When Sarah Louise enters and communes with nature, she seeks the same qualities that define her musical explorations: mindfulness, connection and awe.
“I have such a familiarity with the natural world around here that seeing plants return in the spring is like greeting old friends,” Louise says. “I love to forage but always do so sparingly, as lots of plants in particular are overharvested. It’s nice to nibble here and there to feel connected to the land.”
This strong bond with the outdoors is at the root of the Asheville vocalist and multi-instrumentalist’s new album, Deeper Woods, which receives a release show Thursday, May 17, at The Mothlight. Louise’s lyrics on the seven contemplative tracks teem with honesty and a sense of experience. Indeed, every detail of forest imagery — from saxifrage and Bowman’s root to a spotted fawn and salamanders — derives from direct observation.
“I hope my words honor the places they describe,” she says. “I think of the songs on this record as love songs to the natural world.”
Louise wrote most of the album’s lyrics a cappella and composed the guitar parts as solo instrumental pieces. Often while walking in the woods or driving around, ideas would come to her about how they might fit together. But all along, even during the time she recorded her solo 12-string guitar albums, she felt like Deeper Woods was the album to which she was building.
“It was really just a matter of having enough words and gradually figuring out how to integrate them into my guitar compositions and letting the rest follow freely,” she says.
Louise recorded most of the album herself at home last spring, with mics on loan from local musician Patrick Kukucka, who also recorded drums and a few other instruments. Self-recording allowed for generous improvisation and freedom in exploring Louise’s vocal delivery, which is prominently featured for the first time on Deeper Woods.
“Singing especially can be so raw and vulnerable that being alone, often late at night, helped me get takes that felt real,” she says. “It was a dialogue between me and the songs — I just tried to do what they called for.”
Here and on the instrumental front, the record felt so personal to Louise that it was important for her to be the one to develop its sound and arrangements. In addition to her usual 12-string guitar and electric six-string guitar, she contributes electric piano, synthesizer, and alto and tenor recorders on the songs, a process that involved a good deal of autodidacticism.
“I hadn’t played piano since I quit as a little kid. But I think years of continually disorienting myself with alternate guitar tunings trained my brain to understand intervals on different instruments, so I just used my ear,” Louise says. “I’m performing with keyboard live now, but since I’m improvising a lot of it, I’m spending a lot of time practicing playing freely on it so that performances can feel good.”
Though she also tinkered with some auxiliary percussion and bass, Louise says she’s fortunate “to have friends who are masters at their instruments” and that it was a pleasure to invite them to join her on the album and share their gifts. In addition to a guest birdsong appearance by a Carolina chickadee for “On Nights When I Can’t Sleep,” the collaborators include Jason Meagher (electric bass), Tyler Damon (chimes), Sally Anne Morgan (fiddle), Emmalee Hunnicutt (cello) and Thom Nguyen (drums). The latter three will join Louise onstage at the Mothlight show.
“My music was really isolated for years, and I was very private about it. I gave myself the space to develop my own world. But since playing with Sally Anne in [traditional music duo] House and Land and with others like [Asheville-via-Bhutan gutiarist] Tashi Dorji, I’m feeling so filled up by playing with others, especially improvising,” Louise says. “I feel like there are so many kinds of records I want to make right now. It feels good to be cracked open in that way.”
She adds, “I also have songs I’m working on in solitude, at the moment. It will be interesting to see how those two strands intertwine.”
WHO: Sarah Louise with Tashi Dorji/Emmalee Hunnicutt Duo
WHERE: The Mothlight, 701 Haywood Road, themothlight.com
WHEN: Thursday, May 17, 9 p.m. $8