Free-spirited and spontaneous, imbued with boundless energy, driven by a relentless creative impulse. A cross between Dylan, Cheech & Chong and Elmo.
That's how his closest friends describe Ken Lonnquist.
Spying himself in the mirror, the singer-songwriter, musical-theater composer and cornerstone of not one but four local bands, describes a conundrum. "When I'm brushing my teeth," says Lonnquist, "I see a guy that I'm getting used to seeing, but for the last five or six years I've wondered: Who's that guy in front of my mirror, and what is he doing there?"
Good question. The answer involves feeling pretty while dishwashing, the Elvis of corn breeding, The Wizard of Oz and serendipity: Throughout his career, Lonnquist, 52, has been dogged by fortuitous opportunity - and blessed with the instinct, when serendipity nips at his heels, to bite back.
Sitting at a table in the east-side bungalow he shares with his life partner, the artist Joanne Schilling, Lonnquist - in a rare idle moment between the May release of Awaken, his most recent children's album, and this fall's scheduled release of another album of children's songs, as well as two CDs for adult audiences pending next spring, and a demanding performance calendar - recounts an example.
A couple summers ago at the Willy Street Co-op, "this guy comes up to me and says, 'Ken, I'm John Penner,'" Lonnquist recalls. "'I just want to say hello. I love your work.'" New to town, Penner asked whether he had a bass player. Lonnquist said he was about to need one.
Lonnquist asked Penner who he played with. The answer: Greg Brown, the prolific, Grammy-nominated Iowa singer-songwriter.
"And I'm like, 'I've opened for Greg Brown. I'm a great admirer of Greg Brown.' I'm gonna need a bass player, I haven't started looking and out of the sky drops not only a bass player but a really good bass player." Greg Brown's bass player. "Total serendipity."
So is this: "At one time, people asked me how famous would you like to be, and I always told them Greg Brown would be perfect."
The youngest of eight siblings, Lonnquist was born in Nebraska, where his father began his career as a plant scientist. His three sisters and four brothers introduced him to acts like the Kingston Trio and "pounded on the piano" that now stands in Lonnquist's living room.
"My sisters were always singing 'I Feel Pretty' while doing the dishes, and we would just sing all these musical songs." Gordon Lightfoot's music and Tom Lehrer's satirical songs were also early and enduring influences, but four guys from Liverpool left the biggest imprint of all. "I was absolutely inspired by the Beatles," Lonnquist says. "They completely blew my 6-year-old socks off when I saw them on the Sullivan show, and I've never gotten my socks back on."
Lonnquist is prolific. May's release of the CD for Awaken, a musical adaptation of the Aztec folk tale "The Lizard and the Sun," was accompanied by stage performances of the show. Awaken followed 2007's release of Hamelin, based on the classic Pied Piper story. In the first five months of 2008, Lonnquist did seven artistic residencies and "was just cooking," he says.
But not all his material is for children. "When it's flowing well while writing with kids, it's generally flowing well writing about whatever," he says. "Sarah Palin."
He's referring to "Brain to Nowhere," one of those topical songs that spring from the outrage simmering behind his smile - much of it lingering from the Bush administration, but also directed at fresh targets. "Brain to Nowhere" got some YouTube notoriety with its unsparing satire ("I been carefully explainin' / No such thing as global warming / Teachin' teens to cross their legs and pray").
"A lot of Republicans weren't laughing at that one," Lonnquist admits, "but then again, they have no humor. 'Brain to Nowhere' was fun for me."
The population of Kenland includes some of Madison's most prominent musical residents: Gomers singer-pianist Dave Adler; multi-instrumentalist Doug Brown; Lou and Peter Berryman; Rousers singer-harpist Frank Furillo; Latin jazz percussionist Tony Castañeda; keyboardist John Chimes; trumpeter Dave Cooper; vocalist Kelly De Haven; bass virtuoso Jeff Eckels; Maggie and Sims Delaney-Potthoff of Harmonious Wail; percussionist Dane Richeson; and violinist Jon Vriesacker.
Brown has collaborated in almost every aspect of Lonnquist's career while tending to his own. "The main thing that strikes me is how brilliantly and consistently creative he has been," Brown observes, adding, "Ken has a real verve for putting bands together."
Three of those bands include Adler, who remembers being "maybe 12" when he met Lonnquist in the late 1970s. They were working on a show for Children's Theatre of Madison. Adler now plays keyboards for the Kenland Band (the vehicle for Lonnquist's songs for kids) and the Whateverlys (who perform his adult-oriented fare and a variety of covers, including Dylan), and washboard for O'Darby, an ensemble devoted to Irish music.
Adler emphasizes that when he likens Lonnquist to a cross between Cheech & Chong, Dylan and Elmo, he means this respectfully - using Elmo as shorthand for Lonnquist's ability to reach young audiences. "He was a really inspirational figure for me," Adler recalls, "a free-spirited person who let the music use him as a medium."
A self-described free thinker who takes "great pleasure and joy" in aspects of his friends' faiths but adds that Bill Maher's movie Religulous "restores me," Lonnquist was raised Catholic and "pretty solidly middle class." Also a bit Mexican: When he was 10, his father took a job with the International Center for the Improvement of Corn and Wheat in Mexico City.
Those three years were "a magical time," Lonnquist says. His father directed the corn program there; future Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug ran the wheat side. "My dad was like a hero in South America because corn is the thing," Lonnquist says. "He was the Elvis of corn breeding."
The sons revered their father's clandestine LP. "My dad had a record that he had to keep hidden from my mom," Lonnquist confides. It was an album by Oscar Brand, the devotee of bawdy folk songs. "The one my brothers loved was, 'Oh, dear, what can the matter be'" - Lonnquist sings, conducting with his hands - "'16 old ladies locked up in the lavat'ry...' Silly stuff, but my mom disapproved."
When his father joined the UW faculty, the family settled in Middleton in time for Lonnquist to finish middle school there. Graduating from Middleton High, he enrolled at the UW to study communication arts. With three of his brothers embarking on legal careers, "everybody assumed I was going to be a lawyer."
Serendipity intervened, vetoing those assumptions during his junior year. Walking in a cold March drizzle after breaking up with his girlfriend over dinner, "I felt like I was in my own movie," he says. "Out of the misty rain, I see a poster on one of the lampposts: auditions for Wizard of Oz, Children's Theatre of Madison. I thought, that's exactly what I'd like to do right now, be in the Wizard of Oz."
Landing the role of the Tin Man, he dropped out of school (he would later complete degrees in comm arts and Spanish), setting off a cascade of happy happenstance. One of his co-stars in that production would introduce him to Joanne Schilling, and Lonnquist's Wizard performance soon led to a year touring with Kids Participation Theater.
"It seemed like every step I took, I was bumping into opportunities," Lonnquist says. He and some collaborators asked WORT-FM Breakfast Special host Michael Feldman if they could join him on air to promote a show. "One thing led to another, and soon I was doing my schtick topical songs weekly with him." Lonnquist would later host the show.
He began writing musicals for Children's Theatre of Madison, first adapting Alice in Wonderland for the stage, then A Christmas Carol and, later, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast and a few more. Environmental Decade, the advocacy group, hired him as its minstrel for the environment, which led him to write a new album. "It was an ignorance of riches, to twist the phrase," Lonnquist says. "I had no idea how fortunate I was. I was like, doesn't everybody do this?"
He does have fun. "I might be sitting at my dining room table, thinking about Paul McCartney's divorce, and a song falls out about that," Lonnquist says, reaching for his guitar and performing the result, "Foolhardy in Love." (For a video of Lonnquist's dining-room performance, see TheDailyPage.com.)
At home, in familiar surroundings, Lonnquist looks relaxed. He and Schilling have eight years left on the mortgage for their house, which appears suited for two members of the creative class: tidy, lived-in, comfortable, furnished for function, decorated with Schilling's exquisite hand-crafted ocean drums, rainsticks and other art.
There are fish in a large aquarium, and photos of Natalie Richter, Schilling's daughter, now 30 and pursuing an acting career in L.A. Lonnquist considers her his daughter, too. She has been the muse for many of his children's songs, including "Nattie of the Jungle" and "I Sold My Cat," and she has lodged in the minds of his young audiences. "Natalie is forever 8 years old to the kids who listen to my CDs," he says.
What Lonnquist wants to do is keep writing songs, to chase the elusive gratification that comes with writing a good one.
"Pete Seeger told me once, you have to write 100 songs to get a good one," he says. Having written thousands of songs, Lonnquist has experienced the feeling "a number of times, where I thought - for me and for what I can do - that was a good piece."