imagine Trent Reznor or Ian MacKaye making a pop record with Kanye West and Bon Iver producing, and you get an idea of the wild sonic panache. Some tracks are rousing enough to be World Cup anthems ("Dream Team," "Wild Life") while others are personal and elegant, suited for teenagers' late-night dreaming sessions ("Let It Go," "Salt and Sea").

Friday night's CD party is a full-on Beak Fest with the Plastic Cons playing a rare reunion set and the Doomtree clan warming up for another fall tour. (9 p.m. Fri., Fine Line. 18 and older. $10.)

Prime pickings

A bluegrass band without any gospel songs or odes to the countryside isn't worth its weight in mandolin strings. The High 48s have both areas covered on the two new CDs they're celebrating Saturday at the Ritz Theater (7:30 p.m., $12, 345 13th Av. NE., Mpls.). Led by brothers Derek and Chad Johnson, the traditional quintet pays homage to their home-state landscape in songs such as "The Cliffs of Red Wing" and the title track on their third original album, "Up North." They also deliver spirited covers by Bill Monroe, Townes Van Zandt, Kris Kristofferson and Mr. Public Domain on "The Gospel Album."

While they have all the ingredients of a bluegrass ensemble (mandolin, banjo, fiddle, upright bass), the Poor Nobodys show just how eclectic they really are on their full-length debut, "Until I Uproot and Walk Again." Jenna Wyse sings with a vintage-jazzy and sometimes operatic voice, and the rest of the septet bounces from gypsy jazz to country waltzes to playful none-of-the-above string arrangements. Their CD party Saturday at the Cedar Cultural Center (8 p.m., $8-$10) should be an emotional affair, as openers the Brass Messengers -- also featuring Nobodys pianist Chris Hepola -- lost their cornetist, Ethan Johnson, in a car crash last week. Said Hepola, "Though it is painful, it feels good to play."

Random notes

Twin Cities expat Peter Himmelman returned home for the making of his new album, "The Mystery & the Hum." As a dare to himself, he booked the studio time with producer Rob Genedak 20 days out and wrote all the songs in that time. The idea, and the results, are classic Himmelman. ...

Former Dying Midwestern frontman Mike Cunningham, who started using the moniker Mike Midwestern when he played solo gigs on the side, is releasing his first full-length album under that name with a party Saturday at Cause (formerly Sauce; 9 p.m., $5). "Inhibitors" features Guster-style, heartland-flavored acoustic rock with do-gooder messages that go hand in hand with Cunningham's pledge to donate proceeds from the CD to TreehouseYouth.org. ...

Blues punk trio the F--- Knights kicks off a month of Saturday gigs at Palmer's Bar this weekend with different openers every week, starting with the Strange Lights and Dirty Colors. ... Roster McCabe got the Dead's Phil Lesh to play on a track for their upcoming album, "Through Space and Time," which the hippie/jam stalwarts will preview Oct. 8 at the Cabooze as part of their "Sorry for Partying Tour" with Denver pals the Kinetix. ...

Tommy Stinson's online auction for Haiti relief is up and running at CharityBuzz. com. Among the items are some of his Guns N' Roses gear, Coachella VIP tickets, a Chris Mars art package and a Paul Westerberg guitar signed by the three remaining Replacements. ... Andrew Bird's all-local band (Martin Dosh, Jeremy Ylvisaker, Mike Lewis) will play their one and only show with the Chicago singer before year's end at First Ave on Dec. 2. ...

Pick up a bottle of Famous Dave's Rich & Sassy sauce, and you can also pick up free MP3s from local blues players including Paul Metsa and Sonny Earl, Scottie Miller and Cool Disposition. The company is keeping up its music ties by offering download codes inside each bottle. More at GetMyBlues.com. And no, just because they're offering MP3s doesn't mean you can feel free to steal the sauce.

chrisr@startribune.com • 612-673-4658 • Follow him on Twitter: @ChrisRstrib

  • related content

  • Audio: "Below Our Feet" by Roma di Luna

    Wednesday September 29, 2010

    "Below Our Feet," by Roma di Luna, from the CD Then The Morning Came

  • Audio: "Before I Die" by Roma di Luna

    Wednesday September 29, 2010

    "Before I Die," by Roma di Luna, from the CD Then The Morning Came

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