The Lost Trail Leads to Nonconnah

Nonconnah is the duo Magpie and Denny Corsa (with occasional guests), but there’s something about the project that makes it seem like so much more. They create music that is rich in depth and details, fluid and exploratory. Electronics burst into life across melodic fieldscapes, underlit by waves of emotion. Their latest, Unicorn Family, is an expansive reverie that taps into an otherworldly domain and channels a forgotten spirit back into the light. It may feel like too much at any given moment, but we’re rewarded once we make it through.

Unicorn Family is out now. Nonconnah can be found via their website.

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Going back, what are some of your earliest memories or experiences related to music or sound? What are some of the real formative things from when you were young that have stuck with you?

Growing up as children of Baby Boomers meant we were both surrounded by a lot of music at a young age. Childhood memories were soundtracked by CCR and Grateful Dead LPs on the turntable, and by Paul Simon and Allen Sherman records. As a young person in America, you’re forever involved with Christmas music, with school performances, piano lessons, etc. As far as something that’d have bearing on our work as adults, Zachary remembers using a Fostex four-track tape machine to create all sorts of sound collages – bits of static and voices from the radio, sections of songs, his own bits of guitar or percussion. Of course, he didn’t think of it as ‘music’ at twelve or thirteen, but the idea of collaging sounds to build something new fascinated him. We were both very into the idea of collage as kids (Denny’s still really into paper collaging), and it’s definitely something Zachary picked up from his mother, who’s a visual artist. He developed a real fixation with the juxtaposition of music and dialogue, especially. 

Did either of you always want to be a musician or play music?

Zachary began playing guitar at age seven and had started forming bands on a hobby level starting in sixth grade or so, but had never considered pursuing it full-time until he was in his mid-twenties. Arriving at such a conclusion was a process of elimination – pretty much everything else he’d considered following as a career path had failed to interest him to the extent that making music did. Denny played clarinet briefly in middle school and had piano lessons around 1st grade but never considered joining a musical project until she began to provide sample materials for what was then Lost Trail. This led to Denny contributing samples and percussion live – not as a traditional musician but as someone who, again, really enjoys the collage side of experimental music creation. 

What was it that pushed you all to not only start creating sounds and your own music in the early days, but then eventually start this project together?

Zachary started Lost Trail late in the summer of 2009 out of frustration with the artistic compromises that come with traditional ‘band’ settings. Denny began contributing recordings she’d made on her own, a little at a time until her input became crucial enough to the foundation of the project that the decision was made to credit her as a full member starting in March of 2010. It was at this point that Denny gradually began to contribute more and more often to live performances, as well.  

One aspect of Nonconnah’s work that has always stood out to me and just added a different layer of interest to your music is the sort of monologue-ish bits. How do you think the use of monologues in your music helps to create a sense of intimacy and personal connection with listeners?

For one thing, it’s quite different from writing lyrics – you’re taking something that already exists in one context and placing it in an entirely different one. There’s something almost spiritual to us about pairing really intense, emotional dialogue with music. Obviously, as is the case with much of what Nonconnah chooses to sample, you don’t need to endorse whatever’s being put across. It’s more about the tone of voice, the intensity of the belief, and how it interacts with the music with which it’s paired. Discovering bands like Godspeed You! Black Emperor that leaned on this element was a huge confirmation that such an approach was artistically valid.

What are some of the challenges and rewards of recording an album over four years?

Thankfully it’s not as specific as sitting down and saying “We’re going to record specifically for this one project”, so the span of time is somewhat incidental. We’re basically always recording, and over time it seems that certain bits of material take on their own identity and coalesce as their own sort of ‘project’, at which point we tend to assign certain songs to certain planned releases and so forth. It just so happened that Unicorn Family ended up drawing on a lot of spare parts we had sitting around, sections, and even whole pieces that hadn’t found a proper home on a release yet. It all came together under the umbrella of this one project, in a really satisfying way.  

You all are in Memphis these days – how do you feel influenced or inspired by place?

A sense of place is crucial to what we do. We’ve always said we’re very much a Southern band, and I think that still holds true. There’s something about living in – and creating art in – this part of the world that affects the music in intriguing ways. The South has a really strange and unresolved sense of history, of course, and I think just the act of creating art in this environment means this will work its way into what you’re doing, whether you welcome it (which we do) or not. As far as Memphis goes, it’s a fascinating and singular city in terms of the American landscape, and the fact that we both really love it here but are also aware of how fraught this city is means Memphis is a bottomless source of inspiration for us. This city’s a perfect home for folks who make wonky music that’s a little out of step with the times because that’s Memphis itself to a T. We think Nonconnah feeds off this city’s energy, to an extent. 

I find your music to be really transportive, as though it creates and exists in its own world. How has music been a medium for creating and exploring new worlds and ideas for you? And how do you try to harness these transportive effects in your work?

It’s become a bit of a cliche to say this, but it really holds true in my case (Zachary): I’m chasing a sound that exists in my head and working to translate it for the outside world. This is utterly futile in the end, but I like to think my attempts to do so make for interesting music. I think as the world becomes a more dispiriting and frightening place, where one can’t even take a quick trip to the supermarket without risking being massacred, it’s natural to use art and other sorts of spellcraft to create these vast alternate universes one can inhabit. It’s a coping mechanism that’s always been part of being human. I’ve just always found a means to do this by leaning on melody and emotion in music. The amount to which we swing for the fences in terms of emotional bombast and sincerity surely makes us a bit less hip to the more academic-minded experimental crowd, but that’s fine by me. I’m only creating the sort of music I’d like to listen to, myself, which is the product of a massive tapestry of influences.

I’m also curious how you think that aspect of sound and composition can foster moments of shared connection?

One thing that comes with live performance is seeing exactly that sort of connection manifest in front of you, in how an audience reacts to what you’re doing. In a live setting, people really let their guard down in how they react to both the music and their surroundings. But even with the recorded work, I think we’re using so many nostalgic American touchstones – in the audio we sample from, in the use of the sort of ‘obsolete’ technology we all remember from our childhoods – that inevitably it’ll mean something personal and profound to people if we do what we’re doing properly. Playing with themes like memory and the past, as we do, means you have to keep in mind the weight of what you’re expressing to listeners and work very responsibly.  

The collaborators and contributors on this record are too numerous to dig into, but it’s an amazing list. Generally, how important is collaboration to your work and how does working with all these various artists help push you and help your sound grow?

When we worked under the name Lost Trail, the project was very insular, just the two of us in an old house crafting mountains of material. With Nonconnah the plan was always to open it up a bit – we’re both introverted people by nature, but we also realize the benefit of reaching out to others to get involved, even if it doesn’t always feel ‘comfortable’. It’s incredible that so many artists we grew up admiring have been so willing to contribute little bits of sound here and there to what we do. It’s a really encouraging reminder that people are just people, even if you’ve built them up as these mythical heroes in your mind. It makes you feel, whether it’s true or not, that most people are genuinely good-hearted and are just trying to do the best they can. A sense of ‘extended family’ has become really important to Nonconnah over the years. Another musician will have a different skill-set than ours and will, by nature, bring something different to the table than we bring ourselves. This helps the project grow. We’ve also had quite a few local musicians play live with us on occasion, and that’s helped strengthen our friendships with them, as well. 

What challenged you all most when making Unicorn Family?

What’s always the biggest challenge, and always will be, is doing as much as we can with the limited gear we have. One of us pursuing music full-time means, ironically, that there aren’t always the funds on hand to properly flesh out what we hear in our heads. This is compounded by the fact that neither of us read music nor have any real training in production or mixing. This music’s always been a learning process, which is why it has evolved so much in fidelity and scope from the Lost Trail days. We hope it keeps evolving as we learn more and become more accustomed to our process, and that each release sounds at least a little better, and more cohesive than the last one.

What surprised you?

What continues to surprise us, perhaps, is that this never-ending fountain of inspiration for new material still hasn’t dried up after fourteen years of non-stop recording. We’ve been ridiculously prolific over the years, sometimes to an unhealthy degree, but we’re still not bored nor are we (hopefully) repeating ourselves yet. As we learn more, incorporate more instruments, and broaden our perspectives, the sounds just keep coming. Sound itself is really a limitless canvas, full of innumerable colors and combinations. Using a collage approach also means that there are always fresh sounds, from trains to conversations to monologues to birdsong, out there that we can use, too, as long as we take the time to record them.

And lastly, what’s next for y’all during the rest of 2023 and beyond?

As always, there are plenty more releases on the horizon. Our friends at Mutual Skies will be offering a CD run of Unicorn Family in July, for those who aren’t into the cassette thing. There’s a tape of new material out sometime soon in the UK via Cruel Nature. Lots more still in the offing. We’ll be recording specifically for the next full-length through the rest of 2023 After that, who knows? It’s all a big question mark, in the best possible way. Chaos makes life exciting. We choose to be agents of chaos, at least sonically.

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