Rising Appalachia Interview and Special Feature
We are incredibly excited to offer this very special Thanksgiving artist interview and Breaking Borders feature with the highly acclaimed deeply soulful, southern world-folk duo Rising Appalachia!
The incredible collective voice of sisters Leah Song And Chloe Smith have resonated with us deeply over the last years and continue to inspire us through their passion and spirit for world culture both old and new. By bridging folk tradition with contemporary relevance, their songs speak with intention to reconnect to cultural roots, social justice and harmony as a people. They show a strong commitment to working creatively at a grass roots level keeping them accessible to all. Through the power of sound, story and song Rising Appalachia raises the bar in music today, empowering woman world wide and representing joy, simplicity and meaning in all they have to offer.
We were honored to have the opportunity to connect with the sisters a month ago as they embarked on their current “Resilience Tour” up and down the Western USA. The tour reaches many small towns and every major city on the West Coast including a very a special show in our hometown of San Francisco at The Great American Music Hall on November 26th. Here is the FB Event and tickets.
They will be joined by their beloved bandmates Biko Casini (percussion) and David Brown (bassist/guitarist) with whom they have been performing, since their last album tour in 2015. The current “Resilience” movement for the band is a powerful response to the current state of the world, acknowledging the challenging times we face today and encouraging personal empowerment for ourselves and local communities to take action from the ground up.
“We are a resilient people in challenging times! And now more than ever we need to be making music.”
For the last five years, the music and ethos put forth by Rising Appalachia has greatly influenced our pursuits for the cross-cultural work we do here at Breaking Borders and has given us meaningful intent to keep our spirits high. In our interview, we ask the two songstresses Leah and Chloe to speak in depth about certain characteristics that make Rising Appalachia unique and truly stand out today as international musicians for change.
Breaking Borders: How did Rising Appalachia come into being? What was your intention behind the project? What were some of the driving forces that helped form your identity??
Leah: Rising Appalachia was born out of our long term immersion into southern roots music. We were raised in a family that kept Duke Ellington vinyl playing, and both our mother and father got very involved in Southern folk music traditions … so our whole childhood was steeped in music. When we decided to record an album we were mostly wanting to document the peculiar and rich soundtrack of our lives. There were so many different influences that created the bedrock of our musical tastes. From Old Appalachian mountain tunes, to the early days of Outkast, the South was our soundtrack. We wanted to create a platform to showcase all those influences, and at that time those genres didn’t historically mix. We wanted to make music that referenced all those sounds as much as they had influenced us. And there was born Rising Appalachia.
Can you describe the connection you both have to the American South? How does your love and admiration of the Southern soul translate into your music and message? What kind of story are you telling about the South that you want to express to the rest of the world?
Chloe: Well, we are sisters so we of course have the birth connection to the south and to our blood family there. But beyond that, we have the same fluctuating emotions for the south that most people do that are from there. Its love, its hate, its sort of a moving body of opinions depending on the times and the seasons and your neighbors. However, the love comes from the cultural heritage of the place… the songs we were brought up singing, our foods and crazy salty rich recipes, the feeling of front porch talks and hot summer breezes, fireflies on the mountain, and the hospitality and sweetness of many southern folk. Its sweaty and sticky and complicated sort of region. But we want to express in our music the importance of having a sense of place, of belonging to somewhere or something, and of singing the songs of ones ancestors and family members which we all have access to with a little bit of digging.
Rising Appalachia’s unique incorporation of international folk tradition seems to reflect an intention of bringing people back to the roots in contemporary time. In your words, what is the significance of folk tradition today? It what ways do indigenous worldviews impact your own lifestyles, music and visions?
Chloe: Folk music and folk practices ( Im thinking specifically of craft work, medicine, cooking and preparing, storytelling, dance, and other forms of expression and gathering) are simple, and that is why we hold on so dearly to them in contemporary times. That simplicity is peaceful and historic and full of information to pass down. I was raised in folk music and so I saw first hand the community it sprouted and the relationships it formed and in many ways a lot of young people I know now don’t have those sorts of things to grasp on to. Nothing passed down from the family necessarily. Its a great malnourishment of our country and I think people are awakening to that and doing the work to recreate it in their own lives.
What inspired you to start following this path of studying traditional cultures and world wide travel? Do you have a favorite moment(s) of encountering indigenous traditions or culture during your travels?
Chloe: Our father traveled around the world before Leah and I were born, and that gave him a lot of very interesting fodder for our dinner table conversations. We learned about different cultures and communities through his stories at an early age, and thus the seed was planted. Additionally, our mother was an international flight attendant for 30 years… so that travel bug was strong in the Smiths.
We knew that music was a glue in our lives, and we both wanted to explore other countries folk traditions pretty soon out of high school so as to broaden that scope. One of our favorite memories was visiting Bulgaria on a cultural tour that a good friend of ours set up for us years back. He was Bulgarian and loved our Appalachian styled music and wanted us to experience the rich mountain singing traditions of his country. We went to the Pirin Mountains together to a small village of mostly women farmers ripe with songs and laughter and shared songs and music and cherry liquor for a few days with very little language exchange, only the music to hold on to. There were no young people in the village and all the singers we met were 65 and older, so they were thrilled and tickled to have young somewhat weird looking ( tattooed/pierced) foreigners visiting and swooning over their intricate and haunting harmonies. Its still one of most visceral moments of song catching.
Rising Appalachia performs at both small local and large festival venues, always spreading messages of unity and creating positive social change through music and action. What inspired you to begin walking this path towards social and environmental justice?
Leah: We walked that path before we began the band, so it has always felt like a natural fusion of interests.
“We have always wanted to use music literally as a vehicle to connect to people- to place and to culture.”
What is your perspective on using music as a tool of activism for creating change in the world? Can you explain this parallel of activism and art in reflection to Rising Appalachia? Do you believe this has driving force for your success? If so, how?
Leah: It is a concept and an intention for us to be touring sustainably, and to be creating music with a purpose. We have always wanted to use music literally as a vehicle to connect to people- to place and to culture. And the music industry itself is such a FAST paced machine. We began to feel really disconnected from the pulse of our work. We started a project this year called the Slow music is a way to remind us to take the time to tour in a way that is sustainable- both physically and environmentally as well as emotionally (which might actually be the most important part). So it means challenging the status quo of touring: physically slowing down and staying in regions for longer amounts of time, staying locally and eating local food from the places where we are making music, taking days off in between shows to get into wild places and learn about the nature of each place, connecting each show to local non-profits that are doing direct action work in their communities so that our impact can create longer relationships than just a few hours at a show, exploring alternative travel options (like train, recycled fuel, sail boat, horse back, eat).
We also bring in local non-profits to each show to allow our audience to have more of a relationship with the place that THEY live and create those connections that last long beyond the show. Each night we hope that there are components of celebration, components of local activism, a dance party, and a place for us to encourage more direct action. Everyones path into activism is different and everyones voice is important. We try and create a place where all walks of life are welcome to come be a part of our experience.
A more recent conceptual movement of Rising Appalachia is the idea of “Wider Circles” and expanding yourselves to work with more people and musicians as well as reach wider audiences and cultural backgrounds. What was your intention behind this movement and album? Why do you believe it is an important concept today? How has this movement of “Wider Circles” manifested within your recent projects and performances?
Chloe: We have grown so much the past few years and there were so many people on board helping us to do so that we wanted to write a song capturing the value of those expanding circles. Rising Appalachia has always been a sort of “all hands on deck” type project with countless supporters behind the scenes and we feel very much that a large amount of our success is due to some of those people. The song is a sort of thank you to them, as well as a anthem to encourage people to widen their own circles and invite more people in. We see so much shutting down, separating off, and divisive language in our main stream media these days that can really isolate the human heart into feeling pretty alone and conflicted with “different” people. Wider Circles is a song about going to the center of those hard conversations and committing to the work that will unify. Its about showing up at the table. Its about marching. Its about walking the path of kindness in that work and being humble in knowing whom has come before you.
“I think that in order to enact change we have to keep showing up at the table over and over again.”
A big platform for Rising Appalachia to reach people is through the the global festival culture. What is your stance on festivals being a catalyst for change? Do you see festival culture functioning in a way that “breaks down” social norms? And if so, in what way?
Leah: To be honest we have a lot of critique of the festival culture. We are invited to be a part of a lot of events that boast change-making principles, but they often feel like they are disconnected from some of the action that is needed to create a shift. I think its ok to throw a party, but call a spade a spade. Transformation is a bigger task than just a party. It takes some discomfort, and some hard work, ad reaching people who don’t look, think talk or act like you. Some of the most profound events that we have been a part of are some of the smaller gatherings that are directly working to impact change (and not just a big party with a few workshops and classes on the side) like : Alternate Roots, The South Eastern Women’s Herbalist Conference, Jungle Camp, the Permaculture Action Network events, The Lake Eden Arts Festival, Honor the Earth events, Benefit shows, ect. I think that in order to enact change we have to keep showing up at the table over and over again. I am thankful that the festival culture exists and creates spaces for young people to show up and question the social norms, but i hope that it is only the first step and many people learn how to go much deeper to challenge the status quo.
After performing throughout the summer at many festivals and gatherings across the U.S and Internationally, you have now embarked on a new journey dubbed the Resilience Tour throughout the Western States. The tour is also coinciding with a documentary release shot in New Orleans during Jazz Fest early this year. What is the significance of both the tour and documentary being done at the same time? In your opinion, what is the concept of ‘resilience” responding to in this time period? What is your intention behind this movement?
Chloe: We felt like the word Resiliency is perfect for this season because in its essence it evokes a sense of toughness, levity, and positivity that we all NEED right now. It has also been a great spark in dialogue about how people are being resilient in their own communities, how people will be resilient after the elections, and how art and community can help in those processes. We hope to create a container at our concerts for both action as well as release/relief from the constant batter of the daily grind, providing local nonprofit and outreach information that encourages direct involvement as well as singing songs that soothe.
What does the future look like for Rising Appalachia? What is the next step for you as a band as well as an active force for change in the community? Any new tours, music, collaborations on the horizon?
Chloe: We can only ever guess about the future, as planning it too tightly can constrict the spontaneity of growth. However, we are of course writing, learning new songs with teachers, planning action days and furthering our ideas of “The Slow Music Movement”, refining our voices and meditating what we want to be saying out there, collaborating with mentors, and generally keeping one foot at home and one eye out on the horizon… hoping to strike that perfect balance of pushing ourselves while remaining rooted. 2017 will put us abroad much more, which we are very very excited about after touring all over the States for the past few years. We hope to do some horse-tours as well as a Seed to Sail tour raising awareness about Permaculture. All sorts of good things coming… 😉
In conjunction with their show in SF on 11/26, the band will be hosting a very special Bay Area Permaculture Action Day on Sunday 11/27 with City of Dreams, a local non-profit dedicated to youth leadership for low-income residence. The Action Day will be held at the non-profit’s youth-run community garden at the Oakdale Community Center in San Francisco. The one-day festival will be an active family-friendly outing which will include a variety of hands-on permaculture projects, live-music and artistic activities as well as a garden fresh community pot-luck!