BY MARK GUARINO | SUN-TIMES MUSIC WRITER
Claudia Schmidt moved to Chicago 40 years ago, escaping the small town life she was accustomed to in New Baltimore, Mich., and stumbling upon a folk music scene that was just getting its second wind.
The Earl of Old Town, Amazing Grace, Somebody Else’s Troubles — They were all clubs that were thriving in 1974 and beyond when Schmidt arrived with her 12-string guitar and songs. Within her first year, she became a regular on their stages and soon, she was recording for Flying Fish, the eclectic roots and world music label that later folded into Rounder Records. Schmidt says those early years not only provided her an opportunity to learn how to perform in small settings, but they also shaped her convictions about how music thrives best within a supportive community.
“There was a lot of instant access to music and going out to hearing somebody was still the way to go,” she says. “There was such a reverence about the music.”
Schmidt now lives in Minneapolis, a city she shares with Red House Records, the vaulted roots music label that just released “New Whirled Order.” She returns to Chicago Sunday to play SPACE in Evanston with guitarist Dean Magraw.
The folk revival in the late 1950s and early 1960s centered around musical incubators like the Gate of Horn, the University of Chicago Folk Festival, and the Old Town School of Folk Music. But while the music died a quiet death following the rock explosion, it entered a second act in the 1970s through the series of folk clubs located in Old Town and Lincoln Park, where singer-songwriters flourished, producing a generation that included John Prine, Steve Goodman, Fred and Ed Holstein, Bonnie Koloc, among many others.
Schmidt recorded five albums for Red House, home to Greg Brown and John Gorka, among others, but like a lot of artists, she exited the comfortable confines of a label and, about 10 years ago, chose a more simpler route: She opened a bed and breakfast, with restaurant, on Beaver Island, Mich., with her former husband, and she quietly self-released a string of personal albums ranging from spoken word to jazz. She also composed work for theater, including Frank Galati’s production of “Good Person of Szechuan” at the Goodman Theater.
Her recent return to Red House for her 19th album marks a renewed commitment to her music career. She left rural Michigan to make Minneapolis her headquarters where she, once again, tapped into a rich music scene. “My life has changed a lot,” she says.
“I am just more committed than ever to live performing and interacting with an audience,” she says. “I feel it’s more necessary than ever in this culture, where people are sitting in front of little screens every day, to become part of an environment where people meet together for the ritual of making music.”
“New Whirled Order” features Schmidt’s ethereal, strong vocals, reminiscent of Joni Mitchell, especially on the jubilant opener, “Always.” She rejects the singer-songwriter label, saying she is not a confessional writer, but instead is motivated to write songs from images, impulse, and mystery. “My own experiences are definitely filtered into the music but I don’t write from that place,” she says.
An exception is “Jane’s Around,” a song featuring three voices circling a round, singing the single phrase: “We’re born, we live, we die, we’re gone, but love goes on and on.” The words came to her last year, two weeks after her mother’s death.
“I was driving and suddenly that melody line and those words were there with me,” she says. “I felt my mom had given them to me.”
Despite recording for music labels that are often classified under “folk,” Schmidt’s music travels far beyond those boundaries into jazz and Celtic. She is also experimenting. On “Dawn Star,” she added lyrics to an instrumental written by Magraw. Lush and with blue chords, the music becomes a natural fit with her voice, with lyrics that go into the mystic.
The confidence Schmidt flexes throughout this album covers pop (“Coward in the Face of Love”), jazz (“My Defenses are Down”), and — this being the Midwest — a polka (“Strong Woman Has a Bad Day Polka”).
She says time has naturally made her better at what she does: “I can say what I need to say in a more poetic and concise way.”
“It is one of the most satisfying things I can imagine — when you get those goosebumps of truth,” she says. “I feel so lucky.”