Culture: Brian Laidlaw and the Family Trade


Performing frequently around the Twin Cities, poet and songwriter Brian Laidlaw pairs his music and lyrics with the enthusiasm and talents of The Family Trade. An ethereal gift to the eardrums, Brian Laidlaw and the Family Trade are like waking up on a Saturday morning, where every position is comfortable and cozy. With a mandolin, violin, cello, ukulele, guitar, bass, and drums in tow, their folksy jams are songs you can sing along to after only one listen. Laidlaw’s lyrics lay out smooth against the background of so many strings, ebbing and flowing with each crescendo and diminuendo. On stage, the band members swell with the music as they strum and sing along.


First things first, how does a big ol’ band like The Family Trade come to be? Slowly, naturally, progressively, it would seem. “At the time when this band formed, I was living in a very musical house. We’d often find ourselves hosting impromptu song-swaps on our porch, with a cast of local songwriters sharing their works-in-progress and other folks jumping in, singing harmonies on the fly, adding other instruments, and so on,” Laidlaw says. “The Family Trade arose from those informal sing-alongs; after several of my musician friends knew how to play my songs, the ‘sing-alongs’ shifted almost imperceptibly into ‘rehearsals.’ Pretty soon we were playing at venues bigger than the front porch.”

It was an incredible blessing to discover an awesome band hiding right inside my circle of closest friends.

Hailing from California, Laidlaw had his own band back in San Francisco. But when he moved to Minneapolis to pursue his MFA in poetry at the U of M, he missed the joys of performing and writing music. “When The Family Trade took shape, it was an incredible blessing to discover an awesome band hiding right inside my circle of closest friends,” Laidlaw explains.

Laidlaw remembers the band forming officially early in 2011, which is how long ago the email chains had started. “At that point, we had just decided that we were going to be a real band, and we were writing back and forth for awhile, trying to pick a band-name. There are some strong contenders in that chain,” says Laidlaw. “‘The Cabin Walls’ and ‘The Prairie Sound’ are among the ones I still really like.”

Of course with a band of such size and talent, there is bound to be turn around as members’ lives sync and fade with the demands of being in a musical group, and Laidlaw admits that “we’ve had some turnover in the personnel, but we keep recruiting new friends to fill in when old ones go off adventuring.”

Having experience in bands before and having come together so organically, with a big group of talented musicians, writing each song  for The Family Trade is an interesting balance.  “I write all the songs. But the arrangements are wonderfully collaborative; my chords and lyrics simply provide a framework for the harmonies, rhythm section, and strings players to work their magic,” says Laidlaw.

Every single member of [The Family Trade] is also an accomplished songwriter in his or her own right.

But, he is quick to add that “every single member of [The Family Trade] is also an accomplished songwriter in his or her own right. Ashley Hanson writes and performs with the Dusty Porch Sisters; Tim Harlan-Marks writes and performs with Very Small Animal; Sean Geraty writes and performs with a Nashville band called Spark Fire; Becky Gaunt and Greg Byers write and perform as a duo called the BGGBz.”

Of course, not every song starts out the same way. As a poet, Laidlaw has a unique perspective on the songwriting process. “I almost always end up writing the lyrics first. My poetry has become increasingly fragmentary and experimental in the last few years…so songwriting is my perpetual playground for rhyme and meter. I usually write a full set of lyrics in my notebook, in silence, and then pick up an instrument and build a melody that suits the meter and contour of the lines,” Laidlaw said. “I’ve written songs that way for nearly a decade, but it was only in the last few months that I realized how atypical my method is. I teach songwriting at McNally Smith College of Music, and the vast majority of my students seem to compose with a guitar in their hands. I’ve been experimenting some with that ‘music-first’ approach recently, and it’s resulted in more energetic melodies and less linguistically dense content.”

The Family trade, as well as the other bands  the members are involved in, are part of a Twin Cities arts and music cohort called the Yes!Lets Collective. This musical collective is kind of a gathering of who’s who in the Twin Cities Music scene, boasting:

 “The Yes!Lets Collective is a cohort of Twin Cities musicians, artists and organizers. With an ethos of unwavering enthusiasm, we seek to unite ‘performer’ and ‘audience’ through events based on community building and collaborative art-making. Our goal is to foster an environment in which all participants, regardless of their artistic backgrounds, can share equally in the joy of creation. Our roster is made up of member artists and bands who create and perform in the spirit of the collective."

In their work as members of the Yes!Let’s Collective, the band has been able to perform many unique shows, one of which was known as a “Dark Show.” At this show, “The Family Trade performed in total darkness in the basement of The Third Place gallery. It was a wild experience for everyone involved, hearing disembodied instruments and voices rise out of nothingness,” said Laidlaw.


Laidlaw’s first public performances were outdoors around campfires, like many guitar-toting hopefuls. And that’s still his favorite venue to play. “I will admit that I still love performing outdoors, unamplified, around a bonfire. [The Family Trade] had the opportunity to play in that format at the Walker Art Center a couple times this year and at other festivals around the state.” 

Laidlaw also admits that playing the recent Internet Cat Video Festival was an “outstanding contender for ‘strangest gig of all time.’”


Coming up, Brian Laidlaw and The Family Trade have an EP release. Titled Whiskey with Goliath, the new mini-album is the first collection released by the band as a group. It has seven tracks full of strings and soothing vocals and lyrics that stick with you long after the stereo falls silent.

To be kept in the loop on upcoming shows, you can check out The Family Trade on their Facebook page, and on the Yes!Let’s Collective site. You can also buy previous albums (listed under Brian Laidlaw) on iTunes, etc. If you're looking to catch this lively group in person, they've got a show coming up on halloween night at the 400 bar.

And of course, The big release party for their new EP, "Whiskey With Goliath," will be at Icehouse on Friday, January 25, with Chasity Brown.


Track 1: Drugstore Hucksters


Track 2: Idioms


Track 3: I Was the Setup

All rights reserved to Brian Laidlaw and the Family Trade.

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