As with every person, every place has an energy that evolves and evokes its essence. The Romans called it genius loci — the protective, pervading spirit of a place. Each dot on a map resonates with a frequency to match its history. In the American South, that history is complex, to be sure, and so is its land.
A North Carolina native, Sarah Siskind uses her free-spirited new album, Modern Appalachia, to explore her home state’s genius loci and the effects it has had on her life. It’s an admirable undertaking that Siskind approaches with all due respect and reflection, as she traces the blossoms and seeds of her life back to the literal ground from which she grew no matter how deep or dirty. As she sings in “Carolina,” “Who you are isn’t where you’re from, but where you’re from is always close, and when you go digging in that dirt, get ready for what you fear the most.”
The song cycle starts with “Me and Now,” a mesmerizing meditation on staying in the moment — every moment — no matter how perfect or painful it happens to be. In it, Siskind looks long and hard at why the practice of presence is so difficult for her, even as it’s a teaching of her faith, as she notes half-way in: “Only God completes me and he says to be still. Why’s it so hard to try and see how that really feels?”
Because it’s an integral part of both her life and her homeland, faith runs its thread through other tunes, as well, including “In the Mountains,” which melds so many of Siskind’s influences into one piece of musical glory, and “Rest in the River,” with its purposeful march toward redemption. On both the easy drive of “The One” and the bright shuffle of “Danny,” Siskind takes the more earthbound aspect of life as she rummages through the remains of loves lost, from emotional distances near and far.
With support from special guests including Bill Frisell, Rose Cousins, Justin Vernon, Julie Lee, and Elizabeth Foster, Siskind’s exploration of the ties binding her inner and outer worlds is as evolving and evocative as the land on which it was made.