By Brad Lopez
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By Noah Hubbell
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Still, Skanson wasn't quite ready to abandon rock and roll. Upon finishing his final exam at Moorehead State, Skanson immediately took to the highways with Mata Hari. Over the next three years, the act released an independent CD (Feel the Fire) and appeared at clubs across the country--but it was a show that didn't happen that opened the door to Skanson's new career. Mata Hari was supposed to play a date in Kansas City, but a snowstorm stranded the musicians in Limon, Colorado. When the Kansas City performance was canceled, the band headed to Denver to kill a few days, and while in the city, Skanson answered a want ad for a "new-age/classical guitarist" placed by Boulder violinist Malcolm "Mr." Watson. As a result of his triumphant audition, Skanson spent the next few weeks flying back and forth across the continent, playing with Mata Hari one night, Watson the next. Eventually, Mata Hari folded, and Skanson devoted himself to his quieter side full-time. Following two years on tour as half of Watson and Company, he went out on his own in 1995. Even he's dumbfounded by the number of miles he's racked up since then. "If my butt had an odometer..." he muses.
Unlike most local musicians, who typically drive from club to club in overstuffed vans, Skanson usually travels in relative style. His preparation for a recent trip to Miami provides a glimpse of his routine. "First I will ship my tapes and CDs ahead to the hotel where I'm staying," he explains. "Then on Friday I will take my two guitars, two speakers and my one rack case, and I'll fly to Miami. Saturday morning I will go to the show and play all day, from nine o'clock in the morning until six that night--six or seven sets a day--and again on Sunday. Monday morning I will ship back any product that I have left over, gather up all my equipment and get on the plane back to Denver. It's incredibly focused."
So, too, is his music. Skanson may be bottom-line oriented, but his work definitely is not lacking in emotion. "If a song doesn't move you in some way, what's the point of playing it?" he asks. "My two biggest bitches with instrumental music are that with the ethereal, new-age stuff, it goes nowhere. And with classical instrumental music, it goes everywhere--and you don't really care to follow. My music is very different in that way. The pieces are very short, and each piece has a mood it's trying to capture and some place that it's trying to go."
When Skanson picks up a guitar to play "Hometown Suite," a composition from Guitar Tree, he proves his point. His fingers leap and dance across the fretboard, producing notes that are joyous and buoyant. The music is filled with a wealth of complex chords, but his nimble picking and occasional displays of six-string flash don't overwhelm a basic warmth that seems aimed at the heart, not the balance sheet. As he introduces the song's moving, melancholy second passage, Skanson's eyes roll back and his face beams.
How does Skanson juggle his art and his commerce? "All you've got to do is play guitar to eat," he says. "It's a whole new ballgame then. Once the fear and hunger take over, it's easy." As for other motivations, he's got all he needs. "My whole life has been about forwarding my career--about making records. That's all I've wanted to do. Since I was eighteen, I've been chasing this goal, and that's all that matters. I know that if I stay focused on that, the reward will come.