Billed as “a podcast where two music lovers come together to explore the landscape of the music industry across the Midwest,” Midwest Mixtape issued five episodes this May capturing interviews with a diverse cross-section of musicians. Created by Emily Postlethwait and Natalie Novak, the project was borne out of the pair of friends’ mutual appreciation for music, and resulted discussion ranging from a free-flowing talk with Allegra Hernandez about transgender rights to a near-confrontational dialog with Brenton Dean (of Holy White Hounds), touching on the competitive nature of working as a professional musician. The podcast also served as a capstone project for the two as they wrapped their degrees at Drake, and in this edition of Making a Scene, Natalie shared some thoughts about what she learned from the conversations, her own relationship with local music, and whether they’ll carry the podcast forward post-graduation.
villin: If I heard correctly in the episode with Patrick Walsh, Midwest Mixtape is part of a capstone class project. What led you to wanting to make this sort of podcast and is that how you two met—in school?
Natalie Novak: Emily and I met freshmen year of college. We both studied similar subjects and lived in the same dorm room, on the same floor. It’s funny, Emily and I talked about starting a podcast our freshmen year. I think we were both surprised that we actually saw it through, as a part of our capstone project senior year.
villin: Are there any standout memories you have of seeing local bands play shows in and around Des Moines, and which would you say are your favorite venues for live music in the area?
Natalie Novak: Watching Allegra Hernandez perform last month at Capitol City Pride was a really cool and meaningful experience. Especially after getting to speak with them on the podcast, it was so awesome to be there cheering them on. They sounded amazing with their band and totally killed it.
villin: At the podcast’s core is a mission of exploring “the landscape of the music industry across the Midwest,” and as the first five episodes have proven, it’s impossible to separate music from the humanity of those who create it. What I mean is that the episodes have focused, perhaps to a surprising degree, on personal topics ranging from addiction to mental health to transgender rights. Looking back on the themes which have arisen thus far, did anything come up that surprised you, and how has digging into these topics and getting to know the musicians you’ve spoken with influenced how you hear their music?
Natalie Novak: There were some topics discussed that I was surprised guests were willing to share. Not everyone is able to open up about such personal hardships, so I really applaud our guests for being so open. Hearing the details of experiences that inspired works, or reactions they had received has really made an impact on how I listen to their music. It humanizes it for me and helps me understand how much their music means to each of them, and how deeply personal music can be.
villin: A recurring premise throughout the show is that there’s a specific type of relationship with music which Midwesterners have. How has living in the Midwest influenced your own journey as a music fans?
Natalie Novak: For me, I think growing up in the Midwest has made me more appreciative of music, and more involved with it in my community. Anytime I hear about a concert or live music anywhere—it doesn’t really matter if I know the group well, or if I’m a fan of their music—I try to make it. When there are bigger artists that come to town, even if I’m not a huge fan, I will still make an effort to go, just because our exposure is a little more limited than in bigger cities. You don’t know when or if you’ll have another chance to see that group/artist. I think it also made me really appreciate when people do come tour here. It can be rare that we get the privilege of being able to see our favorite artists in our state. I think people in bigger cities might that for granted. Because it doesn’t happen as often, I think it just feels a little bit more special.
villin: Another recurring topic on the show deals with how artists feel about living and working in the Midwest, as opposed to a larger market. One of the things I got a kick out of personally was hearing Nashville included in that discussion—I lived there for over a decade and have a running joke with a close friend about how insular and small a town it is in many ways. In my time there I came to love a lot of music coming out of the city, but I also recognize that its musicians run into the same problem there as they do just about anywhere: To gain a bigger following outside of Nashville you actually have to leave Nashville! What’s one piece of advice or a lesson that has really stuck with you from the interviews you’ve done so far?
Natalie Novak: I think the biggest lesson I learned in this was about connecting with my community. Nearly every interview we did was interesting, emotional, and inspiring. I thoroughly enjoyed meeting each of these individuals and being able to connect with them. Though the episodes were only 20 minutes or so each, the interviews were much longer—an hour or two. I didn’t expect to connect so deeply with our guests and I think that is what I am most grateful for/my biggest takeaway. Without this podcast I would have almost certainly never met these people. I enjoyed hearing their stories, getting to know them, their perspective, and their unique experiences. Many of them expressed gratitude for the platform and enjoyed having these conversations. I am just as thankful they took a chance on us, and for the wisdom and knowledge they shared.
villin: Your conversation with Brenton Dean of Holy White Hounds was particularly memorable because of his outspokenness on a number of topics; the subject of “local” branding being one of them. To paraphrase, he said that over-identifying with a place—at least doing so in terms of self branding—is “ridiculous.” The point he was trying to make, I believe, is that labeling oneself as from a city or region, out of a sense of pride, is a misguided practice—naming Tech N9ne’s references to Kansas City in his music, as an example. As I was listening to his argument, I found myself thinking about my own position from the other side of this coin: This whole website is aimed at championing the very thing he was critical of, calling out and drawing attention to creatives based on a sort of regional association. Likewise, your podcast is named Midwest Mixtape, focusing attention similarly.
The parameters of doing something like this, to narrow the lane of attention to a specific group of musicians might not be of any interest to many, but I think it has value—particularly when the tools and online avenues for music discovery which are available to help people find new music often overlook independent artists… let alone independent artists in small or non-existent markets, such as those throughout Iowa. For many, to get noticed anywhere, that often starts with getting noticed at home. I find this to be a really interesting topic, obviously, but have you had any thoughts since that conversation about the potential benefits and drawbacks of the “local” branding conversation?
Natalie Novak: I respect Brenton Dean’s opinion but I disagree. I think there’s a difference between branding yourself as your hometown/state/whatever and having some good old-fashioned hometown pride, and just sharing your experience. I think where we grow up has a huge influence on us. Growing up in the Midwest, I always felt like it wasn’t as “cool” as a place to be from, and that it would’ve been way more exciting to grow up someplace else. We have the reputation of having nothing going on. And yeah, maybe we don’t have as much stuff going on as they do in Los Angeles or New York. But there is life here, contrary to popular belief. It isn’t all cornfields and soybeans. Midwesterners make art, too. Iowans make art, too. A big part of our motivation behind this was to lift up these artists that don’t get the same coverage/attention. To show people we are here.
villin: I also enjoyed hearing directly from artists about their takes on the topic of the business of music; not necessarily out of some lust over capitalism, but more so in terms of learning about ways in which they’ve identified as viable opportunities and mediums by which they can help support themselves as professional artists. Looking ahead, is the podcast something you’d like to continue on with and, if so, is that topic something you’d like to lean in on, or are there other areas you’d like to explore further?
Natalie Novak: Yes! I found this really interesting, too, to hear how they were able to get creative in making their livings. I think it’s definitely a point of interest. Originally we set out to get a full scope of the music industry here and wanted to speak with more record labels and venues and things like that. So if we were to continue, we would definitely keep up with the artists but also work more on expanding our scope. Emily and I have discussed continuing the podcast, we both want to. Having just graduated this spring, we are both in a transition period and dealing with moving and getting adjusted to new jobs and post-grad life. I would love to continue with the podcast, but at this point, I don’t know exactly when more episodes could be expected.