Ambient artist Rew lovingly tends to 'Garden of Astral Blooms'

Andy Downing
adowning@columbusalive.com

For visual artist and musician Rachel Wagner, who records and performs as Rew, inspiration often begins in the natural world.

“It definitely starts with this idea of showing nature, but also sharing things that haven’t been seen before,” Wagner said recently by phone. “I want to show the imprint of humanity on nature, and the chaos. And this is something I’ve been thinking about through some of my activism and volunteering for the Ready for 100 clean energy campaign, and thinking about climate change and what’s on the horizon for our planet.”

New visual album Garden of Astral Blooms, out viaWhited Sepulchre Records on Friday, Jan. 29, started with a series of field recordings, some of which Wagner captured in the mountains of West Virginia during the Voice of the Valley music festival, where the chirp of cicadas nearly drowned out the audience. “And then I was manipulating those and making them more strange,” said the experimental artist, who used a Korg Volca FM synthesizer to create melodies that she layered atop these mutated field recordings. “Then once I got the musical sketches going, that’s when I created the visual ideas for each song.”

These visual companions, collected at gardenofastralblooms.com, bring added dimension to the haunting tracks. Witness the digital video for “Sunlit Glass,” where a creeping shadow slowly extends over a stained glass-like pattern and animations of lightning bolts accompany static bursts in the soundscape. “Outgrate,” in turn, begins near the surface, pairing the view of the sky up through a sewer grate with the mutated chirp of birds before dipping back beneath the surface. Here, underground, the subterranean visuals match the sonics, with sounds that suggest unseen critters scurrying away into darkened corners.

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A visual artist first, Wagner gained an interest in music after discovering the experimental music scene in Pittsburgh, including artists such as Spednar and {arsonist}, acts that she credited with shifting her understanding of what music could be. “They really got me to where I could close my eyes when I was experiencing these sets and really let the music inspire my imagination,” said Wagner, who moved to Columbus two years ago and has since discovered a similar community centered on the Fuse Factory. “That’s what got me going, and then I started seeing what I could do with the Volca FM and taking what I’d learned with animation and video editing and applying that same scope to the audio.”

Wagner traced her fascination with nature to her childhood growing up in southwestern Pennsylvania, not far from Pittsburgh, where she camped regularly with her family and spent countless hours hiking and exploring the woods. In college, Wagner studied abroad for a semester in Australia, where she had the opportunity to visit the Great Barrier Reef. “And that’s something I still treasure because I know the reefs are something we’re losing as a planet,” she said. “That’s an example that returned me to the idea that humanity is not necessarily living in harmony with all of the beauty that we have here on the planet.”

But despite the darker tones embedded within Astral Blooms, the record is shot through with both beauty and hope, particularly the album-closing “Fragile Abundance,” which ends the proceedings on a purposefully optimistic note.

“I think I’m always trying to search for hope, and I’ve described this project as a practice in optimism,” said Wagner, who traced this promising pull to the natural beauty she continues to observe while exploring places like the Metro Parks. “I’m bringing in elements of wistfulness, sure, but there’s definitely some celebration and some hope in there, too.”

Rachel Wagner, aka Rew