Photo Chad Hess
Artist Leah Song just saw a black bear and the red-tailed hawks are soaring. She sits on the porch of one of the places she calls home. In her socks, without make-up. Because today she is still in between tours. Together with her singing sister Chloe Smith, percussionist Biko Casini and bassist David Brown Leah travels the world as part of the folk band Rising Appalachia. Now and then also finding the time to work on her solo project Leah Song. I started and ended my summer with the first and last concerts of Rising Appalachia on their European tour and hosted the band before they flew back to the States. In all of my conversations with Song, be it backstage in Antwerp, on our rooftop terrace in Amsterdam or now over Skype, one theme keeps on coming back: a fierce dedication to grab every chance to speak out about social and environmental justice and to stand with grassroots movements. Together with her sister Leah sang at Standing Rock, where indigenous people were defending their right to water. A few days after the interview she is assisting in firefighting, hosing down the land in California where wildfires have started during the band's West Coast tour. Wild words from Rising Appalachia's storm lover, song catcher, walker and talker – Leah Song.
Rising Appalachia is about more than making music. You subscribe yourself to the troubadour tradition, an old way of being and working with music. How would you define a contemporary troubadour?
We started our music because our family played music and we are sisters. It was very natural for us to listen to our family's versions of music and then change them to stories. We grew up with a really wide variety of musical styles. There was a lot of jazz and soul and folk music in our home. We grew up in a city, Atlanta, and were surrounded by hip hop when it was up and coming and before it was a really commercial. All of those styles of music were storytelling and so is our music. As we started creating our own musical pallet we wanted to do the same. We didn't want to be driven by what would be commercial or would be catchy or easy to put into a box or a genre. We wanted to create folk music that felt contemporary to us. We also wanted to use that music to travel to places in the troubadour tradition and to offer stories from our home while also learning the stories of the places we were travelling and add that to our songs as well. For me the definition has a lot to do with music being an exchange, not just a performance but being a public service. You are sharing and collecting the stories and keep traveling to the next place where you are telling them again and are collecting more. It has a really living tradition to it.
BALLAD FOR BALLAD
You've spent quite some time in Europe last summer. Because of the way you work you've been on the ground a lot meeting artists and activists. Having been in that exchange on the European continent what would you say are the stories of our time here?
In a very fundamental way a lot of the frontpage news stories of Europe as a whole are the refugee crisis – although we haven't been able to work in a refugee community. This is the history of humanity; we have all moved around since the dawn of people, but this is a new big movement of humans from a hostile place to a more friendly territory. We have a song that came out yesterday, it's not an original song by us but by a friend of ours and it's called 'Refugee'. She wrote it after working in a refugee community in northern France. That's a story that feels really important to be learning about and telling and sharing.
We are also what I would call song catchers: we try to collect music wherever we go and where we can find it. For example in Ireland we were out every night very late in a song session, with a couple of fiddlers, a penny whistle player, poets and magicians. Everywhere we went we were finding new versions of songs, hearing old Gaelic songs and songs about the Irish going across the ocean to the Americas. We were truly swapping songs, singing ballad for ballad. That was amazing and it is a long term goal of ours to learn some songs in Gaelic. I also love to play the bodhran, a big old Gaelic drum. A lot of my ancestry is Irish so to have a relationship with a drum that pre-dates English being spoken in that region and that is very much a pagan and ritualistic drum is very inspiring.
In Austria we found ourselves in a small café up one of the trails in the Alps and there was an elderly couple who sang and played old Austrian harp duets. It's so amazing when that happens, we will never run out of traditions to stumble upon.
In the States you are also connecting to people with indigenous roots. You and Chloe even sang at Standing Rock. Can you share a bit more about ancestry and indigenousness?
In western cultures there is an interesting relationship towards the indigenous; sometimes it is an obsession, sometimes a guilt complex, sometimes not really being informed and from that place exotifying the indigenous. In the Americas there are strong indigenous roots, languages and communities that are still intact with their own practices. This is different for a lot of people from many different places from around the world and who are a few generations removed from their own ancestral lands. The tendency is to latch on and want to have a relationship with the indigenous. That can often look like people going into the Amazon, trying to learn about practices and shamanism that are accesible. But I believe there is a lot of power in learning about our own indigenous roots. We have access to it even though it may be further back for some of us than others but we all come from people who have relationships with the earth, with traditional medicines, songs, food practices, rituals. There are so many beautiful subtleties to the human story. There is power to learning about the rituals and practices that come from our own bloodlines.
This is also strongly connected to place which seems to be really present in your music. Your band's name refers to the Appalachian mountains but also to the south as a whole and its flavour is really tangible. When you shared about Georgia and its nature I could really feel the love and connection. How does that connection to place inspire your work?
I am in southern Appalachia right as we speak. I am sitting on the porch of one of my homes. I call it my southern trinity: I spend time here in the countryside in North Carolina, in Atlanta, the big city, and in New Orleans, the crescent swamp. All three are really tied to my sense of place.
It is an interesting and tricky question. We are global people – that is both the plus and the minus of modern times – we are talking across an ocean, across time zones. I am in love with so many different kinds of folkloric music and feel really inspired to study them. At the same time here is something about connection to home, to place, to ancestry, to blood that gives a foundation that so many modern people are lacking and it creates a bedrock for you to know yourself and from there you can be open to knowing the rest of the community, the country, the world.
We grew up in the south and there was something about it that was almost embarrassing, we were ashamed of it in a way. It's slow and really backwards in a lot of ways and everything takes forever, for example to get to California from the part of the country where we live. All we wanted to do was to get out into the world and as we did we realized how lucky we are to live in this region that so few people even know about. There are some really bad stereotypes – and they have been earned to be fair – but there is also all this beauty and the music that we had around us our whole lives. It's not a commercial music, very few people have heard traditional Appalachian music; we grew up immersed in it. There is something really charming about the slowness of it. So over time it has become a place of pride.
As Rising Appalachia really got rolling that responsibility to become good spokespeople became more clear to us. We really wanted to be spokespeople for the good part of the south that we came from. There is not enough of that. To be southern and have conversations about dismantling racism and bringing environmental justice to the forefront and speak about the public school system. To have those conversations that are considered progessive, justice-based conversations. But we were born and raised here which feels very important to us. It felt like a role we needed to play, like a place that we need to operate from.
What is the first thing you do when you get back to the south after touring?
Well, I usually have a glass of red wine – Italian red wine at that – I take a lot of walks, I see my family, my mom is an amazing fiddle player. I love to just sit around and hear her fiddle. I rest and I take baths.
You mentioned the slowness of the south as a quality. In 2015 Rising Appalachia also founded the Slow Music Movement for sustainable touring. Which alternative patterns have come up around being outside of the big music industry? Is there a blueprint for other artists to work with?
It is a blueprint in the nature of even naming it. It has created a lot of space for those conversations to be happening.For us it has been really exciting because it has encouraged people to approach us with different ideas. We've been on a sailboat tour which was hands down probably one of the most amazing ways of touring I could possibly imagine. We did a train tour. This spring we are going to do a walking tour – well, it's not even a tour; we are going to do a long distance walk to our dear friends in the Dakotas. We'll move for two weeks on foot.
We try and get as much local food in our green rooms as possible. That encourages venues to then consider that in the future. We bring a lot of non-profits into our shows, people who work locally. That might even be my favourite part of the whole model. Because of the nature of our work we are moving, whether it is fast or slow we are in transit. So what we do is bring rooted community members that are working in the places where we are playing, who are able to come and speak to the audiences, connect with people about what is happening locally. We can use the stage as a platform to generate those conversations; we can't offer those answers in a nuanced way related to place but we can call in the elders and the leaders to do that work. That is my favourite blueprint; learning about what is going on locally in all these places and really being fueled by those stories and those relationships.
PHOTO JACQUELINE KORBER
Your new album 'Alive' came out at the end of September. What makes you feel alive?
I am very inspired by really cultivated conversations with brilliant creative alternative people. It's so exciting to me to get together with a group of sharp thinkers and talk about how to make change in the world. It's fulfilling in an enormous way. I can physically feel it. To get the right people, the right brains together, to really try and dismantle the systems that we're in and recreate systems that are better functioning, using technology and history and all that we have.
I am also a walker. I walk every day. I cannot imagine what anything would be like if I didn't have access to walking. I love the pace of walking, observing at the pace of walking and also I can clear my mind a lot through the physical process of walking. It's my favorite daily ritual. I walked all over Amsterdam. I had no idea where I went. I got lost. I went on for hours and hours. It connects me to my own breath, I catch my natural gait. I'll start out fast and then go a little slower or vice versa, I'll start out really slow and as I get my energy things speed up. I love that very simple process.
What does wildness mean to you?
I consider myself wild from the jump. I feel like I came out of the womb wild. I have lived in urban places that I love very much and also in rural areas, needing both of them. I find that for me the wildness is a lot in solitude. I can connect to that sense of very primal animal instinct in the middle of a metropolitan area if I can be very wolf-like and watch, study and observe the way things are moving, the way people are moving, traffic is moving. Just observe the same way a hawk might sit on a perch and watch a field. I find that does the same as if I am barefoot on a trail going straight up into the Alps, the Rockies or the Appalachian mountains. Having a sense of human solitude, checking in with some kind of different energies and different kind of companions has been really valuable to my sense of wellbeing and wildness and self. I feel very quickly domesticated if I don't get access to that enough. I feel a little bit muted, sedated in a way. So it is a really important part of my process. It is very hard for me to get access to that on tour, it has been a long conversation to figure out how I even can just get moments of that. Just that sense of solo time to explore and witness as opposed to being in it.
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