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The Quiet Evolution Of Meg Baird, One Of Folk Music’s Strongest Voices

“Maybe I’m just easy to have around.”

July 14, 2015

The first time I saw Meg Baird perform was in a small chapel in Philly around 2008, just her and her finger-picked guitar, the most meditative thing. After playing a formative role in the early-’00s psych-folk scene with her band Espers, Baird had just launched her debut solo album, Dear Companion. Comprised largely of solo renditions of traditional Appalachian and Scottish folk songs, the LP was far more spare than Espers but arguably felt even bigger, like the way a single cloud can blanket an entire city. For my money it easily stands as one of the decade’s most captivating folk albums.

Her third solo LP, Don't Weigh Down the Light, was just released on Drag City. Baird’s phosphorescent voice is inimitable and constant, but there have been some subtle and not-so-subtle evolutions to her accompaniment. Boyfriend Charlie Saufley, with whom she now lives in San Francisco, contributes electric guitar and slight percussion, while Baird has integrated her own playing on piano and bass to round out a slightly more sprawling, rock-y sound to suit her new West Coast digs.

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“Leaving Song,” the brief a cappella track that marks the new album’s midpoint, is in some ways the boldest departure to her formerly all-natural sound—multiple vocal tracks are layered into a drawn-out, wordless blanket. But it’s also important to remember the closing song of Baird’s debut, a haunting reprise of its title track done in a single, pointedly spare vocal take—just as the traditional mountain ballad was surely originally performed. Baird’s command and comprehension of folk music is such that, even as her music grows, it remains steeped foremost in history. (I guess that's how evolution works.)

For the music video we’re premiering today, Baird has once again gone a cappella, creating a beautiful non-album version of “Even the Walls Don't Want to Go.” Watch it below, buy Don't Weigh Down the Light here, and, below, read an interview about the new record, new video, and her exciting new band, Heron Oblivion.

This was the first solo album that you didn't make in Philly. How did moving to San Francisco affect the music?

It definitely affected me a lot, just reorienting to the place. And that affects what you're working on and how things sound. Aside from just personal effects, it was pretty inspiring to think of a different musical history here and work with different people. So definitely the move was a big part of changes in the sound. It gave me the opportunity to try something different. 

There’s very little of the Appalachian folk style that was so strong on your first album.

I was more inspired by just rock tradition in general, and even just doing special things such as using bridges and some pop writing formulas. I always really shied away from that—not out of a super willful, like, “I don't write bridges,” but I just wasn't feeling that for the last record. But for this one, I challenged myself to try it out. I don't know how audible that is, but for me it was kind of a big stretch. 

And it isn't even so much that this was more rock-based, or that other stuff was more traditionally based in an Eastern Appalachian tradition before. I was just trying to reference everything, all of the music that I know, all at once. So I was just trying to not compartmentalize any sort of influence on me.

It’s also the first album of yours without any covers or traditionals. Was that a big decision, or did it just sort of happen?

It wasn't a big decision, but it became pretty clear as I was getting closer and closer to finishing. Just going back to that point of trying to reference everything all at once, I found that where, in the past, I may have really wanted to do my rendition of a song by covering it, I was getting a little bit more into doing my own versions. Not in a plagiaristic way, but I was like: What is it that I love about that song? Maybe I should write a song that has that same thing that's drawing me to it instead of just covering it or reinterpreting it more literally.

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Tell me more about living in San Francisco. Does it feel like home yet?

I am making it as home-y as I can. I moved here to be with Charlie. He’s from the Bay area, so we were back in forth about whether to live in Philadelphia or out here. So in that way it feels completely like home because we’re together now, and we’re not in a long-distance relationship, and it's really fun to be here. But it's not an easy place, especially at this particular moment. I arrived in 2012 when a lot of people were fleeing, and a lot of people I used to know that lived here aren't here anymore. So I feel very at home, and I still feel super brand new. I don't even feel right saying I live here. Even approaching three years it doesn't feel very long.

In the video, is that your house?

Oh god no! [Laughs] No no no! That's up north a little bit, near the Russian River. It was a vacation. That was our one tiny vacation after cranking out that record. We got a long weekend away in a little redwood cabin.

You edited the clip, right?

Yeah, I did. I've never done that before—none of that—so it was kind of just a fun experiment to make use of that a cappella track. We just wanted it to seem natural and fun so hopefully that came through. 

In terms of new things, you also have a new band Heron Oblivion, where you’re playing the drums.

It's true. I'm happy. It wasn't really a plan, but I'm happy to keep trying new things. Due to just logistics of everything that everyone's involved in, we won't be able to do too much with Heron Oblivion, but it is serious, and we've been having a great time. I think we'll probably have something out early-ish next year.

And the band is going on tour with Kurt Vile and Cass McCombs.

We’re super excited. Yeah, so we’re doing as much as we can, but it will definitely not be as focused as a full-time band because there are limitations on how much we can do. Most of our shows will be on the West Coast.

Just looking back, you’ve sort of always got a band going.

Yeah, I don't really know why. I guess I like collaborating. I'm way more of an ensemble player by nature than a solo player, so, I don't know. [Laughs] Maybe I'm just easy to have around. 

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The Quiet Evolution Of Meg Baird, One Of Folk Music’s Strongest Voices