Balto’s debut EP was recorded in several Madison basements.
Sporting a scruffy beard and a knit hat, Simon Balto seems at home in the Midwestern winter.
The blistering cold, open fields and tight-knit towns that characterize much of the region have left a mark on the Viroqua native, whose vivid folk lyricism and distinctive vocals will fill the High Noon Saloon on Feb. 11.
As a child Balto started his musical exploration on the piano. He switched to guitar late in high school but didn't start writing his own music until a breakup pushed him to put pen to paper. The result was his debut EP, Lanes, which he released in 2012 as a five-song series of field recordings performed in basements across Madison. Over the course of the next year, Balto refined his sound and jumped into recording a full-length album, The Roads That Make Men Weary, which he dropped in November 2013.
"A friend and I went to a family friend's cabin in southwest Wisconsin with our recording equipment and a bunch of wine, beer and food, and holed up there for four or five days," says Balto. "My next record will be very different, but that album turned out exactly how I wanted it. As you grow, things change, and you do things in different ways."
His music features austerely beautiful guitar work and vocals, but it is grounded in narrative. "I'm very much a lyrically driven writer," says Balto. "I find stories where they come to me, even from overheard bar conversations."
Some of Balto's songs tell unfamiliar stories: "Jacksonville," for example, is about a man helping his unrequited love bury her murder victim. But they explore themes that are common to the human experience, like the desire for love or escape. Tracks like "The Tower and the Bloom" center on a recurring theme of loss, which Balto says is "partly driven by having lost my mom when I was young."
Since the release of The Roads That Make Men Weary, Balto has steadily gained traction in the Midwestern folk scene, playing alongside local mainstays like Field Report and Count This Penny as well as recording a session with indie music service Daytrotter.
Balto's artistic talent is at the core of his continued success, but he is quick to praise the Madison music community as a support system. "The folk scene here has been so embracing," says Balto. "I have been able to play at amazing venues and towns with great people both on stage and in the audience. I'm not blind to the fact that a lot of those things don't happen without that really special community around you."
Now, Balto is knee-deep in finishing his Ph.D. in history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and preparing to record his next album in April at Sacred Heart studio in Duluth. In the fall, he is headed to Ball State University in Indiana to become a professor, but says he intends to remain a familiar face in the area. "I plan to stay very connected," Balto says. "It would have broken my heart to have to pick up and move from this community."