Izaak Opatz Photo credit: Kendall Rock
Izaak Opatz Discovers His Role As “Extra Medium”
“Extra Medium” is a concept that Montana-based Izaak Opatz discovered some time ago that helped him account for the kind of role that country and Americana artists seem to hold in the eyes of their audiences in contrast to the “Extra Large” role that rockstars seem to hold. Rather than striking a glamorous pose and taking audiences into dream-like realms like the “Extra Large,” larger-than-life rockstar, the country artist meets the audience in the medium, middle-of-the road way of life discussed in their music but brings something extra to that, a new way of looking at familiar realities.
With Opatz’s new album, Extra Medium, arriving April 29th, he leans into the role but considering every stone in life worthy of turning for inspection and experience. Opatz’s lyrics often reflect on relationships, and this album is no exception to that trend, but also bring in the texture of a life as a wanderer, an observer, and prominently, a person who feels things and isn’t afraid to share those feelings via these songs. Added to the impetus of working on this new album was Opatz’s recent decision to take up a graduate degree program in Environmental Journalism, and also the development of his custom leatherworking business. We spoke to him about all three of these areas of his life and how they play into being “Mr. Extra Medium.”
Americana Highways: You have some great and zany music videos out there. Are you someone who is inclined to make videos, or it more of a way to deliver outreach to fans?
Izaak Opatz: I guess I’m inclined, though I wonder if they are outdated. I grew up in the era of videos and I think it became lodged in my head that videos are fun and important. I sometimes question how useful they are, but they are a good way to set a tone for how I want my music to be taken. Maybe they are even further in the goofier direction! I’m not one of those people who’s very good at social media, but I do appreciate videos for setting forth my sense of humor. I’ve always loved seeing other artists’ videos, like Jonny Fritz. His videos made me realize that he was having fun as a musician, and though he took that seriously, he wasn’t trying to convince anyone that he was cooler than he actually is. It made me love his music even more, and there are a number of artists like that.
I don’t always have a great vision for videos, but I do have friends who I trust to do it, and who understand my personality coming out in the videos. Mike Workman is one of those people, who made “Chinook Wind,” and helped with the “George Bailey” video.
The video for “Shampoo” is one I did with my friend Kendall Rock, and it involves some leatherwork that I did, featured as leather magnets, so that’s fun.
AH: Regarding the leatherworking, does making things go back in time for you? Has that always been something you’ve been inclined to do?
IO: I guess so. I have some real rosy nostalgia for pre smartphone and internet days. The leather thing is not a pioneer fixation, but I like having something to do with my hands that’s in between artistic and artisan. Kind of like country music, leather is this format that has a lot of assumptions with it. Most leatherwork that you see is this floral design that’s really consistent and everyone recognizes as leather tooling. Jonny Fritz is the person who I knew that started using the leather medium to include things like pictures of peoples’ cars, hot sauce, or their cat or dog. It became more like tattoo imagery, personal and specific. It’s recognizably leather and it’s associated with being western, but then it also has this really personal side to it. That’s how I think of country music, too. It has this structure that creates an assumption about the content, but that makes it really easy to surprise people and create dimensions by taking a different turn.
AH: That’s a really great comparison. I think that really works for what’s happening right now in country music where there’s an overarching idea but artists are drawing their own lines. I know that you identify as a country artist, but I wondered if your use of language and the role of carefully constructed language in your songs is part of why you feel that identity.
IO: I agree with that. Even if my stuff doesn’t use the exact same palette as traditional country music, I feel like the confessional nature of it is part of it, but definitely also the word play. That’s what I’ve always loved about it. Even with the poppiest country music out there, it stays consistent to that. You’re meant to hear the words, first of all, and the music is playing off the content of the words. There’s a playfulness. Sometimes in country, there’s the transformation of a single line, repeated throughout the song, that kind of evolves in its meaning by the end of the song. That’s the kind of thing I think about and the model that makes it fun for me to try to write songs. We can be talking about basic feelings, but when we feel them, they aren’t basic. It’s only when we flatten those feelings out and try to put them into words that they become cliché. Adding music re-dimensionalizes those feelings, and I think that’s why we all like it.
AH: It’s possible that the musical element encourages an emotional investment from the listener that’s much greater much more quickly than writing on its own might be able to do. Also, considering the length of a song, that’s fast! It must be very challenging to tell these stories in such short form.
IO: I love that about it and it’s such a great exercise in evocation, not trying to outline the shape of something, but putting something out there that simply evokes things. That’s why songs lean so heavily on metaphor. You’re never going to be able to put in enough detail to describe a place, or a person, much less a feeling. So you have to create that connection where the person knows what you’re talking about already. It’s such a cool trick to evoke a feeling, with all its complexity, in somebody else’s brain, or heart, or gut.
AH: We’re getting very literary here, but there’s a good comparison to be made between the history of talking about relationships in poetry and also in songs. How did you get on the road of writing about relationships as a big part of your work?
IO: I think it came from what I like to listen to and starting to write songs when I was the deepest in my feels as a melodramatic teenager and in early college. I think I did more songwriting after my first real relationship, like a lot of people. I came to the realization that the things that resonated for me were songs describing really specific things. I found it was really easy to empathize and feel like the songs were about me. Realizing that made me feel like I didn’t need to shy away from being specific, and that the more specific I get, the more toe holds there are for people to see themselves in those songs.
I got into country around that time, and I felt myself responding to that specificity. There’s also something about wordplay that’s kind of a wink and a nod to the cliché of your own feelings. You know those feelings are universal and there’s something about the humor in country that allows you to acknowledge that while feeling destroyed. I think country allows you to hold onto those things at the same time and does that really well.
AH: Is the grad school that you’re doing at the moment more science or more writing related?
IO: It’s both. It’s an Environmental Journalism program. It’s a learning curve for me compared to songwriting. There’s very little evocation allowed in journalism. You have to contextualize everything and assume that people know nothing. You have to tell people only one thing at a time, but I see a lot of parallels with songwriting, too. It’s storytelling with a process of editing. You’re editing the whole world, choosing the information on the ground, and who you have the opportunity to speak to. It’s a narrowing of things. I was a creative writing major as an undergrad and that was tough for me, too. Fiction writing was too much of a blank page for me. That’s why I write about my own experiences, because it makes storytelling more possible for me. Journalism has that same approach where you have to tell one story, sorting information, and tell things efficiently and completely.
AH: Was your decision to pursue Environmental Journalism prompted by a really obvious need for this in our world right now since it’s so hard to reach people with these important issues?
IO: That’s maybe a little over-generous to me, but yes. I also have selfish reasons, too, but that’s why I chose this. There’s a need for a lot of things, but in this one, I thought I had some skills that might be useful. There’s a need for science communication in general, but the other question is how to get information in front of people. It’s hard to make this stuff sexy, but there is a lot of great storytelling in narrative journalism out there. That’s a cool challenge, to be competitive in getting peoples’ attention with hooks, characters, and why people should care. It’s a lot harder without being able to strike a chord!
AH: I really like this idea of “extra medium” and the way that it’s explained in the liner notes for this album. I get what you’re saying about rockstars as larger-than-life personas, whereas in folk, Americana, and country, there is a different kind of figure that audiences are looking for.
IO: That general ideas was one that I had about country and folk songwriters, the fact that you’re integrating that relatability in a song, but you’re also magnifying common experiences to the level of something worthy and special. There’s nothing more common than a broken heart in relationships, but we all feel it as an earth-shaking, singular event. I think music is uniquely positioned to describe that, even without words.
The “extra medium” term is one that turned up in brain a couple of years ago. I thought it was funny at first, but then I realized that there are some “extra medium” things in this world. I think of Tom Hanks as being extra medium. He exemplifies, magnifies, and embodies “normcore.” His films are often not about something crazy, but they feel good and make visible and audible something that is important.
AH: He seems like someone you could easily walk up to in the street.
IO: Totally. I think relatability is the loadstar. That’s what’s part of the magic of country music. These are really pathetic songs presented with such confidence. They allow people with the same feelings to sing along and really own those pathetic feelings in a form that’s winking and confident enough to feel legitimate. A lot of my favorite artists are vulnerable, but in that moment, are confidently sharing those feelings.
Izaak Opatz information and music can be found here: https://www.izaakopatz.com
Find more interviews here: https://americanahighways.org/category/interviews/key-to-the-highway-series/