Elizabeth LaPrelle and Anna Roberts-Gevalt put a new spin on music from the past. Their enthusiasm for reinventing songs that have been passed down through the ages recently earned them a critically anticipated release on the venerable Smithsonian Folkways Recordings label.
"I've been fascinated by old-time music since I was a teen," explains LaPrelle, who grew up in the mountain town of Rural Retreat, Virginia, and recently moved to the urban setting of Brooklyn to be near her musical co-conspirator Roberts-Gevalt. "I went to the College of William and Mary and Anna went to Wesleyan, where she did some visual studies and artistic interpretations of ballads. She made visual and performance-art pieces using the same ballads I had studied in literature and theater. When we met, there was an amazing spark of ideas, and we started thinking of all kinds of ways to present a show that incorporated these songs mixing visual art and theater. That's been a constant in our work — thinking of interesting ways to present these ancient tunes so that audiences can experience them in a new way."
The duo, which goes by the straightforward name of Anna & Elizabeth, is visiting the Front Range this week for a series of workshops and performances in support of its April release, The Invisible Comes to Us. They share a deep affinity for their source material and have combined their respective talents: LaPrelle is recognized as having one of traditional roots music's best female voices, while Roberts-Gevalt is known for her multi-instrumental proficiency.
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"Anna and I met in 2011, when we were both out of college and living in small towns in southwestern Virginia," says LaPrelle. "She was producing a compilation album and asked me to sing a song on it. We got to know each other through that project. That area of the state is where I grew up and where she moved when she fell in love with its regional sound. We both play banjo, though Anna also plays guitar, violin/fiddle and a tiny bit of synth. We also have a pedal-steel player on our latest release. We take the traditional and add a new sonic feel, but our shared interest lies in old American compositions and a lot of ballads and story-songs that originally came from the British Isles."
LaPrelle and Roberts-Gevalt, both thirty, might hail from different parts of the East Coast — Elizabeth from the South and Anna from the North — yet the traditional folk music of their respective latitudes seems to be woven together by a familiar thread.
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"For this album, we did a lot of research in our home states, which for me is Virginia," says LaPrelle. "Anna spent a month in an archive in Vermont digging into the music of New England. So there are a bunch of her area's songs on this record. It's fun to see the subtle differences between the New England versions and the Appalachian versions, but there is a lot of overlap since they all come from the British Isles. There are a lot of songs about the sea, sailing, and ocean travel. That's a big genre. There's a touching immigration song about leaving Ireland for the new world. The song, 'Farewell to Erin,' comes from a singer named Carrie Grover, who grew up in Nova Scotia and whose family moved to Maine when she was young. It remembers the night before the family left for New England, sometime around 1890. She remembers her mother singing the song at a party the night before they departed. It's about leaving Ireland and missing home and saying goodbye to everyone you know. Before her mother finished the song her voice broke, and she never completed the tune. She had to leave the room, and her daughter never heard her sing that song again. There are all these amazing stories that go with the songs, just from people's memories of the songs, and that becomes entwined with how we we want to interpret them. We perform that song with a long drone that is meant to feel big and empty, like you are crossing a very, very wide ocean between you and everything you knew before."
Seven years into their partnership, the avant-garde musicians have a couple of full-length CDs to their credit — Sun to Sun from 2012 and Anna & Elizabeth from 2016 — as well as a vinyl EP from 2017, Hop High/Here in the Vineyard, and a live release titled Folkadelphia Session 11/5/2016. In addition to playing in the United States, they've also toured and performed in the United Kingdom.
We've made some meaningful connections on our trips to the U.K. " notes LaPrelle, who cites Appalachian-based artists Sheila Kay Adams and Ginny Hawker as mentors and includes Patti Smith and Laurie Anderson among her influences. "There's a lot to recognize there. If you go to England and sing an Appalachian ballad, they'll laugh and go, 'Oh, yeah, we have the original of that one, but it's twice as long.'"
Anna & Elizabeth, 7 p.m. Friday, February 9, Tuft Theatre, Swallow Hill Music, 71 East Yale Avenue, $18.