Words by David C. Obenour
It is interesting to compare the time in which art is created to the time in which it is consumed. An architectural wonder may take thousands of workers years to complete, an independent movie may take hundreds months, and the seemingly simplest of paintings may take the artist weeks. However, even with a painstaking intent to understand the craftsmanship involved, all of these will be appreciated and marveled at for a matter of minutes or perhaps hours. Wonder is hard to muster and harder still to encourage and foster. But it is often rewarding.
For their part, Avery Hellman took five years on their family ranch in northern California to record the debut full length, Songs of Sonoma Mountain. Sourcing field recordings from their daily routine, moments in life both small and large, and relentless experimentation in solitude, these five years yielded the ten songs of haunting beauty.
While it can be easy to simply let these songs pleasantly unfold one unto the next, a more careful listen shows the care and intent Hellman wove into their creation. Good art deserves to be sat with.
Off Shelf: Songs of Sonoma Mountain was written while working and living on your family’s ranch in northern California. Can you describe the setting for us?
Avery Hellman: The ranch in the rolling hills, where the grass is green in the winter, then gold in the summer, and then brown in the fall. That means that the color palette changes a lot from month to month, as well as the feel of the ground and the air. There are many old oaks and other large trees, ones that stand on their own for the most part, and prefer to stretch out rather than up. Space here is open, you can see your neighbors and they can see you, and you can see every bird in the sky—mostly turkey vultures.
We’re surrounded by many other ranches, and so it’s a rural place, where the houses are about 1/2 mile apart, and many people drive fast on the roads because they don’t live there. We’re close to Petaluma and Sonoma, and you can see San Francisco from the top of our ranch on a clear day. Being there really puts into perspective how most people spend most of their lives in a small segment of the land. There’s so much open space all around.
OS: What about it inspired you as a musician? How did your playing and song-writing evolve from the person you were when you had first come back?
AH: Living on the ranch really made me subject to the forces of nature, and the stresses that go along with it. When your choices depend heavily on how much it’s rained, whether it’s a hot summer or a cool one, or what types of birds make their way to your house, it really affects what you focus on. I think that heavier dependence on the natural world really made me look more towards it, rather than to other people, for stories to tell through songs.
I think my songwriting evolved out of that shift of focus, but also from the isolation you inevitably experience living in a rural place. I lived alone here for a few years, and so in the evenings I could find something to do by going into the barn and writing songs. I really believe that spending long periods of time alone, without distractions and without anyone listening in, is a key to songwriting. I hope that this choice, although it’s had its downsides, has allowed me to be more independent in creating music and other artwork.
OS: You’ve got a beautiful and haunting style of finger-picking. How did you develop your style of playing?
AH: I started learning the more standard styles like most folks do, from artists like Elizabeth Cotten, and then learned from more modern favorites, like Fionn Regan. But in the last few years I’ve learned so much from Leonard Cohen and Peggy Seeger. So I guess I always kept going by hearing a new style of playing I loved in a song, and learning that. Then I’d take the pattern, or develop a new similar one, and write a song over that.
I also just sit down with a guitar, and mess around until I find a new chord that sounds intriguing, and play it over and over again, coming up with a melody.
I love fingerpicking on nylon strings and electric guitar, because it is so expressive, more similar to the way singing is for me. I’ve struggled with expressing myself through flat picking, which is why I gravitate towards finger-picking.
OS: You also used a number of field recordings on the album, can you talk about how you sourced those and what you think they added to your songs?
AH: I’ve gotten field recordings while driving up the road in my car, or after waking up at midnight, or in the middle of breakfast. All of the recordings are from the ranch, except for the song ‘The 100 Mile View from Virginia City’ which had field recordings from that place.
I have a digital handy recording device, a Tascam, and have been making field recordings here for about 3 years. Once I was here on the ranch for a long period of time, I noticed that the same sounds come back year after year, and so you get a few chances to record frogs or birds or wind.
I hope they added a sense of place to the songs, as well as another texture. A lot of those sounds, strangely enough, are of something non-human singing—the wind or animals. The kinglets and the chorus frogs are singing, and it’s almost like having my own little birdie backup band.
OS: Songs of Sonoma Mountain is an intensely personal album. Did you write these songs originally with the thoughts of sharing them with a larger audience?
AH: I always think about my songs being shared when I’m writing them. Not in the sense that I’m writing them for sharing, but just in the sense that I really look forward to performing them during the writing process. Songs really connect people, and it’s so thrilling after being alone in a barn for hours writing, to imagine that the sounds I’m making will connect with someones ears. It makes me feel less alone I suppose.
OS: Are you an open person in other interactions? What about performing makes these interactions different?
AH: I probably fall on the side of being less open than the average person, being that like many other people we are afraid if we share our true selves with others they may reject us for it. Performing is different to me for this reason—instead of trying to engage others with my inner emotional life by talking and discussing, I’m sharing my inner life through melody and song, which can be much more powerful and and soluble connection point to another person.
Performances also have a very different power dynamic set up that allows the performer to share a truth with space, time, and attention. It places the listener into an easier space to listen and not need to contribute or be on an equal playing field with the performer.
OS: The lead single for Songs of Sonoma Mountain discusses your journey in discovering and accepting your non-binary identity. As a performer, how did the process of putting these thoughts to music feel?
AH: It was something I had hoped to do for a long time, and I was lucky when one day sitting at the dinner table I was able to channel that idea and feeling through a song. In some ways it was liberating—I could say something in a more palatable and emotionally direct way that I almost entirely avoid doing through words alone. However, it was also terrifying and vulnerable to really share who I am. In some ways, it was something I wish I only had to share with people really close to me. However, it’s also something that it valuable for others to know, particularly for those who are like me.
OS: As listeners, what do you hope that we will pick up from the song?
AH: I hope that people who are non-binary feel validated, and they can know that they don’t need to question their identity because others cannot understand it fully.
I also want those that have never felt that way about their gender to understand the deep truth of someone who is non-binary. They might find they have felt similar feelings to those that are a different gender than they are—unseen, unable to really be themselves, without a group that they can really be a part of.
I always hope my songs lead to more compassion, for others, and for ourselves.
OS: “The Song of the Mourning Dove” and it’s spoken word precursor are also intensely personal, but for those around you with the story of your would-be brother-in-law’s sudden and tragic passing. I was wondering how she thought about your song and also the decision to release it? Was that hard to share for your family?
AH: That’s a great question, and something that I’m still thinking about. One reason I did decide to write it, is that I feel that there’s a stigma around sharing really difficult stories. So often people who have had tragedies in their life have to conceal them to make other people comfortable. When we have a friend or loved one who goes through a tragedy, sometimes we shy away because we are afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing. However, what people who are dealing with tragic situations really need is to not be pushed to the margins because their situation is so difficult for others to handle. But your question is a good one, because it is very important to reflect on how we share our stories, and I think my choices are still something I question.
I’m not sure yet how she feels about the song, but she does have her own amazing music she is about to start sharing under the name Olivia Wolf and I can’t wait to hear it out in the world.
OS: Those two songs also aren’t included on Spotify and some other online services. Can you talk about your decision behind that?
AH: I always want to put something special on my vinyl and CDs, so for this one and the last I’ve put stories only found on those mediums. I love it when artists have special pieces that can’t be found easily. For example, Cat Power has a song on one of her vinyl records that you have to move the needle to an inner circle at the end. I think listeners can feel more engaged in the artists work if they have to seek certain things out, and I am always hoping to engage listeners. I also do feel that the story is intimate, and don’t want to share it as widely as the rest of the record.
Lastly, I’ve made a stop motion video for ‘Song of the Mourning Dove’ – we have yet to release it – and love the idea of people engaging with the song through the story as I intended—of two mourning doves who meet on Sonoma Mountain.
OS: Songs of Sonoma Mountain seems so closely tied to a time and a place in your life. How do you think you’ll find inspiration for your next album?
AH: Another great question! I am really torn between seeking out another place to write about, or seeking an idea to write about. The last record was about the Klamath River, and this one about Sonoma Mountain, so place is incredibly important to my work. I am thinking of writing instead about Cowbirls—lgbtq people who have a deep connection to place, in particular the rural west, and how they find refuge from a challenging world in nature.