Hailing from Atlanta, Georgia, Rising Appalachia—consisting primarily of sisters Chloe and Leah Smith—blends bluegrass, folk, world music and even hip-hop into a new perspective on a traditional sound.
“So much of what we do is try to tell a different Southern narrative,” explains Leah, who also performs solo as Leah Song. “That’s been part of our work from the get-go.”
Haunting vocals, banjos, fiddles, congas, djembes, beatboxes, spoons, and practically everything else that makes a noise can be found in their recordings. Rising Appalachia’s songs are as eclectic as the music they listen to themselves.
“We’ve got the newest A Tribe Called Quest album, Kendrick Lamar, and then traditional music from Bali and Ireland, along with American traditional players like Bruce Molsky,” says Leah. “We have a whole peculiar rotation of sounds coming out of our tour van.”
Founded 11 years ago, Rising Appalachia, who plays the Catalyst on Friday, Nov. 25, began as a Christmas present to their friends and family, with Chloe and Leah recording their first album in a basement. The sisters received so much encouragement and positive feedback, it ultimately became Rising Appalachia’s first album, Leah and Chloe. Since then, the band has recorded five more albums, all independently released and each one evolving a unique sound while focusing on music as an engine to unite, inform and heal.
Last year the band released Wider Circles, after a massively successful Kickstarter funding campaign.
“It’s definitely our strongest album to date,” says Leah. “But while the music industry intentionally tries to get artists to crank out new material, we’ve intentionally dug our heels to take time and explore the nuances of all our music.”
That “intentional dig” culminated in the Slow Music Movement, launched by the band last year. More than just rediscovering their old tunes, the Slow Music Movement represents the realization of Rising Appalachia’s ideological principles through what they call “sustainable touring.” Instead of traveling by massive tour buses or planes, the band tours with a minivan and did most of last year’s tour via Amtrak. Most venues will provide acts with food or snacks—part of the “rider,” in industry lingo—so Rising Appalachia decided to request locally sourced and farmed food, often creating personal relationships with the farmers firsthand. The Slow Music Movement also provides a handful of free tickets to Rising Appalachia’s shows to local charities in each city, which in turns gives audience members a chance to connect to activists in their area that they might not have previously come across.
“Nothing about it is set in stone,” explains Song, who was inspired to move to Mexico when she was 19 years old to study how the Zapatistas used art as a revolutionary tool for empowerment. “But it’s more a general creative concept for looking the music industry in the eye and seeing where we can make adjustments.”
It’s a philosophy that seems increasingly more important in these tumultuous political times.
“I always say, ‘Bitterness is a palpable part of medicine,’” she states. “But our goal has always been to empower local folks to be part of the solution, and that seems more important than ever now.”
So what does 2017 hold for Rising Appalachia? Leah says the future is as extensive as the countries they travel.
“Music is a universal language, and we’ll continue to make universal dance parties,” she says. “Things that we all can relate to, no matter where you come from.”
Info: 9 p.m., Friday, Nov. 25. Catalyst, 1011 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. $23 adv., $28 door. 429-4135.