With her second LP, Any Shape You Take, Asheville-based artist Indigo De Souza has vaulted into the Album of the Year conversation — not just on the local scene, but on a national level as well.
Written over what she calls “a hodgepodge of years,” ranging from the same stretch leading up to her 2018 debut, I Love My Mom, through 2020, the eclectic, 10-song collection showcases significant sonic growth. Whereas I Love My Mom was “more or less a bedroom recording,” Any Shape You Take was made with far more resources and collaborators than her previous work.
“I wanted to go to the other end of the spectrum to see what it was like to create a fully formed thing with a lot of resources, and then learn from that,” she says. “The next thing I make will probably be somewhere in between — still pulling from the DIY world and also from the full-on. I really love the big, clean pop/grunge sound that’s very hi-fi but also lo-fi, so I think it’s just finding a balance.”
De Souza credits executive producer Brad Cook (Bon Iver, The War on Drugs) with providing essential guidance and encouraging her to follow her intuition as the album’s producer. During their time at Betty’s, the Chapel Hill-based studio owned by esteemed rock band Sylvan Esso, De Souza says she gained tremendous confidence on the recording front but didn’t go into the process thinking she’d be in such a central leadership position.
“I was expecting to let other people do most of the producing, but then once I was in that scenario, I realized that I was actually very specific about what I wanted. And I don’t think I knew that before — I didn’t have enough confidence in myself to believe that I knew exactly what needed to be done,” she says. “Once I was there, I was like, ‘Oh, these are my songs. I wrote these songs, and I have a vision for them.’”
De Souza’s foresight is particularly evident on “Real Pain.” Inspired by the collective experience of the pandemic that was prompting people to connect with one another on a deeper level, she recruited recordings of “screams, yells and anything else” from her fans, then turned them into a sonic collage. But when she played the sounds for her collaborators in the studio, the raw emotions brought the mood down, prompting De Souza to layer the additions herself, resulting in a raw yet cathartic stretch in the middle of the album.
“It felt like a cool secret to reach out to people … and get those recordings of their voices and stack them on each other and kind of create one animal,” she says. Along with the audio files, many of the participants sent De Souza messages telling her why they chose to participate in the project, as well as what they were going through at the time.
Though “Real Pain” allowed De Souza to remotely interact with people from various locations, the bulk of her creative activities remain decidedly local. She planned to kick off her current tour in late August with a pair of record release shows at The Grey Eagle but had to reschedule them for Monday, Nov. 15, and Tuesday, Nov. 16, due to a positive COVID-19 test within her tour party.
Meanwhile, the video for her single “Hold U” was made with the Different Wrld collective, which seeks to provide creative opportunities for all community members. The collaboration was all the more meaningful since the collective is based in the former Mothlight music venue space on Haywood Road, which De Souza says “birthed her” as a musician by allowing her to perform there often in her formative years.
All of the above provide a firm foundation from which to combat De Souza’s own sense that humankind has always represented a “very dark, horrible plague on the world.” Any Shape You Take conveys the artist’s widespread woes while also serving as an antidote, and there’s likely more positivity on the horizon from one of Asheville’s brightest talents.
“If you listen to the demos that I wrote during the pandemic, I don’t think you would feel very sad,” De Souza says. “They’re not depressing and dark — well, maybe to some.”
Variety likewise defines fellow Asheville-based artist Katie Sachs’ The Factory of Almosts. The Western Massachusetts native’s range of musical influences are evident across the album’s 11 tracks, yet her impressive vocals and themes of love and aging tie it all together.
“It’s so easy as a female singer with an acoustic instrument to be labeled as a folk singer. And I’ve never felt like one,” she says. “This project definitely feels like a divergence for me, especially with other things I’ve put out that were more jazz/indie folk. It was fun to have an opportunity to bring out more of my rock ‘n’ roll side — and my inner punk rocker.”
Quick to clarify that she’s no true punk, Sachs is nevertheless a big fan of New Order and the Sex Pistols. But it was her favorite band, Talking Heads, that served as a major guiding force for the record, as well as The Pixies.
“It’s more just a reflection of what I enjoy listening to,” she says. “Good music is good music, and I’m less concerned about genre. I’ll listen to the Dixie Chicks all day, but I don’t really like country. I appreciate artists that are being raw and putting it out there.”
Though Sachs’ undergraduate degree is in creative writing, she reveals that she’s not a voracious reader, a trait that many people believe is necessary to be a good writer. But Sachs feels that listening to so much music compensates for her lack of print media consumption and enhances her writing in more organic ways.
“I have to have music playing, no matter what,” she says. “Then [the song] just comes out. I get out of the way and let it come through.”
Sachs’ reliance on her subconscious went to a new level in The Factory of Almosts when two songs came to her in dreams. In adding instrumentation, she starts with a baritone ukulele and sees where the songs go, looking for opportunities to collaborate whenever possible. The approach led to numerous local artists playing on the latest collection: All drums are courtesy of JC Mears, and his Get Right Band colleague Silas Durocher contributes guitar on five tracks. Other local musicians featured on the album include Lenny Pettinelli (organ) of Empire Strikes Brass, plus Hustle Souls frontman Billy Litz (synths).
Additional instrumentalists were recruited remotely, which allowed for Sachs to work with players from across the country whom she’d met while in New England and Texas. A massage therapist by trade, Sachs moved to Asheville nearly four years ago from Austin, where she’d found a musical home with the Kerrville Folk Festival crowd. While she finds comparing the three music scenes somewhat difficult, especially since they represent three distinct phases in her life, she says Asheville is basically in the middle of her two prior homes when it comes to size and attitude.
“It’s small enough but not competitive in a mean way. And people are supportive and it’s fun, but it’s definitely bigger than Western Mass., whereas Austin has a hundred music scenes,” she says. “I’m also trying to do different things now. My focus isn’t on trying to necessarily earn money through playing music or to ‘make it.’ So, I have different goals, which makes me have a different perspective.”
‘Those Memphis cats’
While De Souza and Sachs found inspiration in working with new collaborators, Alexa Rose doubled down on a tried-and-true team for her new album, Headwaters — resulting in a comparably liberating experience.
The Asheville-based artist headed back to Memphis and reunited with many of the same musicians who helped record her 2019 debut LP, Medicine for Living. Though she jokes that she “really went back for the barbecue,” her positive memories of working with producer Bruce Watson in Delta Sonic Sound studio made a second round appealing, even if it wasn’t initially what she had in mind.
“Originally, I was like, ‘I just am going to make a stripped-down record, and I want to do it in North Carolina,'” she says. “But when I sent the songs to [Bruce] he was like, ‘This is a band record.’ And it’s true.”
As a singer-songwriter, Rose notes that she usually starts with her voice and a single instrument, then takes each song to her band or the studio. There, sonic dimensions are woven in that feel inspired by and rooted in collaboration but may be more built into the bare-bones track than she realizes.
“I think after making [Medicine for Living] in Memphis and having the band arrangements, it got in my ear a little bit. And I think, without realizing it, I was writing songs for a band,” she says. “And at the end of 2019, I had gone out with my [Asheville-based] band and I was just used to playing with them. And I was hearing new space in the songs I was writing, for more things going on in the arrangement.”
The established rapport with Watson and revered studio musicians Will Sexton (guitar), Mark Stuart (bass), George Sluppick (drums) and Al Gamble (organ/piano) made the Headwaters sessions far more comfortable for all involved than the first time. Whereas Medicine for Living was tracked and mixed over the course of one week, Rose’s follow-up was spread across five sessions between July and December 2020, resulting in plentiful advantages.
“I was less nervous about time and having to finish it and having to make quick calls because of the fact that we had to do it right then and there,” she says. “It’s really a luxury to have the time to make sure that the decisions you make are right and that you really feel like they serve the song.”
Rose also felt more connected to the tunes as the album took shape, adding new ones as they came about. The most immediate instance occurred with “Human,” which she wrote while stopped overnight on the way to Memphis, alone in a cabin “in the middle of nowhere in Tennessee.” She recorded the song via voice memo, sent it to Watson and, two days later, was tracking it with the band.
“It was very in the moment. And I think when it’s that fresh, it helps you [capture] that spark of that moment,” she says. “Sometimes, even though you haven’t been playing the song for years, you can almost see it more clearly because it’s in that spark place.”
The extra time also allowed Rose to realize her long-held dream of using strings on her songs, though sisters Krista Wroten (violin) and Elen Wroten (cello) also wound up providing Rose and the band with a fascinating lesson in efficiency.
“They just have that way of playing together that siblings do,” she says. “It’s really cool to watch. Then they’ll be discussing how they need to alter an arrangement, but you can tell it takes up 8% of the time that it would take two strangers meeting in a studio.”