Taking the stage at Under The Big Sky music festival this year means coming home for Izaak Opatz, a Missoula-based musician with a country folk sound who got his start sometime during his high school years in Whitefish playing a four string acoustic bass with friends who had regular audience-free gigs in his friend Andy Dunnigan’s bedroom.
Of himself, Opatz says he was pretty shy, and between he and his friends, they were all too self-conscious to sing. That coming-out-of-his-shell moment that preceded his rise as a musician noteworthy enough to earn plaudits in Rolling Stone would have to wait until college in Missoula, but he doesn’t dismiss those early, somewhat cloistered, years before graduating from Whitefish High in 2006 as irrelevant in his trajectory as a musician. Alongside the memories he holds (like playing “All Along the Watchtower” over and over again) and the skills he learned, the influence of those sessions, prompted by the advice of Andy’s father, the musician John Dunnigan, can still be heard in some of Opatz’s contemporary music, in which he says he likes to play with a walking bass line like they did in the Dunnigan household.
Of the chance to play at the festival this year, Opatz dwelled only briefly on the turn of events that has brought him and his current band to the biggest stage they’ve played so far (recently they’ve been playing clubs with capacity limits in the ballpark of 400 people), and he said he’s looking forward to the chance to play in front of people he knows from his hometown, including friends of his family. But otherwise, the singer-songwriter seemed on an even keel as he spoke to the Beacon recently during a pit stop at a gas station en route to a gig in Tacoma, Wash.
When they hit Whitefish, Opatz and his band will arrive in their touring Toyota Sienna minivan fresh off a leg of shows that took them up the West Coast, and into the Pacific Northwest. That tour is now approaching its final slate of shows, all planned for various Montana venues. For those who can’t make it to Under The Big Sky, or for those who simply want to see Opatz in the Flathead more than once in the next week, he’ll be playing a gig Sunday, July 16, at the Stonefly Lounge in Coram, and then Tuesday, July 18, at Home Ranch Bottoms near Polebridge.
From there, Opatz and his band will play Sounds on the Square in Havre, the Carpenter’s Union Hall in Butte, Live from the Divide in Bozeman, and then wrap up back in Opatz’s homebase of Missoula, with a July 22 show at Love Boat Paddle Co.
Playing in Mississippi Studios in Portland was a recent highlight, and the shows on the tour so far have been well-attended, satisfying experiences, sometimes in venues where Opatz has played more than once previously, which adds an extra layer of significance to seeing the turnout. There are still nights spent sleeping on floors, and days spent on the road, with odd bits of spare time, oftentimes spent at gas stations or trying to find a thrift store, in between performance-related stops along the way. “It’s very unromantic,” Opatz said of the touring life.
Over the last year, Opatz has graduated from the University of Montana School of Journalism’s master’s program, and said lately he’s had an opportunity to reclaim the musician side of his identity as he continues to balance out work in journalism and his leather tooling business. Having those separate aspects of his creative and professional identity is something that he characterized as helping him overall as a creative person.
“I’m really enjoying being on the road and playing shows with this band a lot right now. But I’ve definitely already figured out kind of over the past five years or more, that living and breathing music doesn’t quite do it for me. Just touring nonstop, it feels pretty unsustainable for me. I went back to school in part because I wanted to kind of have some other outlets for writing, and just kind of wanting to have a reason to be in other worlds,” Opatz said.
His last album, “Extra Medium,” was recorded in January 2020. Right now, he says he’s hoping to record another album this winter, at which point he’ll begin to piece together the musical riffs that live in voice memos on his phone, with the lyrics that exist in a notebook he keeps.
“Generally, my process is kind of a conglomeration of kind of sticking things together until I get some kind of cohesive idea and then fleshing it out,” Opatz said. He doesn’t approach albums with a concept in mind, but said in retrospect he may realize there’s a kind of cohesion between a batch of songs. The songs that do make it on an album aren’t usually selected from a larger pool either.
“Generally, the editing is kind of happening while I’m writing them. I feel like I just won’t pursue a song idea if I’m not pretty excited about it and can’t kind of see it being a song,” he said.
As for the experience of coming back to Whitefish to perform, Opatz said that he’s played local stages before, including the Great Northern Bar, and that while being back around his parents at their home can see him inevitably revert back to attitudes or behaviors from his younger years, he’s still able to step away from that cleanly when it comes time to perform.
“Getting on stage, especially with a band, that’s like kind of a separate thing, in some ways, so you’ve got to step into that role. For me having a guitar around my neck and being in front of a microphone, it’s not something to hide behind. But I feel more self-confident in some ways, so that’s the part that comes out. It’s fun to show that part.”
For more information and a complete schedule of set times at this year’s three-day Under the Big Sky music festival, visit underthebigskyfest.com.
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