The music ranges from slow-burning alt-country (the Whiskeytown-esque "Like Setting Suns") to pensive ballads ("Birds Without a Wire," a gossamer duet with Glossary's Kelly Kneiser) and gnarled, loud rockers (the wiry "Wrong Chords"). "By Your Side" is a Wilco-like track on which strings explode like a sunrise by the end. The jaunty jangle and springy cowbell of "Pulling Phase to Ground" recall the rowdiest moments of R.E.M.'s Life's Rich Pageant.

Even though Magnolia Summer is three albums into its career, Grabau doesn't yet consider it an established band. He's not interested in any of the clichéd paths that lead to equally clichéd ideas of "success" either.

"I don't exactly identify with the angle of 'trying to make it,'" he says. "I'm making it already. It just seems like...there's this implicit [pressure for] a band at my stage to shoot for something higher and greater. That should be understood; we all are doing that. I don't even know what that 'something greater' thing is at this point. What I'm actually shooting for is the journey, not the end.

Chris Grabau, of Magnolia Summer 
and the Undertow Collective, 
in a rare, still moment.
Jennifer Silverberg
Chris Grabau, of Magnolia Summer and the Undertow Collective, in a rare, still moment.
Undertow’s Champaign, Illinois, branch: Adam Klavohn and Bob Andrews.
Aaron Facemire
Undertow’s Champaign, Illinois, branch: Adam Klavohn and Bob Andrews.

"You might as well make what makes you happy — or make what you think is your own. Maybe that's the brass ring — this sense that you are chasing after your muse in the best way that you can, and in the best possible forum you can. If that's on a national stage, great. If that's on a regional or local stage, well, that's great too."

It's well past midnight, and fatigue is setting in. Grabau is twirling a pen in his hands and sitting on a red chair sprinkled with white flowers. Too chilly to stay outside, he's in a cozy second-floor loft that doubles as a playroom for his kids and as a living room.

Grabau suddenly jumps up and walks over to a shelf and pulls out a CD. Not finding what he needs in its liner notes, he returns to the chair and types on a gleaming-white Macbook. After a quick search, he pulls up a website with the lyrics to a song called "Everything Is Free," by sweetheart-country ingénue Gillian Welch.

The song is about the compulsion to write and perform music — even in the face of exploitation and indifference, financial or otherwise. Its ending is particularly cutting:

"Cause everything is free now,

That what I say.

No one's got to listen to

The words in my head.

Someone hit the big score,

And I figured it out,

That we're gonna do it anyway,

Even if doesn't pay."

"It sounds pretty bitter, and to a large extent it is — it's bittersweet," Grabau says about the song. "There is no map, really, like what we said. But in the same sense, you're going to do it anyways.

"When I was a kid growing up," he goes on, "I had a great-uncle. I was told that he was a musician, a guy that would play in the bars and play out in the square. A guy that just had music to play, and would do it. It wasn't about all of this peripheral stuff. It was about making music. That's what I've always gleaned from this song. You know?"

He laughs. "It's a whole different world. Everything is free and there's no money to be made. The well's dried up, but that's not really why you started making music to begin with."

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