Slow Down and Stay: The Travels and Music of Rising Appalachia
“We didn’t mean to leave,” says Leah Song, speaking over the phone as she rides her bicycle through the streets of New Orleans. “I never meant to not be in the fabric of this city.”
The “we” in that sentence is Song and Chloe Smith, the multi-instrumentalist sisters who front the band Rising Appalachia. The “leave” was a seismic shift that came while the sisters were on tour in Scotland in 2014. They got word that the house they were renting in New Orleans was being sold, and had to organize the moving of all of their belongings from across the Atlantic, with friends stepping up to help gather things up and hold them until Smith and Song could return.
“We kind of spiraled out,” says Song.
That resulting spiral has taken the sisters, and their band, through countless shows in multiple countries. But as I talk to Song, it’s clear that the there’s a sense of returning to where things started — a desire to take the experiences of the previous decade and simplify and go slow — or, as the band’s anthem to self-sufficiency suggests, to “scale down.”
“If you’re doing this in a long haul way, you want to not burn out,” says Song. “To figure out how to still have reserves and focus on your physical health.”
At a time when most bands would be looking to go stratospheric — having amassed the kind of huge following Rising Appalachia has — it’s remarkable to hear the conversation turn toward simplification. How to relax, not overreach, and continue doing good work without falling to pieces.
Yet it’s completely in line with the arc of their careers. What began as a two-person project to produce a gift album for friends and family has become an internationally touring act. Upon realizing the potential of their work (thanks in part to huge encouragement from their musically inclined family), the sisters formed the band, eventually moving to New Orleans to hone their sound, playing everywhere from cafes to bars to French Quarter street corners.
“Music is currency in New Orleans,” says Song. “It gave us such a focus.”
But it wasn’t just the musicianship that grew in their New Orleans years. The community aspect of the city’s musical culture had a profound influence. Musicians poured into the city, not to get famous, but to connect, to learn, and to grow.
For those of us lucky enough to witness the way that city has produced not just a staggering number of talented artists, but also a totally unique musical community, the way Rising Appalachia has approached their concert schedule seems a natural extension of their time there.
Rather than burning through as many concert dates as possible — a blur of cities in the form of hotel rooms and couches and indistinguishable stages — Rising Appalachia began staggering their dates to allow them to spend more time in communities, learning the rhythms of the day to day life, meeting local artists and activists, and becoming, in a way few other bands do, a part of the communities they tour in.
It’s a style of performing Song coined (and describes in a Ted Talk, attached below) as the “Slow Music Movement,” though she is reluctant to take too much credit for the concept.
“It’s a blueprint,” she says. “It’s an easily coined phrase. But it’s a bigger concept than we can embody.”
I ask if she thinks people are taking this idea and running with it.
“We hope so.”
If this sounds counter-intuitive — a band cutting out dates and giving up the stage to further their work — it might simply be pointing to a newer way of touring, recording and performing that de-emphasizes the band and emphasizes what the gathering around the band is able to serve. Audience members at their shows are connected to local organizers and given information about local farms (with the farmers frequently in the audience). Artists from the area, from spoken word performers to aerialists to fire spinners to other musicians, will be invited to share the stage.
The resulting live set feels less like a showcase for the band and more like a showcase for the community — as if a small-scale music festival sprouted up overnight, and Rising Appalachia was the band that happened in the neighborhood.
Many performers talk about the communal nature of live shows, but few bands manage to achieve such an overwhelming sense of this the way Rising Appalachia has. Their performances have the air of an act of service, and the effect on the audience is electric. You can hear that connection between audience and performer on Alive, the band’s most recent album, which showcases their live performances from years of travel.
For Song, however, it wasn’t just about hearing that connection of the live audience, but about spotlighting the way songs evolve and shift over repeated performances.
“Alive was about momentum,” says Song. “But it was also five years since the last studio album, and so there were a lot of changes and nuances … It was a body of work we wanted to feature.”
Now, a little over two years later, comes the still to be announced Leylines. It’s the band’s first studio album in four years. However, unlike the previous albums, it’s the first one they haven’t produced themselves.
Instead, they turned to three-time Grammy winner Joe Henry, who has produced albums for the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Mose Allison, Joan Baez, and New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint (including Toussaint’s final album, American Tunes).
“We worship Joe Henry,” says Song. “I think he did amazing work cultivating the sound (of the record) … I think it’s our best album to date.”
In addition to the core-group of Song, Smith, percussionist Biko Casini and bassist/guitarist/banjoist David Brown, the album features traditional Irish fiddler Duncan Wickle and Arouna Diarra on ngoni (West African harp).
“What’s really amazing about this for us is the lineage of Appalachian music,” says Song, referring specifically to the West African traditions on one instrument and the Irish on another. “Those are two cornerstones of Appalachian music … a lot of people might not hear it, but it means a lot to us.”
And that focus on what is most important to the group also helps explain their independence. Despite offers to sign with record labels, Song and Smith decided to get to know the industry on their own terms. It’s given the band more freedom to keep approaching their work the way they want to, such as performances at demonstrations and a multi-week sailboat tour of British Colombia.
“The record industry doesn’t really know what to do with us,” says Song. “People ask what genre of music we play and I don’t think it has a genre. It’s music. And it fits many boxes but it’s not wholly any one of those boxes … It can make people kind of uncomfortable.”
I ask if that’s part of their job — making things uncomfortable.
“I think so,” says Song. “That’s what artists do anyway. They find the edge and they kind of lean on it.”
She goes on. “We have such a reputation for our politics. But I do hope that we also create music that just works as music. And is cathartic. I really hope that it does its job as its own department of storytelling.”
Song say that the band will tour heavily again following the release of Leylines. But after that, they intend to slow down considerably. “Do some strategic planning on how to calm the pace,” says Song.
The hope is that, as with their touring, a slower pace will increase the output, increase the connection to the work, and build a style of life that may be migratory, but always has roots in the ground.
“We’ve kind of kept the ‘Holy Trinity,’” says Song, referring to their childhood home in Atlanta, their launching pad of New Orleans, and their current roots in Southern Appalachia. “It’s important to spend time in all three ... Get back to having a life outside of Rising Appalachia, which is a wonderful world.”
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