By James Dillon III
The queer and quirky bandmates of Minneapolis’s Keep for Cheap are truly living out the youthful “we should start a band!” fantasy. With three of the five band members having met in their college choir in 2018, the group’s origin story wouldn’t be out of place in a musical capsule episode of any number of beloved ’90s sitcoms.
Keep for Cheap shows no signs of being a one-off storyline, however. The group is still riding the high from the release of their first studio album Bundle, which co-lead vocalist and guitarist Autumn Vagle says is the culmination of the band becoming more comfortable with one another.
“It’s where we really started to be more collaborative within the writing process and finally finding that sound that’s true for Keep for Cheap and not just my songs and Kate’s songs. These are songs we have together.”
Kate Malanaphy, the group’s other lead vocalist and guitarist, is also Autumn’s partner of 3 years.
“The album is a lot of love songs,” Vagle said. “It was literally [the sound of] me falling in love with Kate.”
Vale and Malanaphy are the primary songwriters of the group, writing the backbone of each song. Vale described their processes to be very similar: using songwriting as a way to journal.
“It’s a way to express outwardly what we’re feeling inwardly,” she said. “We’re both very honest in the way we song write. Naturally, our queer identity seeps through. And more broadly, having these queer yearnings— these real feelings and connections for the first time—and not knowing what to do with them.”
In addition to exploring queer romance, and reflecting on a rural Minnesota upbringing for Vagle, specifically, a significant part of creating Bundle was an exercise in solidifying Keep for Cheap’s overall sound as a band. Having described themselves as ‘Prairie Rock,’ they navigate seemingly incongruous genres effortlessly and with no short supply of joy.
As a result, the songs on Bundle run the gamut, from the towering indie rock gravitas of tracks like “The Time” and “Checkout” to the more whimsical feeling folk world of “Segway” and “On the Floor.” Their video for the honkytonk-inflected “Hide My Emotion” plays out like a lesbian Brokeback daydream.
“We came into the sound so organically,” Vagle said. “When we started playing in 2018, it was indie and then right away with the country licks…the folky aspects are there, and we’re also very inspired by nature. So it all kinda sounds like a DIY Midwest vibe. As we say: ‘we’ve entered the Keep for Cheap cinematic universe.’ We got our sound, and we’re just sittin’ in it, layin’ back… chillin’ in it. And some of these sounds are really big.”
Even with the creation of this album, the prospect of a tour out west, and other exciting developments, Keep for Cheap is still keeping it real and close to home. Through playing favorite local venues like The Cedar Cultural Center to continuing to practice in bandmate Kurt’s basement in Dinkytown.
“The Minneapolis local scene is so interconnected,” Vagle said. “We all feed off of each other. You play for the people around you and you hope you inspire them.”
When the band performs in areas of rural Minnesota—areas like where Vagle grew up—they are still able to represent their unique sound and identities.
“It’s important to have country music, at its core, be queer and be different and have these different voices,” she said. “You can reach such a wide range of people with your messages through country music. You can break through barriers.”
“Being a girl,” Vagle said, “…being a gay girl… and being non-binary folks in indie country, and especially in Minnesota, when we play up there, it feels powerful. We play a lot of places and it’s interesting hearing people say they like us, when you’d think they’d probably look at us and write us off.”
This phenomenon is, in a way, karmic for Vagle, since she lived her early years up near the Canadian border, growing up on a lake connected to the Boundary Waters.
“I think I have a greater patience for people,” she said. “I grew up with that. ‘The other side’—that was the mindset. With that, there are subtle ways of befriending just about anyone, ways to subtly communicate with people. Music is one of those ways. It’s not a direct clash.”
One of the ways Keep for Cheap employs its subtlety and tries to remain relatable is through not over sensationalizing Autumn and Kate’s romantic relationship as part of their act.
“We don’t want to hide it,” Vagle said. “We’re proud of it. But we want to be genuine. We don’t want to exploit ourselves so that we’re the band’s success. And we’re conscious of that when we’re writing, too. We’re not trying to write a buzzed tagline of queerness. We try to be down to earth people.”
Remaining down to earth while continuing to explore the newly-coined ‘Keep for Cheap cinematic universe’ might prove to be more challenging than they’d expect, but the band seems well-primed for the task, both creatively and interpersonally.
“We’re all pals,” Vagle said. “We all have such an understanding for each other. It’s just carefree, no judgment… silly, goofy vibes. And I don’t know where we wanna go, but I think we wanna be more experimental and try new things and get bigger and louder but also folkier at the same time.”
James Dillon III is an artist living in Portland, Maine. A self-styled Renaissance Queer, they use photography, writing, and performance art to explore, celebrate, and challenge the world around them.