Harmony and Heartbreak

Songwriter, leather tooler and Whitefish native releases his debut album to critical acclaim

By Madeleine Lamon
Izaak Opatz. Courtesy photo

Who: Izaak Opatz, Jonny Fritz and Leslie Stevens

Where: Great Northern Bar and Grill

When: 9:30 p.m.

Sitting under the beating sun amidst the desolate beauty of the Mojave Desert, Izaak Opatz forced himself to write.

Over the past decade, Opatz had accumulated song fragments, but needed to finish more for his debut album and had decided to use his drive from Utah to Los Angeles to do so. For Opatz, who had been living “fluidly” – at times sleeping on the floors of homes for which a friend housesat – perfecting the songs was a welcome “necessity.”

And so he wrote.

The 31-year-old completed the record in the City of Angels, releasing it in February 2017 and re-releasing it last month after signing with a record label. He toured extensively and garnered critical acclaim, notably earning a spot on Rolling Stone’s list of the “10 New Country Artists You Need to Know: May 2018.”

Born on a couch “in a little blue hut on Whitefish Lake,” Opatz grew up playing tennis, running cross-country and hiking. Although he participated in the school band — trying and abandoning a number of instruments — his interest in music lay largely dormant until high school when he began tooling with the guitar.

With a handful of lessons, he spent innumerable hours strumming in the bedroom of his friend and future musician, Andy Dunnigan. Sporadically, John Dunnigan, Andy’s father and local music legend, would drop in to share tips, but largely left the boys to toy with their interests on their own. Opatz credits this unfettered period of exploration for his continued interest in playing guitar.

Graduating from Whitefish High School in 2006, he headed to Missoula to study English at the University of Montana. As a sophomore, Opatz moved in with his cousin who encouraged him to write songs. He soon made his first foray into the local music scene as a part of a “strange kind of chamber folk band” Fredrich’s Teeth — a reference to the Sound of Music, a film that Opatz readily admits he has not seen.

“Harmony was new to me,” he recalled. “[I realized] that the talents of other people could flesh out your own abilities.”

As the group lost members to graduation, Opatz formed his own band, The Best Westerns, in 2010. He had begun listening to country music, forming an appreciation for the evident song crafting in the tunes. As the songwriter and reluctant front man for the quintet — “I liked writing the songs; I didn’t like being at the front of the stage”— he began creating music with a country edge.

Earning degrees in creative writing and forestry, Opatz continued to play with the group and embarked upon a more transient lifestyle.

“I would travel and think about living certain places and I would settle down for a few weeks,” he said. “Then I’d go travel and find something else.”

Throughout it all, a constant was his summer job working the trails in Glacier National Park, to which he returned each year for nearly a decade. Although he toted a notebook into the park, his perennial wilderness escapades served as a “recess from writing,” during which his thoughts and ideas “festered” and “leavened.”

After a couple winters, he decided to move to Nashville, a city to which he had one tenuous connection: Jonny Fritz. Opatz had established an “occasional correspondence” with the eccentric musician, who recorded for a time under the name Jonny Corndawg, after seeing a documentary about him and sending him an email. When Opatz inquired about housing leads in the city, Fritz offered him a room in his East Nashville home, noting that he might return to the South as well.

Working in a taco shop — “the kind of place that would get a huge breakfast rush around 11:30 [a.m. due to] all the hung-over hipsters” — Opatz hung out with other musicians and continued to write music, but was increasingly disenchanted with the country scene.

“What ended up coming out were songs that were less country than what I’d been playing in The Best Westerns,” he explained. “Maybe that was a reaction to seeing a lot of talent, but hearing a lot of songs that sounded the same.”

More than a year later, when Fritz announced that he needed an extra hand for his side business crafting custom leather projects in L.A., Opatz decided to join him.

“It was a real wild hair to move down to L.A. for a job like that,” he recalled.

Opatz was playing shows and working for Dad Country Leather, first as an assistant and then becoming skilled enough to produce his own detailed leather visors, when he met Malachi DeLorenzo, a drummer and producer. They quickly became friends and collaborators as DeLorenzo invited Opatz to his Echo Park home to record a song on his fourtrack. One recording led to another and the pair soon realized they had the potential for an album.

“It just sort of happened,” Opatz said.

Within three months, they had recorded Mariachi Static in its entirety. The 11-track album, which Opatz classifies as “dirt wave” with songs that rely upon a more traditional country, folk and Americana skeleton overlaid with pop sensibilities and instrumentation, derives its name from three sources. Not only is “mariachi static” a lyric from a Warren Zevon song set in Echo Park. It also references both the feeling of being in two places at once — a sentiment shared by the drug-addicted protagonist of Zevon’s song as well as by the heartbroken Opatz present in his own songs — and the collaborators’ first recording experience during which Opatz plugged in a distortion panel only to pick up the sounds of a Mexican radio station, which can be heard during the album’s first track.

Since the record’s release, Opatz has played with a band in L.A. and performed the tracks solo throughout the nation. He is embarking upon a small Montana tour along with Fritz and Leslie Stevens, another acclaimed country musician, including a Tuesday, Aug. 14 show at the Great Northern Bar in Whitefish.

Opatz will play gigs in Alaska through the rest of the month, returning to L.A. in the fall to finish his second album by the end of the year. Beyond that, he says he hopes to return to Montana, continue experimenting with his music and, hopefully, produce fewer songs about heartbreak.

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