IT has been a real joy getting to know…
the sisters of Rising Appalachia. Their music has been lauded by the likes of NPR, Paste and No Depression. They are household names among festival-goers and played alongside Damien Rice. I talk to them about the new live album, Alive, and what we can expect from its lead-off single, Lean In.
They talk about the earth and their surroundings; how inspiring the land is to them and the ethos behind their music. I learn about the sound and cultures that go into their music; the West Coast tour dates they have coming up – including a series of gigs around California – and whether there is new music coming next year…
Hi, girls. How are you? How has your week been?
Lots of planes… lots of naps (L.o.L.).
For those new to your work, can you introduce yourself, please?
We are sisters Leah and Chloe Smith: born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia by some incredible Appalachian Folk music parents and extended community.
Rising Appalachia is also Biko Casini on Global Percussion and David Brown on Stand-Up Bass; Baritone Guitar and Banjo. We play a melting-pot of Folk music that is simplistic and textured with both Southern-American lineages as well as global roots. The band has songwriting that highlights vocal harmonies and incorporates elements of clawhammer banjo, fiddle; double bass, and acoustic guitar - along with World percussions such as the djembe, barra and bodhran.
We also like to feature a lot of Spoken-Word. Our goal is for Rising Appalachia to be both genre-bending and familiar at the same time. We also work to utilize our platform as musicians to help promote social and environmental justice causes - with the aim of educating and inspire positive change.
We wanted to form our own business standards as well as break out of the formal stage barriers…bring music back to the streets and creating space for different artistic collaborations along the way (poets, dancers; painters, non-profits, speakers; education initiatives, farmers; youth groups, etc.).
We ask the question: “How can we make music that reaches further than the edge of the stage…further than the Sat night dance party?” - one that has lyrics that speak to a human experience and a concert-model that asks the audience to come ready to participate - it is not just a passive entertainment.
We are asking our ‘fans’ to help us shape this work: to bring us their stories, their songs; their local beacons, artists; environmentalists, justice worker; local medicine, wild foods; regional lore…so that we can showcase all the collective efforts it takes to move towards that “more beautiful world our hearts know is possible” - as author Charles Einstein calls it.
Can you tell me the inspiration behind the name, ‘Rising Appalachia’? Is there a particular significance behind it?
We were urban kids: born and raised in Atlanta (near North Georgia) and the beginning of the Appalachian Mountains. But, our mother was involved in the traditions of Southern Appalachian Folk music. We aren’t trying to retell Appalachian traditions or re-live urban traditions, but, instead we are trying to take all of our influences between our exposure to Southern Appalachian Folk music and our relationship with the deep urban South and Jazz - and create a sound that is rising out of Appalachia; a new tradition rising out of all of these old traditions.
Leah had a dream that specifically held the name ‘Rising Appalachia’.
As sisters, you share a love of music - but can you remember when you decided to go into music together?
Leah: Because we are sisters; there were very natural and unstructured beginnings to this project that formed a different sort of foundation than your standard band approach. We grew up with music so we’ve sung together ever since we were babies. I am three-and-a-half-years older than Chloe and, ever since we were both little kids, we were in music circles.
Our mother used to sing us harmony parts to various songs in our ears at a young age - so that we could hear how the sounds stacked up and complemented one another - and how some notes would bounce or create tension with other notes.
It was always a big part of our lives but we were both doing outreach, education and activism in college and beyond. We made an album as a holiday gift to our family. We recorded it in a day. It was just a fun thing that we did - mostly takes of old songs. That was the beginning. This was about nine-and-a-half-years ago: way before the name Rising Appalachia even existed. We would play tunes with our family and at the farmers market sometimes and it got picked up by a community of music appreciators - and we started getting asked to perform.
Without fully realizing it; we forged our own music management concepts - and basically learned how to run a business as well as an expansive art project. Art makes industry: industry does not make art. Industry helps art but can’t create it. We felt that the standard way that musicians worked was not the structure we wanted to pursue. The fact that we are sisters has helped us stay true to our vision...
I think our sisterhood has kept this project alive and breathing for the most part. When one of us is just about to collapse the other one can step in and take the touch. We know that about each other so well. We also know every button to push, but mostly, we are allies to each other. We try to take time off to just hang out together and keep our friendship strong - and there is never any doubt about where the loyalists lie. So, perhaps sometimes we might crave a little more space than we get - but we keep a strong balance.
What kind of music did you grow up listening to?
We grew up in downtown Atlanta, GA - rather immersed and happily-steeped in both traditional music - Appalachian, Irish; Jazz - and World harmony - singing from our parents and their musical community - as well as (in) the urban pulse of underground Hip-Hop, Soul and the Spoken-Word movement.
Although that might seem an unusual combination of influences, we had fun navigating the cultural melting-pot and bouncing from fiddle festivals in the Appalachian Mountains - on the weekends - to our downtown high-school and underground Dance clubs in the city. We have found the overlap to be a huge creative inspiration in our work as musicians, performers; story-tellers, and bridge-builders.
Lean In is the lead-off single from the live album, Alive. What is the tale behind that song?
Written in the streets of New Orleans in homage to Etta James - and the deep Soul traditions of the South - Lean In is a song of giving love a softer second try.
It seems you have a real passion for conservationism, environmentalism and positive change. Do you feel few artists project spirituality and a sense of responsibility through their music?
We believe that the role of the artist should be to question social norms; the walk of the underserved, poverty; racism, land loss and other deep seeded injustices that have followed the story of humanity. Music is a tool and a catalyst for betterment in our communities. It’s always available to be a resource for social change and a platform for dialog around justice issues in our world. We work to utilize our platform as musicians to help promote social and environmental justice causes with the aim of educating and inspire positive change.
We wanted to bring the music to places where it wasn’t and offer it as a collaboration. We want to see a return of music as a community experience and a tool where musicians are held accountable to be carrying the stories and the dialogues - and the messages of their communities. We believe it’s a bigger responsibility than just entertainment— that the role of the musicians is a public service and an important fabric to the folklore of a society. We wanted to be storytellers: not just drink sales at the bar.
Music-making should lend itself to the whole community: the struggles, pains; celebrations, and spiritual paths of us all.
Alive is your first live album. What was the decision behind releasing a live album and what was the experience like?
Our past two years of touring Wider Circles has been an incredible amalgamation of creativity, cross-pollination; spiritual and musical growth; dog-tired days on the road - and all sorts of other bits and pieces of the story. Our band really solidified our sound as well as our voice as activists and storytellers in this process – and, so, we wanted to release some music from those journeys that was Alive (in the way that only live shows are).
Will there be any new music coming later this year?
We have lots of other collaborations with other artists in the cooker - as well as some new material of our own.
We are, however, in no rush.
Your music, Roots-based, is very different from many acts. What is it about this style of music that attracted you?
Folk music has always been By and For the people.
There is a real, true grit and honesty to that - that which we have always found enticing as well as familiar.
The ego can run away with itself in this line of work - and Roots music has a way of keeping the artist close to the ground and on the right track.
You have been in the industry for over a decade – recorded several albums and amassed a huge number of fans. What has been the highlight of your career so far, would you say?
Oh, there have been many…
Performing at Red Rocks; playing at some of our friends’ weddings; our most-recent Sea to Seed sailboat tour off the coast of British Columbia; performing at a circus festival on the island of Stromboli; playing in a haunted fourteenth-century castle in Southern Ireland; playing our song Medicine at the central fire of Standing Rock - after being invited to the land by the Indigenous Youth Council…
Having our mother and godparents join us on stage in Atlanta; some deep harmony singing… the list goes on and on!
You have a few U.S. dates on the horizons. It seems California, where you will be largely based, is an ideal setting for your music. Do you perform their often and what was the reason for embarking on a tour of the West Coast?
Being born and raised in the South; there is certainly a dichotomy between the Coasts that is a beautiful balance. We have always sought the open air and open minds of the West Coast in our travels - and have been inspired to rub elbows with some of that innovation and bring it back home.
Our West Coast tours are always fully-packed and very abundant - and we give great gratitude to that region for holding us so dear.
What advice would you give to artists coming through right now?
Put your boots on and know the business side of things - so that no one can take advantage of you!
Hire a good team. Find musical collaborators who are both talented AND healthy - so that your life on the road can be uplifted and sustainable.
Work hard every damn day… and yet… take calculated time off to slow down and disappear from the rush.
Finally, and for being good sports, you can each name a song and I’ll play it here (not one of yours as I’ll do that).
A song we like?
Chloe: Xavier Rudd - The Letter
Leah: Ibeyi - River
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