Mountain Man are an all-girl trio from Bennington, Vermont who match their three voices to a solitary acoustic guitar. Their members —Molly Erin Sarle, Alexandra Sauser-Monnig, Amelia Randall Meath— met in college, and shortly after they started singing together, Mountain Man came to the attention of the blogosphere. After releasing a self-titled EP online in 2009, they issued their debut LP, Made the Harbor, in 2010.
Interview: 2 June 2010
Whereabouts are you?
"I'm sitting in the backyard of my house in Bennington, that I'm soon moving out of, because I'm graduating college in two days. It's a nostalgic time for me, but it's such an exciting time for us —amazing things like going over to Europe to play shows are happening— it's like I've got a really beautiful slide to go down out of college."
What's your degree in?
"My degree is in theatre performance. So, being in Mountain Man runs along parallel tracks. I always wanted to be a singer from when I was 3-12, and, then, I decided that I wasn't going to do that for a while. And, now, this project has fallen into our laps, like a really beautiful gift."
Were you a performative child? The star of many a community musical?
"Oh, I was! I played Annie when I was in middle-school! I came from a singing family. We used to, in the summertime, sit all around a table; there'd be like 25 people. And my mom would say 'alright, I think that everyone should sing a song!' This was after a large amount of wine. And then we'd go around the table and sing songs, from traditionals to Janis Joplin to Bruce Springsteen. I think we all grew up in families like that. From that, it seemed natural to start singing together with friends, and, thus, Mountain Man blossomed."
How did you discover that you had similar backgrounds?
"All three of us weren't friends together until we started singing. Basically, Molly had taken a term off, and left school to go to New Orleans, and then came back to visit some people in the communal house Alex lived in. I heard her singing 'The Dog Song' in the living room, and I ran downstairs, dragged her back up to my room, and made her teach it to me. I had her sing it about 12 times. Then, once I had gotten it down, I taught it to Alex. The next morning when we came back from school, Alex and I went to Molly and we all sang it together, and figured out that we should continue singing together. It was too exciting to not keep on writing songs together."
How soon thereafter did you make those first recordings, and find blog celebrity coming your way?
"I think we played our first show —at my house— after about a week of singing together. Six weeks later we recorded with my friend Trevor [Wilson]. And, then, the night before we left on our first tour, we recorded an album's worth of material singing into Molly's computer. I don't really know when the strange blog fame started happening. I guess it was about two months after we went on tour. That was when our friend [Alex] Bleeker from Real Estate started giving our record to people who he loved, and, from there, it continued onward."
Did you imagine such attention would be ephemeral?
"I don't think we thought of it as ephemeral, but we definitely weren't expecting to be in this position at this time. We would've sung together no matter what had happened, but we were hardly anticipating being able to go around the world and sing together."
How does it feel to take your music —which is, in many ways, quite fragile— into unforgiving situations like, say, SXSW?
"It's scary, but it's not that scary. Because we're on stage with two other people that we love and trust, and know are there for us. Mainly, we go into those sort of situations hoping to create a safe environment; like a home-space, being able to be comfortable, to live in the moment in which we’re singing to people. Being able to give what we're feeling."
Is that a difficult thing to accomplish?
"Oh yes! It is! It's a difficult thing, but I think it really lends to being able to truly communicate and give. There's nothing wrong with big shows, but to be able to have an intimate interaction with someone who's standing on a much taller platform than you is really rare. It's wonderful if we're able to give that to people."
What did you want your debut LP to give to people?
"Basically, we had these songs, and they fit naturally together as a really nice canon. That was as much of a concept as we had for the whole album. Ideally, what I'd really like is for people to grab hold of that one special song that they really identify with, and create an experience they can really identify with in their own way. It's a personal dream of mine that someone will be in a car, listening to one of our songs, and it'll help define a moment in their life. For us, we really wanted this body of work to talk about our experience as being women. The things that we've learned —and have yet to learn— within our lives. And trying to tell that from a place of joy. Being able to tell stories in a musical form."
That idea of telling stories through song has strong ties to folk tradition. Do you think of what you're doing as holding to that tradition?
"We didn't make Made the Harbor thinking 'let's try and sound like this was recorded in 1905 in a cabin in Appalachia,' but I think it's definitely a strong influence. I think people usually draw that comparison because our music is pretty simple; that it's three voices and a guitar as opposed to consisting of all these whiz-bang electrical accoutrements. Obviously, we've been inspired by things we hear, but I know I wasn't really listening to folk music until college, so it's an influence, but it's not the main one."
What is the main one, then?
"I don't know. We've been asked that question a lot, but I don't think I'm any closer to an answer. I suppose that everything comes from our own life experiences: how we learnt to sing, how we sing together. Mixed in with all that is three whole lifetimes of listening to music, and everything that we've heard. And we've heard a lot: Alex's dad, for example, ran a music store. We have long relationships with music, and they're entwined with our relationships with our families, and with each other."