Our Contemporary Folk Story: An Interview with Rising Appalachia’s Leah Song
29 Oct 2014

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Profile photo of Abby Benjamin
Soulful Scorpio always chasing the next adventure in the outside world and within.

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Sisters

As Hulaween draws near and the excitement begins to build, I was thrilled to be able to interview the lovely Leah Song, of Rising Appalachia.  I have been continuously impressed by this sister duo’s raw talent, versatility, and heart-warming sound.  I was able to grab a bit of Leah’s time on a Friday afternoon for a phone interview.  After chatting briefly about their most recent tour, we began discussing the roots of the Rising Appalachia movement.

Abby: I am also from the Appalachian region in North Carolina, so I was wondering how you came up with the name Rising Appalachia?
Leah: Yup everybody wants to know that! Haha.  It’s kind of an interesting story.  We were born and raised in Atlanta, GA, and North Georgia is the beginning of the Appalachian mountains.  We were urban kids, but our mother was involved in the traditions of southern Appalachian folk music.  She is also an amazing folk musician.  Our whole lives we would be in the city during the week, and on the weekend we would be all over the southern Appalachian in North Georgia, North Carolina, West Virginia…we would go up for the weekend and chase fiddle music.  So we were always raised with that influence in our lives in part, but we also had a big relationship with jazz and the deep urban South.  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 were involved in a bunch of amazing elements of world culture as well.
A: That’s amazing!
L: It was amazing, and really valuable.  When we started playing music and started this project, our big hope and desire was that we could showcase all of those influences.  It wasn’t about retelling Appalachian traditions nor was it about reliving urban traditions.  It was about taking all of these influences from our lives in the south and mixing them up.  So that was the idea, [our sound] was rising out of Appalachia.  A new tradition was rising out of all of these old traditions.
Leah

Leah

A:Awesome.  That actually addresses one of my other questions which was- what inspired the combination of such interesting instruments and genres?  It’s great to see how it is all tied in.

L: Yeah! The hope was and still is to create a living tradition.  I think folk music has always been about what is influential during the times.  Our intention was to take all of these influences and study them, showcase them, and mix them.  We wanted to figure out how traditions, the story of the American South, and multiculturalism all make up our contemporary folk story.
A:Yeah, it’s great to see that fusion of cultures being represented!  How long have you been playing music for?
L:Well we grew up with music, so ever since we were babies.  I am three and a half years older than my sister, and ever since we were both little kids we were in music circles.  Our parents played a bunch of different genres of music and there were always practices at our house.  So we had live music in our lives since we were born.
A: Did you and Chloe always know that you wanted to play music together?
L: No we actually never planned to be musicians or be in a band, that’s kind of our funny story.  We grew up with music, and it was always a big part of our lives but we were both doing outreach, education, and activism in college and beyond.  We made an album as a holiday gift to our family, we recorded it in a day.  It was just a fun thing that we did, mostly takes of old songs.  And that was the beginning.  This was about 8 and half years ago, way before the name Rising Appalachia even existed.  We would play tunes with our family and at the farmers market sometimes, and it got picked up by a community of music appreciators and we started getting asked to perform.  So from the get go it has been a response to people’s invitations, we never thought that we would be doing this.
Sisters performing

Sisters performing

A:Thats awesome how it worked out, a really cool story.

L: I know, it is kind of crazy!

A: So I did a little research and found out then when you were 19 you moved to Mexico to work alongside the Zapatista movement.  I wanted to know what inspired you to make that decision and what it was like?
L: I got really involved in political activism as a teenager, and more as a young adult.  When I graduated from high school I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life.  I was hoping to get into art school; I got into a few big ones in New York, but we couldn’t really finance them.  I didn’t want to go to school unless it was inspiring to me, so I decided that I would pursue on-the-ground, experiential learning.  I wanted to travel, pick up languages, and work within a school and community in a Spanish speaking country.
My parents weren’t totally sure about it, but they said ‘If you don’t want to go to school and you want to set something up for yourself, set it up well.  Set it up thoroughly so you can be really learning and you won’t just be a traveler or a floater.’ So I moved to Mexico at 19 and got involved in a school down there.  I was teaching English as a Second Language as well as taking Spanish classes every afternoon. I was also working with youths on the street doing art projects and working constantly with the community.  I was working with the Zapatista movement and just living in and amongst the communities of southern Mexico that were working with indigenous struggle.  When I moved down there I became a student of that community.  I lived there for almost a year teaching and learning.  I then went on to spend the next 5 years of my life traveling and living abroad in that context.  I went from place to place to study and live within a community and truly be a community member.  I really tried to be invested in the places I traveled to and learn from them.
Sisters

Sisters

A: Were you inspired when you were in Mexico to do more traveling or did you already have that in mind?

L: No, [Mexico] definitely opened the gate.  That first trip changed probably the course of the rest of my life.  It has always made me feel a little culture shocked when I’m in my home country.  It affected me in a huge way.  To be living internationally at the age of 19, alone, and realizing that the world is much more vast and diverse and there are so many more different ways of living than we do in the US. It sent me in many different directions after that.
A: Yeah, I think it should be required that all American students travel after high school or during college.  It’s incredibly valuable. 
L: It really is. And travel in a way that gets you involved in a working project and be able to really plug-in, instead of being amongst other American travelers. You know?
A: Definitely, it’s important to push your boundaries.  I think we should all be traveling to countries that don’t speak English and are very foreign to us.  My next question is- have you guys ever performed at Spirit of the Suwanee before?
L: We actually played there for the first time this year at Purple Hatter’s Ball.  We thought it was a really beautiful way to start being involved because the story of the festival is such an intense one.  So we were there and able spend an evening walking around the grounds and seeing how beautiful that territory is.  We’re looking forward to coming back in a new context!
Performing again.

Performing again.

A: How do you feel about The String Cheese Incident’s music?

L: You know we had heard of them, but never really listened to them until we all played together at Electric Forest, another festival that they are involved in.  I was really impressed.  I have to say at first I wasn’t sure if I would like it or not because I usually don’t like the long jam-band style music, it just wasn’t a tradition that I grew up with.  We all climbed up to the rafters and watched their live show, and it was a really beautiful show.  I thought their musicality was beautiful and the way that they interacted with each other was really good to see. We could tell they were having a good time and really making music live and on the spot.  We were all very impressed, we had a great time watching them.  I am looking forward to learning more about their work, seeing what there doing, and rubbing elbows a little more.  It seems like were going to be booking more events in the future!

A: Thats amazing! Even though you and String Cheese are different genres, I think that you complement each other.  You are all very versatile musicians and you both uplift your crowd in a great way.  It’s very refreshing to see! I’m excited that you will be working together more in the future.  
L: Yeah, I am too.  We had so much fun watching them, so were going to do it again!

A: I agree. Thank you so much for your time Leah, can’t wait to see you guys play!

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These women are making a huge impact not only with their music, but also in the community.  Check out their community efforts and involvement here.
Leah and Chloe will be filling the forest with their heavenly voices at Hulaween on Sunday, Nov 2 at 3pm on the Main Stage.  See you there!
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