SXSW: Rachel Ries

Hailing from the vast expanses of South Dakota, Rachel Ries can bring audiences to tears with the trembling of her harmonies. A talented instrumentalist, and deft songwriter, Ries has been traveling around the country accompanying Anais Mitchell as part of the Young Man Band on Mitchell’s most recent tour.

My introduction to Ries was at the Whip In. Just south of downtown Austin, right off of I-35, situated on a busy corner of the southbound access road, the Whip In is a flat-roofed, cinder-block building that at first glance looks much like an ordinary convenience store. But upon entering, its clear that it is a different creature. To the right of the door, there is a cozy dining space warmed by wooden church pews, antique tables, Indian wooden screens, and colorful printed textiles. Beercave, coffeehouse, cozy restaurant: The Whip In is a magical place.

It was there that I saw Ries play for the first time. She took the stage with Anais Mitchell, Matt Fockler, and Southpaw Jones, and performed a suite of songs including Mitchell’s powerful “Young Man In America.”

Ries pulled every last one of my heartstrings; she had me weeping in awe. Despite the myriad of performers that I saw across the city during SXSW, it was Ries’ raw performance that impacted me the most.

That night I chatted with her and picked up a copy of her most recent recording, On Laurel Lake EP. Besides overflowing with massive doses of honesty, the On Laurel Lake EP reveals skilled production and recording techniques. Ries tackled the album by herself on a personal retreat in Tennessee and dug deep to patch the songs together.

On this album, Ries’ trembling harmonies punctuate her sophisticated melodies. Her craftmanship is apparent on this exquisite folk recording. From the slightest wavering of vocals to the gentlest of brushes on the guitar pickups, Ries captured it all on the recording. While not as seemingly hip as Bon Iver’s Blood Bank, her recordings on the EP have a poignant delicacy that allow it to exist free from hype. In a different vein from On Laurel Lake is Ries’ 2007 release, Without A Bird.

Warmly analog and carefully orchestral, Without a Bird showcases the artistry of some of Chicago’s finest players: Kevin O’Donnell (Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire, Neko Case), Joel Paterson (Devil in a Woodpile, Kelly Hogan, Steve Dawson), Alison Chesley (Bob Mould, Verbow, Poi Dog Pondering) and Ariel Bolles (Bakelite 78). Without a Bird was recorded and mixed analog and it shows. As would be expected, in contrast to the On The Lake EP, the songs have much more of the city’s rhythms flowing through them.

Across albums, Ries’ music constantly grapples with the tumultuous dichotomy between life in the city and life in the country. In her own words: “This life I’ve chosen felt suddenly precarious, muddled, and far too far from the source. What do we really need? Out here in the ‘real’ world I ask for so much more than family, faith, food and shelter. So much vapor.”

While Ries’ songs are heartbreaking, they are not love songs. They speak to life — its joys and its anguish. Memories, dreams, and illusions sit beside anguished lonesomeness in Ries’ songs to create a heart wrenchingly powerful combination.

Fans of early Liz Phair, Anais Mitchell, Ani DiFranco, and early Regina Spektor  will certainly find much to like in her recent recordings.

Post by Juan Fernandez