Mountain Man on reuniting for new album Magic Ship

We speak to Alexandra Sauser-Monnig and Molly Erin Sarlé, two-thirds of North Carolina Appalachian folk band Mountain Man, about Magic Ship, their first release in eight years

Feature by Stephen Butchard | 14 Sep 2018
  • Mountain Man

Something special happens when the three individual voices in Mountain Man come together. It’s a cooling comfort that has remained just as reassuring and unhurried in the eight years since the release of their debut album, Made the Harbor. A lot of life has happened in that time. The group formed while in college, instantly capturing a rare musical chemistry that has stuck with them as they gained new experiences. They toured the world together, captivating huge crowds with disarmingly naked acapella folk, and they could've continued to do so as a trio.

But their own paths diverged. Amelia Meath went on to form the electro-pop duo Sylvan Esso with Nick Sanborn; Alexandra Sauser-Monnig continued to perform, releasing solo material earlier this year; Molly Erin Sarlé relocated to California, and after being convinced by her close friends, moved back to North Carolina. “After three years, I realised that the best decision you can make about where to be living is one based around the people that you love,” Sarlé says. “Alex and Amelia are two of the people that I love the most in the entire world, so I felt that I should probably be close.”

Their musical return blossomed naturally from this closeness, and after a reuniting performance at Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival in 2017, new songs followed. This return is one done for the pure joy of creating and performing. That’s clear when asking Sarlé and Sauser-Monnig what new song sticks out to them the most: “All of them?” laughs Sarlé. Her bandmate chuckles in agreement, “I’m very excited about Boat at the moment,” before the pair blurt out, “ooh, Stella is really exciting,” tumbling over each other.

“I feel like I can say that about Mountain Man because it’s really just what happens when the three of us sing together, so it’s not like I’m saying ‘I enjoy listening to my own music,’” jokes Sarlé. That joy is right there on Magic Ship, felt on even a passing listen. That’s thanks in part to a beautifully raw approach to recording, which preserves the air of their space, the sharp intakes of breath, their shifting weight around each other.

“The person who recorded us is Nick Sanborn," Meath's partner-in-crime as Sylvan Esso, explains Sauser-Monnig. “He’s just a really smart producer and engineer. We would be getting ready to record a take of a song [and] he would be just looking around the room and moving microphones and thinking of ways to do things in subtly different ways to animate or capture our space in that moment.” The result when wrapped in headphones is like being there with the band as their voices interact. Sarlé adds: “I think one of the interesting things about making music together is that it seems like every nook and cranny of our relationship dynamic is reflected in the way that we sing together.”

Despite the eight-year gap, the Mountain Man style remains intact – stripped-back music, built on silence. “Silence feels like a natural starting place when most of what you’re working with are your voices and your feelings,” explains Sauser-Monnig. “A really centring part of making music is to be quiet in each other’s presence and let the feeling come out naturally.” Sarlé adds: “Singing together has always been a lot about listening to each other and that’s where the magic comes from. I’ve never felt any pressure to add anything to what we do because it seems like the essence is pretty immediate.”

Despite sounding off-the-cuff, the intricate interplay of harmonies on Magic Ship's 14 tracks couldn’t be done on the whim. “There’s a lot of practising, but in the most low-key way,” Sauser-Monnig says. “We’ll decide to get together and make breakfast at one of our houses, and then we’ll present a song to everybody and then sing it three times. Then a week later, we’ll get together again and go over everything. It’s a pretty gentle form of rehearsal, but I feel that we’re pretty good at intuiting what a song needs, so if we're not happy about it, we just talk about it.”

This short collection of songs features three covers, which flow incredibly into their originals: “I love covering songs because I get to look into somebody else’s experience,” says Sarlé. “They’ve carved out their story through melody and made it live.” 

“And then sometimes it’s like they’ve channelled the most basic experience of being alive in a way that feels universal and moving, and it feels really good to sing a song that’s accessible to everyone,” adds Sauser-Monnig. “It’s good to just get to the core in some way.”

“It’s similar to the way that we sing on each other’s songs,” says Sarlé. “We all just know what it’s about. Each of us as individuals, we’ve all been singing since we were babies, so using our voices to express how we feel comes intuitively and naturally to all of us, so I think we’re just trying to create that feeling, no matter what we’re singing.”

It’s clear that Magic Ship means a lot to the trio. “One of the ways that it affects me is that it just slows me down,” explains Sauser-Monnig. “Being a human being feels so complicated in the modern world, but you can always slow down. It’s always available to you to be quiet, and breathe, and listen to what’s happening around you. Somehow those songs feel like they help me do that.” “We always had the intention to share it," Sarlé adds, "but we make it in a way that feels authentic to us, and knowing that it’s something that resonates with other people is comforting.”

As our conversation draws to an end, the word 'joy' comes up again. “The purpose is joy,” Sarlé says simply. “Our hope is that this record helps people enjoy their lives more because it’s hard.”

Is it harder to exist now than when Mountain Man first got together? “No. I think it’s always hard. For everyone,” says Sarlé. “That’s part of the reason why there are songs that are universal. There are songs that were written four hundred years ago from people who lived lives that we don’t relate to. There are particular things about this time that other human beings haven’t had to deal with, but then we don’t have to deal with things that other people struggled with.

“I think part of getting older is learning how to bring joy into your life, and that is just as important as an artist as anything else, that you have the power to create joy, and that you have the power to create healing in people. To be given the opportunity to do that is amazing.”

Magic Ship is released on 21 Sep via Bella Union