Photo: IVPR

Rachel Ries Returns As Her Crooked Heart With “Windswept” (premiere + interview)

A return to Middle America provided the space and inspiration for Her Crooked Heart's ambitious, meditative new LP. Bon Iver, Alabama Shakes, Paul Simon collaborators chip in.

Rachel Ries is no stranger to music fans even if her latest endeavor, To Love to Leave to Live is the debut under the moniker Her Crooked Heart. Having issued records under her name for over a decade, she has also toured and collaborated with Anaïs Mitchell and is a founding member of the rock ‘n’ roll choir, the Kith + Kin Chorus.

To Love to Leave to Live is the culmination of several changes in Ries‘ life, including returning to middle America and the dissolution of her marriage. Having grown up in South Dakota, she also spent time in New York City and Vermont. The return was, she points out instrumental in the new album’s arrival.

“I had avoided my capital H home and my roots for a long time,” she says. “But moving back here was very intentional: For the first time I didn’t have one foot out the door.” She adds, “I’m not a believer [in the idea that only beautiful things come from the coasts]. My friend Shane Leonard and I had talked about collaborating through the years. He had reached out quite a while back and said, ‘I like what you do, let’s do something together.'”

Though she didn’t know many musicians in the Minnesota/Wisconsin music scene (Leonard is based in Eau Claire, Wisconsin), she and Leonard quickly assembled a cast that includes Rob Moose (Alabama Shakes), Brian Joseph (Sufjan Stevens, Paul Simon) and Bon Iver/Andrew Bird member Mike Lewis.

During the tracking for the album, the song “Windswept”, for which Ries has made a new video, began to reveal itself. “I’d been kicking around the first lines of it and different sections, but I wasn’t sure if it should modulate,” she recalls. “It’s a weird little song, how it unfolds and goes where you don’t expect it to. I was testing the waters on that one. Working with Shane gave me the bravery to make some choices in that one.”

She adds, “The song itself is probably one of the simplest in some ways because it’s all about meditation. I started meditating daily and in earnest in [some] tumultuous years. It was very much a mental health choice. Slowly but surely it has transformed my life. It’s about letting yourself come to rest after the chaos of your day.”

For the video itself, Ries she was joined by the dance duo Hiponymous. “Meditating is the most boring thing in the physical thing in a way, but it’s also the most physical, tactile thing you can do. It clicked to have dancers to express the inner realm.”

The song itself is a studied in the measured stillness found in the act of meditation, an enchanting musical exploration that demands close and repeated listens to uncover the sophisticated layers Ries and her collaborators have created within.

To Love to Leave to Live, which arrives 31 May may be pre-ordered. Ries has assembled a touring ensemble for the record that includes Siri Undlin (Humbird) Adelyn Strei (Adelyn Rose) and Hilary James (We Are the Willows).

I read that there were a lot of changes going on in your life leading up to the making of this album.

I’m all about the changes! [Laughs.] I don’t rest for too long.

Were you writing through all of that or did you say, “I’ve lived through this, reflected on it and now it’s time to get it out”?

I was writing the whole time. Once my marriage ended, then I really started writing. Once I had reclaimed my name, the songs started pouring out. A lot of them have been trashed. I had to get through a few layers of heavy-handed writing before finding the gems. Writing helps me process life.

I haven’t thought about this in a little while, but during that time I would want to write about a specific something. A rebound or my ex, whatever. I would take one emotion and follow it as far down the track as I could. Then, I’d go back to myself and take another angle all the way down the track. Things happen to us, and we feel a variety of ways about those things. We don’t feel one thing as we go through the process. Writing is one way for me to play out the potential paths.

You mentioned scrapping things. Was it a case of feeling, like, “Maybe this is too raw” or “This is too confessional”? Or was it, “Nah, this really doesn’t work”?

Kind of the last one. I think some of the songs I scrapped from the sessions for this record lacked a little bit of finesse and maybe restraint. I never want to come across as whiney or shrill or bemoaning a failed relationship. You can feel all those things, but there can be artistry in how you present it. I scrapped some songs that didn’t have quite the right timbre to them. It can be so hard to let some of them go! [Laughs.]

Do you have a testing ground for songs, whether friends or an audience?

Usually, it’s audiences. But over the past few years, I’ve developed a couple of different groups of friends here in the Twin Cities. Do you know [Julia Cameron’s] The Artist’s Way?

I do.

That’s where it started. A group of friends and I thought we would do The Artist’s Way. [For everything else] we got a lot out of it and started to share creations with each other. We’ve done a couple of challenges, song-a-day. For a month we all write a song a day [as part of] a wonderful, terrible transformative exercise. I have two groups I’ve done this with. It’s a new era for me, to let people into the songs when they’re still potentially in formation, when they’re so fresh and unedited.

I don’t usually unleash any of that upon my audience, although maybe I should. It kind of sounds exhilarating.