Over the course of their six previous albums, only half of which were nominated for Grammy Awards, the Okee Dokee Brothers have maintained one consistent message for the children and parents who flock to their shows: “Take it outside.”
That was actually the title of the Twin Cities-reared folk duo’s 2010 record. All their subsequent releases have also featured songs urging listeners to leave the house, ditch the electronic screens and enjoy more fun and adventure outdoors, including the paddling singalongs on their 2012 breakthrough disc, “Can You Canoe?”
So it’s rather surprising to hear lyrics such as this on the group’s latest album, “Winterland,” which they’re touting with a pair of hometown release parties Saturday at the O’Shaughnessy in St. Paul:
“I got naps to take/And slippers to wear/I’m swamped with daydreams in my head/I’m slammed with lounging in my bed.”
Are we mistaken, or for once are the Okee Dokee Brothers actually telling us that it’s OK to be homebodies?
“That’s one of the most enjoyable things about winter: staying inside and being together,” singer/guitarist Joe Mailander explained when asked about the lyrics for “Lazy Day” and other songs on the new album.
“We’re really celebrating the togetherness of winter. There’s nothing better than coming in from the cold in winter and cozying up at home with your family and the people you love.”
Where other recent Okee Dokee Brothers albums have been based on specific settings — i.e., the Mississippi River for “Can You Canoe?” and the Appalachian Trail for 2014’s “Through the Woods” — “Winterland” is instead set entirely in the one season. Songs such as “Blankets of Snow,” “Howl” and “Keep Me Warm” relish the white scenery, low temperatures, snowy activities and inhabitants of winter (from wolves to Yetis) as if the season is its own unique place to visit.
For a pair of childhood pals from Colorado who’ve spent much of their adult life in Minnesota, the Okee Dokee men did not have to go far to find the inspiration for these songs.
“We didn’t need to go anywhere to write this album; we’ve lived it,” Mailander said.
“Winter around here is kind of its own adventure,” said singer/banjoist Justin Lansing, who is back living in Denver at the moment but still comes to Minnesota often.
Hanging out at Mailander’s house in south Minneapolis two weeks ago while his nearly 2-year-old son, Hap, took a nap upstairs, the two singing partners talked about the inspiration they both took from the addition of Hap, and from family in general. The album’s wistful penultimate track, “New Year,” is all about his birth. That one is paired on the record with “Great Grandmother Tree,” about the passings of grandparents and older relatives.
“Those songs tie into the whole theme that winter really is a time for family,” Lansing said, explaining how they specifically avoided making this a record celebrating religious holidays — especially the commercial retail whirl that surrounds those holidays.
“But the holidays are all about being with family, so it fits in that sense,” said Mailander, pointing to the only lyric on the record that sounds like a holiday reference: “Your gift is your presence,” from the jamboree-flavored ditty “Welcome Home.”
Mailander also quipped that writing about his new parental status ties into the themes of past albums: “Becoming a dad is certainly an adventure in its own great way.”
Kids and climate change
In large part because Mailander and his wife, Alison, became new parents, the brothers-in-spirit also did most of the songwriting for “Winterland” at home this time around. The adventuring that usually helps spark the songs came later, when they got around to filming music videos to go with the album last winter.
They headed up to Wintergreen Lodge in Ely, where they went cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and even dog-sledding through the Boundary Waters while spending several night in tents.
“It seriously felt a lot like camping on the beach,” Mailander said with no hint of irony. “The ground was all soft, and except for your faces you stay plenty warm in all that gear.”
Members of the Twin Cities-based Okee Dokees touring band helped lay down the tracks on “Winterland,” including bassist Liz Draper (also from Charlie Parr’s band) and violinist Jillian Rae (Corpse Reviver).
Touring remains a big part of Mailander’s and Lansing’s self-managed career, but it’s a lot different from the road life that other folk and rock musicians live. Most of their shows are over long weekends, centered around midafternoon sets and special library or community center appearances.
Also, the inherent downside of being a kids-music act is that their audience eventually grows up and usually moves on to other music. So these guys are constantly reaching out to new audiences.
“We lose fans at about the same rate as we gain them,” Mailander said.
Lansing also half-jokingly added, “When your fan base is constantly turning over, your material never gets old.”
There’s a new twist on ticket and album sales this time around that some observers might deem a controversial and/or edgy move for the good-natured Okee Dokees: 10 percent of vinyl and CD sales of “Winterland” as well as tickets to Saturday’s concerts go toward the Keep the North Cold campaign to fight climate change, started by Andrew and Eric Dayton’s Askov Finlayson clothing company.
Mailander and Lansing also plan to discuss climate change at certain shows. They see this is as a necessary component to touting a record that celebrates snow season.
“It’s an inarguable fact: Our winters are getting shorter,” Mailander said. “We don’t want to come off like two more white, liberal men getting preachy about an issue, so we’re hoping to get families in on the issue, too.”
Lansing doesn’t expect all that much of a negative reaction to the initiatives because, he said, “We make albums that show off our love for nature. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Our natural environment is in danger.”
And anyway, by taking on a topic such as climate change and the big corporate and political machinery that surrounds it, the Okee Dokee Brothers once again reiterate they’re as much a traditional folk-music act as they are a kids-music duo.
Okee Dokee Brothers
When: 11 a.m. & 2 p.m. Sat., Nov. 2.
Where: The O’Shaughnessy, 2004 Randolph Av., St. Paul.
Tickets: $17-$20; eTix.com.