Folk music is a funny term these days. We refer to folk music as almost anything a singer/songwriter does with an acoustic instrument. Record stores in the 1970s, would put Simon and Garfunkel in the folk section, as was Dylan and Joan Baez, James Taylor. But the musicians who inspired those musicians were Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, The Carter Family, Elizabeth Cotton, Roscoe Holcomb, Alice Gerrard, Hazel Dickens …. These are the people who created the world that Anna Roberts-Gevalt and Elizabeth LaPrelle inhabit. It’s a world of story songs from long ago, sung by plain folks, not professionals.
Roberts-Gevalt describes their process as, “We learn a lot of our music from people, but also from archives, which are basement rooms with florescent light. You’re sitting in this cubicle and maybe the cubicle has carpeting all around it. And you’re sitting in this plastic chair in this library in the basement and the archivist brings you a blank white CD, and you listen to it and you can travel through space and time to another room.”
You hear an old woman singing or a fiddler and you try to imagine what that room looked like. Did it have wallpaper? Or did it have white walls? Did the lady make food before they made the recording? Did she talk with a loud voice or a soft voice?
Anna & Elizabeth got their start as a folk-focused duo that offered clear-eyed, thoughtful interpretations of traditional ballads and old-time tunes. Their efforts were pleasantly straightforward, as on their 2015 self-titled LP. (They released an earlier recording Sun to Sun, originally released in 2012 but out of print until recently, the duo’s debut album includes 13 ballads, lullabies and dance tunes from the Southern tradition.)
When it came time to start working on a follow-up album to Anna & Elizabeth, Roberts-Gevalt realized that she wanted to explore music that was more closely connected to her home region of New England; previously, most of her and LaPrelle’s work had Southern origins. (LaPrelle, a celebrated ballad singer with deep roots in traditional music, hails from Virginia.) So she spent the better part of a month exploring the Helen Hartness Flanders Ballad Collection at Vermont’s Middlebury College, which contains some four thousand field recordings of New Englanders singing their traditional tunes for Flanders.
After the discovery process, Roberts-Gevalt and LaPrelle benefited from back-to-back artist residencies at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts near Lynchburg, Virginia, and at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire. The women had armed themselves with a boatload of archival material, and the residencies gave them the time and space to dig as deep as they wanted with their newest inspirations.
“We came to the residency with all of these scanned documents, a lot of sound files, a lot of photos of ballad singers. We made giant maps on the walls of our studio, one of Virginia and one of New England, and just started putting up the songs,” Roberts-Gevalt says.
Few young folk artists today show such reverence and such overwhelming love for the primary sources. And when Anna & Elizabeth apply effects — the hissing, buzzing and droning — that push the songs out of a comfort zone, they still show incredible respect for the original songs. Noise does not signal distance. If anything, the sonic hums and moans convey an appreciation — they draw increased attention to these long-living words.
“I feel like the first records in some way are our desire to execute the things that we had admired and loved,” says Roberts-Gevalt, adding that she and LaPrelle wanted to prioritize drawing listeners into the stories over all else on their new record.
With their songs sorted out, the duo’s next feat was padding out their guitar- and fiddle-based music with broader arrangements, helping to draw out each song’s emotional power. They learned how to use the studio as an instrument—editing the sounds of a stroll through a dry forest into “Woman Is Walking” and making a chopped-up, nonlinear story about a woman who sings her way out of a kidnapping in “By the Shore.”
Laurie Anderson, to me, is a storyteller the way that a ballad singer is—someone who puts story ahead of anything else, and you go different sonic directions depending on what the story tells you to do. Like, this song is about the ocean, what sounds feel right to convey that?
To achieve those ends, LaPrelle and Roberts-Gevalt turned not to other folk musicians but to those whose talents could help them tell stories, regardless of background. That included people like Jim White, a drummer who’s worked with Cat Power, PJ Harvey, and Bill Callahan, and co-leads his own duo, Xylouris White.
It also included Susan Alcorn, the Baltimore-based pedal steel player who makes otherworldly appearances on “Farewell to Erin,” “Virginia Rambler,” and “By the Shore.”
She was really important to me as someone who introduced me to various forms of experimental music and improvisation,” says Roberts-Gevalt. “She has a background in playing honky-tonk music in Houston and then kind of found experimental music, but she has both in her abilities and her interests.
All is not pushing the sonic envelope on The Invisible Comes to Us. “John of Hazelgreen” contains a captivating old-time folk core, as Roberts-Gevalt and LaPrelle fuse their voices in a simple melodic accord that’s devoid of the noise that permeates much of the other tunes on the album.
Anna & Elizabeth’s The Invisible Comes to Us taps into their imagination-fueled arsenal to present an extraordinary work of unique, genre-bending storytelling and sonic exploration. Lauded by many well-known musicians and widely loved for their moving minimalist arrangements, Anna & Elizabeth’s partnership pioneers new ways of presenting old songs and stories to modern audiences. Co-producer Benjamin Lazar Davis (Cuddle Magic) and legendary avant-rock drummer Jim White (The Dirty Three, Xylouris White) assist in the duo’s vision of breathing life and new perspective into the crackling and disintegrating recordings and artifacts of the past. Rarely does an album based on traditional folk music resonate so strongly in modern times.
Anna Roberts-Gevalt is a voracious and curious musician who nestles in the space between ancient ballads and new sounds. After spending years in Baltimore’s underground art scene, she now resides in Brooklyn, NY. She fell in love with the sound of banjo in college, moved to the mountains, and learned with master musicians in Kentucky, Virginia, and North Carolina. She has been a fellow at the Berea College Traditional Music Archive and OneBeat (Bang on a Can’s Found Sound Nation); three years artistic director of Kentucky’s traditional music institute, the Cowan Creek Mountain Music School; and co-curator of Baltimore’s Crankie Festival. She is a summer 2017 fellow at National Sawdust in Brooklyn, and recently studied in a workshop with Meredith Monk.
Elizabeth LaPrelle is a world-renowned ballad singer who resides on a farm in Rural Retreat, VA. The student of master singer Ginny Hawker and National Heritage Fellow Sheila Kay Adams, LaPrelle was the first recipient of the Henry Reed Award from the Library of Congress at age 16, and won the 2012 Mike Seeger Award at Folk Alliance International. She has been hailed as “the best young Appalachian ballad singer to emerge in recent memory” by UK’s fRoots Magazine.