VENUE: ROSE BOWL TAVERN (OUTDOOR): 106 N. Race Street, Urbana, IL 61801

Growing up in Minnesota, life constantly took multi-instrumentalist and producer Lutalo back and forth across the Mississippi River, through the beating heart of the Twin Cities, from their home in Minneapolis to school in St Paul. In 2022, life is suddenly – but gently – very different. Last year Lutalo and their partner moved east, to settle among the green peaks of Vermont, having taken ownership of an area of land with the intention of building a small community for themselves. The aim is to accomplish a long-held dream: to live life differently, to invest in and create something tangible that can be passed on to future generations. The to-and-fro of that early life has been replaced by something altogether more steady, a burning desire to not get so caught up in the intensity of the world.

It’s this overwhelming potency of modernity that ripples through Lutalo’s musical work. Set to be released this Spring, their six-song debut EP bristles with tension, despite the often laidback nature of the performance. “I tend to grapple with a lot of existential questioning,” they say of their work. “I wanted to capture what it feels like to be a twenty-something in this time period, reflecting on our relationship with technology, the internet, relationships, world governments, housing…all while discovering what it means to be an adult and how our definition of what that looks like begins to shift.”

The new EP – which follows a few well-received singles in 2021 and a run of live shows alongside Adrianne Lenker – spans both of Lutalo’s contrasting worlds, the songwriting beginning in the Twin Cities before being finished in the serene surroundings of Vermont, and both environments leave their mark on Lutalo’s rich and absorbing sound.

Introduced to music via the African drumming classes their parents took them to as a child, Lutalo didn’t have the desire to fully participate but the complex rhythms, like musical puzzle pieces, fascinated them, teaching lessons about the importance of practice and dedication, the morning classes continuing at home, reverberating long into the night. Home is also where Lutalo’s Dad educated them on the Black experience in America through music, via a love of hip-hop, jazz, and Bossanova; from MF Doom to A Tribe Called Quest.

However, it was during a high school summer music program at McNally Smith School of Music that Lutalo’s own work began to blossom. Here, they met fellow musicians Patrick Hintz and Mike Kota and quickly started a band together, with Patrick quickly teaching them how to make connections, book shows, and produce their own merch, breaking down walls Lutalo assumed would prevent them from ever progressing out of the basement. Lutalo soon started other projects as a way of working on and highlighting their ideas and the production skills they were learning. Though they’d initially planned to produce work for other people, it quickly turned into the eponymous project we hear today.

A fascinating mixture of folk, rock, and soul, the EP is deliberately fluid, Lutalo allowing the framework to be as loose and wide-ranging as the work led. “The vision I have for this project is not so much genre-based as it is sound-based,” Lutalo expands, “and that sound is just a reflection of me. I didn’t want any boundaries because I’m not trying to replicate anything that’s come before. I only want to be adding to music in some way, I don’t feel like being an emulator.”

And so we have ‘Call It In’, the EP’s opening track and a laidback gem, the gentle sunlit groove of the production presenting a fascinating backdrop for Lutalo’s captivating delivery. Juxtaposed by the track’s internal monologue, the track casts its eye over the small details of getting through everyday life, while attempting to set seeds for the ‘stable future’ you were always told was guaranteed as long as you played along.

Elsewhere, ‘Little Chance’ drips with a soulful edge, the decaying relationship which sits at the heart of the track breeding a palpable sense of melodrama that lingers throughout, while ‘For Now’ adds a skittering drum beat to Lutalo’s tender guitar and more playful vocal delivery. Once again, the track’s gentle haze is reshaped by the sharp lyricism hidden within: “For now I give that smile,” Lutalo sings in retaliation to the struggles that Black and Indigenous groups in the U.S face. “My understanding is that I’ll continue to be in a situation when I have to save face to just survive, like many others put in the same situation.” For now, they give that smile.

Across EP1, the boldness of Lutalo’s vision rings clean and true. They might not have the answers but they know the questions that need to be asked, whether that’s of themselves or wider society. “I believe art should be a reflection of human experience and the tension that exists in just living and being,” they explain. “I wrestle with a lot of concepts of consciousness and societal consciousness. I’m a contemplative person and for the most part, I’m trying to evaluate and analyse the world around me, so that’s what comes out in my music.”

For now, Lutalo’s world consists of new pastures and new beginnings, the search for brightness in spite of all the dark. They remain optimistic in attitude, steadfast in their belief that change can only happen when you believe in a better future. “At the same point you also have to recognise that this is also your time to be alive,” Lutalo says, “and to try to find beauty in those moments and focus on the smaller details: to watch the water trickle down the stream, to see the ice as it melts from the rooftops.”