There are some musicians whose performances make you forget where your body ends and the music begins; they connect with the crowd so deeply that you feel rooted in your current moment. This energy was palpable at Theo Katzman’s Sonic Lunch concert in downtown Ann Arbor on Sept. 2, for which May Erlewine opened. The same friendly electricity was palpable in a long Zoom chat with The Daily.
Katzman’s engaging manner in conversation felt akin to the way he pulls his listeners in: He asks them to become part of his musical world and volunteers his emotions so that they might find something similar stirring within themselves. “I’ve noticed that people that are fans, they often sing all the words,” he shared. “It’s really cool, because it’s like, they’re resonating with that, too.”
And indeed, at the Sonic Lunch, the crowd gleefully sang along. At first, there was the hesitance that people seem to find themselves submerged in at outdoor concerts sometimes, as these so often feel less formal, and you are aware that pedestrians crossing can see you dancing and singing. Katzman encouraged the crowd to break out of the everyday setting we had found ourselves in, until we couldn’t help but twist our hands up into the air to his funk-rock, singing his own feelings back at him and laughing at his occasional dialogue delivery of the lyrics.
This return to his college town carried a good bit of significance and happy memories for Katzman, saying “I think I can basically trace every gig I’ve gotten as a professional musician back to just, like, hanging out in Kerrytown.” The 2007 U-M graduate still carries the community he found in Ann Arbor with him, saying that this school gave him friends all over the world. He met many of his bandmates from the funk band Vulfpeck through the jazz program here.
“A very innocent, beautiful time to be in Ann Arbor,” he reminisced. “We were making music on our own terms. It was like, so exciting to be a young person on your own for the first time.” In what I now recognized as a classically thoughtful Theo Katzman twist, he added, “I mean, I would imagine you’ve had a similar feeling.”
Of course, now Katzman is more cemented in his identity as a musician. “I definitely am a performer and … I feel like I’m my best self when I’m performing music,” Katzman said.
It was a discovery reached after a long year, one filled with gratitude for things after they’d been taken away, just like for so many of us. “That’s what this whole last year has been,” he pondered. “It’s like, man who really are you? And what’s important to you right now? And are you going to, like, double down on that? Or are you going to ignore it? And I don’t want to ignore it.”
Facing yourself in such a manner is difficult, and sharing it with a whole crowd is an impressive level of vulnerability, but Katzman is nothing if not courageous.
His songs very often cover heartbreak and frustration: his last album Modern Johnny Sings: Songs in the Age of Vibe mixing political commentary (“You Could Be President”) with songs about bygone intimacy; his singing on “Fog In The Mirror” so soft you can tell he is walking through the memory. His music over the years has contained all sides of love, from the sharp panged euphoria of new love, to the feeling of a glowing soft-edged love that has existed for a long time and continues to exist. This love reaches further to the pile of sea glass and pieces of a heart that one resigned oneself to when originally opening oneself to love.
“My music isn’t separate from my life,” he said. “I’m not like that kind of artist … it would be cool if (I) were, maybe, but (I’m) not. It’s like I’m trying to accept more of just who I am and … how I am.”
This sort of thoughtfulness seems to translate intensely into his writing process. “I feel like I’m just compelled to write music and I’m compelled to think a lot about how I feel and I think sometimes that’s a trap because thinking can be a trap,” he admits.
But overall, music is omnipresent in his brain, whether he is writing it or not. As such, he strives to stay productive, allowing what is in him already to make an appearance in the world. “When I’m writing … I’m trying not to lead the music as much as follow it these days, because I think it’s, that’s part of the magic if you can kind of not close your mind off.” It is an almost generous sentiment from a musician who has learned, through time, that you don’t guide the music or the genius, it guides you.
Emotions, flaky paint colors that they are, so clearly guide him too. Writing music seems to be an almost therapeutic process of self-discovery for Katzman, as he often learns more about what he is thinking and feeling when trying to communicate it to others through music.
“I like when those emotions change while you’re writing a song. And sometimes you write a song (and) you’re like, this is about a person, you know, and then you’re thinking about (that) person. And then you realize, actually, this person is actually just symbolic. And then you’re like, ‘Oh, shit.’ I’m just personifying a feeling,” Katzman finishes, the casual tone making his piercing observations seem almost easy to come by. But in the end, this person he is writing about is a necessary part of the song, in order to properly create a chain of empathy between him and his listeners.
Simply writing about the feeling itself would make it vague, open-ended, obvious. It can tell the listener what to feel, instead of allowing them to reflect and figure out why the song resonates with them. It might be different from what Katzman originally intended, but to him, this is something to be encouraged.
“I think it’s really cool when a song can mean different things to different people, based on how it feels to them, which is sometimes the challenge with lyrics,” Katzman said. “It’s challenging to write words that are specific enough to send a message but open enough to not direct it.”
There is a kind of generosity to statements such as these, a quality that seems to define Theo Katzman as a musician. What is music if not generous?
The kind of openness that defines his discography can be a form of giving of oneself.
“What’s the point of doing any of this? If we’re not dealing with real shit? And it doesn’t mean I want my music to be a bloodbath, you know?” he jokes, following up with, “But I’d like … there (to) be some blood.”
Joy and pain firmly hold hands in his music. There is a deep understanding of how they fuse and form a circle, a concept that fits his passing thought, “Everything’s related to everything else.” They are also important parts of his philosophy, both as a person and a musician.
“I want to be genuine, honest,” Katzman begins quickly, and then slows down to think as he shares, “in a way that seeks to do no harm but that seeks to also say some shit that might hurt if it’s going to crack the heart open a little more.”
Daily Arts Writer Fia Kaminski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.