Seth Walker, Valorie Miller and Erika Lewis release new albums

BIRD BY BIRD: Clockwise from left, Erika Lewis, Valorie Miller and Seth Walker enhance the Asheville singer/songwriter scene with their latest albums. Lewis photo by Sarrah Danziger; Miller photo by Sandlin Gaither; Walker photo by Joshua Black Wilkins

For Seth Walker, relocating to Asheville feels like “a homecoming.”

The North Carolina native hadn’t resided in his birth state since he was 19. But a series of factors — including family proximity, the pandemic and personal changes in his life — led the former Nashville resident to turn his eyes east.

“[COVID] made us look at things new again and forced us to slow down. And personally, I was going through a rough patch with my relationship, and we ended up splitting, which was hard,” Walker says. “I needed to regroup — or as I say, ‘regroup again.’ So it just seemed like a no-brainer to come home.”

Prior to leaving Nashville in 2020, Walker began work on his new Americana album, I Hope I Know, with longtime producer Jano Rix, the drummer and multi-instrumentalist for The Wood Brothers.

“It’s really amazing what he can do, because he’s a mad scientist, yet it’s this controlled, organized chaos,” Walker says. “Especially as a producer, you have to put on so many different little hats and be sensitive. He doesn’t produce with an iron fist and is willing to try just about anything. Plus, now we’ve worked together so much we really know each other like an old married couple.”

The LP’s first five songs were recorded prior to lockdown, with Walker on vocals and acoustic guitar and Rix on drums. The initial numbers include the album standout “Why Do I Cry Anymore,” as well as the title track, one of three that Walker co-wrote with Rix’s bandmate, Oliver Wood. The inspiration for the song arose after Walker’s mother sent him the Ho’oponopono Prayer, a Hawaiian poem that translates as “I am sorry. Forgive me. Thank you. I love you.” Walker told Wood about it, who asked his friend to repeat the unfamiliar phrase.

“He goes, ‘Well, I thought you said, “I hope I hope I know.” And as soon as he said that, I was like, ‘Oh, here we go!’” Walker says.

Walker adds that the pandemic-induced break proved to be “kind of a blessing,” as it gave him and Rix time to sit with the project and figure out what songs they wanted to add to the existing list, as well as which tunes they wanted to remove. He describes I Hope I Know as his sparsest release to date and one where he sang more quietly than he ever had — an experiment that he feels reflects the uncertain atmosphere in which the album was created.

Along with original songs, the album includes covers of Van Morrison’s “Warm Love,”  Bob Dylan’s “Buckets of Rain” and Bobby Charles’ “Tennessee Blues.”

Unable to tour for over two years, Walker is making up for lost time and excited to finally share I Hope I Know live. Following a string of Midwest and East Coast dates, he’s currently in Europe and will be playing steady gigs again stateside throughout the fall. But when he gets more time off later this year, he looks forward to connecting with an Asheville music scene that’s already offered him plentiful pleasant surprises.

“I’m learning quickly that there’s a lot more layers to it than I thought,” Walker says, particularly applauding Archetype Brewing’s weekly jazz jam. “It seems like I’ve always had one foot out the door in so many aspects of my life. It’s weird — Asheville just kind of snuck up on me. I think I’m gonna stick around here for a while. It feels right.”

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Sleuthing songs

When Valorie Miller bought an acre of land in Swannanoa in 2002, she had no idea of the pain it would cause her — or the compelling music it would inspire.

After selling the property in 2009, the longtime Asheville-area singer/songwriter began having health issues and started doing what she calls “backwards detective work” to figure out what might have incited these problems. She soon discovered that her former home sat adjacent to the Chemtronics Superfund site and that, since the 1980s, residents near the contaminated land had expressed concern over what they felt was an unusually high number of cancer cases.

Without having to do much digging, Miller found a 260-page document with plentiful scientific findings and copies of correspondence between residents and the Environmental Protection Agency, primarily from early 1988. All manufacturing activities on the site ceased in 1994, but the federal agency has been involved in cleanup efforts regarding groundwater and well contamination prior to and since the site’s closing.

“The totality of that document gives a pretty clear and chilling picture of what the contaminants were and how the residents of the community were feeling at that time — [they felt] lied to and betrayed,” Miller says.

On April 15, a federal court ordered Chemtronics and the site’s previous owner, Northrop Grumman, to pay $18 million for cleanup work at the site. The companies also agreed to reimburse the EPA over $250,000 that it already spent cleaning up the site.

Miller calls the decreed amount “chump change” and “not even a slap on the wrist.” But her outrage over the site’s history has been simmering for over a decade and informs the bulk of her new record, Only the Killer Would Know. She also notes that there’s been an element of environmental activism in her songwriting long before she moved next to the Superfund site. While album closer “Your Own Well” sounds as if it’s inspired by her Swannanoa experiences, she wrote it prior to living on the property.

“I would just pick up the Bible from the bedside table drawer in my hotel room and open it and start reading. And I found this verse [Proverbs 5:15] that was like, ‘Drink water from your own well,’” Miller says. “It was about a comet called Wormwood that was going to hit the Earth and poison all the water. I thought it sounded cool. And then later on it’s like, ‘Whoa! I wrote a song about poisoned wells way before I had any dealings with them.’”

Other songs on the album were consciously written about environmental topics as Miller researched the Chemtronics site. In late summer 2019, the compositions made their way to local producer Kayla Zuskin.

“Kayla’s very knowledgeable about music and engineering and just real professional,” Miller says. “Early on, I realized that I could totally trust her, and that made it so easy for me to show up and not be stressed about all the logistical details and just let her deal with that stuff and try to just give the best performance that I could.”

Though Miller calls out Chemtronics by name in “Home of the Brave,” her goal isn’t for the company’s owners to hear her album. Instead, she hopes Only the Killer Would Know helps raise awareness about Superfund sites and protects others from harm.

Erin Brockovich had some luck taking [corporate pollution] on, but I don’t feel like I’m her,” Miller says. “I don’t have a big message of hope, and there isn’t an outcome that I’m trying to reach other than I just find it astonishing that these places exist within residential communities and people don’t even know.”

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Last chance

Health scares likewise played a major role in the creation of Erika Lewis’ new LP, A Walk Around the Sun.

In March 2020, mere months after the longtime New Orleans resident relocated to Asheville with her then 2-year-old son, she received a troubling diagnosis, requiring surgery that could have damaged her vocal cord nerves, potentially ending her career.

“I had a surgery scheduled for October 2020, so during that time I was a mess and sort of paralyzed,” Lewis says. “I was like, ‘Well, I’m going to have to find a new lot in life if [I can’t sing].’ It was a pretty overwhelming thing to hear.”

Prior to her diagnosis, Lewis had plans to record a new album. But between her health issues and the ongoing pandemic, she put the project on hold — until, that is, her friends and fellow former New Orleanian musician transplants,  Lani and John James Tourville, implored her to stick with it. 

“Lani was like, ‘You have to make this recording before the surgery!’ It was very dramatic — very do-or-die,” Lewis says. “And I was like, ‘OK, I’ll do it.’” 

The communal rallying continued as Shaye Cohn, Lewis’ bandmate in the New Orleans-based ensemble Tuba Skinny — with whom she still tours — organized a GoFundMe for the project. Lewis quickly met her fundraising goal and John James Tourville used his connections to book studio time at The Bomb Shelter in Nashville.

“We went into the studio in September and pretty much got it done. There was still stuff we wanted to do, but we hoped we’d be able to do it afterwards,” Lewis says. “And then the surgery went really well — everything’s fine. And I went back in December [2020] and finished the album.”

Lewis describes A Walk Around the Sun as “kind of a retrospective” in that the material spans 15 years of songwriting, mixing older songs with a few newer ones. The end result is a feat of tracking mastery, albeit one that Lewis says wasn’t planned.

The vinyl edition’s A-side opens with a stretch of laid-back ballads, but flip it over and a full-on rock show awaits. The rip-roaring title track and album highlight, “Hearts,” show Lewis’ energetic side, after which she  gradually eases into a handful of softer concluding numbers.

Back in Asheville, Lewis has connected with such local country music stalwarts as Tricia Tripp and Julia Sanders and is gradually assembling a full band. But mostly, she’s thankful to still be able to sing, especially since she had other career plans if the surgery hadn’t worked out.

“I’ve always wanted to be a waitress. That was my first thought, like, ‘Well, I’ll finally be able to commit to a regular job,’” Lewis says. “I was really devastated [with the thought of giving up performing] because singing has always been my first love in music and it’s definitely my go-to way of expressing myself. So it was hard for me to imagine what my relationship to music would be if I couldn’t sing. I definitely wasn’t thinking that I would continue.”

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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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