Sarah Louise Henson is one with nature. As a musician, her ethereal offerings sound as if they are endorsed both by the Sierra Club and a roving band of mystics. And maybe the ghost of Ralph Waldo Emerson. The Asheville, North Carolina area creative ups the ante on her new LP, Deeper Woods, a transcendent journey through Mother Earth’s majesty.
“On nights when I can’t sleep,” she sings, “I climb to the top of white oak creek.” Every note and every noise on Deeper Woods is a purposeful declaration of nature’s beauty, wisdom, and might. And she’s deeply part of it all. She cannot escape, nor would she want to get out. As Sarah Louise shares later in this song, “And I sing / The whole woods ring.”
She sings with a force. Sarah Louise’s 2015 album Field Guide – a release for the Tulsa-based label Scissor Tail Editions – was solely instrumental. That effort took her John Fahey-style American Primitive Guitar and blended it with wilder experimentation. But it was still a guitar record, pure and simple.
Deeper Woods is something different and something bolder – largely due to Henson’s commanding voice. As her debut record on Thrill Jockey Records, it is a hugely immersive soundscape – that kind of creation. Inventive and daring, Deeper Woods is hard to classify from a genre perspective. Some would call it experimental roots music, while others would toss it in the rock bin and call it a day. Easy said, easy done. But it’s an album that is somewhere in transition, spread out into those in-between sonic spaces.
That’s a theme Sarah Louise plumbs here, especially on “The Field That Touches My House and Yours”, one of the two tracks on Deeper Woods that showcases Henson all alone. “The plant between my garden and the woods / I build my home between these worlds,” she allows. With a warbling falsetto and strains of synthesizers modestly swirling around her, this artist captures the openings, the gaps. Is it purgatory or just a free area to run wild? There’s an uneasiness all over the record, so it’s not clear whether these wide open spaces are freeing or confining.
Either way, Henson maintains a deep reverence for nature’s bounty. That affection comes across through the rich, mind-searing imagery: the “crow in the tallest pine” that “set my heart a-flutter” or the spot where “the saxifrage and pinwheel moss patiently grow”.
Henson is complimented throughout the album by various friends, like her House and Land partner Sally Anne Morgan (also of the Black Twig Pickers), who adds the fiddle to “Pipevine Swallowtails”. Thom Nguyen offers subtle drumming on three songs, and Jason Meagher – who runs the Upstate New York Black Dirt Studio, where the album was mixed – plays electric bass on “When Winter Turns”.
The lead track, “Bowman’s Root”, forces a trance-like experience through a purposeful march and stunning guitar feedback. And there’s a steady beat that guides the quieter but just as magical “Up on the Ridge”, found on the album’s back half.
Sometimes Deeper Woods is a loud, beating-wind squall, and sometimes it’s a gentle murmur. Either way, it wraps the listener up in many rich, entrancing layers.