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By Crista Munro
Special to The PREVIEW
The 18th annual Four Corners Folk Festival will take place Aug. 30-Sept. 1 on Reservoir Hill in downtown Pagosa Springs.
This year’s lineup features a few favorites from the past, as well as many first-time performers on the Four Corners stage. Many different styles of music will be heard — from singer-songwriters extraordinaire to Swedish rock-grass. Performers on the bill include John Hiatt and the Combo, Natalie MacMaster, Darrell Scott, the Wood Brothers, Elephant Revival, Jimmy LaFave, John Fullbright, The Lone Bellow, Slaid Cleaves, Baskery, New Country Rehab, Rose’s Pawn Shop, Halden Wofford and the Hi-Beams, the Giving Tree Band and this week’s featured bands: Sarah Siskind and Travis Book, and the Aoife O’Donovan Band.
Sarah Siskind’s music is not easily explained or contained. She’s a singer and songwriter based in Virginia and grounded in Appalachian roots, but one who transcends category with a beguiling fusion of the traditional and the modern. Whether solo, in a duet with husband and Infamous Stringdusters bass player Travis Book, fronting an electric band or in her harmony-laden trio The Novel Tellers, Sarah creates emotionally charged soundscapes that consistently delight and surprise even her longtime fans.
Alison Krauss has championed Sarah and values her songs so highly that she’s recorded two of them, both of which became singles and videos that received widespread airplay. Boston folk icon Jennifer Kimball once dubbed her the perfect hybrid of Joni Mitchell and Gillian Welch. Steve Binder, the legendary LA-based TV/film producer who has worked with Elvis Presley, Dianna Ross and Liza Minnelli calls Sarah, “the best female singer-songwriter in America today.”
Sarah grew up in a music-filled household in North Carolina, surrounded by not only the bluegrass and old-time her parents played at countless jam sessions, but a wide slice of the best that’s been composed and recorded across all genres, including Celtic, gospel and jazz. Her love of and affinity for music was obvious, and by four years old she was singing and playing piano. She wrote songs starting at eleven, and when she was 14, she completed her first album. Over the next few years she won numerous songwriting competitions and appeared on stage with luminaries like Doc Watson and Maya Angelou.
By the time she moved to Nashville at age 21, she’d released her third recording and astonished those around her with the boldness of her songwriting voice and became a respected and acknowledged master of her craft in the crowded scene.
In 2002, Sarah released the full-length album “Covered.” Despite its title, it featured mostly original songs that dealt with love, family and relationships. It included contributions from special guest Jennifer Kimball, whose 1990s vocal duo The Story with Jonatha Brooke had been an important influence on Sarah and who supported Sarah’s development with performance opportunities and generous praise. Sarah’s inspired choice to invite Bill Frisell, a modern-day giant of jazz guitar, to anchor the studio band gave “Covered” a shimmering, unforgettable sound, while Sarah’s striking lyrics and melodic ideas made the songs both hummable and sophisticated. Bon Iver’s frontman Justin Vernon is re-releasing this under-discovered album on his record label Chigliak in this month.
Sarah battled sinus ailments that threatened to derail her career during her 20s, braving several surgeries in the process. Despite the setbacks, she continues to achieve new landmarks in what are still the early stages of her career. She made a keepsake double EP featuring intimate performances from her home aptly titled “Studio Living Room,” then collaborated on the first album by Old Black Kettle, a vocally thrilling, genre-bending band with friends and fellow artists Julie Lee and Jodi Haynes Seyfried. Her song “Simple Love” became the signature single from Alison Krauss’s “A Hundred Miles or More” compilation album of 2007. The recording earned a Grammy nomination for Best Female Country Performance. In 2006, Sarah signed with prestigious Nashville publisher Big Yellow Dog Music, home to such extraordinary writers as Mindy Smith and Shawn Camp. There she spent five years exploring the intricacies of co-writing, and also recorded her highly acclaimed full-length album “Say it Louder,” which Bonnie Raitt called “a masterpiece” and made numerous feature spots on NPR.
The self-produced, performed and engineered album “Novel” followed in 2011, which was mostly written and recorded during a summer in the mountains of Colorado. “Novel” may be Siskind’s most intimate full-length album to date, exploring all aspects of human relationships as well as solitude, and an ode to Mahalia Jackson on her foot-stomping rendition of “Didn’t it Rain.”
Sarah’s extraordinarily unique voice and songwriting caught the ear of Bonnie Raitt and, in addition to inviting Sarah on stage to sing “Angel From Montgomery” with her in June 2012, Raitt asked Siskind to support her on a string of fall tour dates in 2012.
Sarah will release an EP, “In The Mountains,” which includes songs written in and inspired by her new surroundings of Nelson County, Va., where she moved in early 2012. All songs were recorded live with one microphone.
Sarah Siskind would be writing and performing even if this attention wasn’t coming her way. Hers is a natural gift and an overflowing expression of someone with an alert ear and a full heart. You can catch Sarah Siskind and Travis Book’s festival set on Sunday, Sept. 1 at 11 a.m.
The thing about fossils is that they take a very long time in the making, and it’s not an entirely intentional process. The making of Aoife O’Donovan’s debut album “Fossils” has hardly been a glacial affair, but it has spent rather more than a decade forming about in her creative subconscious. It was time well spent, for she’s crafted a beautiful, timeless record, the natural evolution of an accomplished singer and songwriter.
The album’s roots stretch back to Aoife’s time at the New England Conservatory, where she dreamed of one day recording an album with celebrated producer Tucker Martine (My Morning Jacket, Tift Merritt). Upon graduation, Aoife (pronounced “ee-fuh”) hit the road as the lead singer and principal songwriter/song-finder of Crooked Still, which grew into one of the world’s most acclaimed progressive string groups over the ensuing decade. The stunning versatility and appeal of her voice brought her to the attention of some of the most eminent names in music and led to collaborations across a wide variety of genres, with everyone from Alison Krauss to Dave Douglas, along with a role as vocalist on the Grammy-winning Goat Rodeo Sessions alongside Chris Thile, Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer and Stuart Duncan.
O’Donovan never forgot the call of that solo record, though, and last year she headed to Portland, Ore., to fulfill her dream and record with Martine. Rich in songs and unexpected textures, the resulting album bears the remarkable fruits of their creative partnership. Both joyously open and profoundly private, the album is at all times an opportunity to enjoy O’Donovan’s thoroughly modern and deeply rooted vocals.
The album opens with “Lay My Burden Down,” perhaps O’Donovan’s best-known song simply because Alison Krauss recorded it on “Paper Airplane.” O’Donovan acknowledges the risk in this choice, and the reward.
“One of my uncles loves to say that nobody owns songs, and I think that’s true. My version is so different from hers, and it really sets a nice tone for the record,” she said.
O’Donovan and Martine have carefully placed her songs in a variety of musical settings, from the chorus of horns which opens “Thursday’s Child” to the country-rock of “Fire Engine,” from Charlie Rose’s pedal steel, running throughout “Fossils,” to the sometimes squalling electric guitar on “Beekeeper.” It is a rooted album, to be sure, but not precisely a roots album.
O’Donovan chuckled a little. “I guess it just feels totally natural,” she said. “It’s how a lot of these songs have just come to life over the years.”
Most of O’Donovan’s songs are character-driven, and many of them resemble portions of the folk traditions in which she was raised. The second track, “Briar Rose,” for example, is based on an Anne Sexton poem, a recontextualized fairy tale, though she will concede that a couple tracks are somewhat more personal and that she is quite properly proud of “Fossils.”
“This solo album seems like it was a long time coming to me,” she says, the sounds of an airport in the background. “I’ve been thinking about it since I was eighteen years old.”
Aoife O’Donovan will play the festival main stage with her band on Saturday, Aug. 31 at 1:15 p.m.
The Four Corners Folk Festival is supported in part by a grant from Colorado Creative Industries. For tickets or additional information about this year’s Four Corners Folk Festival, including schedules, performer web links and more, visit www.folkwest.com or call 731-5582.