Craig Minowa is jogging his teething baby girl down a country road near Viroqua when he takes my call about his band Cloud Cult and their show on Friday, July 20.
"Sorry I'm kind of out of breath," he says, the beat in the background of his feet hitting gravel. "She just likes the movement of watching the leaves flying overhead."
Minowa looks up, too, when he needs reassuring. The advantage to performing outdoors, as he'll be doing when Cloud Cult kicks off the Majestic Theatre's free, all-ages Live on King Street series, is the sky above. "All you have to do is look up and see a cloud passing over to really get reminded about why you're here and why you're onstage," he says.
Coming from someone else, that might come across as a lightweight, harmless inspirational statement. But Minowa's songs tap into gut emotions of joy and hurt. Cloud Cult's reputation as an environmentally conscious band manifests not in pedantic lyrics about energy-saving light bulbs, but in the everyday practicality of reusing old jewel cases, powering their recording studio with the sun and wind, and generally leaving a carbon tiptoe.
The band's live show also translates well to the outdoors, with hypnotic and inventive percussion and two artists painting onstage, Scott West and Minowa's wife, Connie.
Minowa spent last winter scoring his second season of the National Geographic series America the Wild. It came out recently on DVD. Now he's wrestling with a follow-up to Cloud Cult's 2010 album Light Chasers.
"Maybe because I spent six really intense months on symphonic orchestration, I've got this inclination to just turn up the guitar amp and get loud," he says.
The personality of the album is shaping up differently from Cloud Cult's prolific output of the last decade. Minowa processed in song the sudden death of his two-year-old son in 2002. When he and Connie had a second son in 2009, he was still writing music in a state of emotional upheaval.
Now, life is settled. He and Connie moved from Minnesota to a farm in Viroqua, where they're surrounded by likeminded back-to-the-landers, organic farmers and the majestic bluffs of the driftless region.
The change hasn't led to complacency, he says. His musical focus has turned inward instead, as he asks questions like "What can I do to be a better person?" and strips down layers "to expose the ugly parts of yourself."
That's where the loud guitar stuff comes in, he says. "Direct face-to-face confrontation with your inner demons."