The year was 1988, and Nicole Gruter was a high school student from Mankato, Minn., trying to decide where she wanted to go to college. She visited Madison on a fortuitous night.
"It was one of the old-school Halloweens," the musician and performance artist recalled with a chuckle. "There was beer literally flowing in the gutters and people partying. It had a really fun vibe and people had positive attitudes -- it just seemed like a fun place to live."
Gruter attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison starting in 1989, and aside from a year in Denver after graduation, has stayed here ever since. Her brand of art is known for obliterating the gap between the stage and the audience, or even the idea of a stage at all.
In 2008, she had a "yard sale" in her Monona home, in which each item was priced not with a number, but with a specific memory attached to it. Last fall, she went on a two-month Tea Tour of the United States, driving a giant teapot (a converted van) from city to city, serving tea and asking residents to talk about what stressed them out.
It was on that Tea Tour that Gruter first visited New Orleans. She left the city, but it stayed with her. And now, after more than 20 years in Madison, she's decided to move there.
"I just fell in love with the city," she said. "I kept thinking about it on the drive home and thought, ‘Well maybe it's time to start mixing it up a little bit.' I'm feeling like I want to be a little bit more mobile and just get exposure to different audiences."
Gruter said she's keeping her house in Madison and renting it out, so she doesn't know at this point whether the move will be a temporary or permanent one. But she's eager to embrace the possibilities that come with a new environment.
Before she goes, Gruter is playing one last show on Saturday, Aug. 28, at Revolution Cycles under her stage name, Wilhemina Baker.
Gruter conjured up Baker in 2004 and began performing Italian opera in clubs and coffeehouses around town, albeit in a very unorthodox way.
"I wanted to mess with the format and make it a little bit more of a modern commentary," she said. "I would take the Italian words out and put my own words in, or I would sing it through a series of effects pedals and delay pedals and vocal harmonizers. I was taking a really traditional format and turning it on its head."
While Saturday's show will include a couple of those offbeat arias, the main focus will be on more straightforward and personal forms of storytelling, interspersed with songs. While Gruter is not eager to embrace the term "one-woman show," the term is a good description for the kind of work she's doing now.
"It took me a long time to come around and be more personal with my material," she said. "The aria stuff was fine and experimental, but it was obscure and aloof in a way. If people didn't get it or enjoy it, they really didn't get it or enjoy it."
Gruter said she wants her current piece to explore the notion of female sexual drive, and the expectations put on women.
While the show does get personal, including anecdotes about her early sexual experiences, she said it contains a lot of humor, and uses those personal stories to tie into a larger theme.
"It's not like the bawdiness that you would see in a burlesque show, but it's more about expectations of female agency," she said. "It sounds really personal, but I really want to make it more of an overarching story."