Folk singer-songwriter Katie Dahl ’05 may never have picked up a guitar if it hadn’t been for one icy Minnesota winter. During her first January at Carleton, she slipped on a sidewalk coming down the hill from Goodhue and broke her right wrist. Down one hand, she couldn’t play the oboe. Instead, she found a guitar and started learning some chords, strumming with her hand in a cast. Now, Dahl has returned to Carleton three times to play her original music—with two uninjured hands—most recently in a concert at Applebaum Recital Hall last Tuesday, January 21.
From the first note Dahl sang, you could tell she was a natural. Her chords were somehow both simple and creative. Her voice was rich and flowing and charmingly Midwestern, and so were her lyrics; the second song she performed, entitled “Oh Minnesota,” harkened back to her formative years growing up in White Bear Lake and Shoreview, Minn., while many others sang tribute to her family heritage in her current home of Door County, Wisc. Her keen sense of place was both poignant and clever, with lyrics like, “I keep an agate in my pocket, and a jacket in my car.” She displayed a true English major’s wit, her songs full of wordplay and alliteration that made me assume that she had been writing creatively since college at least. But in an interview the day after her show, I learned that I was wrong.
“Back then, I wasn’t ready to trust myself that I could try to write a song,” Dahl confessed over the phone. Although she played and sang with Pickin’ and Grinnin’, Carleton’s folk music society, and performed a few times at the Cave, where she once won a competition and a $25 Target gift card, it wasn’t until a few years after graduation that she wrote a song she liked. When I asked how she got over her writer’s block, she told me it took remembering that the folk singers she admired hadn’t always been doing it, either. “Eventually I realized, oh, all these other people started at some point, so I could try.”
It seems to have worked out pretty well, given that she has released six albums, the latest entitled Wildwood. She’s also co-written a musical, Victory Farm, and is at various stages of writing two more. Dahl got into the playwriting business just after graduation. “I don’t know why I had the confidence to write a musical but not a song,” she told me. “Maybe it felt more structured and manageable.” It also had something to do with the venue she was writing for. Growing up, she spent summers in Door County and fell in love with the folksy original musicals at the local Northern Sky Theater. “The actors there were like my celebrity crushes,” she laughed. So when she moved back to Wisconsin after college, she jumped at the opportunity to join their world.
Victory Farm, a story about German POWs in Wisconsin, took Dahl, Emilie Coulson and James Valcq six years to finish. “I’m writing the next one all on my own,” she told me, “and I think it’s going to take me seven or eight years.” That’s The Fisherman’s Daughters, about a pair of sisters in Door County who have to work things out when the state of Wisconsin wants to make a park on their family land. Dahl is also in the concepting stages of a third musical, about three women who live in the Northwoods of Wisconsin during Prohibition and start moonshining to make ends meet.
It’s no coincidence that each of these stories takes place in or near her home. “My feeling about Door County is very mystical, but it’s not mystical at all; I have family and deep roots there,” Dahl told me. “That’s enough to make anyone connected with a place.” Such a sense of grounding in setting is the most important thread of her music and plays. “It’s not something I set out to develop,” she said, “but once I had a canon of work, it suddenly reflected that value.”
Like Door County, Carleton is one of the places Dahl feels at home. “I get very nostalgic at Carleton,” she said. “It reminds me of parts of myself that are easy to forget about.” She especially cherishes coming back to her relationships here. A self-confessed “professor fan,” Dahl spoke directly to several professors during the show—including Nancy Cho and Susan Jaret-McKinstry from the English department and Chérif Keïta and Cathy Yandell from the French department—pointing out lines in her songs that were inspired by their classes. “As an older adult, I still love these people that I loved as a college student,” Dahl told me. “It’s great that the professors don’t usually leave.”
And she’s not the only one who feels that way. Before the show, I filed into a seat behind Cho. While waiting for her former student to come onstage, she turned around to me, her more recent student. “Katie’s great,” Cho beamed. “I’m so glad she’s back.”