Photo by Kat Schleicher
A cramped, 8-by-8-foot area in the basement below a house off Brady Street barely accommodates the music gear for the lighthearted indie-pop band Bright Kind, let alone its four members. But this humid, dimly lit box has served adequately as a practice space the past two years. Suspended rugs encase the room in an effort to dampen the sound and quell the neighbors’ noise complaints. The ceiling can’t be much higher than 6 feet, but it’s in this tenebrous space that Bright Kind has slowly undergone a sonic reinvention that finds it exploring a boundless musical territory: synthesizer-laden pop experiments.
It’s been six long years since the band’s previous iteration, the Jeanna Salzer Trio, released its debut EP, Raindrops, during a packed show at a now-defunct Third Ward soup restaurant. Back then, the original three-piece centered on a piano, Jeanna Salzer’s serene, soulful voice, and an amicable mindset. It produced consistently admirable material, but the work remained indistinguishable from the seemingly infinite pile of bland coffeehouse outfits. About two years ago, the trio – then renamed the Jeanna Salzer Band – wanted a change.
“What we did before was more stripped-down piano, bass and drums,” Salzer says. “I hit a wall just playing the piano. I wanted something new and fresh with our sound.” That desire coincided with her bandmates’ changing musical tastes, which were spiraling down divergent rabbit holes. Rather than choosing to split up over all-too-common “creative differences,” the group decided to merge its ideas into one modern aesthetic – think the groovy, R&B territory Poliça treads but without the auto-tuned vocals – and an intrinsic pop-friendly vibe. This symbiosis needed a new name, though, as the contributions from bassist Harrison Dole and drummer Alex Bunke were fundamental. “I felt like Harrison and Alex had been a crucial part of the writing process; it wasn’t a solo project or a solo artist piece,” Salzer says. “It was a band.”
And so, from the ashes of the Jeanna Salzer Band emerged a stronger, more confident collection of musicians with sights set loftier than before. This newfound ambition became known as Bright Kind. The band’s sprawling sounds grew so much that between the three members, there weren’t enough appendages to play each additional instrument. They enlisted the hands of Eric Klosterman, Bunke’s old college buddy, whose instincts and expertise behind the synthesizers led to more complex electronic flourishes.
“You hit a wall when you do piano-centric music,” Klosterman says. “Ben Folds has done it; Elton John has done it. Someone has to get really, really creative to change the game with piano rock. It’s nice to have synthesizers to expand your palette and make your song unique.”
With Klosterman on the synths, the group finally got around to recording its eponymous full-length album at Howl Street Recordings in December. The album, which is tentatively scheduled for a mid-July release, distances itself from the band’s past, and doubters with preconceived notions about a reinvented Jeanna Salzer Band should definitely give this one a spin. The songs incorporate atmospheric melodies and a graceful spotlight on soul-inflected dance music. Monetary restraints forced the band to take a DIY approach to the mixing process, and another college friend, Alex Schaaf, the current frontman of the nationally acclaimed bedroom pop outfit Yellow Ostrich, offered a fresh take and also completed some vocal mixing.
“The songs themselves are still really strong and interesting,” Schaaf says. “But you can hear how much thought was put into the arrangements and instrumentation, not always choosing the obvious path.”
So many bands burn out quickly, but Bright Kind is in the midst of a new epoch in its ever-growing history. The band received glowing responses to its live shows, and in March, it was the first group to play to a live audience on WMSE’s weekly “Local/Live” radio program. Erin Wolf, the show’s co-host and WMSE’s music director, first became close to Salzer while working at the Milwaukee-area youth groups Girls Rock Milwaukee and School of Rock. Wolf says she’s excited about Salzer’s hard-to-characterize musical transformation. “Everyone wants to compare you to Tori Amos or Fiona Apple,” says Wolf, who plays piano and sings in two local groups, Altos and Hello Death. “It’s clear that people are going to have to figure out other comparisons to make, which will be a relief to Jeanna.”
This article appears in the July 2014 issue of