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John Munson

May 19, 2016
Photo of John Munson
John Munson

Minneapolis musician John Munson wrote, sang, and played in ‘90s cult favorite Trip Shakespeare, as well as multi-platinum-selling hit-makers and Grammy-nominated Semisonic. In addition to his jazzy revisionist work with The New Standards, he also rocks with ex-Trip bandmate Matt Wilson in their group The Twilight Hours, who are set to release their second album Black Beauty in mid-July 2016.

What brought you to the U, specifically to the Asian languages & literatures (ALL) department?

I began college in 1981 and my mind was on many things, none of which were school. Music is my particular interest but what was offered at the U at that time had little to do with my area of interest—pop rock and so on.

I stumbled through several trimesters attempting to get my bearings and then dropped out more or less.  Around that time my dad had an opportunity to travel to China to do some work in soil science and agronomy.  Seeing that I was a bit a-sea he offered to bring me along. China at that time was amazing to me. I had a phrase book; I set off exploring and a lifelong fascination was set afire. The fuel for that fire was what I needed to push me back to school with a proper focus. I returned and started studying Chinese in the summer intensive program, completing my first year of language study with Stephen Wang, who I really came to love. In the fall I enrolled in my second year of study with Ian Burns, a wonderful Chinese teacher, who when he didn't speak Chinese in class, soothed with his lovely Scottish brogue. After that it was back to China for a summer intensive again, this time in Tianjin at Nankai with the live wit of Ted Farmer leading our group. I completed three years of language study in just over a year!  

I was a bit burned out after that though… music came calling again, this time in a more serious way. My band Trip Shakespeare was soon on the covers of magazines and papers all over the Midwest and then the whole country. Making records for the A&M label out at Prince’s Paisley Park Studio, I was riding high!

My music career continued apace, leading to a couple of hit songs with my group Semisonic until about 2002.  A career lull led me into Joe Allen’s office to inquire whether it might be possible after all this time to complete my long dormant degree. Joe patiently told me what I must do in order to re-enroll. There were still two sections of classical Chinese and then a few seminars to do, including a senior project. When I left Joe’s office that day I reckon he thought he had seen the last of me.

But no, I had determined to tie up this loose end in my life and I came back after a fifteen year break. Stephen Wang was still there, my first Chinese instructor, and I managed to complete my classical Chinese requirement and also took a couple courses with Joe that rank as the all-time high points of my college work, one of which was on the poets Tao Qian, Su Shi and Li Bai and studying them as outsiders in the tradition of Steve McQueen or Clint Eastwood!  Joe had an interesting take on Chinese poetry, suffice it to say, and furthermore he lent much of himself to the class, using his own pursuits and life as a lens for the class to view the poems.

I wondered sometimes if the presence of an older student, someone close to a peer age-wise, influenced Joe’s teaching… I can't be sure, but I will say that his approach hit close to the bone many times. The lives of these poets and their rejection of conventional pursuits in order to live a life more closely aligned with an obscure aesthetic resonated with my own life in ways that made the class feel very personal and especially rewarding.

A second seminar on the Book of Songs, also taught by Joe, was nearly as fulfilling. In that course I did my senior project, which Joe allowed me complete freedom on. I created several musical pieces reflecting themes in the Book of Songs.  I believe Joe was quite pleased that he had inspired such a unique project and I was grateful to him for allowing me to use my musical talents to complete my work in ALL.

When it was all said and done I completed my course work and was awarded my BA in ALL, twenty years later, with a very high GPA in spite of the miserable start I had had at the U. And I had fun doing it!

What projects are you currently working on?

I have continued my work in music. I have several bands I play in. I produce records. Life is good.

Do you still practice a language?

I still maintain my Chinese a bit. My daughters both attend Yinghua Academy, a Chinese immersion school in Minneapolis. They keep me on my language game a bit.

How has your degree impacted your life?

My degree is pretty much merely a point of pride for me. I did it. I enjoyed doing it, but I have been self-employed my whole life. No one cares about my degree except for me, really. All I have ever wanted is to satisfy myself, so perhaps that is as it should be.

What advice would you have for undergraduate students of ALL? Graduates?

Find a thing that makes you happy and go towards it everyday. Don't be too hard on yourself, and don't take yourself too seriously.

What books are you currently reading?

I'm reading Knaussgaard and The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. I recently read the Orphan Master's Son, which was amazing.

What albums are you currently into? Recommendations?

I listen to remarkably little music. I'm very focused on the stuff I happen to be working on at any given moment. I listen to the radio as a way of keeping up with what’s going on currently. Then I just go back to my favorite stuff that I still find hugely inspiring: the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, David Bowie, and Prince.