The harmonizing folk trio Mountain Man—Amelia Meath, Molly Sarlé, and Alexandra Sauser-Monnig—spun songs they made up on the front porch of their house near Bennington College into national success, going on to support such indie icons as Feist and The Decemberists and releasing their second album, Magic Ship, on the distinguished label Nonesuch Records last year.
In the eight years between the first and second Mountain Man albums, as Meath set about blowing up with Sylvan Esso, Sauser-Monnig graduated from college and “decided to explore other ways of being human on planet Earth.” She moved to North Carolina and worked at goat dairies and flower farms, spent some time in Asheville living with people who were starting a weaving business, and then moved to the Triangle to work at a library, pouring all that nature and thinking time into Dawnbreaker, her debut solo album as Daughter of Swords.
Released by Nonesuch and produced by Meath’s Sylvan Esso costar, Nick Sanborn, Dawnbreaker is a sleek ten-song collection. It has the affable minimalist glow that fans associate with Mountain Man, paired with Sauser-Monnig’s particularly deep lyrics and impressive vocalism, representing a chapter in local folk music that isn’t afraid of the occasional electronic flourish.
Just after the album’s release, we caught up with Sauser-Monnig to discuss her solo writing process, the ups and downs of names, and how North Carolina influenced this batch of songs.
INDY: How did you start singing? Did you go to church?
ALEXANDRA SAUSER-MONNIG: I did go to church. I grew up in a very musical family. Both of my parents majored in music in college. My mom’s an amazing flute player, and my dad’s a guitar player. They started a music store when they were twenty-one, and that’s where I spent most of my time growing up.
Why Daughter of Swords and not Alexandra Sauser-Monnig?
I kind of think of it as a comfortable distinction from myself. Also, imagine telling everyone how to pronounce your name all the time. It’s just the curse of having a weird Northern European last name. It comes from a tarot card. Number one, the card really resonates with me, and number two, I think it’s just a stone-cold-awesome name.
How did living in this area inflect your writing process?
“Long Leaf Pines” is a really great example. I wrote that song right when I moved to North Carolina and was trying to understand the climate and the plants and the air and the sunshine. North Carolina is overflowing with life constantly because it’s so damned hot. There’s more bugs than anywhere else I’ve ever lived, and I feel like that roly-poly waterfall of greenery and life and humidity is a part of the feeling of the record. And Nick Sanborn and I were pretty intentional about capturing room sound, and the room had very thin walls. There are things you can hear from outside on the record. I think that process was receptive to the life of the place it was recorded in.
How was working with Nick?
It was so fun. We’ve known each other for years through Amelia. But I would say that making Dawnbreaker kind of transformed our relationship into a friendship. It was a joyful, exploratory experience of following the thread of whatever felt like fun in that particular moment. I feel like you can hear that in the record, like a lot of playful choices were made.
Can you tell me more about your songwriting process?
I am a fiend for melody. Songwriting can look a lot of different ways. The most magical is when you have a feeling that you might write a song and it comes out quickly, lyrics and melody, pretty fully formed. Other times, it’s like you’ll sing a fragment of a line or melodic idea and then really have to work at it, and I feel like it can unfold in funny ways where you’ll come up with the chorus and then try to write the verses and have to throw them out several times. The shifting of focus whenever you run into a brick wall, trying to come at it from a different angle, can help me break through, which is true for a lot of things people do in life.
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