THE VOICE OF ENERGY VOL. 044
And a very good day to you. I come to you from my slightly less cluttered desk in deep SE Portland with another edition of the newsletter at the end of another strangely crowded, hectic week. On the plus side, I got my second Pfizer shot this past Sunday and built a fence to protect my small backyard garden from my hens. On the minus side, I’m behind on a handful of assignments.
Don’t have much of any work to share this week. Merely a review of the wonderful new album by Ryley Walker that I wrote for Dusted. My first contribution to that fabulous site.
I’m in a bit of a transitional phase with my “career.” I’m in a privileged place with my wife’s solid employment situation where I can be pickier about who I write for. So while I may be producing less work in the near future, what I will write will be primarily for sites that are wholly independent and aren’t tied to larger entities like Conde Nast or major record labels. I don’t know that that will matter to the folks that subscribe to this newsletter at present, but typing it out makes it feel more real to me.
Some housekeeping: make sure to click on the photos within the Sarah Louise interview below as those will take you to the Bandcamp pages for the albums discussed in the piece.
Also - the XRAY fund drive is still happening. I met my humble goal and decided to bump it up a little higher to help support this radio station that I love. Since I won’t ever make you pay for a subscription to this newsletter, I ask you instead to spare $20 for the cause of community media.
Keep scrolling to read my interview with the incredible Sarah Louise and my reviews of a new film and a new Disney+ series.
RIP Shock G.
If I were a smart man, I would have timed this interview and newsletter to go out yesterday - on Earth Day. That’s how deeply rooted Sarah Louise’s new album and label are to the planet on which we are spinning.
On her own or as a one-half of the duo House and Land, Louise has embraced and deconstructed folk traditions, applying healthy doses of psychedelic energy and meditative calm to her compositions. The winding, verdant paths that she has been traveling have been directing her toward the work she has created for Earth Bow.
Out next Friday 4/30 through Louise’s newly formed label—also called Earth Bow—the album features two side-long suites of material that she constructed piece by piece like an elaborate Andy Goldsworthy-type structure created using branches and logs found on the forest floor.
Starting with improvisations that she built into hypnotic loops, Louise used a SP-404SX sampler to play those pieces back within the songs she was writing. The material only became denser and more interconnected as she pulled samples from one song into another and let one segment bleed into the other without seams. Adorning it all are contributions from friends and collaborators like Cooper Crain and Thom Nguyen.
Even more enrapturing than the music is Louise’s lyrics, which speak plainly of animals and plants and her close bond with the natural world. It’s an invitation to share in her appreciation and love for the planet and all the creatures who dwell on it—and an entreaty to listen as it cries out for our care.
What can you tell me about where you live in rural Appalachia? I don’t need the address or anything, but just a sense of what the area around your home is like.
The Appalachians are some of the oldest mountains in the world; there’s a deeply rooted energy here. It’s incredibly biodiverse, with many ecosystems like rich coves, dry ridges, boreal forest and rocky outcroppings. My particular area of NC is occupied Cherokee and Catawba land. The valley is very sacred and it is my understanding that it did not used to be a place people lived but would be visited for hunting and ceremony.
What drew you to this part of the U.S.?
I originally moved to Appalachia for middle school and it deeply imprinted on me. I have always been really into plants and before moving memorized field guides. I was delighted to meet my favorite plants for the first time. You can bet that went over great with the kids at school!
Have you always felt drawn to the natural world? Was there a defining moment that connected you to it?
For me it was inborn, but I believe anyone can be in relationship with our planet. I’ve been reflecting recently that nature was this safe place I could enter as a kid. I always felt communication from the earth and that’s only increased as I devote my life to listening to it. I had a native plant garden and a creek I would spend hours in before moving to Appalachia, which were formative experiences bonding with nature.
The press notes talk about healing through nature - and how you make medicine from the plants in and around the area where you live… when did that become part of your life?
As a small child, probably starting in kindergarten, I would mix up different plants pretending to make medicine. Having this interest is one of my greatest blessings. I don’t know where it came from, but I’m so grateful. As I’ve gotten older I have explored different kinds of plant medicine and it’s changed my life. I make my work in service to my relationship with nature.
It feels like with where you live and your practices, you were well positioned to ride out the pandemic. How has the last year been for you?
The beginning of the pandemic was such a strange feeling because suddenly it didn’t matter that I lived an hour away from most of my friends - we were all isolated. I noticed at the time a lot of people were struggling with that aspect but it was something I was used to so I felt able to be a resource for people. I actually ended up seeing my friends way more than I normally would have because we have been really good about hanging out on zoom with regular dance parties! It certainly wasn’t all idyllic, though. I think this year added strain for everyone and the added strain helped shift some things in my life that were overdue to transform. Transformation and healing is hard, but worth it.
The press notes for this new album also talk about your use of the SP-404SX sampler as the foundation for this new album. When did that piece of equipment come into your life and how did you know this was going to be your perfect outlet for this music?
I got the 404 as a way to perform my album Nighttime Birds and Morning Stars. It was through performing that album that I really got a sense of how amazing it was to improvise with the DNA of my songs and to blend them together in many different ways. It allowed me to collaborate with my music as a living system. Everything I do is connected. What I learn from one project becomes the seeds of the next.
I’m very interested in your songwriting process - you say that some songs (or at least the energy of them) come to you through meditation and others through improvisation… are these practices that you had to really work at or did they come naturally to you?
I meditate every day and also have movement, chanting and ritual practices that evolve out of my relationship with the earth. Our nervous systems are so overloaded by web 2.0 and the obligations of late capitalism that it can be hard to notice communication from the earth, but it’s possible to practice embodied listening and increase our abilities to tune in. I knew meditation was medicine I needed for years but couldn’t bear to sit with my mind running wild. Plant medicine taught me how and rewired my brain and healed my nervous system so I could meditate. I’ve been very committed to keeping it up, which has allowed healing to continue to unfold and helps me feel resourced enough to stay aligned with my values and purpose.
When did you decide to bring other musicians into the mix? How was it to work their contributions into what you had already created?
Thom Nguyen who drums on a few of the tracks recorded with me right after one of our tours, so we captured a strong live energy. I knew about how many bars I wanted and built the final arrangements around those early takes. Go Kurosawa and I had been keeping in touch and it just occurred to me he would be great to add bass to a couple songs, so he recorded at home during early pandemic days. Cooper Crain mixed a track for me as I was working on the record and I thought it would be cool for him to add bass as well. I got really interested in bass and thought it would be interesting to have a few people contributing (me being the 3rd!).
The album is built almost like a DJ set, with long suites of music connected together. Was that your plan with this music from the beginning?
No, but DJ sets were absolutely an inspiration. Improvising with the 404 on tour pointed the way to connecting the songs into two suites. Once I had that realization I had to see it through. I wanted Earth Bow to function like an interconnected ecosystem, to be a journey into an immersive world. Because of its format, the full record is exclusive to Bandcamp and record stores but I am releasing a handful of singles on streaming platforms. Streaming needs to become fairer to artists.
Was it a difficult process to determine the order of these pieces? Was there a lot of trial and error, putting different tracks next to one another and moving pieces around?
Yes! That was the hardest part. I ended up cutting about 5 songs to make it all work. It was hard to create a static artifact from this living music. I really questioned whether I wanted to make a record because to me there was not only one right way to do it. The songs can live and breathe together in many different ways, but I feel really happy with how the LP turned out.
You have an online exhibition and workshops planned surrounding the album release. What can you tell me about what is planned for those? What can folks expect if they tune in?
This is a long term project and feels like the seeds of my next big focus. As a result, it is still evolving. Recorded music is so young so I’m thinking about the past and the future and how those tie together. I’m interested in how music lives in groups of people. My sister and I have been collaborating on a VR-compatible environment in which I will be facilitating some meditations around earth energies like water as well as group music making. I am both skeptical and hopeful about emerging technology. I hope I can help people feel embodied and connected to their physical surroundings while exploring virtual worlds. I made a lot of art while making this record, so I will be sharing some of that as well as work by other artists that feels resonant with the goals of the virtual space. I’m interested in exploring non-hierarchical collective sharing that lifts up many voices. What do new strands of folk music in VR sound like?
Why did you decide to self-release this album and start a label this time around?
If I notice an idea keeps returning, it’s a signal to me to really consider pursuing it. That’s how this was. I think maybe I knew I wanted to pull away a bit from the commercial aspects of music and begin exploring the fringes of how music can function in our lives to support healing people and the earth. I don’t think it has to be one or the other, though. I may put other records out with labels, but right now there are other musical formats and mediums I want to explore. Earth Bow Records is really meant to be a home for not just my music but my entire interdisciplinary, interwoven earth practices: my life’s project.
Beyond those online exhibitions… what comes next for you?
I’m chewing on big questions. My life’s purpose is to connect people with the earth. The earth misses us and grieves with us, and we miss the earth too whether we realize it or not. So much trauma and suffering comes from toxic systems extracting power by severing our connection with our sacred planet. Due to the many ways white supremacy has manifested to sever this connection, it’s important for me to reflect on my positionality as someone with settler-colonial ancestry and do my part to reduce harm and be a strong ally while doing this earth work. Regarding music, I’m going to continue to offer very limited edition hand-embellished cassettes on Bandcamp with whatever feels real to me at the moment. I love vinyl but it asks for a certain amount of polish and I’m, for the time being, more interested in exploring how music spontaneously arises through living my life in relationship to the earth. What birds did I hear this week? What song spontaneously arose while gardening today? That said I’m also working on some dance music!
Bloodthirsty (2020, dir. Amelia Moses)
Bloodthirsty wastes little time getting to the meat of the matter. As the credits roll against a black screen, we hear various slurps and crunches. And when the film finally comes to life, we are treated to the sight of Grey (Lauren Beatty), a young pop star on the come up, messily eating a woodland creature. She wakes up from this nightmare, but what is clear is that she’s messed up—suffering from halllucinations where she is turning into some kind of feral creature. But when she heads to a remote house in the snowy woods to work on her new album with Vaughn (Greg Bryk), a former boy band member who may or may not have killed someone, Grey is drawn towards new creative heights and these strange animalistic urges. A fine premise in the mode of Cat People or The Howling but one that is mishandled through some truly strained acting and a completely fumbled twist. Give director Amelia Moses and co. credit in knowing how to build the tension of this film as well as putting us at times right in the headspace of someone that could be losing her hold on reality. But without a solid core, even those fine elements get subsumed by this deflated, messy film. (available to rent through VOD services)
Secrets of the Whales
Advances in aerial and underwater photography have resulted in a renaissance in nature documentaries, as seen through various series like Life, The Blue Planet, recent episodes of Nature, and the many films that Disney has helped produce over the past decade. The latest effort by the Mouse House is this collaboration with National Geographic that puts viewers jaw-droppingly close to various species of whales. Each episode of this globetrotting four-part series follows a different cluster of these sea creatures and, as expected, it’s breathtaking to see. With the lulling tones of Sigourney Weaver narrating each installment, we are treated to legitimately new information about whales. (Did you know belugas gave each other names?! And that they were down to adopt whales of other species?!! Can you tell that my favorite episode was the one on beluga whales???!?!) The goal of a series like this fairly apparent: to hopefully inspire viewers to become better stewards of our planet after learning that whales are as playful and family-oriented and emotional as humans. The writers hit that message fairly hard throughout but considering the dangers that we face here due to climate change, sometimes people need to be bludgeoned over the head so they’ll pay attention. (available to stream on Disney+)
Thanks, as ever, for reading this little missive. I hope you enjoyed it. Feel free to share it with anyone that might be interested. And if you’ve read this far, drop me a note on Twitter (@roberthamwriter) and let me know what is your favorite cover of an Elvis Costello song.
Back again on Monday with some more streaming suggestions. Slowly getting ready to change that to include suggestions of films to watch in person, which I’m gearing up to do on May 2nd.
(artwork for this edition is by the late Fayga Ostrower, whose work is on display through June 6 at the Museu de Arte Moderna in Rio de Janeiro)