Citizens of winter

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The Okee Dokee Brothers’ Winterland as an empath’s winter survival guide

By Jerard Fagerberg
Photos by Alex Johnson Photography

The sun begins its nightly creep at 4:30 p.m., passing beams through a colony of now-bare elm trees. The mercury drops to an unkind level, the vapor in the air stiffening to crystals. A draft blows through the jamb of the window, inspiring a cuss.

This is winter in Minnesota, and it comes unforgivably.

Americana folk musicians Joe Mailander and Justin Lansing, together known as The Okee Dokee Brothers, have spent their career entertaining children and families by spurring them to adventure. They’ve put out records celebrating the virtues of the Mississippi River (2012’s Can You Canoe?), Appalachian Trail (2014’s Through the Woods), and Continental Divide (2016’s Saddle Up), glorifying spring, summer, and fall along the way. When it came to making a record about winter, they knew they had to go deeper.

Winterland, released October 19, is their attempt to give that same wide-eyed glory to the calendar’s most maligned season. Winterland was conceived during a week in the Boundary Waters. There, Mailander and Lansing ice fished and dog sledded. They wore parkas and pajamas. They lit fires, traipsed winter carnivals, and snowshoed, searching for the words to tell children that, miserable as it may be, you have love what this season gives you.

Because one day it might be nothing more than a memory.

Feeling Hunkered Down

Long ago, hinterlanders developed the coping mechanism of avoidance. Use a blanket to ward off the reality of the next few months. Draw the blinds and tell yourself it won’t last forever. 

Mailander and Lansing grew up in Colorado before later moving to Minnesota, and winter became part of their identity early on. Like fellow cold-weather natives, they rejoice in the joys winter brings. Energetic songs like “Ice Fishin’ Shack” and “Howl” call children to the same undaunted adventurism they felt in their youth. They put winter on the same jubilant plane as summer or spring. You can imagine Mailander and Lansing zooming around on a toboggan in their stocking caps and translating the jubilation into lyrics in their heads.

But we can’t help it if winter brings despair. If it makes us want to sink down into the sheets in front of the hearth. Songs like “Ukulele in a Snowstorm” and “Lazy Day” were written allow the emotional doldrums to set in—if you can’t muster the energy to board that toboggan, Winterland teaches, that’s an acceptable way to feel.

“Let’s embrace not only the winter but also those cold feelings we have,” Mailander says. “Even if it is a little dark and sad, it’s not a bad thing.”

That’s not to say that, with one listen to “Candles,” children will immediately grasp the complexity of seasonal depression. But setting the sadness to song does give families the opportunity to discuss it together. First, they learn the words. Slowly, the feelings normalize.

“When you’re talking about emotional learning, you want to set up some of these more difficult situations,” Mailander says. “When you recognize a universal truth, you want to put it out there so that [kids] can start gaining fluency in that type of idea.”

The most difficult aspect of winter is death. Many people believe that only parents should broach the topic. Others think children should be shielded from the reality of death at all costs. But children see it, even if they can’t understand it. They watch the color get sucked from the sky and the leaves and wonder where it went. If The Okee Dokees were going to honor the winter, they knew death couldn’t go unaddressed.

Mailander took note from Mr. Rogers, who dared to take an entire week to talk to children about death. Songs like “Grandmother Tree” and “Signs of Spring,” with its jubilant bridge of “Yeah, death is part of life,” prompt children think constructively about the continuum of life and death. 

“If we’re truly learning lessons from nature, that’s one of the biggest,” Mailander says. “We have to say that everything passes, and it’s a very humbling fact, but it allows us to live a more respectful life.”

It was in January 2017, when Mailander’s son was born, that the album came full circle. The year ends in winter, he thought, but that’s where it also begins. Where there is death, there is new life. Where there is cold, there is opportunity to create warmth. “Don’t you know the bitter cold makes the bitter sweet?” he sings on “Blankets of Snow,” giving Winterland its most clearly stated thesis.

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No Two Snowflakes

When Mailander’s son was born, his joy was unmatched. Life born from the frost. But at that same time, Mailander began noticing some uncomfortable messaging being sent to his still-unborn child. In the months before his son’s birth, friends asked about a gender reveal party. Family members bought footballs and trucks. Binkies and bonnets came in blue. 

The Okee Dokees have never shied from tackling political issues. “Shootin’ Star” dissects the issue of gun control, and “Somos Amigos” is a plea for multicultural harmony. But Mailander still struggled to process his thoughts about the heavy-handed gender cues surrounding his child. 

The result is “Snowpeople,” a placid rockabye that asks, in direct, unquestionable terms, “Why do we roll up circles just to put ‘em inside of a square?”

“It’s not to say what’s right or wrong, but just to promote non-binary thinking,” Mailander says, admitting it was the hardest song to write for the album. “I’m not saying ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ are words we don’t have to say, I very intentionally say at the end of that chorus they’re words we don’t have to wear. The more families reflect on that, the more kids hear that, it can affect a lot of things that we think about.”

The Okee Dokees first introduce the idea of gender fluidity on “You You You,” but instead of framing it in the lens of conformity or nonconformity, they start with acceptance. If you feel like a she, you can be a she, the song posits; the music is prepared to meet you where you are.

Mailander knows its treacherous territory for family music. He knows that children develop well with structure, but that doesn’t mean we need to accept the stigmas built into our frameworks.

“I would argue that it’s OK that kids don’t fit perfectly into the world that we set up for them,” Mailander says. “The way the world is set up right now, it’s not a compassionate, loving place for all people.”


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Keeping Cold

The next generation of preservationists is already alive. They’re crawling their way through our natural world, navigating the rivers, the reefs, and the evergreens with impressionable awe. But they’ll grow to inherit a world where winter is endangered. If they don’t learn to revere the elk, glaciers, and ice floes the same, then the wonders of winter don’t stand a chance.

“Climate change is the biggest threat to us, period,” says Mailander. “People like Paul Huttner on MPR talk about Minnesota culture and how it’s changing. We hear it loud and clear: the thing we’re proudest of, the thing we hold up as part of our identity, is changing.”

Winterland does not shudder from this fact. Though Mailander and Lansing do not explicitly address global warming in their lyrics, Winterland asserts climate change as an absolute fact. The Okee Dokee Brothers' partnership with Askov Finlayson makes this position unambiguous. They’ll be donating 10% of Winterland sales to the coalition of nonprofits they support through Askov's Keep the North Cold mission.

“There are multiple angles needed to address climate change to have an effect,” Mailander says. “We knew our money would go the furthest through how they’re giving it.”

The threat of cataclysm can scare people into apathy. Mailander knows this, and the partnership with Askov is designed set an example of how even small acts can create positive change. When the possibility of climate change becomes real on a personal level, then it becomes emotional.

Emotion is necessary for connection, and connection is necessary for appreciable change. By challenging children to discuss non-binary feelings or boreal sadness, Winterland connects them more deeply to their emotions. When they reach adulthood, Mailander’s hope is that they’ll turn that connection into action.

“You need to say, ‘There are good things happening, there’s hope, there’s beauty,’” Mailander says. “First you start a loving relationship with nature, then you grow to respect it, and later on in life, you’re intrinsically motivated to take care of it.”


Winterland is available to purchase here, and is also available on Amazon, iTunes and Spotify.

Jerard Fagerberg is a freelance journalist based in the Twin Cities. He tweets @jgfagerberg

This article appears in the 2018/19 Winter Issue. Buy yours here.

Caroline Royce