If you drop by the Coffee Hag in Mankato, there’s a good chance you’ll see Kaleb Braun-Schulz—either behind the counter or behind a microphone. The 21-year-old is both a barista and a recurring part of the shop’s musical lineup. He usually performs once a month, strumming a guitar and singing indie-folk ballads—both old classics and original compositions.

Starting Young

Braun-Schulz grew up in Mankato in a “very musically inclined” family, and it was only a matter of time before he started strumming an instrument himself. He began playing bass guitar when he was 12, eventually transitioning to acoustic guitar.

“I just fell in love with music from an early age,” he said.

Braun-Schulz secured his first official “gig” at the tender age of 13, playing at the Coffee Hag in Mankato with his three-piece band, “The Storm Birds.” Braun-Schulz played bass guitar and sang, “if you can call what I did back then singing,” he added, while two friends from school played guitar and drums. At the time, his aunt worked at the Coffee Hag, and she gave him the email address of the coffee shop’s owner, Jenn Melby-Kelley.

I just fell in love with music from an early age Kaleb Braun-Schulz

“I just reached out and said, ‘Hey, we’re a bunch of kids and we want to play,’” Braun-Schulz recalled. “She was gracious enough to let us perform there. And that was… really something to behold. The show was supposed to be two hours long, and we maybe filled about 25 minutes of it. And then we played everything a second time, and then we were like, ‘All right, we’ve got to go.’ It was pretty intense growing pains at that juncture, but we felt really awesome afterwards. We were like amazed with ourselves, that we’d finally done it.”

Submitted Photo - Kaleb Braun-Schulz at his "home base" the Coffee Hag
Submitted Photo – Kaleb Braun-Schulz at his “home base” the Coffee Hag

After that first gig, Braun-Schulz looked for any and every opportunity to keep performing.

“By the time I was 15, I was pretty much playing whenever and wherever I could,” he said.

As he grew older, he was able to play in more locations, such as the Wine Café, Mankato Brewery, and Busters in Mankato, as well as gigs in the Grand Center for Arts & Culture, and MonaLena in New Ulm. He has widened his range to include places as far as Minneapolis, St. Cloud, and Duluth, but he still considers the Coffee Hag his “home base,” performing there at least once every other month. He also now works there as a barista and as the coffee shop’s entertainment director.

Making Something New

Braun-Schulz plays a wide range of songs and styles during his performances—including originals that he’s written over the years. He estimated that he’s written about 60 songs since he began writing in high school, though he added that many have been “pushed to the side” because he doesn’t think they’re polished enough to share.

“Luckily, when you’re a teenager, there’s a lot of stuff to write about,” he said wryly.

He added that his early writing attempts were easier “in a way,” because he wasn’t as sure about what he was doing and didn’t feel pressure to live up to his past writing attempts. At the same time, he has become more skilled at working through melodies even without an initial spark of inspiration.

Submitted Photo - Kaleb Braun-Schulz and friends at the Rock Bend Folk Festival
Submitted Photo – Kaleb Braun-Schulz and friends at the Rock Bend Folk Festival

“I didn’t really have a precedent for what to do and how to write,” he explained. “In the beginning, it was kind of like… you just noodle around and think about stuff until something presents itself. I feel like, as opposed to where I am now, I was more at the mercy of a song wanting to come out back then. Now, I’m a little more adept at coaxing the muse out to get my mental ball rolling in the right direction to write songs. Back then, it was just sit down and hope that something presents itself.”

Braun-Schulz’s songs usually fall somewhere within the indie-folk/indie-rock range. He said his influences range from iconic 1970s singers—Bob Dylan, James Taylor, Paul Simon and Cat Stevens—to contemporary artists “who have a really keen sense of lyrics,” such as Josh Ritter. And while specific events or experiences might inspire him to pick up his pen, he said that he tries to write songs that will evoke a range of feelings depending on who listens.

“A lot of times when I write, lyrically, I try to evoke feeling,” he explained. “I try to lead the listener in a specific direction as opposed to having one finite subject the song is about. I’ll write a line and think, ‘What are a couple different situations that this can be applied to?’”

When asked which of his songs is his favorite, Braun-Schulz replied that “the most recent one” is always one of them. However, he did amend his answer to include “Speak of the Monsters,” a piece he wrote that features intricate guitar parts.

“I think that’s one that I’m specifically pretty proud of,” he said. “I was batting a little above my average when it came to guitar playing. I’m by no means a wizardly guitar player, so when I can do something a little unusual for me, it’s a little special.”

Achieving Goals

Last year was a big year for Braun-Schulz, since he accomplished several musical goals. One goal had been on his list since he was only 14: performing at St. Peter’s Rock Bend Folk Festival.

This two-day festival takes place in September, with a main stage and a side stage that both feature rotating musical acts. About 300 artists are considered every year, with a committee nominating and voting on the final choices. Braun-Schulz was selected to perform on the side stage, which he said was actually his specific goal.

“My goal was to make it to the side stage, because you’ve got to have reasonable aspirations,” he said with a grin. “Last year, it finally happened. It was a really great experience, just because when I was first starting, I remember the Rock Bend Folk Festival being one of the most motivational things for me—just all those awesome, awesome musicians. I was always like, ‘Man, if I could just be a part of this, that’d be awesome…’ And I finally was.”

Submitted Photo - Kaleb Braun-Schulz performing in Rochester
Submitted Photo – Kaleb Braun-Schulz performing in Rochester

Braun-Schulz also accomplished a second goal last year: releasing his first full-length album. Titled “From Moons to Morning Stars,” the album features 10 original songs and was recorded in his apartment on an eight-track analog console. Braun-Schulz recorded the vocals, guitar parts and some of the harmonies, and he enlisted musician friends who could supplement with piano, drums and whatever else was needed.

“It’s kind of a long process, honestly,” Braun-Schulz said. “Looking back on it, it’s kind of stressful. There’s a lot of moving parts.”

The album is available at a number of online locations, including Spotify and YouTube, and Braun-Schulz also has CDs that he mails out. He said so far, he’s had a lot of purchases, especially at his gigs.

This year, Braun-Schulz’s original goal was to put together a regional tour, but that had to be postponed because of the current pandemic situation. However, the extra free time has given him the chance to work on new material, and he just announced in late April that he’ll be releasing a new single on May 15. He added that he’s hoping to put out a second EP (his first was released in 2018) with six or so songs.

“Getting 10 songs all recorded perfectly and paying everybody to do their stuff, it’s kind of a lot,” Braun-Schulz said. “I think a shorter project for this year will be better, or maybe two shorter projects.”

Virtual Concerts

One way that Braun-Schulz has stayed connected with his fans has been through Facebook Live concerts. He has organized two live streaming events so far, treating them like normal appearances and playing a variety of songs—his own and old favorites—for about two hours each time.

Submitted Photo - Kaleb Braun-Schulz at Pub 500 with Raghen Lucy
Submitted Photo – Kaleb Braun-Schulz at Pub 500 with Raghen Lucy

“That’s honestly been really fun,” he said. “That’s been my tether to normalcy in a way, just because the process of putting a set list together, rehearsing for a show, promoting a show… It’s all become this comfort thing for me, this nice routine that I just enjoy going through.”

People have been so, so supportive on social media of musicians, and I’ve definitely felt the love and encouragement and support from people online Kaleb Braun-Schulz

He added that he’s been “pleasantly surprised” by the responses so far, with the two streams each attracting about 1,000 views.

“People have been so, so supportive on social media of musicians, and I’ve definitely felt the love and encouragement and support from people online,” he said.

Braun-Schulz said he doesn’t have a third live stream planned for the near future, but he will keep adding standalone videos of performances. People can see the latest content on his Facebook page, Kaleb Braun-Schulz.

Looking Forward

Besides his musical plans, Braun-Schulz is also planning on attending MSU Mankato in the fall to study social work. He explained that he took a bit of a gap between when he graduated from high school in 2017 and now because he wanted to make sure he had time to focus on his music.

Submitted Photo - Kaleb Braun-Schulz performing at a pop-up art fair near the Coffee Hag
Submitted Photo – Kaleb Braun-Schulz performing at a pop-up art fair near the Coffee Hag

“After high school, I just had a lot of things that I wanted to do and goals that I thought I could achieve, mostly music goals,” he said. “It was just important for me to focus on those and get those accomplished after high school, because during high school, I was working a job and also trying to do music and be in high school and do all the high school things, so afterwards I was like, ‘I just want to hone in on the things that will make my soul happy before I go and do college.’”

Getting to Know Kaleb Braun-Schulz

  • From: Mankato
  • Lives in: Mankato
  • Age: 21
  • Where you’re most likely to find him if he’s not at home: Coffee Hag
  • Favorite original song: “Speak of the Monsters”
  • Instruments: Vocals, bass guitar, acoustic guitar
  • Official Facebook page: Kaleb Braun-Schulz

Making Music During COVID-19

Like countless others, Braun-Schulz has been affected by the COVID-19 crisis and Minnesota’s stay-at-home order. While his musical gigs used to make up a large part of his income, he said they’ve all completely dried up—as have his hours at the Coffee Hag. But Braun-Schulz said he’s trying to stay positive.

“As a musician, it’s weirdly bittersweet, because, yeah, it’s a real big bummer that all my gigs got canceled… [but] this definitely leaves a lot more time to work on writing and learning stuff and getting ready for when those gigs start happening again,” he said. “I’ll have a whole fresh repertoire and plenty of time to record.”

Braun-Schulz said he had had gigs booked out until August this year, but they were all canceled—and there’s no telling when things will go back to normal. Because of this, it’s hard to even start reaching out to venues about securing future dates.

“I don’t even know how to approach the subject with people who are booking,” he said, adding that he has the same problem as the Coffee Hag’s entertainment director. “Do I book music for June/July, or is that too risky? It’s all just really weird.”

Of course, one silver lining is that there is even more than usual to inspire Braun-Schulz’s creative juices, but he has been careful about how he writes songs during this period.

“I want to be able to sing my songs after this is over, too, so I don’t want [them] to be too time sensitive,” he said.

Grace Brandt
is a wandering reporter whose home base is in Mankato. Throughout her career, she has written for more than two dozen publications.