From the Hills (Sort of)
Mountain Man’s Harmonies Cascade into Boulder
by Adam Perry for Boulder Weekly, 2/3/2011
They don’t need drums. They don’t need bass. Sparse, gentle acoustic guitar appears now and then, but on many of their songs the three young, honey-voiced members of the new Vermont alt-folk trio Mountain Man use no musical accompaniment whatsoever. The result is stunning enough to bring a hush over any room where their debut album, Made the Harbor, is playing.
Mountain Man — Molly Erin Sarle, Alexandra Sauser-Monnig and Amelia Randall Meath — met in 2009 at Bennington College and initially exploded online via a couple of inviting tracks posted on Myspace. Performances at the Glastonbury Festival and South by Southwest — and now a string of dates with the Decemberists that brings the trio to Boulder on Wednesday, Feb. 9 — have made Mountain Man one of the most highly praised new musical acts in America today.
Made the Harbor, released last July on Partisan Records, features a dozen original songs that use three beautiful female voices and a plethora of creative, endearing melodies to touch upon subjects ranging from wild white herons to motherhood. Similar to Fleet Foxes’ acclaimed woodsy folk-pop, which mixes CSNY-style Americana with Appalachian and U.K. folk, Mountain Man has brought some pastoral calm to a rock music world where flash-in-the-pan indie groups focus more on being hip than harmonious. And lots of people are noticing.
Suddenly transformed from dorm-room hobbyists to touring warriors, Mountain Man doesn’t seem phased by the challenge of playing bigger venues — all the group really needs to win over an audience is one microphone. But the quick transformation is remarkable, especially for three young women in their early 20s who’ve known each other for less than two years.
“We started singing together about a year and a half ago in a room in a blue house in Bennington, where we were all going to college at the time,” Meath says. “We knew it was important when other people started coming upstairs from the kitchen to listen to us while we were practicing. Creating an intimate space in a larger room to 1,000 people is much more difficult than singing in someone’s living room, but sometimes we get it right.”
Typically, Meath says, Mountain Man’s three vocalists write all of the band’s music by simply singing together, and never really write it down. An early demo, “Bath Tub,” features a commanding acoustic guitar and only briefly flashes the trio’s hypnotizing three-part harmonies, but Made the Harbor is a compelling down-home vocal clinic — and an album on which imperfections endear. The pitch isn’t always perfect, and the sound of throats being cleared introduces a few different tracks, but it’s all part of the group’s inimitable charm.
“Just feeling each others’ voices vibrating in our own bodies and filling the room up,” Meath told NPR last summer, “[is] a feeling of, like, total elation.”
When I asked Meath whether the group’s influences are as old-timey as its enchantingly minimalist songs suggest, she alluded more to a lifetime of musical passion just now bearing fruit in public.
“All three of us grew up singing intuitively with our families, which I believe is why people often think that we are influenced by Appalachian folk or other older forms of music. I am sure we have been in small ways, but when we began we did not have the intention to sound like any sort of genre. The music we make is just what it sounds like when Molly, Alex and I sing together.”
Although Meath, a New England native, calls Vermont “beautiful,” she says it hasn’t really shaped Mountain Man’s music.
“Molly is from Santa Cruz and Alexandra is from St. Paul, Minnesota,” she says. “Being in Vermont is wonderful and makes you truly appreciate nature, but it is not the motherland for anyone in the band except for me.”
Influences aside, when Mountain Man’s three singers mention “soft skin” and hands moving up sleeves — at one point asking listeners, “Can’t you understand I’m trying to be a good woman?” — it’s hard not to believe the three talented vocalists are experiencing and describing romantic love for the first time. Most moving, however, is the group’s ode to the prospect of motherhood, called “Mouthwings.”
Being regaled by Made the Harbor’s sweet ballads has been a part of my 13-month-old daughter’s bedtime routine since its release, but “Mouthwings” — and its lines “I will grow a baby / oh he will move me so swiftly / to hold me completely” — has a special place of its own in our household.
Amazingly, Meath — not yet a parent herself — furnished poignant child-rearing advice when I mentioned the lyrics.
“‘Mouthwings’ is about being able to bear and raise the love of your life,” she says. “If done with intention, you can raise a child that will love you more than anything else, and you them. I think that is an amazing and heartbreaking idea. Because here you are, with a partner who is wonderful, and with them or without them — or at least involving them — you create this creature that you love so much more. It is kind of like the dialectic — our children surpass. That’s their job.”
Not surprisingly, Mountain Man’s growing fanbase already includes a large number of little ones.
“We have very quickly become aware of it!” Meath exclaims. “Lots of new humans are into our music, and most of our favorite shows that we have played have had kids present. Our music is pretty kid-friendly, I suppose. Harmony is naturally a calming and comforting thing. Our shows are for everybody. Kids and grandparents and dogs included.”
Children and young love come up again and again on Made the Harbor’s mostly a cappella tracks, but animal references — from “warm amber eyes of a lion” to “the bright baby eyes of a chickadee” — certainly stand out among Mountain Man’s many imaginative uses of metaphor.
“Animals are easier to relate to humanity than humans are,” Meath says, “and there is something magical about them because we do not fully understand them — or at least we do not understand them as much as we think we understand humans.”
It would be easy to understand the psychology of any intimidation Meath and Co. could be experiencing while opening for the Decemberists, a Portland, Ore.-based folk-rock group whose new album, The King is Dead, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard chart. But, as has been true at many of the concerts Mountain Man has opened for bigger-name bands over the past year, much of the audience will no doubt be at the Boulder Theater just to check out the opening act.
On the Bill:
Mountain Man opens for the Decemberists on Tuesday, Feb. 8. Show starts at 8 p.m. Tickets are sold out.