Laura Boswell taps into natural world on chamber-folk EP

PALEST BLUE: Recorded in collaboration with River Whyless’ Daniel Shearin, Laura Boswell’s new EP is in part a means of catharsis and coming to terms with loss. Photo by Felicity Amoroso

Throughout her musical life, Laura Boswell has bounced between the classical and folk worlds. And while the music on her new Place to Be EP — the Asheville-based musician’s third release — is firmly rooted in the folk idiom, various musical traditions inform her work.

“My training began with classical piano when I was a kid,” she recalls. “Then, I kind of renounced it.” After seven years of piano training in her hometown of State College, Pa., she switched to guitar and redirected her musical focus. “I was an angsty teenager just sitting in my room learning these songs,” she says with a laugh. “I began learning the songs that I was listening to on the radio. I got really into electric guitar and was really into classic rock like Jimi Hendrix.”

By the time she started at Guilford College in Greensboro, Boswell had begun to find a way forward that combined elements of all the musical traditions she’d been absorbing. After changing her major “a number of times,” she settled on classical music performance, building on her piano foundation. “But I also decided to play one of my songs on guitar during my audition,” she says, and soon immersed herself in classical guitar as well as more contemporary music. “I got really into Iron & Wine and Jack Johnson, and I started writing more music.”

Boswell had already been composing for several years, but her earlier material was simpler. “Before I started playing classical guitar, my music was more bluesy and funky,” she says. “Studying classical guitar really advanced my technique — especially right-hand finger work — and that influenced my songwriting.”

Another leap forward came as she discovered the music of Nick Drake. “He [wrote] in a lot of alternate tunings,” Boswell says. “So I was taking the tunings that he plays in and tying in my classical technique to combine those elements.”

Classical music also continued to exert influence on her emerging style. “I got to see so much live music — chamber music, orchestral music — and I was being exposed to more complex harmonies,” Boswell says. And she began to apply those qualities to her own songs. “When I’d write something, there were times where I’d be like, ‘That’s a little bit bland. What can I do to make this a bit more interesting or unusual harmonically?’”

That complex yet accessible nature is at the core of Boswell’s three-song Place to Be EP. The collection includes two originals — “Loss” and “Idaho to Montana (Loving Softly)” — and the title track, a cover of a song Drake wrote and recorded for his 1972 album, Pink Moon.

Boswell’s interpretation adds elements not found in Drake’s original, namely the sound of mourning doves — a nod to the multiple years she lived on Maui when they would wake her each day with their gentle sounds — and meadowlarks, both of which she and producer Daniel Shearin (of River Whyless) sampled and worked into the mix. “I draw a lot of inspiration — for songwriting and in my life — from the natural world,” she says. And, she adds, “I just really love birds.”

Boswell notes that Shearin’s skill at tying in natural sounds on his self-titled 2019 solo EP was a big part of her wanting to work with him, but other factors also led her to incorporate the soft “coo” of the doves. “My grandfather passed away while I was living on Maui,” she says. “I wasn’t able to attend the funeral, so recording ‘Place to Be’ is my way of processing his death and my not being able to be with family.”

Boswell and Shearin recorded most of the EP in early March, but when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, she left the responsibility for overdubbing instruments (including harmonium) with him. After exercising full control over the making of her previous albums, “it was really nice to just hand it over and just see what someone else came up with,” Boswell says. “I told him, ‘I entrust my songs to you. I trust that whatever you do to these will be really good.’”


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About Bill Kopp
Author, music journalist, historian, collector, and musician. His first book, "Reinventing Pink Floyd: From Syd Barrett to The Dark Side of the Moon," published by Rowman & Littlefield, is available now. Follow me @the_musoscribe

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