Theo Katzman on How His Time in Michigan Impacts His Music

The singer-songwriter, known for his work with the funk-pop group Vulfpeck, recently released his first solo album
Theo Katzman Vulfpeck
33-year-old Theo Katzman, releases solo album, Modern Johnny Sings: Songs in the Age of Vibe. // Photograph courtesy of Theo Katzman

Singer-songwriter Theo Katzman moved to Ann Arbor in 2004 to study jazz at the University of Michigan. Though he left the city seven years later for New York and then settled in Los Angeles, the Wolverine State has had a lasting impact on his career.

“I think I can trace every dollar I’ve made professionally to college,” Katzman says. “I don’t think it’s an exaggeration.”

Ann Arbor is where the 33-year-old began his solo career and played in a number of bands, eventually joining Jack Stratton and Joe Dart to form the core of Vulfpeck, the funk-pop collective with a devoted online following. It’s also where he befriended actor and singer Darren Criss, who would go on to star in Glee and hire Katzman to be his musical director and opening act on tour.

“I met my entire scene there,” Katzman says. “It’s just endless, my Michigan thing.”

When it came time to record his recently released solo album, Modern Johnny Sings: Songs in the Age of Vibe, he returned to Ann Arbor, collaborating with old friend Tyler Duncan at his studio, The Barber House. Like the music Katzman makes with Vulfpeck, Modern Johnny Sings is full of tight and catchy pop-rock songs, though here he also dabbles in country and soulful balladry.

“I’m just trying to write the full spectrum of what I hear,” says Katzman. “I don’t want it to come off like it fits in any particular box — and I’m not trying to be cute with that. I just think that if I’m really honest, that can’t happen, because I don’t really come from one box.”

Some songs lean in an unexpectedly political direction, such as album-opener “You Could Be President,” which sarcastically takes aim at President Trump. The soulful “Like a Woman Scorned” tackles toxic masculinity head-on. “Men are great, but also deeply f***ed up in the brain,” Katzman sings. “I am one, and if I’m honest, I’m a bit ashamed.”

Katzman was nervous to put that song out into the world, so he sent an early draft to two Michigan-based female songwriter friends — Christine Hucal, who records as Woman Believer and sings on Vulfpeck’s biggest hit, “Back Pocket,” and folk singer May Erlewine — to get their feedback. Erlewine helped make sure Katzman’s message wouldn’t be misconstrued.

“It was the scariest thing I’ve ever written,” Katzman says. “I wouldn’t have been able to finish the song without her help.”

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