THE VOICE OF ENERGY VOLUME 098
How are you all doing? Things are pretty fucking awful out there in the world right now and I know I'm having my own issues grappling with it all. Are you coping okay? How are you managing to get by?
On this grey Friday afternoon, I'm sitting here at home while a nice young Irishman attempts to fix our thermostat. Myself and my family are finally through with our COVID infections and back to nearly 100%. Got to see the restoration of Bronco Bullfrog and David Cronenberg's latest back-to-back over the past two evenings. Both are highly recommended, though you'd do well to read some reviews of the latter before diving in. The opening sequence is unnerving to say the least. Work has slowed down for me, but that is very much on purpose. There are big projects on the horizon that need more of my attention. I did get a chance to take a swing at Pistol, the new Danny Boyle-helmed series about the Sex Pistols. I liked it far more than most of the reviewers I know. And I spoke with Dawn McCarthy of Faun Fables, a favorite artist of mine who is playing here in Portland tonight. I can't attend sadly.
There's a nice number of subscribers to this newsletter, but a lot fewer who are part of the premium subscriber squad. Would love to have more of you on board. You could win fabulous prize packages. And I'm going to donate the money I make from the newsletter this year to the National Network of Abortion Funds.
No matter if you're a paid subscriber or following along for free, thanks for reading. More on the other side.
The first EP from Little Filly, the new project of Lily Sexton of the raucous modern bluegrass group Mamma's Marmalade, is hushed and diminutive — a sound that runs counter to the big subjects this singer/songwriter is expressing and the sizable instrument she's using to help express them. The three songs on Sleeper's Awake touch on not-insignificant concerns like seasonal depression, existential longing, climate change, and heartbreak. And to bring these tunes to life, Sexton is using a 1949 Gibson J-45 acoustic guitar that was purchased by her grandfather soon after the end of World War II. The instrument was part of Gibson's jumbo line (hence the "J" in the product name) of larger guitars that could project their sound far and wide without the need for amplification. Sexton was handed down the instrument and held on to it for years even while she was concentrating much of her music making on the fiddle she wields in Mamma's Marmalade. Now that she's taking her first steps as a solo artist, she's using this hefty guitar as ballast even as she strums out her soft melodies with it.
You inherited the guitar that you play on this new EP from your grandfather, and it's been in your family for many years. Was this an instrument you long wanted to get your hands on (not to keep but just to play)? Do you remember what it felt like the first time you played it?
Growing up, I was in Suzuki violin instruction and didn't have time to explore other instruments. I was only vaguely aware of the guitar being in the house; neither of my parents played, so it mostly sat in a closet. The case was opened a time or two when I was little, and the smell of the interior is a strong early memory. I didn't pick it up until I was a freshman in college home on break. A floormate in my dorm had taught me a few chords and I wanted to practice. Once I got into bluegrass a year later, I started learning about full-body guitars and realized I had a real gem on my hands!
What did it mean for you to be handed down this precious instrument that has been so important to your family?
It's been incredibly meaningful. I didn't have a close relationship with my grandfather, but this instrument creates a unique bond that we share, even though he's passed on. It's spiritual in a way. I also treasure that my mother and uncle learned how to play on it as little kids. I hope to have the opportunity to teach the next generation on it as well. It's unique as an heirloom, because it can sing- each of us is going to tell different stories with it.
This new EP is obviously a much more spare and quieter sound than what you do in the project you're best known for Mamma's Marmalade. Is having that kind of creative balance important to you - being able to get loud and rowdy and then scale things back as you do as Little Filly?
Having an outlet to sing very softly at times and delve into the stranger parts of my songwriting is really fun. I enjoy having a space where I can dream on my own. Since starting to play solo, I've been bringing pieces of that experience into Mamma's; how can I be more sensitive on my instrument here, how can I make a more interesting rhyme there?
When did you first come across the poem of A.C. Harwood's that you use for the title track to this EP, and what about it resonated with you?
I learned it in school when I was 12. Our school was celebrating the tradition of Michaelmas, which is essentially the marking of the summer fading into fall and the coming winter. It uses the story of St. Michael and the dragon as a metaphor for wielding light in our own hearts to combat our dragons. I was always drawn in right away by the first line, "Wind in the trees, blows loud for summer's last song". As a New Englander, I know that wind very well. As a person with plenty of dragons come wintertime, this poem has been a teacher for me in how it frames that cold and desolate time; the gracefulness of frost, the beauty of the stars in the cold sky.
What can you tell us about the inspiration behind "Orbital Decay"?
I heard a story on NPR about a satellite that experienced "orbital decay", which I won't try to explain conceptually, but it pretty much dropped out of the sky. I was in a bit of a creative dry spell and decided to write a song about being the satellite. Low stakes stuff, just to write. But then I started to feel connected to the song, and a stronger message started coming through the lyrics. Technological advancement at all costs became the main point that I wanted to criticize, and the rest unfolded. I remember this one taking form really quickly.
It's fascinating to hear your references to science and technology on these songs which are very much analog and acoustic. Was this something deliberate on your part or just what came out of you as you were writing?
It's fair to say that I was a nerdy kid growing up, so using terms like that feel natural to how I would talk. I try to write how I would talk. Bruce Springsteen's music taught me that. I enjoy the contrast of it as well!
Is this just the beginning for Little Filly? Will there be more recordings like this in the future?
There will hopefully be more Little Filly in the future! I'm busy with Mamma's releases right now, but I have lots of songs, and can't wait to bring what I've learned from recording the first EP into making the next.
What is on the horizon for you as a solo artist and as a member of Mamma's Marmalade?
I have one more Little Filly show this summer, on August 28th on the beautiful island of North Haven in Maine. As for Mamma's, we're hard at work putting out our own EP right now, which is a record of covers that we had lots of amazing guest artists on. There's a full length coming in 2023 as well. And touring is coming back for us, so we'll be on the road some this summer.
What are you reading / watching / listening to these days?
I'm always reading three books at a time, so right now that's The Overstory (Richard Powers), Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck), and The House of the Spirits (Isabel Allende). I'm listening to a lot of old John Hartford cuts, because we're preparing to play the John Hartford Memorial Festival. I'm watching Under the Banner of Heaven, which is about a murder in the LDS church, which I follow with Curb Your Enthusiasm as a palate cleanser and so that I can sleep at night.
Hope you enjoyed my brief chat with Lily Sexton. The next edition will not be so brief. I did a long interview with Grant-Lee Phillips using various videos that he and his music have been featured in - a resurrection of a regular feature called Videosyncrasy that I did for a very short while for a previous blog and Willamette Week. Look for that next Friday.
Questions / concerns / requests? Fire me a message and we'll talk.
And while you're here, let me just say this one last thing: fuck Johnny Depp.
Artwork for this edition is from Lionel Sosa's exhibition Cinco de Mayo, which is on display at AnArte Gallery in San Antonio through June 5.