Elevating With Turn on the Sunlight

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Jesse Peterson’s Turn On The Sunlight project has become a fixture on the stereo at Foxy Digitalis. His music is so free and airy but built on a strong and focused foundation. To reach the heights he does, there’s always a portion that has to stay grounded. With that, it’s easy to let go and fly. Turn On The Sunlight’s newest album is Peterson’s most ambitious and most affecting. You Belong is a powerful statement spread over a double LP that opens up spaces for listeners to breathe. It’s a stunning record.

You Belong is out now on Moon Glyph. Pick up a copy HERE.

I always like to go back to the beginning to start interviews. With that, can you tell me about some of your earliest memories of music and sound? Are there any experiences or songs that were formative at a young age and have stuck with you?

My deepest musical memory is of my mother’s voice. She would sing to me at bedtime, often songs she’d learned in her own childhood from her mother’s friend, the folk singer Jean Ritchie, who also taught her to play the dulcimer and shared her wisdom about the therapeutic value of singing. 

My dad was also interested in traditional music and helped put together a small festival outside of Austin, where I saw Lydia Mendoza and some other Texas artists of that generation perform. I remember a few music-related trips we took when I was in elementary school – to hear shape-note singing in a rural church in Texas, small-town cajun and zydeco music in Louisiana, and Pueblo dances in Northern New Mexico. 

When I was around six years old, a visit to Austin by the Andean musician Julio Benavente Diaz, sponsored by some friends of my parents, made a major impression on me. I was captivated by the intensity with which he played the charango and how he seemed to put his whole being into his singing and playing. He gave me some panpipes, which I still have. 

In general, there were lots of outdoor festivals, and I guess the venues in Austin were pretty lenient about age restrictions back then. Within a few months of each other, when I was twelve years old, I was lucky enough to attend shows by both Sun Ra and Fela Kuti.

Throughout my childhood, the sounds of the natural world resonated with me. Summers spent with grandparents in more rural areas, oftentimes sleeping on a screened porch, afforded access to the chatter of insects, frogs, and owls, which felt more comforting to me than the nighttime sounds of the city – perhaps because they hearkened back to my first couple of years of life, when we lived on a farm, or just based on some innate connection we have with the elements and our fellow living beings.  

Out in front of my grandmother’s house, there was also a large bluff above a lake that was particularly good for playing with echoes, something I always enjoyed doing, in outdoor or indoor spaces, whenever the opportunity arose.  

Did you always want to be a musician?

In the sense of being a person who plays music, I don’t know that it was ever really a question. Music was pretty central in my family, and I grew up thinking of it as a part of daily life, but often in more of a participatory than a performative way. My sister and I took music lessons, but the transition to imagining it as a vocation wasn’t so obvious for me. I get the impression that, these days, it’s often the other way around, particularly in this country, and that for some people, it can even be difficult to imagine music as being anything other than something performed or recorded by professionals for a mostly passive audience – but, I also feel like maybe we’re moving away from that perspective back to more of a balanced range of approaches.  

Playing music still sometimes feels more natural to me when it happens outside of a clearly delineated bar, club, or concert hall-type structure. That said, I was actually part-owner of a music venue for a while and am very grateful for the many mind-expanding musical experiences I’ve had in such places over the years. There’s not really a single correct approach, and one of the things that can be most amazing about music is how, like a blade of grass, it’ll find its way through any little crack in the pavement, eventually – we just need to be receptive. I’ve observed this both for myself in my own life, and on a general level, and it always feels like a nice affirmation of music’s, and humanity’s, capacity for transcendence. 

Sort of building off those questions and thinking about the music of Turn on the Sunlight, at what point did you realize the, let’s call it, transformative power of music and sound? There’s such a deeply-embedded spirit to your music that – and I try to avoid words like ‘healing’ because it can sound trite – but your work has this really transportive and transformative nature to it where I can listen to it and be taken a million miles away from the chaos and harshness of difficult moments, so I guess I’m just really curious how you realized not only that music had this power, but that you could connect to it and transmit it in your own work, too.

First of all, thank you – that’s always my hope, and I’m really glad to hear that you feel that way! Making music is one of the best ways I know for finding balance and reconnecting myself internally, which can be an important step towards harmonizing with others and the world outside of ourselves.  

I had a dream many years ago while sleeping on the bank of an estuary somewhere in Long Island, in which I painlessly opened my forearm and found that there were strings and tuners inside. I tuned them up and passed my fingers over my arm, sealing the skin closed. It’s an image that’s stayed with me. Since everything is made up of vibrations, including our own bodies, it’s only natural that we should be able to adjust our physical and mental equilibrium through sound.  

Growing up playing violin, guitar, and piano, as well as singing, humming, and whistling, I was aware of the capacity that certain approaches to these activities had to ground and calm or uplift me. With the advent of CDs, I started listening to particular albums on repeat as a means to relax or even to sleep, and I still do this fairly regularly, lying on the floor between the speakers. Laraaji’s Essence/Universe has been an important one for me for this purpose over the years. Perhaps that led me to listen to my own recordings in the same way as they’re developing. It’s kind of like creating your own personalized sound installation or sound bath, which you can get up and tweak whenever you want. 

That was a mouthful, sorry! This new double album, You Belong, is incredible. I’ve loved your previous releases, but this is something on another level that feels like a definitive statement. When did the ideas for this record first start coming together, and how did you approach these sessions to create something so grandiose? Did you always intend it to be a double album, or did that just sort of happen?

Again, thank you! This album was my attempt to bring together friends whose voices and beings I felt would interact well and tell a story together. I wasn’t sure what the story would be, but I felt like it was the story I wanted, or maybe even needed, to hear. It started out about twice as long, and I gradually chose the pieces that seemed to fit together best. I was recording here at our house with many of these same musicians for other projects at the same time, so a lot of natural blending was already happening. Maybe because I was moving between recording, playing, and listening, I was able to move around through the music in a way that, ultimately, felt liberating.  

The title, You Belong, has a real power in its simple, straightforwardness. What message or feeling do you hope this music transmits to listeners, and what does the idea of ‘belonging’ mean to you?

The title was something that Cavana Lee brought to the project through her lyrics for the song of the same title. I thought it summed up everything about the album as a whole, which she hadn’t heard at that point, but somehow understood intuitively. Cavana grew up traveling and performing with her parents, the singer Jeanne Lee and multi-instrumentalist Gunter Hampel, and draws from a rich well of musical inspiration. She and I became friends while attending boarding school in Pennsylvania, at a time in our teenage lives when we both felt somewhat displaced, so there was a specific, personal meaning in the phrase ‘You Belong’ for me relating to that time, whether she intended it or not. It’s very important for us all to find and feel a sense of belonging in the face of all of the alienating and predatory factors at work in the world. Friendship, nature, and music can all help to provide that feeling.

Here’s what Cavana has to say about it – “I remember the reaction I had when I heard the piece we now call ‘You Belong,’ with Laraaji on it. It was so full of life’s facets, and in touch with Nature, I felt inspired to dedicate my voice in this song to the natural spirit of the Universe (at least how I perceive it). Also inspired by the space journeys of Sun Ra and my own father’s improvised compositions, I imagine that this is what the wind, the sun, any of the elements that travel through space and the ethers would say to human beings right now. A message full of Love and Connection at a time where things felt really disconnected and disjointed. I needed this message for myself, I suppose. That’s how that track developed, it brought me there.” 

I feel like there are probably a lot of people who could benefit from hearing this message, or even repeating it to themselves, these days, so I’m trying to help amplify it however I can. I even made t-shirts!

Of course, you’ve got so many excellent collaborators on this album (and previous works!). I want to ask specifically about everyone, but that might get really, really long. Still, I will ask what it’s like for you to create music and art with your wife, Mia Doi Todd, and how important being part of each other’s creative practices is to your relationship?

Mia is an amazing creative force with a beautiful voice who I would be inspired by whether or not we were a couple. She and I are the parents of two children, which I think we both would consider to be our ultimate collaboration. Children are also more than just the sum of their parents, which is a beautiful thing to behold as well. Since we weren’t together for very long before our first child was born, all of our musical collaboration has been inextricably intertwined with our evolving family life. We’ve been together for over a decade now, and we’ve both grown in that time, both musically and in our understanding of ourselves and each other. We both sing and play music around the house, and I’d say that a significant part of our awareness of each other comes through our musical expressions. It’s not always a smooth or easy process, collaborating, and I’m still learning when to engage and when to make space for her to express herself. Balancing that with the needs of our children can require a lot of energy and patience. Overall, though, music provides an area of play that can be helpful in navigating these demands. In the long run, I think these experiences enrich us and bring meaning and substance to what we’re creating together. If sound is the source of all life in the universe, it seems like a good place for a family to start.       

More generally, how important is collaboration to you, and how does working with all these great musicians help push and inspire your work?

I’m eternally grateful to all my collaborators for helping me enhance and expand my abilities to express myself musically. I still have so much to learn, but their energies and their patience with me have helped me on the path thus far. It’s been my good fortune to connect with the particular musicians I have, and I hope to continue expanding these collaborations. Ultimately, I aspire to learn to harmonize with every living being, and playing music together can help light the way.

How’d you meet Carlos and start working together, anyway? It seems like such a perfect fit.

Carlos came to New York and stayed with me around 15 years ago. We had met in LA a couple of years before, but we hadn’t really gotten to know each other. In closer quarters, we learned that we had a lot of musical and other interests in common, and on his subsequent visits, we recorded some songs together. While in LA, I’d seen a performance by his collective project, Build An Ark, and appreciated the music and the intention behind it, and our first release together ended up being a remix of a Build An Ark song. Looking back at that period now, I can see that I’d had a challenging few years, and connecting more deeply with Carlos was part of a general uplifting of spirits that was happening for me following that difficult time, hence the name, Turn On The Sunlight. He’s continued to be a treasured friend and trusted collaborator ever since.  

I’m also curious about how you feel like nature, and your music and creative practice are connected? I ask because whenever I listen to Turn On the Sunlight, there’s a real connection in my mind to bright skies and immaculate vistas and things like that. It’s like I put on the music and instantly can see and feel these things in my mind.

Taking a cue from the poet W.S. Merwin and others, I’m sometimes hesitant to use the word ‘nature’ since it implies a separation between human beings and everything else, but I also love and revere the word. Just thinking about the word itself can feel like a relief. I feel similarly about the word ‘nurture’ – it’s interesting that they’re held up as opposites when people talk about childhood development since nature itself nurtures. When we absorb the gifts of nature and let it nurture what we carry inside us, this energy can flow back out through our creations as a reflection of the natural world.  

As 2022 finally comes to a close, what are you most hopeful for heading into 2023?

As much as we’re facing as a species, I find hope in all of the beautiful music being made and the people who are engaging with each other with openness, kindness, and honesty, whether through music or otherwise. I try to focus on the cyclical aspect of things rather than dwelling on one-way trajectories with some imposed end goal, which can cause disappointment when things seem to be going off-track. Though it has its practical applications and helps get us through the day, our generally agreed-upon notion of delineated time can feel limiting. Music offers us the special ability to step out of our everyday definitions of time and place and I feel like we might be coming into a part of our evolutionary cycle where this will become that much more abundantly evident and needed. 

Foxy Digitalis depends on our awesome readers to keep things rolling. Pledge your support today via our Patreon or subscribe to The Jewel Garden.