SARAH LOUISE, Wednesday, Jan. 30, 8 p.m., $10, The Pinhook, Durham; thepinhook.com
With the January 17 death of Mary Oliver, often called the “poet of the natural world,” it feels fitting to dive into the work of Sarah Louise Henson, the twelve-string guitar wizard and one half of House and Land with fiddle player Sally Anne Morgan. Henson has often noted the impact that her home in the mountains of North Carolina, with its “smooth-stone creek bottoms, delicate lunar-born mushrooms beneath rhododendron boughs, (and) extreme changes in elevation,” has had on her music. Her latest album, the new Nighttime Birds and Morning Stars, is no exception.
At first glance, Henson’s third solo album is far removed from her earlier explorations of fingerpicked guitar and Appalachian folk songs. On ambient and decidedly digital songs like “Ancient Intelligence” and “Chitin Flight,” she manipulates samples primarily sourced from electric guitar into spirited sound collages. Her deft playing style is made abstract as noises chirp and sway around one another like inquisitive birds. Henson uses the organic imagery of webs and spirals to describe the intentional process of layering sounds in her home recording software, and the result is clearly as grounded as her earlier works. Ahead of her Wednesday night stop at The Pinhook, Henson caught up with us via email about her furthest-reaching explorations yet.
INDY: For Nighttime Birds and Morning Stars, what was it like to branch out to recording primarily with electric guitar, sampling, and more of a collage-style composition process?
SARAH LOUISE HENSON: It felt really free and fun. I could act on ideas immediately without fear of forgetting a part, because it was already recorded. It allowed my mind to ping around at the pace it wanted to.
How do you plan to play these songs live? Do you have any worries about what folk purists will think, or is your audience pretty well primed for the avant-garde and experimental?
Yes, I will perform them, but it feels important to leave a lot of room for play and exploration within the performances. In addition to live guitar, I will be using an SP-404, which is a classic sampler. It’s such a versatile, interactive instrument with a lot of room for improvisation. I can feel the same parts of my mind at work with that as I can when composing for twelve-string. It’s been an exciting process to integrate those two very different elements.
I’m happy, because I feel like creating these performances is feeding my creative practice rather than making pressure of rigidly recreating something. With any creative practice, it’s so important to follow where your interests lead you. My work comes from a deep place within me, and I don’t think it would turn out very well if I worried what some people might think. If you try to please this person or that group, you will lose your center. Folk purists are absolutely encouraged to attend!
What were you listening to, or reading, or otherwise inspired by while you were concocting the record?
This is always a hard question to answer, because I think years can pass after consuming some form of media and suddenly a grain of it will appear. I love all kinds of music and think that what I make is a product of everything I’ve ever listened to and every experience I’ve had. If I’m making one type of record, I usually avoid listening to music in the same vein while I’m working. I’ve been listening a lot to Golden Hour by Kacey Musgraves in the past couple of weeks, so, you know, in about five years I’ll make my pop-country debut! As for books, I’ve been working with exercises from Pauline Oliveros’s deep listening handbook and reading a lot about the spiritual dimensions of herbalism.
Your mother created the artwork for this album. How did you work together to make that happen?
My mom is an amazing artist, and I knew she would understand how to make a visual complement to my music. I told her I would love to have morning glories and a wood thrush on it, and she created this cosmic masterpiece. It was totally her idea to put it all in outer space!
One of the things I appreciate about your music, and House and Land’s music, is how accessible you make it—whether it’s making a video with screengrabs of your Reaper digital software sessions, or contextualizing during a live show the history of the shruti box or a certain ballad. How do you see this educational or analytical component as fitting into what you do?
I’m a pretty big nerd, so I guess it just comes naturally. When I have a passion for something, my excitement for it makes it hard not to share. I have a strong sense that all music is connected, and an instrument like the shruti box is an interesting illustration of that. I think it’s important to honor where folk music came from. These old songs contain important information about living close to the land and our histories, which are relevant to our world today. I had a lot of fun making this record, and it has a lot of new sounds and techniques, so it felt like a cool idea to share more about it.