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'Music by people, for people': Multi-instrumentalist Kyle Ollah shares folk roots

Kyle Ollah (left) performs with Brandy Forsman and Clancy Ward. The three have logged many hours together, Ollah said, but last week was the first time the three of them performed together. The gig was for the launch of the Earth Rider Brewery in Superior. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)1 / 4
Kyle Ollah, Duluth, performs during a recent gig at the Cedar Lounge in Superior. Ollah is a folk musician and a teacher at the Duluth Folk School. He's performed with Charlie Parr, Mumblin' Drew, Woodblind and more. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com2 / 4
Kyle Ollah (right) and Clancy Ward perform for a near-capacity crowd at the Cedar Lounge. Ward has been playing music for about 20 years, and he said Ollah is a musical inspiration. “I feel honored to play with him,” Ward said. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com3 / 4
Kyle Ollah talks with another musician between songs during a recent gig at the Cedar Lounge in Superior. "There’s something to be said about playing with your friends," Ollah said. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com4 / 4

Children peeked into the room at the Thirsty Pagan, as Kyle Ollah strummed an old-timey tune on his banjo. One child lifted his arms and bounced to the rhythm. Ollah pounded his work boot on the stage before switching to guitar.

Above one of the room's entrances is Ollah's name. He's been playing Monday nights at the Superior restaurant for a couple of years.

"He's just a little guy, but he's got a big voice," said waitress Kristi Gordon. "People don't necessarily pay lots of attention, but as soon as he stops, everybody looks up and starts clapping," she said — and she's right.

When Ollah stopped playing, a man in a booth set down his fork and another swiveled on his bar stool to applaud. A group at a nearby table stopped their conversation to join.

"They couldn't probably tell you what he just played, but they hear it and feel comforted by it I think," Gordon said.

And Ollah likes it that way.

"Playing in a barroom in the corner suits me ... I don't have to say anything, and the music says it all," he said during a break. The music makes everyone more comfortable, including himself.

Ollah roasts coffee a couple of days a week, and the rest of the time he's free to be a "music bum" — and he gets around. He plays with Charlie Parr, Mumblin' Drew, Woodblind, The Merila Hill String Band, Robinson and Rohe — at venues Teatro Zuccone, The Red Herring, Beaner's Central, Castle Danger.

"Solo gigs are the bread and butter for a working musician," said Ollah, 28. "But there's something to be said about playing with your friends."

PUNK TO FOLK

On Tuesday at the Cedar Lounge, Ollah was joined on stage by local musicians Brandy Forsman and Clancy Ward for the launch of Earth Rider Brewery in Superior. Ollah and Ward sat in facing chairs and stomped their feet to the beat as Forsman plucked her bass. At the end of one song, Ward tapped Ollah's leg, and they shared a laugh. Next, "We're going to play a waltz," Ward said.

Ward has been playing music for about 20 years, and he calls Ollah an inspiration. "He's a lot younger than me, but he knows so much more than me musically," he said.

Ward collaborates often with Ollah for shows and for the Tamarack Dance Association gatherings in town.

"Everything I've thrown at him, regardless of the craziness, he's picked up and backed up solidly and with enthusiasm."

"I feel honored to play with him," he said.

"He can do all instruments better than anybody," added Forsman, who has been playing music for about 20 years. "We take him whenever we can get him," she said of Ollah joining her band Four Mile Portage.

Ollah is a great community member, and he makes you feel better being around him, she added.

During the break, the three stood near the stage discussing the natural progression from punk to folk music — and how it's rarely vice versa.

"When you're older, you don't want to go louder," Forsman said.

"You want to go deeper," Ollah finished.

'LEARNING TOGETHER'

Ollah was interested in music at an early age. He got a drum set when he was 10, and started playing in punk bands, which is similar to skateboarding. There's no coach, and everyone is collaborating.

He and his bandmates would spend time learning songs at home, then they'd come together to share. "There was no ego, we're all pretty much just learning together."

The musical part can't be attained without immersion, and playing with and learning from peers, especially as a teen, is a way to immersion, he said.

Ollah is quick to share how music is viewed in other cultures, and even in Duluth — there's a real urge to see real people do music.

Today, he plays "flirty blues music and funny old-time songs," and it all fits in the folk genre.

"It's music by people, for people," he said.

Ollah plays the fiddle, mandolin, guitar and banjo. If he has to pick one: "I think I'm a guitar player, in the end, who happens to play other instruments." He uses guitar as a base if he's ever stuck or if he's writing music. "My brain sees a guitar," he said.

He's quick to add that the best thing he did was learn to play the banjo, which is a self-contained instrument. "It's rhythmic, melodic and chordal. ... It doesn't take very long to figure out how to do those three things.

"The hardest part is figuring out the nuances."

EPIPHANIES

Ollah's studied at the Perpich Center for Arts Education in Golden Valley, where he was fully immersed with other artists of all kinds. There, he was given a guitar and a John Fahey CD on the same day, and that changed things for him. Listening to Fahey, Skip James and Frank Hutchison, he was inspired by how one person can make so much music playing by themselves.

"I've never left that," Ollah said.

Another big influence are his travels: Ollah spent for four years driving, hitchhiking and freight-hopping around the U.S. with his pack and his instrument. It was an introspective and important time, where he learned to play the kind of music he's playing now.

"So far away from home, where time is completely irrelevant, you're just where you are and meeting these people and hearing this music ... it really changed me," he said.

Ollah also saw that old-time music is alive and well. He toured with random people, learned a lot from many great musicians. When he wasn't touring, music was his meal ticket, and he also learned there are a lot of people doing what he's doing.

The constant was his craft. "The music was always the wind on my back. It was always pushing me to go," he said.

Today, Ollah shares what he knows at the Duluth Folk School, where he's taught old-time banjo and folk guitar lessons. Sue Wilmes, of Duluth, recently took his banjo class.

While she does play the fiddle and the ukulele, she's adding banjo to her repertoire. "We ordered a banjo, it's coming tomorrow," she said last week.

Of his teaching style, Wilmes said Ollah relates to people really well. "(He) makes you feel confident in what you're doing, and he's really interested in this type of music, so he gives you good people to listen to."

Of teaching, Ollah said he likes seeing the epiphanies students experience because it was those epiphanies that changed his life. In the future, he will continue to spread his craft through performances, maybe a full-length CD and Woolsock Festival, an old-time dance/camp weekend he helped launch in Finland, Minn.

"If I could give any advice it is: learn a thing that no one can take away from you. Music is one of those things, and if I could offer that, that makes me feel really honored."

If you go:

• What: Mumblin' Drew, Kyle Ollah, Gram Tortilla

• When: 9-11 p.m. Wednesday

• Where: Blush, 18 N. 1st Ave. W

• More info: facebook.com/kyleollah

• Watch Kyle Ollah perform "Wouldn't Mind Working From Sun To Sun" at bit.ly/2n1oWvR

Melinda Lavine

Lavine is a features reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. Reach her at mlavine@duluthnews.com or (218) 723-5346.

(218) 723-5346
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