The folk trio Mountain Man essentially went quiet in 2013, when vocalist Amelia Meath turned her attention to Sylvan Esso, her North Carolina-based synth-pop duo with Nick Sanborn. Fans wondered if the trio would ever get back together.
Now, five years later, Mountain Man has released a long-awaited second album, Magic Ship, and for the first time since 2013, the group is on tour.
The band’s members — Meath, Molly Sarle and Alexandra Sauser-Monning — met at Bennington College in Vermont and formed the group in 2009. They released the magically sparse, exquisitely pastoral Made the Harbor the following year, to widespread acclaim from the Washington Post, the New York Times, NPR and beyond. By 2011, the vocals-driven group was playing renowned events such as the Newport Folk Festival and touring as the Decemberists’ opening act.
During the extended hiatus, Meath described Mountain Man as a “sleeping bear” when asked whether the trio would ever reunite. In a recent interview, Sauser-Monning, who sings and plays acoustic guitar, told Westword, “The bear went into hibernation because of respective individual soul needs diverging."
“While Mountain Man was sleeping, other parts of all of us were wide awake,” she explained. “We all dreamed wildly different dreams. The Mountain Man bear was awoken by a mixture of curiosity and persistent encouragement from Sanborn and [Sylvan Esso manager] Martin Anderson.”
Sauser-Monning and Sarle sang backup for Sylvan Esso on that band’s 2017 EP, Echo Mountain. The collaboration had Mountain Man fans crossing their fingers for a comeback, and Magic Ship is not only a hibernation wake-up call but a beautiful return to form, opening with two mesmerizing a cappella tracks. The album is no more embellished than Made the Harbor was: There never seems to be more than one microphone used, and room sounds such as coughing add to its welcoming appeal.
“It was a very conscious choice made by the three of us and Nick Sanborn, who engineered and co-produced the record,” Sauser-Monning says. “It feels special that the music we make is complete while also being so unadorned, and we wanted to retain that quality on Magic Ship."
“We all bring lyrically, melodically complete songs to the table and then find harmonies that make them Mountain Man songs,” she elaborates. “This time, we’ve been writing songs for longer and have lived several more years of life and have different experiences to draw on than we did when we were twenty.”
Despite having the resources to make a more polished product, the band chose not to. Tracks like “Rang Tang Ring Toon” mix head-bobbing indie pop with Mountain Man’s signature three-part harmonies, accompanied by simple acoustic guitar. The thrilling sensation that the trio is performing a living room concert just for you, rather than trying to make a hit single, is immediate.
Mountain Man’s sound is understandably compared to Appalachian and British folk music, though Sauser-Monning says the band’s influences range “from Enya to Aaliyah to church music and NRBQ.” And while it’s tempting to tie the music to the landscape of Vermont, which is sometimes likened to the Shire from Lord of the Rings, Meath has grown weary of the notion.
“Maybe I’m too close to this one, because I’m in the band,” Meath says, “but people seem to love talking about ‘where the sound comes from,’ as if Vermont or North Carolina are our two great influences because the music uses harmony and is therefore of some ancient tradition. In reality, we are from California, Minnesota and Massachusetts. Mountain Man is an American band. Our ‘place’ is wherever we happen to be.”
Sylvan Esso, which sold out Red Rocks a few months ago, emerged from Meath’s collaboration with Sanborn on a transformational remix of the Mountain Man song “Play It Right,” but the vocalist and songwriter says that when writing songs for Magic Ship, “surprisingly, none of them seemed to smack of Sylvan Esso to me.”
In fact, Meath says, she originally wrote songs for Magic Ship “assuming it was going to be a record for kids.” And a Mountain Man album created expressly for children would make sense, as playful songs like “Animal Tracks,” from Made the Harbor, are family-friendly.
Sarle likes it when kids are into Mountain Man: “They don’t care about what’s cool, and they love music for what it is. Music was and is such a huge part of my enjoyment of being alive. It’s pretty great to know that we help other humans, especially the small ones, enjoy their lives more. Also, we got to meet a baby that was born while Made the Harbor was playing. That was pretty incredible.”
Enjoying being alive together is part of the reason that Mountain Man is back and thriving.
“We accept what we believe we deserve,” Meath says. “Molly, Alex and I are constantly working on our relationships, because we want to and because it makes our lives better to have each other around. Also, it sucks to be in a car with people you don’t want to be around, so hatred has never really been an option for me.”
Witnessing hatred is a common experience these days for virtually anyone who pays attention to the news, so an album like Magic Ship — which is so comforting and settling — serves as a breath of fresh, calm air.
“I believe that if you are going to ask people to listen to what you have written, it should be something that you believe is worthwhile to hear,” Meath says. “Right now I think we’re all reaching for transport, or at least a gosh-darn break. So that’s what we made.”
Mountain Man, 9 p.m. Saturday, November 3, Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax Avenue, $23-$25.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.