Q&A with Songs of Water
A rushing musical force brewing from the pockets in and around Charlotte, North Carolina, Songs Of Water has recently authored its sophomore album, The Sea Has Spoken. A clear amalgamation of exotic flavors blended together to create bold and inspiring world music, this nine and sometimes ten-member band is a rotating orchestra of old world sounds coaxed into new world spotlights. Their music, having endured an almost six year lapse between their debut album and their latest, is a burgeoning ecosystem fed by each member’s talent and connection to each other. The Sea Has Spoken is a clear embodiment of the rich family quality that each song holds.
Paring familiar instruments, like the violin or acoustic guitar, with ones you’ve probably never heard of, like the tabla or Irish bouzouki or scrap metal, draws a fascinating journey of sounds capable of issuing an unrelenting call to any soul. One of the founding members and principal writers, Stephen Roach, was kind enough to talk about the dynamics of the band, how their use of peculiar instruments breeds graceful sounds, the purpose of their music, and how they hope to thrive in a world when lyrically-driven music now reigns.
Beth: Having eight to ten contributors in the band, how are you able to pull together a united vision to create an album?
Stephen: It is no doubt a lot of hard work, but the end result, I feel, is much larger than anything we create individually. So, it makes it worth the extra effort.
I would say, the most important factor behind creating a united vision in the band is in the quality of our relationships with each other. We really make it our aim to honor the creative process in each member, leaving space to explore possibilities, and to offer differing interpretations. Learning how to listen to other perspectives, especially when you feel strongly about your own, can be challenging but also very rewarding. We come to the table knowing that whatever ideas we contribute, are no longer our own, but available for everyone to participate in.
The experimental, creative drive in each of us, coupled with the excitement of discovering something completely unexpected really drives us to see our ideas to completion, even in the midst of sometimes very different interpretations.
B: I counted five different writers credited on The Sea Has Spoken. When one or two of you come together to write a song, to what extent does your writing influence the creative direction and artistic freedom of the other members in the band?
S: We all mutually follow each other’s lead, depending on who originally brings forth an idea. Most songs are primarily written between two or three of us, then, once we’ve gotten the idea fairly stable, we present it to the others for refinement and additional instrumentation.
I’ve sort of been a catalyst between the other writers thus far, but everyone shares an equal creative input to the songwriting.
B: For example, you and Greg Willette wrote “Luminitsa.” If you both shaped its skeleton around your abilities and contributions, how then was it decided what Marta’s part would sound like or what Sarah’s part would be?
S: Each song comes about differently, but there is always a cross pollination that takes place when we write. Someone may write a melody that someone else ends up playing perhaps on a completely different instrument than what was originally intended.
On “Luminitsa” in particular, Greg wrote the original chord structure of the song. He presented the idea to me and I began to layer it with melodies on the tenor banjo and created the rhythmic pattern on the riq (hand drum). From there, Marta and Luke grabbed up the melodic lines and adapted them to their own harmonies and interpretations. We all worked out the arrangement together.
Thus far, Sarah’s role in the writing process has been that she writes her own cello parts to the song structures we’ve created ahead of time. She and Marta worked out the string arrangements the first album and primarily on the new album as well. Some of the string arrangements were collaborated on with other band members as well as Joel Khouri who co-produced the new album with us.
B: What brought you all together as a band? And when did you get first get together?
S: We’ve all played together for a number of years in different scenarios. The band was born in 2002, primarily out of our community and developed naturally as we grew as friends.
I think the impetus of the band in the beginning was a desire I had to create an entirely instrumental album, using folk/ethnic instruments in very non-traditional contexts. Jason and I co-wrote most of those original compositions along with our friend, Israel Sarpolus ,who is no longer with us. The band grew out of learning these songs for a live setting and just having fun improvising on various themes. Eventually we knew we had stumbled upon something truly unique, with lots of possibilities.
B: The first album came out in 2004… Who was present on that album that is on The Sea Has Spoken?
S: Jason, myself (Stephen), Marta, and Sarah.
B: Why was there such a long time lapse between the first album and this one?
S: Several things contributed to this lapse of time. As I mentioned previously, one of the original co writers in songs of water was Israel Sarpolus. Between the first album and now, he fell ill with cancer and passed away. As you can imagine, that sent a shock wave through our community. We took some time to regroup and determine whether we were even going to continue making music under the banner of Songs of Water. Fortunately we decided that we had not accomplished all we set out to do and pressed forward. It was shortly after that decision that Luke joined the band and we began to solidify in many ways as a brand new orchestra.
Aside from the cataclysmic detours, I had a lot of lyrical material, which didn’t really fit the genre or direction of the band. I wanted to take some time to record that music as well. While we were in our interim period, I focused more on my own personal writing until we finally gelled with our current line up.
B: Your music isn’t radio music. It’s certainly not music to headline around the country… So what is the aim of Songs Of Water as a band? Not so much what your music is, but what you intend to do with it.
S: That is a good question that we are still answering ourselves. Of course one obvious path would be for us to target the film industry, as most of our music lends itself to visual impressions. However, we have a much broader interest than creating background music.
I think a few years ago, if you said to someone, the next influential sound in music is going to be clunky banjo riffs accompanied by glockenspiel & choirs of childlike voices, recorded intentionally lo-fi, no one would have believed you. But it happened. Now, hundreds of bands have trademarked themselves with the incorporation of those sounds.
All that to say, the sounds we’re cultivating may not headline stadiums across the country, but our hope is that it will become a contributing voice to the current musical landscape and offer some new directions.
B: How much of your music, individually, is inspired by just testing an item or a new instrument for its sound? You have in the liner notes that you’ve played “strange noises” or “gadgets” or “box.” How important is it to find new sources of viable instrumentation?
S: I think for any artist to continue growing, they have to keep a mind set that is always about to step off the edge at any moment. They have to be willing to completely fall on their faces if they want to discover something that was previously unknown.
For me personally, that’s just the way I’m wired. I live in the place where most of my ideas are either going to fly way beyond what I imagined, or they completely sink! (I’ve experienced a lot of both!) There’s a certain risk involved that makes it an adventure. I love finding the music hidden in most anything.
Someone told me once that a professional musician is someone who knows their limits and stays inside of them. So in that sense, none of us in the band are “professional” musicians. A hallmark of the band’s character is that we all find it important to experiment beyond our abilities.
B: And how does time spent dabbling with other instruments or objects contrast the time spent continually perfecting the instruments you already have in your repertoire?
S: I have a select few instruments that I practice on a daily basis. I try to spend at least an hour a day working on my classical Indian percussion (tabla), mandolin and hammered dulcimer. I also try to write a little something each day, whether it is a scrap of poetry or a song or just a melody. I’ve found that if I keep those regular disciplines, the time spent perfecting those primary outlets enhances the quality of my playing on instruments I spend less time with.
B: Does a point come when an instrument no longer challenges you?
S: In my experience, you can certainly plateau on an instrument you have become too familiar with. But there is never anyone who arrives. I think the choice lies within our own drive and discipline. What is it we want to achieve from the instrument? For me, I felt this plateau particularly on my percussion instruments. It was then that I took up the Indian tabla and was quickly reminded of how little I really know.
B: What has been the band’s inspiration for incorporating world flavors into the music?
S: All of us, by nature, are constantly searching for sounds and variations that are less common than your typical format. Hence, the tonalities and odd metered rhythmic cycles of other musical languages greatly appeal to that tendency.
Years back, my hometown of Greensboro, NC, actually had a thriving world music scene. It was there that I was first introduced to other cultural music. I had the opportunity to study West African percussion as well as Arabic and other Middle Eastern music. Luke, who also is very accustomed to different cultural musical traditions, spends much of his time understanding the scales and thought processes behind those styles. It would be fair to say in part, that the globalization of the world has made our sound possible. We have more access to learning these musical expressions than perhaps did previous generations.
On a deeper level however, when I hear the music of other cultures, something resonates in me. I can hear the cries of the people. I can hear their history, their longings, their stories. Participating in applying those sounds in a completely new context carries a certain spiritual quality to it for me. Through that, we get to be a part of something so much bigger than ourselves.
B: You’re using some instrumentation that is not very common in America and among popular music. Is there any intent in what you’re doing to preserve the older-world ways of expressing thought and story through these instruments? (for example the Norwegian fiddles, the bouzouki, the tabla, the domra, etc).
S: I grew up with a strong traditional bluegrass background as did Luke and Molly. So there is a certain measure of honoring the fathers who have gone before us, which goes into our music. There is a certain reverence that I think is entitled to any particular traditional music. However, I’ve never really done anything traditionally in my life, so I don’t know that it’s quite my role to be the preserver of those purer musical heritages
B: The most common on-the-tip-of-your-tongue type of genre to classify your music would be “folk.” Clearly, once given a good listen, people can tell that it’s really a world genre. But going off the influence of North Carolina, where you all are currently living, how do you feel that American folk and world music are mixing together? Do you think there is ever an injustice to one genre or another when aspects of them are mixed together?
S: I think it is a matter of intent. Because it’s not our initial aim to preserve the traditional sounds we draw influence from, I don’t see it as a potential injustice. There are many well trained musicians who are much more adept at those traditions who are called to uphold the beauty of those styles. We do carry with us a certain respect for all the different cultural expressions.
However, despite the prominent world music influences in our sound, we are an American group. By nature, America is the melding pot of many cultures and ethnic backgrounds. So in a sense, I think our music is more purely modern American than we even intended.
For me, the beauty of making art is maintaining the ability to blend elements that previously weren’t used in the same context.
B: In a lot of bands today, especially experimental ones (especially concerning “indie” folk), there is a heavy hand using the synthesizer to master and produce some parts of the music. But these bands also gravitate towards quite a few of the instruments on your roster, like the banjo. What is your take on these mash-ups of digital and natural, earthy-flavored instrumentation?
S: I endorse musical experimentations across the board. I think the important thing is whether or not you are being true to your own inclinations. If you are being authentic, the meshing of digital and acoustic isn’t bothersome. Each blend of sound will carry it’s own beauty.
Hidden in the sounds of any modern musical exploration, you can hear the DNA and the history of that particular time period. Again, I think it goes back to a matter of intent.
B: All of the band members have other ways of using their musical talents, whether teaching or leading worship at Church, or just personal endeavors with creating music. How does Songs Of Water fit into those other roles?
S: I think more and more the band is becoming the center-piece of all we are currently pursuing. However, Songs of Water is just one outlet with a particular direction. Each of the band members, myself included, has musical inspirations that extend to other places. They each serve to influence what we do together.
B: Is it the equivalent of having “solo careers” or of playing in multiple bands at once? I guess the question is, how do you maintain an identity of your own with music, and bring it together to create a cohesive set of music for the band?
S: Songs of Water is a great collaborative effort. Yet I have a lot of music which I’ve completely written on my own or which has been written for other or more specific contexts. So far, it’s been pretty obvious for us which falls into which category. I don’t see it as competing solo careers as much as it is different expressions within the same community.
B: What are your definitions of what you’re making, in the realm of God-centered thought, existence, and creativity at work? Is it worship, or something different?
S: I don’t know that I have any solid definitions for what we are creating as it relates to those things. The music we create is an outward expression of what is going on inside of us. It is a language through which we express our devotion, celebration as well as the darker experiences of life. What our culture has taught us about devotional music, or “worship” music is very narrow.
For me, I see all music as a reflection of the musician’s intent. So, though our music is not necessarily constructed for congregational use, it creates a similar response in the listener because of our own personal convictions.
B: Can you describe what the connection is like when all of you are in the same room or on the same stage playing together?
S: The relationships behind the music we write is vital to what we experience. We value our relationships above the music. I think because of that a certain freedom and camaraderie shines through the music and is experienced by everyone who participates. There is a certain sense of life and creativity released. When each of us looks toward lifting the others up in a musical setting, the energy goes through the roof. I love it.
B: Is there an advantage to creating music (largely) without lyrics?
S: I think there is a definite advantage in creating music without lyrics. It allows the audience to have their own experience without having the meaning dictated to them. As I mentioned before, music is a language. It tells a story with or without words. It can be uncomfortable for some people at first, but once you overcome the initial expectation, instrumental music can carry you to a whole new, perhaps even deeper experience.
B: Why was it important to include lyrics for “Sycamore” and “Willow?”
S: With these two songs being the first two lyrical songs our audience will experience from us, it was important for the poetic quality of the lyric to participate as a part of the music rather than resting on top of the music. Being able to read the poetry of the songs, hopefully lends to the cinematic quality of what is being portrayed by the music.
B: Are you a band that wants to make a reputation of its faith and beliefs, equally as much as its musical talent? Or is that irrelevant in the grand scheme of promoting your music?
S: Faith is an organic part of all that we do. It is the sole inspiration behind much of our creative process. For me, it is as natural as breathing. It’s not something I feel compelled to inappropriately force upon anyone. The music we write is for people of all backgrounds and persuasions.
B: For the completely instrumental songs on your album, how do you think it’s possible to evoke such rich layers of emotion in wordless music? I know that sounds kind of broad, but how do you define what you’re able to create with just the instrumentation when, for the majority of people, so much of our relationship with music is based on lyrics?
S: Historically, that has not always been the case. Classical music is a great example. It’s rarely accompanied by lyrics, yet it evokes some of the deepest emotion of any kind of music. There are some cries of the spirit that cannot be fully expressed in the limitations of human language. Instrumental music allows the listener to have their own encounter and to express things that spoken language doesn’t always afford you to say.