First Avenue, Last Import and Two Lives

When she started classes at Minnesota State Mankato, Emily Bjorke didn’t tell anyone she was in an up-and-coming surf-punk band, Last Import. She didn’t want to be, you know, that person.

So nobody in her songwriting class in the fall of 2018 knew her band would be performing on a November evening at the recently renovated Palace Theater in St. Paul, opening for U.K. act Bastille (known for the hit, “Pompeii”) and Albert Hammond Jr.

The morning after that performance, however, when she walked into the songwriting class the room broke into applause.

“I didn’t tell anybody, and somehow they all found out,” Bjorke said.

Applause for the trio continued for another year, with write-ups in the StarTribune and designation by City Pages as the Twin Cities’ Best New Band.

From left, drummer Jane Halldorson, Bjorke and bassist Grace Baldwin. Photo courtesy Echo Images

“Last Import just put out their self-titled debut full-length in February,” the entry read, “a collection of rowdy surf-punk that lives up to the promise of their excellent 2018 EP, Songs for Adam….[They] seem poised to carry on the tradition of the Riot Grrrl groups who helped pave their way.”

The group began in 2014 with Bjorke, bassist Grace Baldwin and drummer Jane Halldorson meeting at a girl’s rock camp, She Rock She Rock, in Minneapolis. The retreat is a Minnesota nonprofit “dedicated to empowering girls, women, trans and nonbinary folks through the art of music,” according to its mission.

After the camp, the group gained good exposure and more gigs, prompting Bjorke’s friends to joke that she leads a double life similar to Disney’s fictional Hannah Montana, juggling school and performing with national acts on the weekends.

She doesn’t argue with that description.

“It’s really strange to have all these things because they don’t even feel real when you’re getting up in the morning to go to class.”

Called by City Pages a Slater-Kinney and Clash combo, Bjorke said she feels the band’s sound is a cross between The Beach Boys and Green Day.

On Feb. 1 2019, the band had a release party for its self-titled album at Minneapolis’ landmark club, First Avenue. The show sold out. Beyond that, they have opened for indie bands such as Wavves, LANY, and Foster The People, known for the 2010 hit, “Pumped Up Kicks.”

Bjorke performed solo acoustic when the University hosted Bad Bad Hats fall semester. Photo by Areca Roe.

Working with the latter band had a surreal aspect, Bjorke said, as she’d attended a Foster The People show when she was 14. That performance inspired her to become a musician, she said.  The band’s energy, the atmosphere of the concert and the fans resonating with the music all stuck with Bjorke.

I wanted to be just like that,” she said. “And then in that moment (on stage) I was like, ‘Whoa.’ You’d look over and (Foster The People) are standing right there and that’s when it kind of sets in.”

Bjorke’s first college was Seattle Pacific University, where she enrolled as an international business major. But she soon realized music was a stronger calling in her life, and started looking at degrees in music business. One of the first results that came up was Minnesota State Mankato. She enrolled in 2016 and credits an active and engaged faculty with helping her—and others in the program—succeed.

“All of the professors are super smart and knowledgeable, but in different ways,” Bjorke said. She cites faculty member Scott LeGere, whose experience ranges from commercial work to engineering albums by the Brian Setzer Orchestra. LeGere’s experiences alone enhanced her own interest and ambition in the industry side of music, Bjorke said.

Bjorke and Last Import plan to release a new album in 2020. Photo courtesy Echo Images.

“This was somebody that I was like, ‘I don’t even know what I want to do with this major, but I want to be like him,” she said. “He does not limit himself and he is very optimistic towards all of us.”

Bjorke and Last Import are working on a new album to be released sometime in 2020. As for touring, it remains to be seen.

“I’m sure we’ll come up with a schedule for next year, but I have to graduate. I have to do an internship, too,” she said.  

“We have the potential to go super far and we’re trying to do just that,” Bjorke said. “It’s a weird time in our life and we’re killing it. But I’m also in school, my bandmates have jobs…”

Bjorke, who is expected to graduate in 2020, says her dream job would be to work at Austin City Limits in Austin, Texas. Austin City Limits on PBS has showcased musicians such as Johnny Cash, Neil Young and Pearl Jam.

“I have a lot of skills that could bring me into a lot of areas,” Bjorke said. “A place that really values artists and their input is where I want to be… It’s less about the position, but more so, dare I say, the impact I’d have.”

This story originally appeared in Maverick Nation, the magazine for and about young Minnesota State Mankato alumni.