Sisters Leah Song and Chloe Smith, the musicians behind the folk act Rising Appalachia, did not grow up dreaming of being in a band — but it’s not surprising that they wound up in one.
They were born and raised in Atlanta’s colorful creative scene, where they were steeped in R&B and hip-hop; their parents, both musicians, played them folk, jazz and world music. In the early years of Rising Appalachia, the sisters busked in the streets of New Orleans and Europe. They were also involved in social- and environmental-justice work, and when they formed Rising Appalachia, they pledged to continue their activism.
“Music is a really powerful place, and we don’t take that power lightly,” Song says. “We’re not interested in forcing our policies or beliefs upon anyone. We’re definitely inspired to allow the stage to be a tool and use it as a source of inquiry, encourage conversations and challenge relationships among people that don’t look and think and talk like each other. There’s a sort of communing happening and community happening. [Music] felt like a natural extension, and we continue to grow and change as our communities grow and change.”
The sisters’ commitment to connecting with the places they performed led them, in 2015, to form what they call the Slow Music Movement, a reworking of how touring should be done. Instead of eating whatever junk food was provided in venues, they began sourcing their food from local farmers. They looped local arts and other nonprofits into shows and took days off between performances to explore nature in the places where they were playing.
In line with their values, they became involved with the Permaculture Action Network’s program, which is linked with the ARISE Music Festival, taking place this year on August 4 to 6 at Sunrise Ranch in Loveland. Thirty individuals will participate in a three-day permaculture course prior to the festival, culminating in Action Day on August 3. The work done on Action Day is focused, for the third consecutive year, on the Permaculture Orchard on the festival’s grounds. Song and Smith are eager to see what progress has occurred since their participation last year.
“People gather and till the soil, get it ready for planting or do harvesting,” Song explains. “It’s literally a transfer of energy from the inspiration of cultural events into preparation of the earth itself to be well tended.... It’s really, really amazing.”
Song and Smith are just as committed to their live performances as they are to having an impact on the places they visit.
“I spend a lot of time trying to create an arc, an arc of energy and an arc of stories,” Song says. “Things start off really soft and subtle to draw an audience. Then, once we have an intimate relationship with the audience, we can present some more emotional and maybe intense parts of lyrics.... We really try to create an arc of emotion and experience, [alternating] between a really intimate space and a cathartic, full-on dance party. [We find it] important to encourage people to listen, to get out of their heads and into their bodies.”
When Song and Smith decided to produce an album, they steered clear of the studio, and instead opted to use live recordings. The eleven-track album showcases their favorite concerts and artists they met from their years on the road.
“We named it Alive because the songs are still so relevant now, more so than when we wrote them,” Song explains. “[They revolve] around waking up and being present and being able to engage with the world as much as we possibly can right now. It feels like a collection of songs that are really geared to keeping us all really present and not muted, numbed out or swallowed by despair — but really feeling empowered to step it up, stay present and stay alive.”
Song notes that we are entering an age of feminine empowerment, in which more women are taking leadership roles in business, education, the arts and beyond. When it comes to women in music, she says, “there are not enough of us.” But she doesn’t feel it will remain that way for long.
“I think that we’ve come out of a very long period of patriarchy,” Song says, “where men have ruled everything and have been the dominant decision-makers, leaders and politicians. I really think that it’s shifting, in our generation and probably in future generations. For me, it’s really important that it’s not about disempowering masculinity and men. It’s actually really important that we each feel empowered.... It’s a beautiful thing to see so many women rising into the forefront of their craft, art forms and positions in the world. I think it’s an era where that’s beginning to happen more and more frequently.”
Arise Music Festival, August 4-6, Sunrise Ranch, Loveland.