Photo: Isaac Haglof / Howlin' Wuelf Media

Karen Haglof Continues Reclaiming Her Rock Flag With ‘Tobiano’ (album stream + interview)

Oncologist and avant-garde pioneer Karen Haglof returns with a tuneful, probing collection of songs that further re-establish her as an intriguing voice in rock.

Karen Haglof‘s latest LP, Tobiano, continues the avant rocker’s solo trajectory with great aplomb. A lover of horses, who released an equestrian-themed EP, Palomino Steady Rocking in 2018, Haglof says of this current collection’s title, “Tobiano is a type of genetic color pattern for a pinto horse, a horse with patches of white on a base coat color. The effect is flashy contrasts, pulled together and linked on fabulous creatures in life and of my dreams.”

Haglof was an integral member of the Minneapolis rock scene of the late 1970s, leaving the city just before the Replacements, Soul Asylum, and others led the charge for the Midwestern DIY scene. Arriving in New York City shortly after, she joined the influential Rhys Chatham’s Ensemble and, later, Band of Susans. From there, a promising culinary career ensued before she dropped everything to attend medical school.

She ultimately joined the hematology/oncology department of New York University Hospital and serves there to this day. Slowly, she found her way back to music with Tobiano serving as her third full-length effort since her renewed interest in music roughly a decade ago. She worked with longtime musical partner Steve Almaas as producer and Mario Viele as engineer. Mitch Easter mixed the album, which features guest turns from him, Peter Holsapple, Liza Colby, Josh Graboff, Sherryll Marshall, Crispin Cioue, and Lianne Nelson.

The album arrives 12 April and taps into her greatest talents: A gift for tune with an askance sense of humor and appreciation for beauty in unexpected places. There’s a taste of glam-cum-bubblegum goodness via “Tobiano Twirl”, the powerful swagger of “Thugs in Academia”, the dreamy and aggressive “Double Cut”, and the craft-intensive “Charismatic”. Walking a fine line between the outréand the deeply familiar, Haglof has delivered a deeply charming and memorable collection that allows her guitar prowess to shine as brightly as her warmth and general human-ness.

Haglof recently spoke with PopMatters about the record’s origins and about her continued desire to create.

This album serves as a companion piece of sorts to your 2018 EP Palomino Steady Rocking.

I always get itchy to put something out because I feel like time is moving. We had four songs that seemed that they were appropriate for an EP about horses, but these were almost ready as well. I figured we’d put out the EP for the fun of it and then get this out. The separation between them is really by subject.

You had a period where you weren’t active in music. What was the impetus for your return?

At some point you pick up your old loves. I had worked very hard to get established as a physician. But that’s not 100 percent of everything. You have to have a rounded life. At least it’s nice to try. In 2009 or so I was the movie It Might Get Loud. That brought it all back. I thought, “I used to play guitar! I’m not sure why I’m not. This looks like something I should pick up again.” It just grew from there. I wasn’t thinking about a band. I figured I’d write some songs and try to play something on my own. Since then, it’s pretty much continuous in terms of writing and recording.

I’ve had moments in my life when I haven’t done a lot of writing and I’ve figured, “Well, maybe that’s it. Maybe I’ll do this other thing instead.” Somehow, the writing always pulls me back. It’s very curious, isn’t it?

It is. I think I’ve found that the things you really want to do are the things you wind up doing again and again. That’s your real soul, I think.

You worked with Steve Almaas of Suicide Commandos on this album, again. Was there any thought about not doing that? You two pair very well.

He’s an integral part of what I do. I write the stuff but he has a hand in so much of what I do from there. He’s wonderful to work with. I can bounce a lot of ideas off him. He lets me explore different options that may not be in tune with what he wants to do.

What made Mitch Easter the right person to mix this album?

Steve was in a band called The Crackers that I was in. That was the band that we moved from Minneapolis to New York with. At one point, Mitch was in that band. The first Crackers EP was done at Mitch’s place in North Carolina. So, we go way back.

You have 14 songs on this album. Did you write a number of others and decided to whittle them down or was this pretty much it?

I was initially thinking about 13 songs but I’m a little superstitious. [Laughs.] It has to be 14 or 12! Fourteen it was!

You included the Band of Susans/Robert Poss composition “Because of You” here.

Whenever I’m writing new music I’m also thinking about music that I’ve loved from the past. Music that I’ve played on before, things that friends have written. This was one of those songs. It was my favorite song when I was in the band in terms of playing live and getting to sing. It’s never left my head. To me, it embodies the whole Band of Susans vibe. It’s the kind of song that I would write. I’m very happy that Robert let me record it.

It seems like Band of Susans has gained more visibility since it came to an end.

I feel like that may be true. It seems like whenever I read about Band of Susans now it feels like we’re more of a presence than we were then. I know we definitely had our fans. It’s weird: I left that band to go to medical school and kind of wiped everything out of my mind. I really didn’t have time to keep track of it all, so there’s been this rediscovery of everybody I knew who was playing back then and who has continued to play. Although I think the path I took was the right one for me, there is some wistfulness that I don’t have the same kind of continuity of career and continuity of development.

You first came out of the Minneapolis music scene and you’re in this new documentary, Jay’s Longhorn, about the Twin Cities club of the same name. That’s an early and important moment for that music scene.

It was a great time. It felt like we were at the center of the universe. Everything was exciting and new. Bands were playing their own material. There was a sense of freedom. You could work with people that you wanted to work with and an incredible community of musicians and people who supported them. I’m really happy that I was part of that.

This album is just coming out but are you thinking about the next one already?

I’ve got some visual arts ideas going right now. Visuals with music and cartooning. I’m still writing. There’s definitely stuff on the horizon. It just doesn’t seem to go away at this point! [Laughs.]