Zoo Animal takes it to church

Well versed on delivering her songs of faith in rock clubs, Holly Newsom will try them out in a holier place Friday.

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Holly Newsom with bandmates bassist Tim Abramson, right, and drummer Thom Burton.

Photo: Tom Wallace, Star Tribune

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It's hard to say which is more unusual: the fact that one of the more intense rock gigs around town this weekend will take place in a church, or that two of the bands involved have deep religious convictions but almost never perform in church.

"It's going to be the same show we play in 7th Street Entry or any other club," insisted Zoo Animal singer Holly Newsom, whose young band performs Friday at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church with older vets Retribution Gospel Choir and the Starfolk.

"Obviously, though, the environment is a little less hostile to the words," Newsom added.

The word "hostile" itself might seem harsh to anyone who has followed Zoo Animal's progress since the trio issued its eponymous full-length debut in May. Local clubgoers have been nothing but welcoming to the scrawny, little, straitlaced-looking band with the big, powerful sound -- often compared to Cat Power, Heartless Bastards and other indie-rock bands with hard-bellowing female singers.

What sets Zoo Animal apart, though, is its Christian edge. Newsom, 24, writes songs loaded with overt biblical references and lessons in Christianity based on her own beliefs and experiences. She does so without any kind of moralistic finger-wagging or lovey-dovey sentimentality. But she's also not one of those hip rock songwriters (i.e., Nick Cave or Win Butler) who draw from the Christian well simply for the artistic imagery without really seeming thirsty for personal salvation.

If there is one quality Zoo Animal boasts most, it's conviction. Even the trio's resident non-Christian, drummer Thom Burton, is a strong believer in the music.

"I like the idea of whatever is most important to you becoming the basis for your art, and clearly this is what's important" to Newsom, said Burton. "I mean, faith is a deep form of love, and I love love songs."

Newsom and bassist Tim Abramson started playing music together as teenagers in Cokato, a small, corn-producing town an hour west of Minneapolis. Said Abramson, "We had the Internet from like middle school on, so the distinction between small town and big city was not as sharp."

Still, Newsom had a fairly unusual upbringing. She said she grew up in an all-female household with her grandma, mom, two sisters "and even a girl dog and an aunt who lived with us for a while." They worshiped weekly with the Evangelical Free denomination.

"One big difference in a small town is how surrounded you are by Christian culture," she said. "I go back now and get a little culture shock by people talking so openly about Christianity."

Newsom budded as a songwriter in that environment. One of her earliest works was "Muddy, Bloody," a tempestuous, slow-burning gem that closes out "Zoo Animal" and has become a live staple. In it, the singer howls, "Break the surface, take a breath of life / Oh glory, glory, glory / Bloody water is pouring from his side / Bloody water, I forgot he was my savior last night."

Looking back on "Muddy, Bloody," Newsom said, "it was Tim who suggested I bring it back. I probably wouldn't have written that song today because I'm more aware of the audience I play it to, but back then I was just writing songs for myself in our basement."

Therein lies the main power source behind many of Newsom's songs: They're ultra-personal, raw and strictly for the emotional outlet, whether it's the purely confessional "A Hatred" or the snaking, she-who-casts-the-first-stone rocker "Bad Seed." As Burton put it, "She started these as a teenager, and what teenager isn't intense already?"

In person, Newsom comes off as a pretty standard, laid-back hipster with a subtle wit. Since moving to Minneapolis, she has worked as a record-store clerk and a coffee barista and is now married to a guy who she swears is a way better songwriter than she is ("but he won't play them for anyone; I might have to record them myself someday"). She admits it has not been easy trying to mesh her rural Christian roots with the urban rock scene, but it has its advantages.

"I get asked so much about my faith, it's made me understand my faith better because I have to explain it a lot," she said. "I never want to sugarcoat my faith, because being a Christian can be really hard. It's work, and it's kind of a crazy life to lead, especially when you're involved in the local music scene, like another world."

Those worlds will collide even more at Friday's church gig, but that was not the intention, she said. The connection with the church was made through musical friends with the Starfolk (led by Brian Tighe and Allison LaBonne of the Owls). They asked Retribution Gospel Choir simply because "they're a great band," and not because frontman Alan Sparhawk also openly talks of his Mormon faith. Said Newsom, "We see it as a gig in a beautiful space where we can have an all-ages crowd, two things we're always looking for."

The singer is actually a little afraid that some of the magic behind Zoo Animal might be lost in a church.

"Sometimes I think the reason our songs come off as so intense to people is because of the contrast between the words and the environment we usually play in," she said. "So we could wind up being less intense."

That's at least one thing said in the interview you can doubt Newsom truly believes.


Story on 'Songbook'

Looking over the list of musicians lined up for Sunday's "Lush Life: Interpretations of the American Jazz Canon" -- the first installment in the Southern Theater's performance/discussion series "Southern Songbook" -- you might be surprised to see so many names from out of the local rock and hip-hop scenes, and not jazz. That's exactly what co-organizer Adam Levy had in mind.

"I wanted it to be songwriters and musicians from outside the box who I know can knock it out of the park when it comes to reinterpreting this material," the Honeydogs frontman said. Levy will co-host with DJ Jake Rudh alongside a house band featuring members of Heiruspecs and guests Mayda, Ill Chemistry, Steve Roehm, Toki Wright, Janey Winterbauer, Omaur Bliss, Ashleigh Still and Bethany Larson.

Among the songs planned for reexamination are "Stardust," "Ain't Misbehavin'," "My Funny Valentine," "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" and several standards from Irving Berlin and George and Ira Gershwin. Levy said he has always been dismayed more modern musicians don't take advantage of the classic American Songbook.

"These songs are our free lunch," he said. "Whether we know it or not, we're all still using these same chord progressions, and we're still influenced by the wordplay of Irving Berlin or Cole Porter."

Future "Southern Songbook" shows will include "Desire and Death: New Love Songs on Yearning and Loss" on Valentine's Day and "The Rites of String" on April 14. Tickets are on sale at the Southern box office for Sunday's show (7 p.m., $22-$25, 1420 Washington Av. S., Mpls.).

Get behind the Mules

The more settled and responsible that the Rockford Mules become in their personal lives, the more wild-eyed and unhinged their Southern-styled twang-metal seems on record. Their third album, "Ma They Broke Me," boasts a loaded shotgun chamber of blasting, bloody rockers, including "Drag the Swamp" and "Got a Bullet Says You Won't," wherein slide guitarist Ryan Rud masterfully provides all the dusty and muddy coating needed for frontman Erik Tasa's creepy, backwoods lyrics. The wildest track is the closing seven-minute dirge "Don't Call Them What You've Seen," which -- if they can pull it off live -- might end with a call to the cops. Find out at Saturday's release party at Cause with the Gleam (9:30 p.m., $5).

Random mix

It might seem a bit like ordering an ice cream cone without the ice cream -- her voice and lyrics are mainly why folks buy her records -- but Haley Bonar is boldly offering up a new flavor in the form of a limited-edition EP of instrumental tracks timed to her show Saturday at the Music Box Theater. The six-track collection, "LeO," features reimagined versions of two songs Bonar recorded for her upcoming full-length album, "Daddy," plus four more she wrote based off those. She actually does sing in them ("vocal effects"). Her main accomplice on the EP was guitar whiz Jeremy Ylvisaker, who will open the Music Box gig with his own flavorful band, Alpha Consumer (7 p.m., all ages, $12-$15, 1407 Nicollet Av. S., Mpls.). ...

Gastro Non Grata's "Northeast Edition: A Goulash of Good Times" takes place Friday and Saturday at the Ritz Theater, a fundraiser for the theater itself. Me & My Arrow, the Unknown Prophets, Mighty Mofos and more perform Friday, and Pink Mink, Marijuana Death Squad, Rude Girl (all-female Clash tribute) and Phantom Tails are on Saturday, with local chefs and brewers strutting their stuff each night (8 p.m., 345 13th Av. NE., Mpls. $10-$13). ... There are many Leech Lakes in Minnesota, but there's only one by Muja Messiah. The rapper's new single, "Leech Lake," includes references to ice fishing, walleye dinners, Robyne Robinson and other ubiquitous parts of the state's landscape. ...

First Avenue is throwing a 40th-anniversary bash for itself on Dec. 15 with some of its mainstay performers from throughout the years, including Gary Louris, Har Mar Superstar, Grant Hart, the Mighty Mofos/Hypstrz, Matt Wilson and John Munson, Heiruspecs and DJ Woody McBride, plus "special guests." Tickets ($10) go on sale Nov. 6. The club actually turned 40 in April, but -- a sure sign it's not having any kind of midlife crisis -- it has been too busy to celebrate.

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

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  • ZOO ANIMAL

    With: Retribution Gospel Choir, the Starfolk.

    When: 7:30 p.m. Fri.

    Where: Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church, 511 Groveland Av., Mpls.

    Tickets: Free. All ages.

    HEAR

    sample tracks from Zoo Animal at startribune.com/music.

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