You grew up in Nevada City, California, right? How would you describe that town to someone who’s never been there?
To someone who’s never been there I’d say you can find the same thing by going to some place beautiful where you feel meaning and love and depth in the landscape, some place wild and pristine. That area of California is special to me because of memory. I spent a lot of time alone when I was young and could wander to creeks and forests, and I felt very connected to that. So to me it feels sacred, but it’s funny because the landscape is really altered because of the history of gold mining. There are big cliffs and hills that were washed away, that I never saw, but to me that’s how it’s always been. I think when people are connected to something beautiful, they want to make art and so that has led to a lot of creativity in the culture there, but I don’t know that it’s the cultural mecca people imagine. Because of Joanna Newsom‘s success, people know about our town now, but it isn’t just a fairy tale. There are all kinds of people and stories there.
What’s your earliest music-related memory? When did you start singing and playing music?
When I was four my mom had me taking piano lessons and singing in a choir with my other four year-old friends. Later on I started writing a lot of poems and other things. I think my earliest memory is of Suzuki piano, which is the method book we learned from. Those songs are completely ingrained because we practiced them 20 times a day. They’re mostly old folk songs from Europe, but aside from that– Peter, Paul, and Mary and maybe Joni Mitchell, the Beach Boys, my dad’s records. Before that I only really listened to classical music and I know that’s what my mom listened to when she was pregnant with me, a lot of Bach!
Your music seems to draw quite a bit from traditional folk and gospel. How were you exposed to that music?
That’s a funny question because I don’t really know the answer. It was something I was just drawn to internally and that felt right. There were a lot of bluegrass festivals in Nevada City, and in college I joined a group of friends who would get together every week and sing Hank Williams songs in a basement under a pizza shop. I was also really drawn to blues, like Thelonious Monk.
You’ve lived in Portland for almost 6 years now. How would you describe the folk music scene there? Do you feel a part of that scene?
I think there is a lot of folk music here and some of it is really good. Maybe because it is a quieter town we are drawn to that sound, and it’s great that it’s appreciated so much and isn’t necessarily drowned out by louder bands. I don’t know if I’m a part of that scene or not, yes and no. Because it is so spread out and has a lot of sub-genres I sometimes feel I’m creating outside of that.
“I Give” on your new album Begin is entirely a capella and features your voice tracked multiple times in multiple harmonies. Was that song particularly hard to record? Did you always envision that song as being an a capella song?
That song was actually very easy to record. It was written without an instrument, so it made sense for it to be only vocals. I love choirs and I love singing and creating harmonies. It’s very natural for me and I think it would be fun to make a whole record like this, with loops and harmonies all over. It’s very freeing.
You’ve self-released all three of your albums. Has that been a conscious decision? Have any labels expressed interest in helping you release your music?
I can’t say that it was a conscious decision, more a lack of other options and that’s made things more difficult in some ways. I feel there was more label interest years ago, when I didn’t really know what I was doing or wasn’t very organized about pursuing music. There were a lot of smaller labels then who were backing things and were interested. Before I released Begin I spoke with a few labels, but mostly what I heard is that they can’t do much for artists right now (because of a lack of budget or because people aren’t buying records), and that self-releasing is a good option. I don’t know if that is really true, but I do think the market is so saturated now that it’s hard for labels to take risks on bands that are less known or don’t necessarily have a huge following. In the 60s and 70s labels were secure and could take risks on smaller artists. Now it’s changed a lot and labels want to see what you can do for them. I do think their answers were genuine, in that they believe in my work, but it didn’t make sense for them logistically at that time.
Do you have any plans to tour in 2015?
Yes, I’m planning east and west coast tours for the summer.
What are some things you like about touring?
I love traveling and going to new places, everything really, and feeling very locked in with performances after a long string of shows. I love taking pictures and finding pockets of wilderness to explore.
Thai food or pizza?
Thai, although that isn’t always the best choice if you’re in, like, Nevada.
Pete Seeger or Bob Dylan?
Both! A lot of people think Pete Seeger is cheesy, but he was very smart and did some great things in activism and wrote some great songs. People know him for his kids songs, but not everyone knows he only got into that because he was blacklisted from the radio and playing his own songs and performing during the McCarthy era, so it was the only way he could play music, for kids.