John Larkin performs in the city, writes in the woods
Both playing gigs and going to other shows are important aspects of maintaining a presence in the tight-knit Milwaukee music community.
But constant socializing and partying can reduce creative output, as well as hinder personal satisfaction.
Earlier this year, musician John Larkin realized he could make the trip to Milwaukee a few times a week while achieving a deeper sense of peace by spending most of his time in the woods of Oostburg.
He found balance.
He performs on Milwaukee’s stages, but writes and records in solitude.
Larkin moved to the woods during the summer with his partner Caley Conway, also a prominent Milwaukee musician.
“It’s going all right,” he said. “Caley and I are going to stay for the winter. At first, we intended to stay only for the summer. We didn’t think we’d be able to stay through the winter, but we’re doing it now. We will cool off with playing shows and focus on writing and recording and other musical stuff. It’s been really busy for us this summer and fall.”
Larkin recently started recording songs for his new album, as well as for Conway’s upcoming EP.
THE RISE OF CAIRNS
Also this fall, Larkin toured with his project Cairns, a lo-fi indie rock band that performs his compositions and songs. The lineup includes Caley Conway, Eli Smith, Eddie Chapman and Sam Perarske. The outfit puts on a captivating live show.
Cairns represents the live interpretation of the music Larkin writes and records.
He explained, “It’s cool because the songs get two personalities. The group comes up with a different vision for the song and that’s what gets played live. Everybody writes their own parts and we collaborate and make something that’s based on the original intent.”
Larkin started the group in 2013. Then, it sounded quieter and more acoustic than the current iteration. The group has ebbed and flowed, veering into the opposing corners of both bedroom pop and high-intensity alternative rock.
To date, the group has released two albums — Cairns and Current — and one single, “Fall Leaves.”
Experiencing a Cairns live set is an emotional experience. Each musician makes a powerful contribution.
What I like most about the group is its ability to control the dynamics, knowing when to get louder at the right moments, while also having a keen sense of strength in the softer, nuanced notes. It is chaotic and buzzing at times, yet wrought and precise.
LARKIN LEARNED FROM EACH GROUP
As a veteran of the local Milwaukee music scene, Larkin has played in a variety of groups and done many shows.
When he started performing in Milwaukee, he played in a popular underground group called Temple. This experience introduced him to a new music-and-art community, which used a do-it-yourself approach.
“It was supportive and positive. It’s cool to have creative spaces that aren’t centered around alcohol or making profits.”
Currently also playing in Gauss — D’Amato’s band — and in Conway’s group, Larkin draws from a range of influences and styles to hone his sound. With intricate instrumental arrangements, uplifting horns, dynamic percussion and expressive lyrics, Cairns packs a punch in both its recordings and live sets.
Larkin’s lyrics reveal a level of sophistication and stylistic understanding that elevates the songs and makes a real impression on audiences.
He mentions Bill Callahan and Phil Elverum of Mount Eerie and The Microphones as key influences on his musical sound.
“I started listening to a lot of Bill Callahan pretty recently. His vocal style changed the way I think about lyrics and cadence. Phil Elverum — the way he sings and the themes he developed are really influential to me. He isn’t afraid to get really intense on one track and delicate on others. The way he creates these amazing records with sonic variety while keeping everything in place is a huge inspiration.”
After a busy summer playing with Cairns and gigging out in other groups, Larkin seems excited for the winter. It will give him a chance to settle in and finish his most recent record.
RELATIONSHIP WITH NATURE
I asked Larkin if there was significance to the project’s name. He replied by citing its anthropological origin: “Cairns are stacks of rocks that humans make to mark trails or graves or other things.”
Larkin has a healthy relationship with nature and seeks to develop that relationship while living out of the city. He toils with the idea of moving even further away, possibly to the Driftless area in western Wisconsin to work as a farmer.
“Caley and I wanted to get a taste of what the rural lifestyle would be like. I feel more comfortable away from the social pressures of drinking and partying and enjoy being surrounded by nature in general.”
While on tour throughout the fall, Conway and Larkin take days off go on hiking and camping trips, most recently visiting the Porcupine Mountains in northern Wisconsin.
Make sure to catch Cairns before Larkin settles into his winter hibernation. The group will play at Cactus Club Nov. 29, and also plans to play a release show for a tape recently recorded with Kevin Dixon — date TBD.