Interview + Premiere: Rising Appalachia’s “Lean In”

Sisters Leah and Chloe, of the majestic roots band 
Rising Appalachia, have made a name for themselves breathing new life into old traditions with their restorative harmonies with soulful nods to historic folk music and 60’s idealism. Their bullish, non-traditional route to success can be chalked up to their unique upbringing, innate sibling sonics and sustaining sisterly bond. Their familial foundation has served them well as they have traversed the globe, playing alongside Michael Franti, Nahko and Medicine for the People, Damien Rice and the Avett Brothers. Rising Appalachia’s first live album, Alive, provides a window into the communal experience the band promotes, where the audience is asked to participate in their inviting, heart-centered narratives. We caught up with Leah and Chloe on the heels of a sold-out tour of Europe to discuss their career trajectory. They also blessed us with the exclusive of Alive’s lead-off track “Lean In,” complete with sweet Aaliyah mashup.

How has being sisters shaped your band identity and career trajectory?
Chloe: We grew up in a funky little urban neighborhood in Atlanta, GA in a musical family full of fiddlers and artists and blues harmonica players and spoken word artists. We were children of the public-school system and the street smarts that accompanied that. Our mother used to sing us harmony parts to various songs in our ears at a young age so that we could hear how the sounds stacked up and complemented one another, and how some notes would bounce or create tension with other notes. It was all a learning by ear process. Because we are sisters, there were very natural and unstructured beginnings to this project that formed a different sort of foundation than your standard band approach. We began playing music to complement a path that was already full of travel, activism, and an ‘un-schooled’ education as opposed to starting a band to take us to some place of stardom. Without fully realizing it, we forged our own music management concepts and basically learned how to run a business as well as an expansive art project. Art makes industry, industry does not make art. Industry helps art, but can’t create it. We felt that the standard way that musicians worked was not the structure we wanted to pursue. The fact that we are sisters has helped us stay true to our vision. One of us holds it all up if the other one is low energy, and vice versa. It’s a balanced partnership.

How has your spiritual outlook influenced the way you operate your business and release music?
Leah: We believe that the role of the artist should be to question social norms — poverty, racism, land loss, lack of resources, and other deep seeded injustices that have followed the history of humanity. Music is a tool and a catalyst for betterment in our communities. It’s always available to be a resource for social change and a platform for dialogue around justice issues in our world. We work to utilize our platform as musicians to help promote social and environmental justice causes with the aim of educating and inspiring positive change. To bring the music to places where it wasn’t and offer it as a collaboration. We want to see a return of music as a community experience, and a tool where musicians are held accountable to be carrying the stories and the dialogues and the messages of their communities. It’s a bigger responsibility than just entertainment. We wanted to be storytellers, not just drink sales at the bar.

In what ways has your songwriting evolved since your 2006 debut? What are your major creative and spiritual influences?
Leah: Chloe and I were raised with an unusual relationship with spirituality. Both of our parents had various influenced in their upbringings, and they wanted us to have a well-founded education in all world religions. We grew up going to bible studies, synagogues, snake-charming services, mosques and gospel Sundays. We were urban kids, but our mother was involved in the traditions of southern Appalachian folk music and she’s also an amazing folk musician, our father too. He sang us blues and old Woodie Guthrie songs before we went to bed each night. We grew up in a very multi-cultural neighborhood and city. I took tons of West African dance classes, tap dancing classes, jazz piano. We would be in the city during the week, and on the weekends, we would be all over the southern Appalachian in North Georgia, North Carolina, West Virginia… chasing fiddle music. We also had a big relationship with jazz and the deep urban South. When we started this project, our big hope and desire was that we could showcase all those influences. It wasn’t about retelling Appalachian traditions nor was it about reliving urban traditions. It was about taking these influences from our lives in the south and mixing them up. So that was the idea, rising out of Appalachia. A new tradition was rising out of all the old traditions.

Have your travels provided a broader vision of culture and music? What do you find humanity shares with one another across the globe? What do you find is different?
Leah: I have been an avid traveler since the first departure from the home. I left Georgia at 19 and moved to Chiapas Mexico to be part of a living indigenous rights movement. It was the beginning of a deep education in the world at large and I stayed abroad for 6 years. I fell so deeply in love with the very nature and spirit of traveling and learning and being an active participant of a different communities. Each place I lived or visited dismantled some stereotype or belief system. There are so many beautiful ways to carve out a life for oneself — no one blueprint, and no wrong way. Musically, with our band, we have also been determined to use our music to build cultural bridges. Whether that is creating unusual and important ways to share our songs on the front lines of American activism (like in New Orleans, or at Standing Rock, or at the BP headquarters) or to learn about the wider world (through song studies in Eastern Europe, or performing in rural community centers in Latin America), we have always believed that music is an international language. At its essence, it is a tool for gathering and communing with one another.

What has been your most memorable moment at a festival?
Leah: We were raised attending one of the most incredible string band music gatherings in the country called Cliftop in West Virginia, full of traditional old time players, obsessed with fiddle tunes. It’s basically like the Burning Man of old timey music! Ha! There are no stages, everyone just gathers to song swap and trade stories and tunes. There is also a very special festival called the LEAF festival in Asheville North Carolina took us under very early in our career. We used to go and just play in the lawn there, and each year we would get a lot of attention from passerby’s. When they finally hired us to play in the dining hall we thought we had officially made it. All we ever wanted was to play in exchange for our tickets in! But since then we have returned many times and play the main stages there now. Its chock FULL of world music, so you can hear Sunday morning gospel, a Quebecois accordion trio, Senegalese dance music, and a bluegrass set all in one afternoon. They also have an incredible youth education component, where many of the artists come to the area early and work with the local schools, community centers, and even the local prison. Plus, its nestled deep in the most beautiful part of the Southern Appalachians, so that puts it up high on the list. We also love this small festival in the northern tip of Sweden called Urkult which is held each summer during the time of the Northern Lights. It’s amazing to be invited to contribute to the lands up there as well. There are a lot of special places in the world.

What distinguishes Rising Appalachia from other current projects associated with the ‘conscious’ musical movement?
Leah: We are fully committed to telling important stories of the trials and tribulations of our era, but we are also deeply committed to continuing the traditions of folk music. And this, I believe is a slightly different path. We don’t want to ONLY be creating new material. We also want to be breathing life into old songs and creating pathways for traditions to morph and change and be accepted and loved by the younger generations. It feels in a way like such a big part of our purpose, to find a way to make traditional music relevant to our generation. So that is the bridge we build. How to carve out a night that unifies old timers, and young radicals, and your grandma, and the most bad ass spoken word artist on the block. That everyone can come and feel welcome and find a piece of our music that they can relate to. Alternative touring has also always been a priority to our music project. We tour independently and creatively, have remained very involved, and have always had a relationship with local communities on the ground as often as we can. We formed the ‘Slow Music Movement’ to give a title to that part of our project. A platform that we hope will grow around our intentions to continue pushing music into many realms of grassroots organizing and old school public service, and will also provide a blue print for other artists to utilize for alternative music industry options. it’s not just a passive entertainment. We are asking our “fans” to help us shape this work. To bring us their stories, their songs, their local beacons, their artists, environmentalists, justice workers, local medicine, wild foods, regional lore and more so that we can be the pollinators.

photo by: courtesy of the artist