Best musicians: Jen Powers and Matthew J. Rolin of Powers/Rolin Duo

After a prolific two years, the couple is creating some of the city's most exciting music using guitar, dulcimer and (sometimes) the kitchen sink

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
Matthew J. Rolin and Jen Powers of the Powers/Rolin Duo at Dirty Dungarees.

By day, guitarist Matthew J. Rolin cleans draft beer lines at Ohio bars, so when the pandemic shut down all the local watering holes in March of 2020, his income dried up. Plus, he and Jen Powers, his partner in life and music, had to cancel all of their upcoming gigs, as well as the shows they’d booked for other bands at Dirty Dungarees, a music venue and laundromat in Old North Columbus.  

“I was like, wow, I have $150 to my name and rent is due in eight days,” Rolin said on a recent Friday afternoon, sipping a Modelo next to Powers, who plays hammered dulcimer, on the couple’s Fourth Street front porch.

As an independent contractor, Rolin didn’t qualify for unemployment. So he scrambled and began delivering beer for Seventh Son, where he used to bartend, and also received an emergency grant from the Greater Columbus Arts Council. Then Feeding Tube Records, which issued the Powers/Rolin Duo’s excellent debut release, gave the musicians early copies of the instrumental EP before the scheduled May 2020 release date.

“They said, ‘If you can sell these, sell them. We just want everyone to be OK, so sell them and keep the money,’” Rolin said. “People bought them, and that really floated us for those first couple of months. … I’m forever grateful to anyone who bought anything, ever, from us, but especially during March through May of 2020.” 

Amid their precarious financial situation, Powers and Rolin also began fielding requests from underground labels they loved and respected. More and more people were hearing their music, and they liked what they heard. “What we do is pretty singular sounding. I don't really know many other people that sound like us,” said Rolin, describing the duo as “weird and maximalist: ‘What is going on and how are only two instruments making this noise?’” 

The label interest didn’t come completely out of the blue. Rolin’s solo acoustic material, which is mostly composed (whereas the Powers/Rolin Duo’s music is almost entirely improvised), had been getting a good response, as did Beacon, a tape (and later vinyl) release that documented an improv jam session with Powers, Rolin and Cloud Nothings drummer Jason Gerycz in Cleveland, where Rolin lived before moving to Columbus in early 2018.

More:First time’s a charm for Gerycz/Powers/Rolin trio

Powers and Rolin also set out on one- and two-week tours in 2018 and 2019, meeting lots of musicians and labels along the way. Plus, Powers has booked shows in Columbus for more than five years, and most of the time, when bands she books play Dirty Dungarees, they crash at the couple’s place on Fourth Street afterward. As Dirty’s has become a haven and incubator for experimental bands that might otherwise fall through the cracks, the music of Powers and Rolin has become an essential part of that scene, while at the same time reaching beyond it.  

“I'm 37 now, and I started playing in bands when I was about 15,” Rolin said. “The last two-and-a-half years, where people seem to actually dig the music, is so amazing to me that I really don't even know how to put it into words. I would have kept doing it for myself anyway, regardless of all that, but having people I probably won't ever meet, who live across the world, personally message me about stuff involving my music is... it's insane. I don't even know what to say. It's the best feeling.”

More:Matthew Rolin gives up on the Browns, finds himself as a musician

Powers and Rolin couldn’t say no to the various labels that reached out, which meant they had some work to do. During those anxious, early months of the pandemic, the pair channeled the disquieting vibes into creative fuel, improvising together without a plan and recording it in their spare room. 

Prior to playing with Powers, Rolin had done very little improvisation. “It’s been good for me because, as a very anxious person, historically, when I play my composed pieces, the whole time I'm playing I’m like, ‘Oh, man. I better not screw this up.’ I'm just trying to get through it,” Rolin said. “Whereas playing with Jen, it's like, I can't screw up.” 

Improvisation is also fairly new to Powers, who grew up playing piano for about a dozen years beginning at age 7. After a while, though, she began resenting the instrument, and after college she stopped playing music for a couple of years. Then in 2015, about the time Powers was delving into drone ensembles like Spiral Joy Band and minimalist composers like La Monte Young and Terry Riley, a guitarist friend asked her to jam, and instead of bringing her keyboard, she brought over a dulcimer that her cousin had given her years before, and that she had no idea how to play.  

“I just kept going with that ever since,” Powers said. “Part of it was just a rebellion against my previous musical background. I get to approach this totally differently. I don't want to learn how anyone else plays this instrument. I don't want to know the repertoire that they go to. I don't want to know any sort of technique. I just want to do what I want to do. And it's been wonderful. I've never looked back.” 

In June, the duo released Strange Fortune (Astral Editions), which found the two pushing away from strictly acoustic performances and embracing loop pedals and amplifiers, balancing chaotic blasts with entrancing drones. “As time goes on, and we play more and more, we start communicating in a deeper, different way. But part of it, too, is we just want to try new stuff,” Powers said.

“We don't want to keep making the exact same record,” said Rolin, who, on 2020 solo release The Dreaming Bridge, created new sounds and textures by spraying a salad bowl in the kitchen sink and recording it (see “Bells”).

Plus, doing life together gives Powers and Rolin a level of connection and intimacy you can’t always replicate with friends and bandmates. Powers, for instance, knows the second Rolin wakes up what kind of mood he’s in.

More:Daily Distraction: Let Gerycz/Powers/Rolin light the way

After a honeymoon getaway, Powers and Rolin will return to their home away from home, Dirty Dungarees, for a show with Jon Mueller and Mike Shiflet on Tuesday, Oct. 26. And if Columbus doesn’t price them out, expect more shows and more releases soon.

“I'm still working a day job, and I'm poor and have no health insurance. I've officially done everything [musically] that I've worked my ass off for, and this is where I'm at right now. So maybe I should just not do it anymore, or maybe get a job with health insurance or something, which wouldn't allow me to do this,” Rolin said. “But, yeah, I'm never doing that. I'm just going to play music and deal with life in all of its harshness as it is thrown at me while I continue to do the thing that makes me wake up in the morning.”