This interview originally appeared at North Country Primitive on 16th May 2015
We recently caught up with Ashville-based guitarist Sarah Louise Henson, whose Scissor Tail Editions cassette, Field Guide, was released earlier this year and has been has been a frequent visitor to the North Country Primitive stereo. Field Guide is an album steeped in the physical landscape and musical heritage of North Carolina: deeply grounded in a tangible sense of place and with roots in the traditions of that state, yet at the same time, constantly playing with the parameters of whatever this might mean and delivered with an almost magical lightness of touch. If you haven’t already picked up a copy of the album, we would urge you to get over to her Bandcamp page and snag one now…
How are you feeling about the overwhelmingly positive reaction to Field Guide?
To feel like I was true to myself and have people understand and be emotionally impacted by it means the world. It’s deeply satisfying and grounding. I am so grateful. I’m happy to say that I’m in the midst of one of the most musically productive periods of my life so far, and I owe at least part of that to the sense of community I have gained from the reception to Field Guide.
Can you tell us a bit about your musical journey? Did you always want to play solo acoustic guitar or have you arrived at it by way of various other twists and turns?
I grew up singing in choir and could be caught experimenting with my voice while working in my fairy garden as a kid. My first CDs were The Firebird by Stravinsky and The Music of the Mbutu Pygmies of the Ituri Rainforest, so it’s safe to say I was born a musical novelty-seeker. I was also a bit of a trouble-maker and I instantly connected music with emotions. It’s good medicine. I took piano very briefly as a kid but quit because I thought Swans on the Lake was dull and wanted to play Satie instead. When I was in middle school, a woman gave me a guitar. For some reason, with guitar I was very naturally motivated – each little milestone I made was a pleasure and I was able to find ways to continually challenge myself. In high-school, I mostly worked up to learning my favorite pre-war blues songs and that’s also when my mom gave me my first John Fahey album (thanks mom!).
What’s the balance between composition and improvisation in your music?
Looking back on it, every track on Field Guide has an element of improvisation. The first piece I wrote for the album was the title track, and it came as a result of jamming with my partner on drums with my relatively new 12-string. Playing with him really loosened me up and helped give it more flow. So that was borne out of improvisation, but over a long period of time and the lyrical beginning part is improvised. I think it’s probably the best blend of improvised and more determined parts on the album. Late Summer Seed Collection and Dog Improv were just in-the-moment improvisations that I didn’t take seriously until I listened back. Parts of me are impulsive and raw, but I am also a methodical, detail-oriented person and reel myself in more than I maybe ought to. As I grow into myself, I am getting better at allowing the more expressive parts through. Accepting those raw improvisations was an important step in that direction for me. Pieces like Waterways were only partly composed when I recorded them, so improvisation fleshed them out. I also improvised the solo at the end of The Day is Past and Gone (Variations). So there’s improvisation functioning on different levels on the album. I’m about 2/3rds of my way through writing my new album and none of those are in-the-moment improvisations yet, but they have come together pretty quickly, which I think is a result of being more and more comfortable with my musical language and definitely a result of hours logged improvising. In general, my pieces are a mix of melody lines and chords I hear in my head that are reactions to my tunings or other chords I come across while playing. I definitely think of myself as one player in all of this – the others being my guitar and tunings.
What have been your main influences, musical or otherwise?
Connecting with nature is the biggest influence on my life and my music. I know most of the names and uses of plants around here and greet them like old friends. This time of year, my soundscape is filled with delights like birdsong, creeks, wind in leaves, singing frogs and insects. I listen to all kinds of music. For me, that’s key. I believe that whatever I listen to will make its way into my compositions eventually, so by listening to all kinds of music, I’ve been able to find my own sound. For that same reason, I tend to avoid listening to much contemporary solo guitar. My tunings are also an enormous influence. I have never written any instrumentals in a tuning that wasn’t of my own devising, and I’m really proud of that. It allows me to work entirely in my own world.
To these ears, there’s quite a leap between Wildwood Hours and Field Guide. Do these albums represent two ongoing aspects of your musical persona or do you see a more linear progression from one to the other?
I think there is a leap between the two, but it wasn’t necessarily linear. When I first moved back to North Carolina, I put a lot of pressure on myself to write music, which naturally produced the opposite effect. It didn’t take long for me to realise that simply living a good life here was more important to me than anything, so I actually hardly touched my guitar for a couple of years. During that time some of my constant companions were old hymns and ballads. I’ve spent over a decade now digging deep into American music and it really is endless. It’s so diverse and surprising. The a capella songs on Wildwood Hours are some of what I call my “gem” songs. I have maybe 20 or so that I’ve learned from various field and early studio recordings, that just knock me to my knees. I would love to find a meaningful way to record all of those one day as a way to share these magical, half-buried soul-treasures. I think that the instrumentals on Wildwood Hours are more perhaps rigid than those on Field Guide, largely due to the absence of improvisation, but I’m still fond of many of them. Composing for 6-string guitar is also quite different from 12-string. I have found so much inspiration in the different kinds of picking patterns that a 12-string suggests. There are more possibilities there, so I think my newer work has more variation in those patterns and even time signatures.
I know you’ve explained in other interviews that you made a conscious decision to leave the vocal tracks that were on the early version of Field Guide off the album when Scissor Tail released it, but in the longer term are we likely to hear more of your singing?
In some ways I’m really sad they weren’t included, but I do think in the end it was important to fit within the Scissor Tail aesthetic. I would love to find a home for those vocal outtakes someday, because they encapsulate a lot of ideas I was working on at the time. Because I am so inspired by the landscape around me, it naturally takes the form of words some of the time. I love making connections and fitting things together, so I like the idea of combining those worlds more someday, which in some ways would be picking up the thread where Barely Night and Starfields from Wildwood Hours left off. I have written a few songs with vocals recently that I perform, depending on the bill, but because I don’t have a conception of what a full-length with vocals would look like yet, I’m sitting on them. I feel like I want to take my time with everything I put out to make sure it’s as fully realised as it can be. Because I’m feeling so alive to guitar now, I am also very conscious of not spreading myself too thin. I don’t want to put something out just for the sake of having more releases. There is a special magic in instrumental music that I am nowhere close to done with, and I want to honour that completely in myself. However, I think one reason why I’ve been able to make music that excites me is because I have kept an open mind. Anything could happen!
Are there any plans to release a vinyl or CD version of Field Guide? Or a second edition of the cassette?
Dylan and I discussed the possibility of another run, but ultimately we decided it was important to keep it limited edition since that is how it was marketed. I would love to see a vinyl version one day! I recently made some CD-Rs for upcoming shows that I think are quite lovely. I handmade each one, so I’m hoping that some of the folks who missed out on the tape will enjoy getting one of those.
It’s hard to imagine Field Guide being made by a player living in a big city – it’s a very rural album - pastoral yet earthy. Do you have a sense that your home environment in North Carolina seeps into your composition and playing? (I have a mental picture of you playing on the porch of a ramshackle house at the end of an unmade road way up in the hills – don’t tell me you have a modern downtown apartment!)
Yeah, you pretty much nailed it! I live up a gravel road in a house that is humble, but not dilapidated, with a wrap-around porch that is surrounded by acres and acres of forest. As soon as I got back from my string of shows in NYC, our water pressure was shot. We headed up to the spring box to see what was wrong and a Blue Ridge spring salamander had wedged its tail into the pipe. It hit me then just how different my life is from most people. But it’s the only life for me. The pace of rural life suits me and my bond with nature is the foundation of my outlook on life. It is so powerful for me. Since incorporating the gestalt of landscape into my music isn’t a conscious choice, it seems like magic that my surroundings seep in. It’s less an act of translation than the result of a familiarity of spirits, I think. It feels so good to be able to share my love of nature with people through what I make. If I can take people there, I feel like I’m creating something worthwhile. I’m also hugely indebted to two of my neighbours who adopted me right away when I moved to the road. They always seem to have something exciting up their sleeves to share with me, like taking me wild turkey hunting before the sun if fully up, carefully harvesting ginseng - or “sang” as it’s known around here - and up ridges to abandoned mica mines and an old Native American hunting camp. They taught me how to plant by the signs and how to make “leather britches,” a dish made from dried beans, hull and all. We even salt-cured half of a hog and repaired a moonshine cask. A few of these traditions are pretty much died out around here so it was a real gift that they wanted to share them with me. Their friendship continues to enrich my life and provided me with meaningful company when I had just done this crazy thing of moving up a gravel road by myself.
North Carolina has always been home to a wealth of American folk music, both religious and secular. Do you feel any connection to those traditions? Did you hear much traditional music growing up? I imagine I can hear echoes of it in your music, but is that something you consciously incorporate, or has it just sort of seeped in through the ether?
Two of my favorite banjo players – Dink Roberts and John Snipes – are from North Carolina. The Day is Past and Gone (Variations) and Home Over Yonder off of Field Guide were the results of consciously trying to incorporate old hymns into my guitar music, one as sung by Jean Ritchie and the other by Frankie Duff. I even developed the tunings those are in with those particular hymns in mind. I was - and still am - particularly preoccupied with the frequent presence of drone in Appalachian music, which is a characteristic found in nature-based music around the world. I think drones are sacred and primal and those modal melodies resonate very deeply in me. I think there is a romantic idea that there is still this kind of music being played here, but that is sadly not the case. There is a somewhat strong bluegrass scene still and I know of several older men who flat-pick, but it’s mostly younger transplants who play older styles. I think some of those younger players are starting to dig even deeper. It used to be way more common to encounter mostly clawhammer - the style I play - or Scruggs-style banjo, but now it’s not uncommon to hear more obscure and idiosyncratic two-finger styles. That’s exciting to me. And of course the landscape is still here, so I feel connected with older styles that developed alongside the same nature I live in.
I’ve no idea whether this is something you give much thought to, but it seems to me that in the American Primitive/guitar soli scene, the vast majority of players are men. Are you particularly conscious of being one of very few women players out there? Do you have any perspectives on this?
To be honest, I feel nervous to answer this question, because I don’t want to distract from the music. I think it’s true that there are many fields in which women deserve equal footing and empowerment that they’re not necessarily getting. More importantly, there are many wonderful female guitar players out there working in different idioms. Some of my favorites are Mary Halvorson, Ava Mendoza, and pedal steel experimenter Susan Alcorn. I imagine most of your readers are already familiar with tone-master Marisa Anderson. Check them out!
Do you see yourself primarily as a solo performer, or can you see yourself collaborating with other musicians or working as part of a group in future? You have some excellent musicians working out of your area – Shane Parish, Wes Tirey and Tashi Dorji spring to mind. Are you all quite supportive of each other’s music?
I have been floored by the amount of support in the Asheville music community. I feel very lucky being able to say that some of the most innovative guitarists - and nicest! - are from Asheville. Shane, Wes and I had a joint tape-release party a few months back at Harvest Records, and it seemed like the whole community showed up to support us. Collaborating is definitely in my scope. It’s hard to say what might lead to recording, but it’s fun and a great way to get new perspectives. Speaking of collaborations, Wes has been performing with a band lately. Haven’t gotten a chance to hear it yet, but I think that will be a really exciting transition for him.
What are you listening to at the moment? Any recommendations, old or new?
Oh gosh, so much! I have to start with Appa by Tashi Dorji, since I just got it this week. It seems to embody entire universes, while still managing to suggest little scenes filled with elegant detail. It is simultaneously beautiful and heart-wrenching, seemingly full of memories while remaining fiercely in the present. Buy this record! Luciano Cilio is a super underrated guitar player and composer who never saw recognition in his short lifetime - his music sounds like 20th century classical composition, but he was self-taught. John Schneider plays Lou Harrison and Harry Partch works on guitar - Harry Partch’s own modified guitar, as well as a microtonal resonator guitar – swoon! Also David Lang, Henry Flynt, Don Cherry, Meredith Monk, Alhaji Bai Konte, Alice Coltrane, Khansahib Abdul Karim Khan, Dogon A.D. by Julius Hemphill, Eastern European vocal music, Sei Note in Logica by Roberto Cacciapaglia, Ballad of the Lights by Arthur Russell and Allen Ginsberg, Indonesian Guitar, a compilation from Folkways, Boneset by Diane Cluck, Piedmont Apocrypha by Horseback, Clear Moon by Mount Eerie and Sail to Sail by Fred Frith. I loved Son of the Black Peace by Dean McPhee – his follow-up album is coming out really soon. My friend Isaac performs as Moses Nesh, and I think his album The Lovely Ohio would have a lot of mass appeal if it could get out there. He’s also a 78s collector and an expert on pre-war blues. People drawn to this site would most definitely dig it! My friend Emmalee Hunnicutt makes mystical, soulful cello music that the world needs. She also collaborates with Shane Parish and bassist Frank Meadows – they’re calling themselves Library of Babble and they recently recorded material for an LP on Blue Tapes that I know will be amazing!
What are you planning on doing next? Is there another album in the making?
I’ve agreed to do an LP for an American label that I’m really excited about. I think that’s all I can say for now!
Is there anything I should have asked but didn’t?
Don’t think so. Thanks for the great questions!
Thank you for your time, Sarah.
Thanks, I’m happy to share!
Sarah Louise's Bandcamp page can be found here.