Songs of Water hail from Greensboro, NC and depending on which day you catch them, are a six-piece ensemble of multi-instrumentalists that have, and will, take many different forms, much like…wait for it…WATER. If you choose to break the band into molecules, everything starts with the hammer dulcimer; one could say it’s Songs of Waters’ Point Guard, leading the way, one mallet strike to the next. With a simple pivot and turn the band can sound poppy and simplistic in an Americana sense much in the vein of Mumford & Sons, like on their new single “Stars and Dust.” On the flip side, they have the ability to lock and load the fire hose, pressurizing a tantalizing sound of orchestral delight, spanning over 30+ instruments from all over the world in a slightly overwhelming cinematic scene for your listening pleasure. It’s just a matter of what kind of glass you want to use.
Whatever your choice, the music is easy on the ears and appealing to the senses. Some might quickly equate the sound to that of an exotic pawnshop, or, better yet, act immediately, light a few candles, scrape some leaves together, close your eyes and take a floating nap. Transcendent transportation is one of life’s ever rewarding pleasures—Songs of Water can take you there.
There has been a natural progression to where Songs of Water is today. Jamming as early as 10 years ago, the band harnessed their improvisational song structures in 2004’s self-titled Songs of Water. In a conversation with BRM prior to playing the Shakori Hills Music Festival, lead singer Steven Roach, said, “the band didn’t really get serious about ‘being a band’ until 2007…then we started kicking it up a notch and gaining momentum.” The band worked tirelessly, recorded and released independently The Sea Has Spoken in 2010. It featured more vocal harmonies and a passion for experimenting with different instruments, without loosing their roots in cerebral Earthiness.
Currently, the band is touring occasionally, but the focus is on capturing the wizardry for the follow up third album. According to Roach, their progressive maturity as a band has taken a real ying-yang approach from previous work, “for ‘The Sea Has Spoken’ we entered the studio with 95% of the album done and let the studio time finish the project. This time around we have about 5% of the work done and are producing the shape of the band live in the studio…we have 100’s of files, pieces, improv jams recorded and about four or five songs.”
That sounds like a ridiculous amount of work given the sonic and phonetic capabilities for the musicians in Songs of Water. From what I’ve heard so far, no matter the shape, it’s going to be delicious and refreshing. It’s certain they understand the process of conjuring the ebb and flow of experimentation. The new album will feature more “songwriting” structured songs as well as continuing to push forward and strive to pioneer new sounds with increased access to instrumentation and the virtuosity that comes from that boundary extending passion.
World music dances a seductive tango with folk guitar while exotic percussion keeps the beat. Songs of Water is a 7-piece ensemble from North Carolina. They have been playing together since 2002, and have two albums under their belt. Using over 40 instruments during the recording of their most recent release, The Sea Has Spoken; Songs of Water creates music that is ethereal, imaginative and spectacular.
Songs of Water presents exotic chamber music from a bygone era in the 14 tracks of “The Sea Has Spoken.”
Featuring a cadre of musicians based in Greensboro, North Carolina, the tracks on this album exhibit an elusive, arresting quality that separates it from the fray. Instruments like hammered dulcimer, varied percussion, Norwegian fiddles, even the “gadgets” that are listed in the liner notes, combine for an interesting, almost Gaelic feel. There are notable contributions to the album from so many, with Stephen Roach writing many of the songs and playing a wild assortment of instruments, from the dulcimer to the doumbek to the aforementioned “gadgets.” Luke Skaggs, Molly Skaggs, Jason Windsor, Greg Willette, Sarah Stephens and Michael Pritchard are featured prominently throughout the album as well, leading to a diverse, malleable lineup. There is a refined quality at heart of the tracks of this album, and a decided sparseness that stems from what seems to be “instrumental” music. But some five tracks in, we finally hear the intervention of a human voice, and the delivery is powerful and effective.
The album begins in arresting fashion with the atmospheric “Everything That Rises.” There is a yearning quality that comes to life as dulcimer pairs evocatively with violin, cello and guitar. “Bread and Circus” intermittently ticks like a clock, or swells with evocative strings, seeming evocative of distant lands and times. Jason Windsor wrote and performed the minimalist, elegant “Prelude,” which segues into the urgent “Window Seat,” punctuated by guitar and tasty percussion. Country and bluegrass luminaire Ricky Skaggs contributes fretless banjo to “Sycamore,” the first track to feature vocals. The effect of said vocals proves haunting and elusive, as the album has been so cerebral up until this point. Stephen Roach’s vocals convey nicely, and the backing vocals provided by Luke and Molly Skaggs offer excellent depth and emotive complexity. Marta Richardson’s electric violin proves particularly evocative in this track as well. “The Great Russian Catastrophe” is particularly striking and bold, as frenzied mandolin and Norwegian fiddle strike elegant poses. The track finds a particularly serene valley then swells from there with blustery strings.
“Through the Dead Wood” offers two minutes of scintillating drums and percussion, while Stephen Roach’s mandolin couples with two arresting violins (Ricky Skaggs and Luke Skaggs) in “Family Tree.” “Beneath the Sleeping City” offers ambient textures and a decidedly cinematic feel, with pacing steps and haunted strings. “Luminitsa” offers an exotic, Middle Eastern feel as banjo skitters against the tapestry, offering a choice juxtaposition of musical styles. “Hwyl” grabs me by the throat here with hammered dulcimer, and the album closes with “Willow,” only the second track to utilize vocals. The track closes with a feeling of positivity and hope, the singing of hallelujahs, one last bit of hopeful inspiration to ease any desperation.
“The Sea Has Spoken” proves to be delectable and otherworldly. The album seems unique; time-stamped from some other time and place. As a 3 year writer for the Home Grown Music Network, I get lots of different albums, of varying attitudes and genres. In that time frame, I can honestly say that I have never reviewed an album with the sophistication and grace of “The Sea Has Spoken.” This is a truly remarkable recording; a discovery I am most pleased about.
- J Evan Wade
Tapping Into Tributaries
By Ryan Snyder
Trying to nail down what kind of music Greensboro octet Songs of Water creates is like trying to guess which of the 30-plus instruments in their quiver any one of the members will pick up next.
One moment they’re weaving vibrant tapestries of Celt-folk with bouzouki, violin, guitar, and hammered dulcimer over ragtime rhythms, the next they’re pounding out polyrhythmic world-beat on hand drums or wringing gypsy punk from an accordion. The band’s music feels primitive but forward-thinking, exotic yet familiar; it creates a complete narrative in the listener’s mind with rarely a word sung. Essentially, their music is transportive.
The Songs of Water sound was forged eight years ago on Stephen Roach and Jason Windsor’s respective passions for multicultural roots fusion and classical music. But as a casual collaboration grew into something that Roach says required dedication, so did the richness of its sound. Fans viewed the nascent band’s eponymous 2004 debut as a breakthrough, but Roach calls it “a junior high photo,” contrasted with its follow-up, 2010’s The Sea Has Spoken Before that, however, the band would undergo tumultuous changes.
March of 2007 was the beginning of what felt like an interminable hiatus. Songs of Water’s creative spark-plug and close friend Israel Sarpolus succumbed to cancer, and the band’s momentum crashed. They floated in limbo for months, unsure of how to replace what violinist Marta Richardson describes as not only “a beautiful guitar player,” but someone who was a defining element in spirit and personality.
Molly and Luke Skaggs — multi-instrumentalists, vocalists and children of bluegrass luminary Ricky Skaggs — provided a second wind. Luke would be the first to accept an invitation to join. Molly came on after appearing on the sophomore album, along with their father, whose studio hosted a significant portion of the recording. Roach, who also possesses a musical heritage as the cousin of flatpicking master Tony Rice, said the elder Skaggs saw a part of himself in what Songs of Water was trying to accomplish and became a father figure to the group.
With The Sea Has Spoken still relatively fresh, Roach says the band is busy mapping out tour plans for 2011, with an eye toward Australia and Europe. They’re busy writing new music as well, though several factors are in play that might impact the sound they take into the studio. With both Skaggs offspring possessing their father’s high-lonesome vocal gene, the band plans to incorporate much more lyrical content into future work. The collective is also searching for a more distinctive and concise sound that doesn’t betray its core influences. That Songs of Water’s long-range touring usually finds the band pared down to five or six players, Roach says, should help them reach that goal.
“We’ve been more experimental with the palette of sounds that we create on the past two albums,” Roach says. “We’re still staying heavily instrumental, but now that we’ve covered that, we’re honing it and I think the third album will be even more of a further development in the sound that defines us.”
Name That Untitled Song Story by Jason Gilmer
There are plenty of adjectives that can describe the music performed by Songs of Water, but there isn’t a genre for the Winston-Salem-based band.
“We’re not trying to be rebellious or touting the fact that we don’t fit into a genre, that’s just how it worked out,” said the group’s co-founder Jason Windsor. “We just tried to be as creative as possible, and this is what came out.”
What emerged was acoustic music that mixes sounds from across the globe without the use of a lot of vocals.
Songs of Water will play its first show in Boone with Melissa Reaves at 7:00 p.m. on Friday, November 5, at the Harvest House Performing Arts Center. The cost is $8.
The group touts six band members, but that number can sometimes balloon to more than 10 musicians on the stage.
Windsor, who plays guitars and mandolin, founded the group with hammered dulcimer and guitar player Stephen Roach almost eight years ago, and they began searching for a unique sound.
Ask Windsor to explain the sound, and he recognizes the complexity of the question.
“Aw, man. That’s tough,” he said. “We really wanted something that was experimental, and we shot for something that was mostly acoustic. We wanted something that was really organic, and we wanted something to continue the legacy of world acoustic music. When you do that, you aren’t going to fit into a genre too easily.”
Instead, the group shows up and lets fans determine what they are. A lot of time, Windsor said, the plan is to engage fans and bring them into the show.
If a song is nameless, fans can suggest titles based on what the song said to them. Some fans have painted or written poetry during the shows to bring their creativity to the performance.
“Having vocals in a song really gives you a connection to the audience. You’re telling them what the song is about,” Windsor said. “What we’ve found about doing instrumental pieces is it allows the audience to bring their own creativity to it.
“We’re half the equation and the audience is the other half, and together we’re going to come up with some sort of creative expression,” he added. “We like that. It may not be that everyone who comes to our show gets into that, but we hope that, at some point, it allows people who aren’t normally creative to be creative for an hour.”
The group’s sound is a mix of its collective musical background, which runs the gamut of jazz, classical, bluegrass, grunge and, surprisingly, a little bit of death metal.
Roach and Windsor have welcomed in Marta Richardson (violin), Greg Willette (bass), Michael Pritchard (drums) and Luke Skaggs (multiple stringed instruments) into the group full time, with Sarah Stephens (cello) and Molly Skaggs (accordion, piano) playing certain gigs with the group.
The brother-sister tandem of Luke and Molly Skaggs have a history of being in the music business, as their father is country music star Ricky Skaggs.
It isn’t surprising to see band members play five or six different instruments during a show, which means the stage will be littered with instruments.
“It means we can improvise and go in directions that we hadn’t planned on going,” Windsor said. “We can grab an instrument and just grab onto the bumper and see where we go.”
The band and the audience share a tangible bond. The musicians prefer playing to hometown crowds, basking in the love and support of family and friends. It feels right to give back to a community that offered support for so many years, Richardson says. “It’s a mutual understanding that we belong together, that we come from the same place and are on a journey together.” Musical experiment
Songs of Water began about eight years ago as Roach’s vision to take traditional, multicultural sounds and combine them in an American, experimental fashion. He took his idea to friend and co-writer Jason Windsor. The two began collaborating and then invited Richardson to come on board. Richardson and Charlotte cellist Sarah Stephen bring sophistication to the folksy sound with their talent on the strings. Pritchard’s rhythm strikes a middle ground between tradition and innovation, while bass and guitar player Greg Willette echoes the distinctive Piedmont style, similar to Doc Watson and Etta Baker.
While on tour in California, the band’s serendipitous meeting with Luke and Molly Skaggs, son and daughter of bluegrass icon Ricky Skaggs, added even more variety to the band’s sound. Luke contributes with the Irish bouzouki, violin, and vocals, and Molly plays the accordion and banjo, reflecting her studies of Appalachian mountain music.
“We didn’t originally think, ‘Let’s start a band with electric folk instruments and pursue this as a vocation,’ ” Roach says. “We soon realized that we had stumbled upon a very unique sound that needed to be heard by a larger audience.”
For two years, the band worked on its recently released CD, The Sea Has Spoken, which includes guests Ricky Skaggs and tuba player Mark Daumin, of the Chapel Hill band Lost in the Trees. While Skaggs provided Skaggs Place Studio in Nashville, Tennessee, for recording, North Carolina’s tight-knit music community buoyed the effort. Wake Forest University opened its doors for additional recording sessions and the use of percussion instruments. Joel Khouri, from Charlotte’s Bright City Studios, co-produced the album with the band. He made the long trips to Nashville and, in the end, pulled everything together from the various recording sessions.
Although listeners will hear more than 30 instruments on the new album — from dun duns to doumbeks — the songs still ring familiar. Traditional sounds from the hammered dulcimer, banjo, and acoustic guitar reflect North Carolina’s musical roots. All the musicians credit their North Carolina heritage for influencing their music.
“From Appalachia to Albemarle, from bluegrass to beach music, North Carolina’s rich musical history found its way into my heart and my fingertips,” Windsor says. “I’m continually grateful to have grown up in a state so passionate about art and music.”
On that small stage at The Green Bean, the band plays the last song of the set. Some of the band members close their eyes and lift their faces toward heaven, seeming to hear something meant for their ears only. But the crowd appreciates the privilege to listen in. Where to listen
October 8 Shakori Hills GrassRoots Festival of Music & Dance 1439 Henderson Tanyard Road Pittsboro, N.C. 27312
Songs of Water combines multicultural sounds and anchors them in North Carolina’s rich musical traditions.
Stephen Roach pulls bells, whistles, and noisemakers from a green suitcase propped atop a chair on a small stage at The Green Bean, a coffee house in downtown Greensboro. Grabbing his djembe, he pounds his hands in a primitive rhythm. Drummer Michael Pritchard answers with a polyrhythmic beat. Pound, beat. Pound, beat. Pound, beat. The audience grows restless with anticipation.
I scrape my chair back for the third time to make room for the burgeoning crowd until I’m almost sitting in the lap of Laura Galloway, a self-professed groupie who travels all over North Carolina to hear Roach’s band, Songs of Water.
“I think I’m addicted to their new CD,” I tell Galloway. “I have to listen to it every day.”
“I know; me, too,” she says, relieved to know another woman of a seasoned age shares her obsession.
Finally, classically trained violinist Marta Richardson adds her elegant strings to the pounding beat as Roach teases the hungry crowd.
“Are you ready to take off?” Roach asks. “All right, let’s see what happens.”
Founder Stephen Roach is a self-taught hammered dulcimer player, guitarist and African percussionist, as well as vocalist and songwriter. His blood runs rich with musical DNA from a large family of bluegrass musicians. His cousin, Tony Rice, played with Skaggs in the 1980s, inspiring the song "The Family Tree," about the coincidence of Roach playing with Skaggs some 20 years later.
"I had a conglomerate of musical backgrounds that I wanted to do something with," says Roach, who started playing and writing with his friend and co-founder of the band, Jason Windsor, in 2002. "I had the idea to do an instrumental album using all these instruments and cultural backgrounds, so we did our first album together, and the band came out of that."
Roach met Skaggs' son and daughter, Luke and Molly Skaggs, on tour in California, and Luke Skaggs joined the band, taking it to a new level. Ricky Skaggs became a big supporter and offered his studio, Skaggs Place Studio in Nashville, Tenn. Most of the main tracks were recorded there by Charlotte producer Joel Khouri who finished the album at his Bright City Studios.
"We worked on this album almost two years to get it the way we wanted it," Roach says. "We wanted 'The Sea Has Spoken' to be a work of art. Like classical music, it has different movements inside of one larger body of work. You almost have to listen to it as a whole work. It's such a journey from beginning to end."
The eight members of Songs of Water are as eclectic as their music. Classically trained violinist Marta Richardson, cellist Sarah Stephens and guitarist Windsor complement Roach and Luke Skaggs' folk, bluegrass and world music studies. Guitar player Greg Willette offers Eastern European gypsy influences; Molly Skaggs contributes Appalachian folk music roots. Michael Pritchard's polyrhythmic drum textures anchor the band with a tasteful and experimental style.
"We're constantly searching out new sounds and new ways to express creativity in our art and music," Roach says. "But the music is not so much world music as it is American music in the truest sense because there are so many cultures represented in this area, it's a natural transition to incorporate those sounds and then employ them into instruments. We'll do some old spirituals from the Appalachian Mountains but then accompany it with something from Africa."
Roach says the band's live performances are where most of that energy comes to life by causing audiences to fall silent while playing in theater settings or whipping them into a frenzy at larger festivals.
Because 75 percent of the music is instrumental, the audience is invited to create their own story about what the song is about. Some of the songs are named by the audience members who sometimes bring their own canvases or writing journals to express what they hear.
Songs of Water continues to stretch musical imaginations with national attention on the top 20 list on the NPR syndicated radio program "Echoes" and guest appearances on several local radio shows, including WFDD (88.5 FM). But Roach says they want to focus on becoming a voice in their hometown of Greensboro.
"We love Greensboro," Roach says. "Most of the band is from here, and we really believe this place thrives with music and art because there are so many creative people here. I think people are looking for something new and different, but they are also looking for something authentic. That's what we want to give is an authentic expression."
Contact Carole Perkins at CPGuilford@aol.com
Although Songs of Water packs theaters in Charlotte and fans in Norway and Sweden feast on their CDs, Greensboro has been deprived of their delightful smorgasbord of music, featuring instruments such as the Irish bouzouki blended with bluegrass icon Ricky Skaggs' fretless banjo.
But that's about to change.
This summer, Songs of Water returns to their Greensboro roots for the release of their second album, "The Sea Has Spoken," featuring guest appearances by Skaggs and tuba player Mark Daumen from Chapel Hill band Lost in The Trees.
"The Sea Has Spoken" is a brilliantly crafted musical journey where indigenous sounds from myriad cultures blend in otherworldly harmonies that are somehow familiar.
Contact Carole Perkins at CPGuilford@aol.com
SONGS OF WATER — The Sea Has Spoken
It’s only my regret that a review of Songs Of Water’s second album The Sea Has Spoken hasn’t appeared closer to it’s official release date of March 23; news of such a terrific album shouldn’t have gone unmentioned for so long. But that’s exactly what The Sea Has Spoken is: a terrific album. It’s so rare that artists can blend classical and new age sensibilities articulately without being dull or overly pretentious, but Songs of Water has found a magical medium by interspersing bluegrass, West African rhythms and Gypsy folk, and in the process have outdone their self-titled debut from two years ago by huge strides.
On top of an inexorable talent base within the six-piece (sometimes eight-piece) unit, there’s an adventurous spirit that seems to have impelled the band into incorporating literally an entire music store’s worth of gear. Opener “Everything that Rises” transforms the riveting hammered dulcimer of Stephen Roach found in the intro into a rich narrative that actively engages the melancholy violin of Marta Richardson and Sarah Stephen’s cello. Beneath it all is the faintly persistent strumming of Jason Windsor on acoustic guitar that gradually asserts itself into the conversation to further complicate the flurry of emotions that the entirely instrumental track conveys.
It’s not nearly as complicated as it sounds, however. The songs flow together fluidly for the most part much like the swirling body implied in the album’s title. Even the seamless transition from throbbing bass drum battling Celticinfluenced strings to happy-go-lucky cabaret of “Bread and Circus” seems wholly organic. Vocals are few and far between on The Sea Has Spoken, though when they are introduced on “Sycamore,” Roach’s breathy moan and Molly Skaggs’ ethereal rustle are carefully arranged so as not to impinge upon the song’s overall textural awareness. Skaggs and brother Luke aren’t the only ones from their famous family to make an appearance on the album. Their father Ricky, one of the most respected banjo players alive, makes a blink-and-you’ll miss appearance on “Sycamore,” though he asserts his presence further on the aptly named “The Family Tree.”
The Sea Has Spoken is easily one of the most original and provocative releases to come out of the Triad area in a long, long time and overall, it’s one of the best instrumental albums of the year to this point.