Floating Down the Rabbit Hole With Sarah Louise

All photos by Katrina Ohstrom

There are moments on Sarah Louise’s spellbinding new album, Earth Bow, where she is more of a conjurer than a musician. Laraaji describes it as “pulling music from the air,” but Louise’s source is more organic than ethereal. Her work, especially on this new offering, lives and breathes. Wherever it comes from, the result is a space that fully immerses listeners and strips away the pall and circumstance that darkens our everyday world. Her songs contain an ancient, healing energy and that vision is fully realized on Earth Bow

Sarah Louise was gracious enough to answer some questions in early May about her memories, process, and even the fantastic series of interviews she’s done with the great Archie Shepp. Earth Bow is out now (buy it here)

What are some of your earliest memories with music and sound? It could be certain albums or songs that you remember from an early age or even experiences with environmental sounds from when you were young, but things that left a mark.

  • Hearing Stravinsky’s Firebird on a 1st grade field trip to the orchestra
  • Singing along to “I Swear” by Boyz II Men with my friends on the school bus
  • Intentionally dropping a clay pipe to hear what sound it made
  • Creek water and gravel rubbing together beneath my feet
  • Being immersed in voices during choir practice
  • Making up little songs in my childhood wildflower garden
  • Yodeling in the front yard after watching Sound of Music
  • Folly dinosaur roars on my favorite paleontology shows

How did those early impressions lead you to being interested in learning to play and create your own music and sounds? 

I think really what impacted me most was how my voice felt in my body. I remember experiencing lots of pleasure in singing. My interest in learning guitar was initially as a way to accompany my voice. I think I was pretty tuned into environmental sounds as much as music early on and have been relearning to be that way again. 

I think a lot about the power of music and sound to create worlds or transport people into different spaces, and how sound holds so much emotion within it. For me, Earth Bow is amazing at this. It’s this fully-realized space that you are enveloped in from the opening notes. What kind of experience are you hoping to create for listeners?

I am so glad that comes across because I really wanted to make a space people could enter: a world that is there when you need it. I was thinking a lot about immersive experiences (everything from a forest to VR) and how those have the potential to help us feel resourced enough to be more present in our bodies and with our emotions. I think it’s also ok to use music to exit your current situation if necessary. But my path involves exploring how music and immersive environments can increase our capacities to be present with what is. I think this is so important to contemplate as VR and AR become viable tech, as they have a scary capacity to disembody and disconnect as well. And when we are disembodied and disconnected, we have no hope of dismantling capitalism. 

I love the framing of the album as being a space people can enter when they need it. I think that’s really powerful. How has music – whether it’s someone else’s work or when creating your own – helped you with being more present within yourself and within this moment?

Music used to be the only space where I could be present. I didn’t used to be able to meditate and so when I would compose for guitar, that was a way of being incredibly present with myself and my instrument. As my relationship to sound has evolved, it’s hard to even put into words…you know how when you tap a glass of water the pitch changes based on how full it is? Our bodies are the same – we can take breath in and as we release it it’s possible to aim it at particular parts of the body based on pitch, timbre and a few other factors. There’s a correspondence. Often I don’t feel like just doing quiet seated meditation, but rather it involves these chanting explorations that grow my awareness of subtle energies. How can I be present not just with my mind, but also my body and the environment? Sound plays a significant role. It’s so deep you could spend lifetimes exploring all of this. I’m just on the tip of the iceberg. 

Along those lines, music can create deep emotional connections not just with other people, but also with our environments, and I think that’s especially true of Earth Bow. I find myself thinking about gaining a better understanding of my own place as I listen. How do you use music for yourself to gain a deeper understanding of your own world?

Music is an ancient language that arose from our bodies, which are extensions of the Earth. It is also the language of spirit, capable of traversing different realms and communicating with the unseen. I love music because we don’t have to understand its meaning on a literal level. As it flows through me, that’s communication that needs no translation. I live in mystery with it and allow it to move me. If I meditate or dance with music, how will that impact the course of my day? By letting go of thought, I am often better able to act from a place of knowing and trust in spontaneity. 

In addition to the music creating this space and this world, I also find it incredibly cathartic. “If You Build a Pond the Frogs Will Come” especially so. I have found myself on many occasions in the past few weeks just cranking that up really loud and feeling it suck out this negative energy and making me feel lighter, freer; this incredible release of tightness or tension. So that leads me to ask, what role does tension play in your music?

That makes me so glad! Dynamics between tension and release in music are key. It’s natural for me to think about it in terms of healing: you build tension to provide an opportunity for a listener to feel what they need to feel, which allows them to metabolize difficult experiences. At least in my experience, you can only release something if you are able to be present with it, and music can create a safer container in which to feel. Then after “tension,” comes “release,” which is an opportunity for integration of the healing to occur. There’s also room for joy. The whole record is really meant to be a healing journey, which utilizes these dynamics. 

What is the story behind calling the album “Earth Bow”? It’s a great, evocative title.

Thanks! I like things that are indeterminate, so I like the ambiguous pronunciation. I pronounce it as “bough,” because this record is my deep bow to Earth, partly in dedication to healing I have received from being in relationship with it. But everyone who has said the title to me says it like an instrument bow, which I am also really into. I learned that there is actually an instrument called an earth bow, where the resonating chamber is a hole in the earth. Imagine hearing that and how it might communicate with life underground! Sometimes I also picture a fancy pink ribbon wrapped around the entire earth, why not? But really, I never labor over titles. For me they are first thought: best thought. 

I saw you mention on twitter that a film version of Earth Bow is coming later this year. I find it to be such a visual album so I can’t wait to see what the film is like. What can we expect from it?

The film is a collaboration with my friend Katrina Ohstrom. It’s a celebration of embodiment I have gained from healing with the Earth – so I dance and move in nature. It’s meant, like the record, to be an immersive experience. It’s not narrative, but a visual treat. I don’t love the word psychedelic because I think it comes from an extractive framework of something sacred, but that might be an easy way to describe it. We’re hoping it will be possible to do some in-person screenings of it, but we’ll also show it in a virtual gathering space my sister and I have been collaborating on. 

Speaking of the visual elements related to the album, can you tell me a little more about the cover. I know it’s a detail from a felted sweater. That blows my mind because it’s so detailed, so I’m curious if there are any stories behind the sweater? Where it came from, how you got it, etc. It works so well as the visual encapsulation of the record.

I made it! I began it during early quarantine and have kept working on it. In fact, I view it as a living art form – never meant to be finished. I interact with it almost the way a person might view getting a tattoo: when something wants to express itself or be memorialized or processed, I work on it. I didn’t set out with a composition in mind and never even meant to make a frog. They just appeared. Frogs have always been very special animals to me because of their ability to thrive both in water and on land and because of the transformations they go through. Since I made it in conjunction with the record, I never considered using anything else. I love thinking about the mythology all around the world of people shedding and putting on different skins to shapeshift, like Selkes in Ireland, for example. This sweater is a skin. 

Totally unrelated to the album, but I can’t help myself in asking… What has the experience of interviewing Archie Shepp been like? I loved that first interview you did with him so much and can’t wait to read more.

It’s been so great to be able to interview him more than once, because we have been able to go deeper. I’ve really wanted to highlight the importance of his return to blues music. The relationship between tradition and innovation in his work is fascinating. But truly, how wonderful to want to honor his father and mother by playing music that they could feel at home with. I think it’s radical in the best way. It’s been awesome to hear from him about how jazz standards begin with an individual and then go on to live full and influential lives in community, shaping players and listeners and being shaped by both as well. You get a sense of how communal “so-called jazz” (as he calls it) can be, rather than being about the ego of one composer’s work that is meant to be set in stone forever. There’s a fluidity to improvised music that treats the music as a living, active agent. So inspiring. I’m truly honored and blessed to be able to speak with such a brilliant man.

What else are you working on these days? What’s next?

I’ve mostly been singing songs into the air all year, allowing them to slip away unrecorded. They are meant to be ephemeral offerings to the land and my healing journey. I have come to the realization that I am not meant to be on the path of a commercial musician, so much so that I expect Earth Bow to be my last recorded work for a while. That could change, as I’m also accumulating songs that come to me for groups to sing together and also dance music, but it feels more in alignment with my path to explore alternative ways of sharing music with people. But I’m not a purist about anything. Life is non-linear. I’m excited to go deeper into exploring how music functions in groups – for healing, community-building and the support of new and ancient systems of care that can grow as capitalism falls. I believe everyone can make music and that it is incredibly important to create safer spaces for people to do that together. I’m really in an open, curious place with it. I could start a virtual choir, I could release cassettes where each is different and from a particular moment in time, I could start a band and travel around making improvised music, I could continue my investigations in sound healing…I think I’m going to do all of those things. But mostly, I am being slow with it and not goal-oriented. I am giving it room to grow and influence me by being present with the sounds that emerge from my body as I practice communing with the Earth. The Earth misses us and grieves with us. I am here to be one of many people who help find a path back.