Refusing to be influenced by modern trends, Sonnenblume listens to its own muse
Rumor has it that when Ryan Adams recorded his new album, he only listened to hip-hop, the idea being that his vision wouldn't be tainted by any of the modern trends in music. Sonnenblume takes this notion a step further, claiming not to listen to any modern music. As a result, the outfit has arrived at a sound that is atmospheric and expansive yet wholly accessible. It's a sound that would be nearly impossible to replicate if thought out and planned. But for Sonnenblume — vocalist/bassist Liz Forster, guitarist Todd Ayers and drummer Zack Littlefield — which is just releasing its first album after five years of existence, the music flows easily due to the pedigree and experience that is attached to it.
Forster's musical career began at the age of three, when she picked up her first instrument, the violin. Her young age may lead people to believe that she's a classical-music prodigy, like London's Vanessa Mae, who made her musical debut at the age of ten at the Schleswig-Holstein Festival. But to hear Forster explain it, it was not like that at all. "I played the fiddle when I was three but retired it at age seven," she recalls. "It's not a classical background at all. I grew up in and around bluegrass music and absorbed that. I don't read music and never related to that part of it."
Forster's early love for bluegrass is due in large part to her father, Nick, who played bass in the national bluegrass act Hot Rize and later went on to launch the still-running and very successful e-town music series, which broadcasts live from the Boulder Theater and airs on NPR. The program has featured national acts such as Townes Van Zandt, Emmylou Harris, Lyle Lovett and Buddy Guy. The patriarch's musical influence also extended to Liz's sister, who plays in the Brooklyn indie-pop band Au Revoir Simone, which is currently on a European tour.
For her part, Liz's knowledge of music eventually landed her a job at Immersive studios in Boulder. It was there that she met Ayers and began making music with him. The duo's first outing was an electro-acoustic project aptly titled Ghost Dance Society, with Forster's haunting vocals and Ayers's folky guitar strumming conjuring images of spirits dancing around a campfire, possibly doing drugs. The band, which Liz considers "just a MySpace-ism that didn't really exist," was never meant to perform live, much to the chagrin of Littlefield, who considers its music to be "wonderful."
Fortunately for him, the pair eventually felt the need to start a band that actually existed and was able to perform. Littlefield was enlisted on drums, and Sonnenblume was born. With their shared recording backgrounds and an experienced producer in Ayers, the three began recording their soon-to-be released debut album. That was three years ago. Initially, they decided to use some reel-to-reel machines that belonged to a friend of theirs. The plan was to record just a few songs and be on their way, but the group inadvertently outstayed its welcome.
"We kind of pissed him off," Littlefield explains. "We were supposed to just record two or three songs real quick, and we just kind of kept going."
"I didn't know we pissed him off," says Ayers.
"I kinda forget to tell you about that," jokes Littlefield.
Being forced to relocate, the band switched back and forth between Forster and Ayers's house in Boulder and Zack's house in Denver — a song here, a song there. Over the years, more songs were recorded and more progress was made. It was a slow process, but, according to Forster, it was a speed at which they had to move.
"We're not your traditional [band of twenty-year-olds]," She explains. "Todd and I have a seven-year-old daughter; we're a non-traditional family. For a while, we weren't together. He went down to help his family and was gone for almost a year. We just take things slower. Everything moves a bit slower when you're not 25."
"I think it went along with the speed and development of our material," adds Littlefield.
Another reason for the slow recording process was having Ayers not only writing some of the material and playing on the album, but also engineering and producing it. "There was a lot of internal conflict with me," he admits. "Wearing different hats is difficult, because it's hard to be objective, depending on what position you're in. It's an issue of where the energy is diverted. I became a little drained because of the process."
Once Ayers and company recuperated, the album was finally finished. It will be released this week, more than three years after the first track was laid down.
On the record, Littlefield's drums anchor guitar and vocal melodies that would otherwise drift completely off into space. The foundation has all the best aspects of shoegaze and dream rock, with Ayers filling empty spaces with soaring, reverb-drenched whole notes rather than clumsily strumming along. Forster, meanwhile, adds sublime, nearly pitch-perfect vocals that recall Hope Sandoval of Mazzy Star, elevating the music despite its being bathed in dark, spacey melodies.
"This kind of music is more of the type of music I grew up listening to and less what I have played in the past," Littlefield explains. "I think that up until this point, everything I had been involved in was always trying to fit music in a bucket. We never sat down and said we wanted to be an indie-rock band."
Of course, it's tough to be an indie band when you're even not sure what that means. "Is indie not melodic anymore?" Ayers asks sincerely. "To me, indie means a different thing, because I haven't listened to that type of music in fifteen years."
That's what you call being divorced from your surroundings.
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