If you made a word cloud from a conversation with sisters Leah and Chloe Smith, “community” would be the most heavily weighted term. Music, art, family and travel are all prominent themes, but it’s community that runs like a thread throughout the Smiths’ lives, and the on- and off-stage work of their band, Rising Appalachia.
“What’s powerful about being in parts of Central America, urban Latin America and New Orleans is the relationship to community living,” says Leah. “I come and go, so I’m a nomadic part of the community. But that relationship with building an alternative and tight-knit reality, which is not connected to this Western way of living, is what I’m attracted to, culturally. It’s also become the main focal point of our music.”
Rising Appalachia, says Leah, is about a relationship to roots music — the kind that’s played on front porches around the world. Used as a storytelling device, it’s a way to hold on to memories and influences as disparate as beat-boxing, Afro-Cuban percussion, banjo and jazz horns, which all find their way into the sonic brew.
What began as a study of how communities choose to live has funneled into “a life mission,” says Leah.
Reared on hip-hop, the sisters grew up in Atlanta, the daughters of a Beat poet father and a flight attendant/fiddle-playing mother. The household was rich in creativity, and Leah says their parents instilled the value of travel “in the old sense, where it was a means of educating yourself on culture.”
These days, travel is a constant for the Smiths, though they do have a few places that feel more like home. One is Western North Carolina — they’ll perform a solstice show at The Orange Peel Saturday, Dec. 21, before heading out across the country again for a string of dates. The Peel is a big step up from the group’s bursting-at-the-seams BoBo Gallery shows a few years back. Earlier this fall, Rising Appalachia headlined The LEAF’s Lakeside Stage for the first time. That set proved so popular that there was no room under the stage’s giant tent — and the crowd outside stood about 10 deep.
Leah says the band has a bigger following in other places: They’ve played FloydFest and on a main stage at a Swedish festival. “We went to Bulgaria and were treated like rock stars,” she recalls. But the sisters kind of grew up at LEAF, where they started out performing on the lawn. To gain recognition at a festival that feels like family means a lot to them.
“They’re doing a good job with the model of that festival and all its outreach work,” notes Chloe.
Outreach is also important to Rising Appalachia. “My relationship to performance came slowly, out of a bigger desire to do education and front-line work, figuring out how to have an impact in the world,” says Leah. Early on, she questioned the validity of touring as a means of activism, but over time she found that she could extend her influence beyond the stage to “folks who were working on the ground.”
When possible, the Smiths make a point of working in schools or prisons on the afternoons before their shows. Often, outreach takes the form of a story circle, “a space for people to have dialogue and feel heard,” says Leah.
The band rarely performs in those situations, though. “I do think music is a catharsis,” she explains, “but for me it feels really good to have a relationship first, before we come in as performers, because that can create a barrier.”
Chloe adds, “We have a lot of people in our fan or family base who ask us how to strive and be involved, so we’re also trying to figure out that balance.” To connect the dots, Rising Appalachia taps local nonprofits and performers for each tour leg. The band’s current run of shows includes Atlanta-based spoken-word artist Theresa Davis as the opener; she’ll also connect with poets in each town.
In Asheville, the Smiths have planned an evening-long journey including an Aztec dance ceremony and local West African-influenced band Mande Foly. Soul Visions, a dub-remix project based on Rising Appalachia’s acoustic material, will close the show. “So it’s kind of like a mini-festival environment,” says Leah. “The audience can be involved with what’s going on in their community, and we can create a container for that to happen.”
Figuring out what’s happening in the underbelly of each tour stop, she notes, feeds her inner anthropologist. “It’s like, how deep can we go in 12 hours?”
One place where the Smiths have gone deep is New Orleans. Chloe calls it “a soul base and a creative base.” And though the sisters are on the road about 90 percent of the time, whenever they return to the Louisiana city they feel instantly embraced by the network of fellow musicians who also call it home.
“Everyone comes to the mountains and hides out. You write and rest and have a retreat space,” says Chloe. “But you roll into New Orleans, and your creative battery is charged. You’re surrounded by art and music, and you’re taken right back into the river of creativity.”
— Alli Marshall can be reached at email@example.com.
who: Rising Appalachia
where: The Orange Peel, theorangepeel.net
when: Saturday, Dec. 21, 9 p.m.
$12 advance/$15 day of show