Rising Appalachia's Leah Smith on Wider Circles, the Rail Tour, & the Slow Music Movement
Leah and Chloe Smith of Rising Appalachia have captured the ears of many across America and around the world. Their imaginative and soulful blend of Appalachian roots music with the sounds of age-old musical traditions is revitalizing and cathartic, reflecting the interconnected nature of the global community in which we live.
From the start, the sisters have crafted albums with the intent to heal, reveal, and reactivate, choosing independence to ensure the freedom to write from the heart without constraint. Now they are back at it again with a new album, Wider Circles, and a supporting tour that will carry them from coast to coast.
The talents of Biko Casini (world percussion) and David Brown (stand-up bass/baritone guitar) pair with Leah and Chloe’s signature vocal harmonies and banjo/fiddle duets to explore elements of folk, jazz, and soul and topics ranging from mountaintop removal to herbal medicine.
Released on April 21, Wider Circles was recorded at Echo Mountain Studios in Asheville, N.C., and funded by an incredibly successful Kickstarter campaign. The 15-track album is available for download on CDBaby, SoundCloud, iTunes and Amazon. A hard-copy version, complete with a 24-page lyric booklet, is also available on CDBaby.
I spoke with Leah to find out more about the new album and the current Wider Circles Tour.
Thandiwe Ogbonna: The new album is out! It’s been two years in the making. What has been your process creating a work with such a diverse range of sounds as well as subject matter?
Leah Smith: That’s been one of our primary goals from the get-go, to create a platform where our relationship to folk music and roots music is as diverse as that style of music itself. All cultures around the world boast of a folk music, a way that they told stories through song, and so we’ve always tried to keep that in the forefront of our studies.
We consider ourselves “song catchers”, so we pick up music as we travel. We find teachers. We go to specific parts of the world that have strong music traditions and we study there. We also write contemporary folk music in hopes that it will carry a message for our generation or our experiences. That has continued to be a world of studies. We’ll never run out of material to study and learn from and be influenced by. It’s an exciting part of our self-proclaimed task.
It sounds like a beautiful experience and a great way to interact with many different types of people and encounter many different types of music as well.
Yea, it’s never boring. [laughs] It’s sometimes overstimulating, but it never lacks material.
You just finished one leg of your Wider Circles Tour where you traveled the Southwest by Amtrak train. What was is it like using this non-traditional form of transportation and what did you learn?
Again, so much of where we are now has been a long process in the making, and we have always wanted to do alternative transportation. We’ve done train travel in and out of Europe as a means of touring, so figuring out if rail transportation was actually a viable resource in the United States was an interesting process — what we’ve been calling a reinstigation of rails — just to see if they work and if they can be brought back into the forefront of the North American transportation options.I’d say it’s the beginning of a much longer relationship. It was amazing to be able to be not dependent on gas stations, to be able to move in a railway where you’re on backroads — I mean, you’re not on backroads, you’re on backrails. [laughs] You don’t see billboards, you don’t see signs for a hundred different TV shows or casinos.
It both has the nostalgia of a more old-fashioned way of moving, and it also has a really strong bone in contemporary transportation activism, for lack of a better term, in the sense that it’s a mass transit, it’s a public transportation system.
We had an amazing time! We went in not knowing what we were going to get in to, and we came out feeling inspired and also aware that it’s not a totally functional system. It does need some more work and some more support and it needs to run more consistently and to different parts of the country that it currently doesn’t reach.
Traveling by train was a new expression of your long-term “Slow Music Movement”, your effort to bring music back to the community. Can you tell me more about that movement?
The Slow Music Movement is a term that we’ve taken to create an overall umbrella of all the different things that we want to be doing through this project. It’s a much bigger pursuit than just entertainment. That’s been an important and clear thing for us from the get-go — how can music be a public service? How can it create more camaraderie? How can it create and foster more relationships locally?
[It’s so] we can have a relationship with the communities that we frequent and play in, and also so that we can feel like the work that we’re doing and the messages that we’re carrying along with us aren’t in vain, that we don’t say, “Hey, scale down and slow down,” and then we zip around jet-setting and create a bit of a hypocrisy. It’s our effort to create a counter-response to the music industry — which is very fast, very immediate demand — and to say we want to be in towns and communities regionally, we want to tour in ways that we can get to know the culture and the people that are coming to our shows.
We want to have relationships with the farmers and the food of each region and also to have a relationship with different educational initiatives and non-profits. We have a policy that at each show at least two non-profits are welcome, invited — non-profits or educational initiatives, arts justice projects — to the show to set up tables and let the audiences know, as well as ourselves, what’s going on locally. So you can come to a Rising Appalachia show and get information on what’s going on in your own community, and create bridges and partnerships and collaborations within the audiences, within people who have come there to dance or to sing or to mourn, or whatever it is that brings them to a music event, that they can leave having more experience with what’s going on locally.
I think it’s a blueprint that has exponential growth potential, and we have lots of ideas. We are always collecting ideas from other people, other touring performing arts space organizations, to see how we can keep moving this in an integrated and integrative way.
I know you have some causes that you champion. Could you mention those?
In a broad way, localized activism is really important to us, and that changes based on different regions. That’s something that we are always wanting to champion. On a more specific level, we work with environmental activism, especially in the South. The South is often overly taxed in its resources, so mountaintop removal and mountain justice, keeping the Appalachian mountains intact and strong as a biodiverse forest is important to us, and the Gulf Coast work in restoration post-Katrina and post-oil spill, looking at both cultural and environmental protection for the Gulf Coast region. [And] arts justice, which is another valuable way of using our tools creatively as a culture to speak to injustice.
More recently, we’ve gotten pretty involved — me personally and also the band more generally — in prison activism and looking into the prison industrial complex and recognizing what a deeply broken system that is. We have a very high percentage of American citizens behind bars, the highest per capita in the Western world.
Calling some of those things into attention, presenting some information, and creating a space for dialogue around all of that — we try and never go at it assuming that we know all the right answers and all the right paths — just trying to call attention to some of the disservices that are going on around us and seeing if we can create alternatives.
You’ve been very dedicated to remaining autonomous in your work, producing all of your five previous albums independently and fully funding the most recent album through Kickstarter. How does it feel to have so much support and how do you stay grounded and true to your message?
We were really on the fence with this last album. We had some funding offers, and we have over the last nine years of our career been offered some support — some record label support and financial support — and we have instinctually said no. At first because we didn’t clearly know what we were doing, and we didn’t want to take on any guidance until we felt real clear about what we wanted.More currently, since we do know much more about what we want and how we want to move, it’s felt valuable to have a relationship with the people who listen to our work. Even if you have a silent partner or an anonymous funder, there is an overhead relationship with control, and we actually want to feel indebted to our fan base more than anything.
So our desire to reach out and do a Kickstarter for funding was mostly to try and still be people-powered. We wanted to produce an album; we wanted to stay connected to a fanbase; we wanted it to be something where we had the voices of our public community involved.
It also gave us a cool excuse to make a whole bunch more art. We took it on as a job. And we’re still finishing the project. We still are wrapping parcels and sending albums and signing things — it’s been a huge undertaking. But we took it as a job; we took the time to make some handmade art. Our guitarist recorded an all instrumental of seven of our songs, and Chloe and myself posted handmade, screen-printed posters. It allowed us to have a broad relationship with making things again, tactile art. That was a fun addition to it that we weren’t even certain how we would feel, but it ended up being really gratifying.
Is there anything else you would like to mention to your fans or anyone who may just be discovering your music?
Musically, we’ve had a lot of fun with this album, pulling a bunch of old Appalachian and gospel traditional and medleying them in with some of our own writing and some other influences. [We’d like to] give a shout out to the Americana genre, the old-time genre especially. It’s been really fascinating to try and create a space for that to be a new breathing art form.
Rising Appalachia will be back on the road May 8, kicking things off with a night at the Bowery Ballroom in New York City followed by more shows in the Northeast. Check the tour schedule to see when you can join the movement in a city near you.