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Photo: Shervin Lainez

Mountain Man Wake Up on New Album

North Carolina (by way of many places) band Mountain Man have a sweet way of describing the eight year hiatus they took between their debut album and their new release, the spectacular Magic Ship.

“We like to say that Mountain Man ‘took a nap,’” says member Molly Sarlé. “We all moved to different parts of the country, so it took quite some time for us to end up in North Carolina again.”

After reuniting to participate in Eaux Claires, the festival curated by Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, the trio made up of Sarlé, Amelia Meath and Alexandra Sauser-Monning decided to “take it one step at a time” and create Magic Ship together.

The result is a beautiful and emotional collection of vocal-forward folk. Sarlé walked us through their creative process, the album’s themes and more leading up to their stop at The Barns at Wolf Trap this week.

OT: How did being away from each other, creatively and physically, affect this album?
Molly Sarlé: I think it played into it in the sense that we all drew from our experiences – and had very different experiences, both musically while working on other projects and in our lives in general, that shaped the songwriting on this record. Although, some of the songs were around before we took our hiatus, we just hadn’t recorded them yet. It was gratifying to be able to record those.

OT: Can you talk me through the themes and ideas throughout Magic Ship, musically and lyrically?
MS: We weren’t thinking of any particular themes while we wrote it, although I think overall something that stands out to me is that – like on the song “Guilt,” the last song on the record – is kind of about getting a bit older, because we kind of wrote the first album in our early 20s, and the second in our late 20s and early 30s. It’s about just getting to a place in life where you know yourself a little bit better and accepting yourself for who you are.

OT: I am curious about the song “Underwear,” specifically. This is just my interpretation, but I recently moved and it’s crazy to me how I feel that in my early 20s I needed a lot of stuff to be happy, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve felt that life is a lot more simple, and I know the things I actually need. That’s just how it resonated to me, and It’s one of my favorites on the album.
MS: Amelia wrote that song, but I can tell you that my interpretation of it definitely relates to what you said – but I think more in an emotional landscape context. The older you get, all you need is in a particular kind of closeness or intimacy.

OT: Was there anything different in the writing or recording process of Magic Ship?
MS: The recording process was definitely different. We recorded it in Durham [North Carolina] at Nick [Sanborn of Sylvan Esso] and Amelia’s studio, with Nick, and last time we recorded the record in our friend’s attic in Philadelphia over two days. This time it was spread out over a few months. And the writing process was pretty similar in that we usually just get together and bring the songs we’ve worked on individually to each other, then write our own parts and see if they work for Mountain Man or not.

OT: You’ve all known each other for a long time now – how has that relationship changed?
MS: We’ve all grown up a lot, so I think the roles have changed in that we all take a little bit more equal responsibility spread across all three members.

OT: I would imagine being part of any band is a very intimate experience but even more so in a band like Mountain Man where your primary instruments are your own voices. Can you tell me more about the connection you have to your bandmates?
MS: We call each other our wives. It’s almost like we’re married to each other, just because of how much we shape each other’s lives through making music together, but also through our friendship. It’s wonderful and pretty intense. It’s like those friendships where the people you’re working with know you so well that you can’t hide anything from them.

OT: There are a few cover songs on this album – “Bright Morning Stars” and “Baby Where You Are” – why did you decided to not only cover them but put them on the album?
MS: “Bright Morning Stars” was a song we used to sing a lot before we took a hiatus, and was taught to us by a really wonderful vocal coach at Bennington College, where we all met. “Baby Where You Are” is a cover that Amelia suggested from a record that had been in heavy rotation at a house that she and I once lived in at Durham called The Hughes.

OT: I’m curious about the llama and alpaca imagery on the album art – why did you go with that?
MS: They’re alpacas! One is named Dorota, I can’t remember the other one’s name, but they’re friends. They live at a healing animal farm, so they’re healing alpacas. We decided to do a photoshoot with them because our manager Martin actually had a dream in which we were taking pictures of alpacas in a bar. We were really sweetly presented to it – he said “I don’t want to step over any boundaries but I had this dream,” and we were all like “oh, 100%, let’s make this happen.”

OT: You’ve also been busy with some solo work. Can you talk more about that?
MS: I have a solo album that’s coming out on Partisan Records this summer. This is the same record label that we released our first album as Mountain Man on, and my record is produced by Sam Evian. We recorded at a church that’s also a recording studio called Dreamland in Woodstock, NY about a year ago.

Mountain Man play The Barns at Wolf Trap on Friday, March 29. Show starts at 8 p.m. and tickets are $25-$30. For more on Mountain Man, visit www.wearemountainman.com.

The Barns at Wolf Trap: 1635 Trap Rd., Vienna, VA; 1-877-WOLFTRAP; www.wolftrap.org

Photo: www.4uprince.com

Prince’s Musical Magnificence Lives on Through 4U

Honoring a genius like the late Prince requires a particularly artistic tenacity few artists can reach. The short list includes 4U, the official Prince estate approved symphonic orchestra who delighted Prince aficionados on September 15 at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Art’s Filene Center

In the grand wood-paneled amphitheater, 4U offered both familiar and unheralded renditions of Prince’s catalog. Hits as notable as “Little Red Corvette” and “When Doves Cry” even made guests in the upper tiers croon, as the 20-member orchestra reminded attendees why loving Prince is an uncontrollable sensation.

Songs not popularly played on radio stations during his glory days still sat well with listeners, as the audience tried their best to catch the melody and hum along; it was as though they were connecting with royalty despite the barriers between life and death.

Despite his absence, the voice of Prince was heard and his essence was felt. It was most obvious as jiving and clapping was seen throughout the grounds as if Prince had resurrected for once last performance to say I love you all.

4U’s full-scale production was curated by Questlove, and included imagery offering a glimpse into the world of Prince. Shown on stage were handwritten notes, classic black and white inspired short films and history-making concert performances all honoring the culprit of their collective joy.

The night created a rare occasion where past and present intersect, allowing the two to coexist, creating new memories for the future. Generations came together effortlessly, amplifying the significance and legend of Prince.

It was appropriately grand and continued past the encore of “Purple Rain,” when no one wanted to leave because the truth would set in shortly after; the idea that we have heard the last of the artist formerly known, but never forgotten as Prince.

For more information about Wolf Trap’s fall schedule, please visit their online calendar.

Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts: 1645 Trap Rd. Vienna, VA; 703-255-1868; www.wolftrap.org

Photo: www.dawestheband.com

Folk Rockers Dawes Come to Wolf Trap

Dawes has spent nine years perfecting the art of the soaring folk-rock singalong. With an impressive six albums in tow, the band is hitting the road this summer with a stop at Wolf Trap on August 24. We caught up with guitarist and songwriter Taylor Goldsmith on their new record, being compared to your heroes and what to expect from Dawes at their live show.

On Tap: Your sixth studio album Passwords was released on June 22. Can you tell me more about some of the themes and inspirations on this album?
Taylor Goldsmith: I think for anyone who works in any creative field – whether you’re a painter, writer or musician – the work that you do tends to reflect the however many years of your life have passed since you put out something else. Right now, we live in this interesting moment. Through politics, culture divides and technology, things are changing very fast and I think [those things] are constantly in the conversation and constantly on our minds. I felt like I needed to explore that in order for me to feel honest as a songwriter. If I’m trying to show people what’s been on my mind, I’ve got to talk about that stuff. Meanwhile, I was getting engaged and falling in love and so there’s a lot of that as well. But beyond that I feel like this album is the relationship between those two ideas: how my worldview and how my concerns for the future and more broad sense of fear are handled through the concept of falling in love.

OT: How did the process of writing and recording Passwords differ from your previous records?
TG:
We went back to working with our first producer who made our first two records, so that was really exciting. It required us to go into the studio a lot earlier than we planned, which meant some of us going in without knowing all the material. I feel like [that’s] true to a lot of music that we love. When we listen to certain Neil Young or Bob Dylan records, there’s always this sense of urgency – this sort of live attitude where you can tell that this group of musicians is learning the material as they’re going.

OT: Speaking of Neil Young and Bob Dylan, you are quite frequently compared to them and other similar artists. How do you feel about that?
TG:
We don’t mind them. It’s just an inevitability at this point. Anybody who is making music needs to be true to what is putting a smile on their own face or what is making them feel motivated or inspired. We’re not chasing down our heroes and trying to just do what they did, but we’re not trying to just shut our influences out. We’re going to do what comes naturally to us. With any artist, the work that they do is a hodgepodge of all of the stuff they’ve ever loved rather than us trying to like get a little heady and be like, “Well, how do we do something no one has ever done before?” I feel like that’s a pretty impossible way to approach representing yourself. I think you’ve just got to write what you write and make what you make, and hope that some sort of individuality shines through.

OT: Are you doing anything differently on this tour than you have in the past? How do you go about putting together your setlist?
TG:
With every new record, our show shifts significantly. We try to incorporate new instruments, like certain drums or keyboards. We try to bring in different ideas for certain songs so they vary from what you might hear on the record. We also try to incorporate certain productions and always try to make sure we’re showing off the new record we made. But I feel like we’re very lucky. Not all bands can say this, but we like all of our music and we like representing it – and we actually make a point to. Anybody who comes to our shows will hear songs from all six albums.

OT: I had the opportunity to see Dawes open for Bright Eyes back in 2011 at Wolf Trap. Do you have any great memories from your last visit? Are you excited to be playing the venue again?
TG:
I remember when Conor [Oberst] invited us to come onstage and sing “Road to Joy” with us. We were honored. It’s a very special place and we’re grateful to get to come back and do our own co-headlining show.

Dawes play The Filene Center at Wolf Trap on August 24 with Shovels & Rope and Joseph. Doors at 7:30 p.m. Tickets begin at $35.

The Filene Center at Wolf Trap: 1551 Trap Rd. Vienna, VA; 703-255-1800; www.wolftrap.org

Photo: Catie Laffoon

X Ambassadors Speak Truth, Change Sound on New Record

From the start, Adam Levin knew it was meant to be.

“It was a natural fit. I could just play the drums immediately.”

Levin found a place to exercise his passion with brothers Sam (vocals, sax) and Casey (keys) Harris when they formed X Ambassadors in 2009. Since then, the three-piece, alt-rock group has released a full-length album, VHS (2015), and toured with Muse, Imagine Dragons and Panic! at the Disco. As they continue climbing the ladder of fame and success, Levin says he and his bandmates try to appreciate the little things in life as much as possible. This mindset is central to their upcoming album, Joyful.

On June 7, X Ambassadors will play Wolf Trap’s Filene Center in Vienna, Virginia to promote Joyful and give listeners a taste of their new sound. The band has already released six singles to test the waters with fans who have been patiently waiting for another full-length album for three years now.

Although Levin says X Ambassadors is still the same band that created VHS, which featured hit singles “Renegades” and “Unsteady,” the band didn’t want to create a “VHS 2.0.”  Their latest singles, “Joyful” and “Don’t Stay,” reveal a transition into a bluesy, soulful sound that features layers unheard of in their previous style.

“As we grow as musicians and songwriters, our music is going to grow with us,” Levin says. “We embrace our soul influences and [Sam’s] voice with big choir vocals. There’s a lot more impressive vocal work on this record.”

X Ambassadors has been teasing Joyful’s release for quite some time, but has yet to announce a solid release date.

Levin says 2018 is a safe bet, and we’ll just have to take his word for it.

“It’s like a project that never ends because you write something new and it’s really cool and exciting, so it’s a constant shifting of songs,” he says. “We’re just trying to make it the best that we possibly can, and we want to take our time to put it out.”

When asked about the message of Joyful, Levin was reluctant at first, but eventually gave a few hints as to what listeners can expect from their new venture into a more soul and R&B sound.

“A lot of it is inspired by a friend of ours who’s going through addiction right now, and Sam’s been estranged from this person. I think a good amount of the record is speaking to that and Sam’s personal battle with it. It’s also about the message of taking a step to be joyful about the things that you do have.”

Levin says that much of X Ambassadors’ messaging comes from using their privilege as three straight white males to give a voice to marginalized people. Although many bands are afraid they might alienate listeners if they speak out politically, X Ambassadors decided long ago to provoke discussion and change with their music.

“People might disagree with our political viewpoints, but we don’t let that stop us from doing what we think is right,” he says.

Some examples of their recent political activity include performing a special show to benefit Planned Parenthood on International Women’s Day in 2017 and donating all proceeds they earned for six months after the release of their single “Hoping” to the American Civil Liberties Union beginning in March of last year.

“I think there are a lot of people right now who feel alienated and attacked, and we want to do what we can to represent them,” Levin says. “If that empowers them to keep fighting the good fight, then we’ve done our job.”

Since they began writing music together in 2009, the bond between Levin and the Harris brothers has flourished because of all the trials and tribulations they experienced together as rising musicians.

“There were so many times where this band felt like it wasn’t going to happen,” Levin says. “All of the different hurdles we’ve jumped have made us so much stronger.”

But to Levin, hurdles and failures are no more than signs to turn around and go the other way. This philosophy is part of what gives X Ambassadors the drive and dedication to put out the best music they possibly can for their fans.

“All of the things we’ve been through together and our ability to communicate is what it’s all about. The most important thing in any creative relationship is the ability to be candid and not afraid to say what you think, even if it might hurt some feelings.”

Along with their fearless, go-getter attitude, X Ambassadors embraces a “no bullsh-t” approach that they picked up from Imagine Dragons, who they credit for discovering them.

“One thing we learned from touring with Imagine Dragons is to be overly nice to everyone you meet because it pays to do that,” Levin says. “It’s not like we were
a–holes before that tour or anything, but we learned there’s no time for any of that rock star bullsh-t.”

With the upcoming release of Joyful and a national tour underway, X Ambassadors is steadily moving toward their dream of becoming the headliners of their own major tour and selling out arenas all over the States. But no matter how big they get, they want to continue giving their fans music that they can hold onto during hard times.

“We obviously want fans to love the music, but we also want them to feel represented or to find something that they can relate to,” Levin says. “A song can be written about one thing, but a person may hear it and they might not understand what it was originally written about, but it somehow relates to their life. That’s the beautiful thing about music and art, and that’s the message we want to bring with the record.”

See X Ambassadors open for Fitz and the Tantrums at Wolf Trap’s Filene Center on Thursday, June 7. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $30-$55 and available for purchase at www.wolftrap.org. Learn more about the  band at www.xambassadors.com.

Wolf Trap’s Filene Center: 1551 Trap Rd. Vienna, VA; 703- 255-1800; www.wolftrap.org