Appalachian folk duo bridges centuries on its debut full-length
House and Land, a two-year-old musical marriage between singer/violinist Sally Anne Morgan and singer/guitarist Sarah Louise Henson, could also double as a description of the Floyd, Virginia recording studio where the pair decamped in October 2016 to make its self-titled debut, which surfaced earlier this year on Thrill Jockey.
“[The studio] was in this old farmhouse and we recorded in a big, open room with 30-foot high ceilings, because the second floor had been taken out, and it was all two-inch thick oak paneling,” said Morgan, who joins Henson in concert at Autonomy Hub on Thursday, July 13. “It was rural, and there was a big field around [the house]. In the back, there was a ridgeline with woods. And there were cows, so it was pretty idyllic.”
The pastoral setting bleeds over into the duo's stripped-down Appalachian folk ballads, many of which date back centuries, evoking a time when humankind was more connected to the environment.
“For me, one of the most compelling things about traditional music is it often is this deep expression of place,” Henson said. “It is an expression from a time where people did live closer to nature, and you can hear that in the music.”
Though the two both have a fondness for traditional songs, neither is stringent about the music, preferring to treat the tunes like modeling clay meant to be shaped and molded into unexpected new forms. With House and Land, in turn, tracks frequently bridge time periods, Henson and Morgan blending elements of modern avant-garde composition (think composer Terry Riley's fondness for drone) with lyrics and melodies lifted from decades-old field recordings.
“We don't want to be precious about traditional music,” said Henson, who first met Morgan while running in similar music circles in Asheville, North Carolina. “This music has been shaped and changed to various ends for centuries. … To change it is respecting its history on this almost different level.”
In general, the musicians said they find themselves drawn toward the darker, weirder songs that exist on the fringes of the traditional canon — “A lot of them are not the most popular campfire songs,” Henson said, and laughed — many of which make allusion to Old Testament biblical violence or present bleak visions of the future (“Time will soon disrobe us all of what we now possess,” the musicians sing on the end-of-life prayer “The Day Is Past and Gone”).
“Some of the lyrics come from hymns that are super Old Testament, or are talking about the blood of Jesus, so they can be almost gross,” Morgan said. “But the melodies are beautiful to me.”
And it's melody over everything when it comes to building a musical repertoire.
“[The songs we perform now] are the ones that we kept singing and returning to over the years,” Henson said. “These are the ones that stuck.”