Interview With Cleo Knickerbocker

Cleo Knickerbocker is a musician that grew up in St. Paul Minnesota but has lived in Portland, Oregon for the past 3 years. Trained as a jazz pianist, she now composes folky/indie rock tunes as a pallet cleanser from her years of jazz studies. Her current music project is Willernie, focusing on songwriting and guitar. 

ig: @cleoknickerbocker


Music has the unique ability to impact the environment where it’s played, inspiring singing, dancing, and all kinds of crazy movements. During the lockdown in 2020, our social environments essentially crumbled. There were no shows, no places to express ourselves as a community. As a musician, how did you attempt to bridge the gap between you and your fellow musicians and your audience during the shelter-in-place? And, somewhat similarly, how do you think music can be used to combat loneliness?


Before the pandemic, I was the studio manager of a recording studio that really kept me in the loop with local musicians, events, and other musical happenings in Portland. Like many others, I was laid off when the studio had to close down for a long period of time, and it was hard for me to adapt to isolation. I wanted to offer my time to volunteer with a local music organization called MusicPortland, and in that work I interviewed and chatted with as many local music professionals as I could, to see how everyone was fairing during this dark period. That included venues, artists, luthiers, gear builders, and more. That process really kept me feeling sane that we are all collectively experiencing this new world together, and for a lot of these music folk, having someone listen to them was a very comforting experience. I spent my own time outside of that volunteer work writing tunes that were cathartic to my emotions of isolation. I didn’t write as many songs as I would have liked, but I was able to join some great musicians in virtual performances that were very healing.:

What music are you listening to right now? What music are you not listening to right now that you wish you were?

Cleo: Right now, my favorite listens are the new records from Japanese Breakfast, St. Vincent, Turnstile, Leon Bridges, and Hiatus Kaiyote. 

Some of my favorite artists are Esperanza Spalding, Arthur Russell and Herbie Hancock, which I need to relisten to. I am always inspired by my favorite musicians, and it’s important to not let old releases be forgotten. I also still need to give the new Flying Lotus and SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE records a listen! 

Aside from music, are there any other art forms that inspire your sound?
Would you rather play ten shows for 1,000,000 people or play 1,000,000 shows for ten people?

I really love photography. I am guilty of trying to live in a different decade by mostly shooting in film. I also enjoy creating graphic designs of lyrics I write, I love the tangible aspect of visual art! Dance is always inspiring to me as well, it’s completely collaborative with music and that relationship is really beautiful. 

I would rather play 1,000,000 shows for 10 people, because that means I’ll always be playing! Preferably playing to 10 new people each show? 

Sunflower Station asks its artists how they interact with their environment. How does the city of Portland inspire and effect your creative process? Also, could you tell us a little bit more about Willernie. Is the city in Minnesota the namesake of the band? If so, how does the environment of Willernie inspire your music? What is it like there?

The city of Portland is a very creative place. There’s music going on everywhere all of the time, which really pushes me to continue to create even when I get swamped with other things. I have also met some lifelong friends that I jam with that are essential to the newer tunes I’ve been working on. The West Coast has a very different culture from the Midwest, a lot more open with playing tunes that are in the works, giving feedback, and being a really supportive place when in the creative process.

Ah, Willernie. My heart. Yes, the city in Minnesota is the namesake for my band. It’s a very small place that’s located completely inside of another city, Mahtomedi, MN.  It’s about a 30-minute drive to Saint Paul and is in a suburb. I grew up there from ages 5-18, and it was a funny little place to be. The city is full of old houses from the 1920s, and very old oak and maple trees that run in between houses and powerlines. It snows for about 8 months of the year in Minnesota, and it really forces you to be hearty and not afraid of the cold. My dad, who is the biggest inspiration in my life, and I would walk around Willernie all of the time, it was our favorite place inside of Mahtomedi. He raised me listening to jazz, and we would walk our dog Pepper around in the snowfall, talking about Bill Evans, Miles Davis, Pat Matheney, the local 88.5 jazz radio station,  and other things while the snow melted on our face as we just got lost in conversation. It was somewhere that I didn’t really appreciate till I moved to Minneapolis, and even more so when I moved to Portland. As a queer, loud, extroverted girl, the midwestern suburbs were not the best place for me to grow up, I constantly drove into the twin cities to go to shows, parties, anything that allowed me to go there. Including taking public transit at 6:45 AM every morning to go to high school in Saint Paul. But with that said, Willernie was a place that was unique, separate from the suburban brainwash, that had an identity crisis just like me while I was living out there.

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