Minneapolis songwriter finds idyllic promise in Birdtown with song and video ‘Robbinsdale’

A screenshot from the music video for “Robbinsdale” by Gabe Barnett and Them Rounders, which was filmed in a cable access studio and featured friends of his and his band. (Submitted photo)

Gabe Barnett talks about his inspiration for the track from his band’s upcoming album

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Local band Gabe Barnett and Them Rounders live and work in northeast Minneapolis, but Birdtown has become the object of the singer-songwriter’s affection and a reflection of his deepest desires, symbolically spelled out in the song “Robbinsdale,” a track from an album due next spring that’s accompanied by a surreal music video.

Gabe Barnett is pictured Aug. 30 at Draft Horse in northeast Minneapolis. Barnett and his band, Them Rounders, are working on an album that contains the track “Robbinsdale,” which will be released next spring. (Sun Post staff photo by Laci Gagliano)

Barnett, who spent his early childhood in north Minneapolis, said he frequently takes bike rides across town to escape to the small suburb – or more specifically, to drop into Video Universe, “the last great video store on earth,” as he put it. He discovered the store a few years ago and said he can’t get enough of it.

“Video Universe is an addiction of mine,” he confessed. That’s the primary place he heads when he drops into town, where he’ll spend long spans of time browsing and scanning the synopses on the backs of movies. Sometimes he stops for a donut or a coffee, too, and there’s a “kickass catfish dish” he’s really into at Mai Tai. What keeps him coming back is the video store, but his idea of Robbinsdale has risen to an idealized place in his heart.

The song isn’t literally about the city itself, he clarified, but what the small suburb represents to him. Seemingly, that symbolism is partially about choosing to reside in a city but finding novelty in a small town as an escape. Barnett likened it to being unable to achieve, or perhaps commit to, the American Dream as presented by older generations.

“It’s a song about desire, yearning, like a longing for something better. For whatever reason, Robbinsdale embodied that at the right time where it turned itself into a song,” he said. “It kind of, at least for me personally, seems like the futility of the American Dream, like it’s just out of reach: the American idea of a perfect little life in a pleasant community. A sense of longing for something that we’re all told we’re supposed to aspire to, but it seems, for a lot of people in my generation, out of reach.”

He recalled growing up in Minneapolis in poverty.

“I think the idea of this very lovely suburban community on the edge of the city really spoke to that, passing through North where I spent my early years, with these really hard-hitting images in my mind of my single mom putting me on the back of her bike on her way to community college in hopes of pulling herself out of rough times,” he reflected. “Some of those suburbs right there on the other side of North, like Robbinsdale or Brooklyn Park, represent to me this unattainable American dream. I don’t live there, I don’t know if it’s accurate.”

While carving out a life in Robbinsdale may not be unobtainable in and of itself, it’s somewhat out of the scope of the lifestyle Barnett has already created for himself. He works at a coffee shop and a book store in northeast Minneapolis, and his stomping grounds center around a specific neighborhood in his part of town. He said he’s part of a tight-knit community where he currently lives, but that it’s still refreshing to escape to Robbinsdale from time to time.

“Maybe outside of northeast Minneapolis, it’s become my favorite place to go hang, get away from my community. Sometimes you’ve got to go where nobody knows your name. Nobody knows me in Robbinsdale.”

“Someday I’m gonna move to Robbinsdale/And I hope you’ll join me there,” he croons in the song’s opening lyrics alongside sprawling, jazzy instrumentals that gradually take shape like they’re rising out of bed on a lazy Sunday morning. Similarly, the lyrics seem to address a lover on a lazy Sunday, with references to Barnett’s impressions of a simple, idyllic life in a small town, shared with someone special: cooking, gardening, walking to the bakery (Wuollet, presumably) to split a coffee and a pastry. To an actual resident, it could seem to oversimplify the town through the eyes of an outsider, but it’s clear from the thoughts he shares about it that Robbinsdale can’t help but appear idyllic to the outside viewer.

“I think that there’s a lot of relational things in there. It’s about the death throes of a relationship, trying to scramble and figure out what will make this work, what will keep us together. Like, what if we could have this pleasant life together?” he explained.

Incidentally, a song called “In the Shades of Robbinsdale,” composed in 1917 by James J. Summers and archived by the Robbinsdale Historical Society, shares similarly idealized reflections about the town:

“So if you are discontented/In the place that you call home/Come out and see this charming town/Before you further roam … ”

Summers’ piece was written in the halcyon days of budding prosperity and an ambitious drive to carve out a niche to build a family and a life, while Barnett’s more modern take shows a clear shift toward fantasizing about such a lifestyle from a distance in favor of metropolitan autonomy, but one thing remains common: the ideas that shaped Robbinsdale have never lost their romance.

  • Mike O’Brien

    Birdtown is a state of mind not a place…