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Creative team: Noah & Sarah Hoehn use Internet platform to pursue musical project

The Hoehn family -- Sarah, 7 1/2-month-old Leo and Noah -- pose for a family photo at their Twin Cities home. (Sarah Hoehn)

Local audiences know Noah Hoehn as a homegrown talent -- an accomplished harmonica player, percussionist and vocalist who is a three-time winner of the prestigious McKnight Fellowship for performing musicians. They may also recognize his wife, Sarah Hellstrom Hoehn, who often sits in the front row of his performances, taking photos and video.

Worthington High School sweethearts (classes of 1998 and 1999, respectively) who met on the pep band bus, Noah and Sarah both attended Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S.D., and then married in 2007. Sarah works in advertising as a graphic designer and art director in the Twin Cities, while Noah is a full-time musician who is currently touring the country with his solo looping show.

Together, they have collaborated on one major project -- son Leo, now 7½ months old. But Sarah is also a creative force behind the scenes in Noah's professional career. Using both their talents, Noah and Sarah recently launched a Kickstarter campaign with a goal of producing his first solo album of original material.

Kickstarter is a website that recruits funding for creative projects, including films, games, music, art, design and technology. Since it launched in 2009, more than $350 million has been pledged by more than 2.5 million people, funding more than 30,000 creative projects.

"It's a really cool platform to fund creative projects," explained Noah. "You make a video, present your project and educate people to get them excited. In the end, it's a really awesome meeting place for people who want to fund creative projects and people who need funding to do creative projects. It's a brilliant model, no shenanigans. You ask for the minimum amount needed for the project to be viable, and none of the backers or pledgers get charged until the goal gets reached. ... I think that's great, especially for the backers, and for the artists, it puts the onus on you to reach your goal and set a reasonable goal. Other crowd-funding sites don't do that."

With baby Leo now in the picture and the unpredictability of Noah's profession, the Hoehns have found it difficult to save money for such a project.

"The traditional way for artists to do these things is to ask Mom and Dad, maybe reach out to a rich uncle in the family, or maybe their buddy from college is rich by now -- by searching out your network," said Noah. "The cool thing with this crowd funding is it forces you to come up with these rewards at certain pledge levels that wouldn't exist if you were just asking for money from friends and family. It creates a connection between the fan base and the artist through the project and during the campaign as well."

On his Kickstarter page, Noah is featured in a video -- footage shot by Sarah -- that explains his intentions for the solo project and what he will do with the money when the goal is reached.

"For those of you who are not familiar with my solo show, I play harmonica, I play marimba, I play percussion, and then, of course, I sing," he says in the video, interspersed with footage of him doing each of those things. "So what I am most excited about with this album is that I get to experiment with the intersection of musical styles, like classical, blues, pop and rock. You know, where else are you going to find a rockin' harmonica player, classically trained percussionist, four-mallet player? Nowhere. I'm your guy.

"So, where's the money going to go? I'm going to spend money on equipment, studio time, and then of course, pressing the CDs for you to listen to. So if this new album is something that you want to be part of, I'd be so very grateful if you'd consider giving."

The site also details exactly what the investors get in turn for their pledge money -- perks dreamed up by Noah and Sarah that range from an advance digital download of the album to the opportunity to write and record a song with Noah. In the midst of the medium pledge levels is Sarah's major contribution to the project, a limited edition art poster that she designed. It features a windmill with blades made of harmonicas that is plugged into a motherboard of circuitry in the earth.

"I'm from Worthington, where there are lots of wind turbines, I windsurf, and I play a wind instrument," said Noah about the image's connections to the project.

"And he's full of a lot of hot air," he's windy," added Sarah with a laugh. "I think Noah and I came up with it together. It includes all the things Noah was mentioning -- our heritage, the instruments he's playing, the landscape with the wide-open spaces, and the organic fused with the electronics, fused with his instruments."

"She, as the artist, will sign it and hand number them," Noah detailed. "And if people want, I'll write lyrics on it. We will ask the people that pledge to that level what they want."

At another level, the donor will actually get to be part of the music.

"For that level of pledge, you come into the studio and actually find something to record," Noah explained. "It can be everyday sounds like clapping, jingling your car keys, or if you play an instrument and want to use that. We already have four people. I think it's really great. I'm so grateful and appreciative to anyone who's given at any level, and it will be cool for them to be part of the project. And they'll get album credit."

Other pledge perks include working miniature harmonica keychains, harmonica lessons, a house concert with tour of the studio in the Hoehn home and a private concert at the locale of the donor's choosing.

Over the last couple of years, Noah has focused on fine-tuning his looping show, which he's recently been performing on the college circuit as well as at venues throughout the Twin Cities. Looping is a process in which digital hardware and software are used to record phrases of music -- loops -- that are then repeated and recorded over again to create a layered composition.

If it gets funded, this new project will have a different focus.

"This is going to be an album of all original songs," Noah explained. "It's going to use the full range of my songwriting ability and the instruments I play, marimba and mallet percussion-focused. ... It's the next step for me to take from the live show I've been playing for a few years, and the songs on the album are not going to be looped. As I've been writing and planning for the album, I realized it's not the foundation of me as an artist. As you're popping the CD in as you're going somewhere in the car, you don't need the looping experience, don't need to sit through the building of the loops. That connects live onstage, but the album won't be beholden to looping. However, I will do many of the songs that I've one in the show -- they're going to be on the album."

"It's about the songs, and about this message he has to tell and his story," added Sarah, "and not about getting all bogged down in the technical things."

To see the project come to fruition, the Hoehns don't have much time left to gather the $9,000 they set as a minimum goal. On Kickstarter, a time limit is set for fundraising, either 30 or 60 days, and Noah and Sarah chose the lesser period.

"If you're going to get there, you're going to get there in 30 days," Noah said. "If it drags on and on, you annoy people. You do try to walk that line, making sure anybody and everybody who could be interested knows about it, and you hope they are active enough to pass it along to anyone else who might be interested."

As of Friday afternoon, with just 16 days to go to their Dec. 3 deadline, they were a little more than one-third of the way to goal.

"I've talked to other people who have done these, and they say the last three days you're really making hay," Noah said. "It's either going to happen or not."

While they await the outcome of this venture, Noah has been sharing his music with a wider audience while Sarah holds down the fort at home.

"I just got back from playing a college showcase in Hartford, Conn.," Noah said. "I've got a lot of interested schools out east. The kids get all up in the technology, and they just love the one-man aspect and the different instruments. And the money is way better than clubs or coffee shops. It just comes down to all the travel."

"It's like any self-employed business," reflected Sarah about being married to a professional musician. "You just roll with the punches. You'll have a great month or a nothing month. As my dad would say, sometime you have your hailstorms and sometimes you have your harvests. Sometimes things don't work out and you lose the money, and sometimes you're bringing it in."

As is evident in their Kickstarter site, there is no lack of creative energy in the Hoehn household. While Noah creates music, Sarah designs his promotional materials, takes photos, coordinates his wardrobe (even down to the bright blue glasses he wears) and adds her own input to the musical process. Even young Leo gets in on the act on his plastic container drums, Sarah added with a laugh.

"And I always have Noah's creativity around," Sarah said. "It's not like it shuts off, ever. It's in his veins. Morning, noon, night, middle of the night -- it doesn't matter, it's always on, and you've got to appreciate that, too. This (Kickstarter project) is just another opportunity to let that out, share that with everyone and not just me and Leo, because we get private concerts all the time."

"She's got her input," credited Noah his wife, "and I've learned to listen to her. I'm always bouncing ideas off her: Does this sound good? Is it too cheeky? Is it too long? Too intellectual? Too heavy? Usually she's just in the other room, saying, 'That's cool,' or 'I wouldn't do that.' She's quality control ... image and quality control."

To check out the Hoehns' Kickstarter site, go to

Beth Rickers

Beth Rickers is the veteran in the newspaper staff with 25 years as the Daily Globe's Features Editor. Interests include cooking, traveling and beer tasting and making with her home-brewing husband, Bryan. She writes an Area Voices blog called Lagniappe, which is a Creole term that means "a little something extra." It can be found at  

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