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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

Singer Rachel Ries Talks Ghosts, Faith And The Power Of Language

Singer-songwriter Rachel Ries came to Vermont by way of South Dakota, Zaire, Chicago and New York City. She's referred to her own style as "prairie-swing meets city-folk." 

In her new album, Ghost of a Gardener, Ries fuses her rural roots and urban proclivities in meditations on faith and language; the album comes out this month after Ries took a three-year hiatus from writing and performing. Ries spoke with Vermont Edition's Ric Cengeri about the album, her childhood in a Mennonite community and the power and vulnerability wrapped up in songwriting.

On being haunted by 'Ghosts'

"There are so many. I think they're all really in my head, though. That one in particular is kind of this phantom self of mine — the one that grew up in South Dakota where there was dirt everywhere, and I had to work on the farm. And now I wish I could, but I've been kind of trapped in cities for a while. I've felt like there was this haunted self of me that's been trying to find someplace for roots, someplace to grow something.

"Living in New York City most recently, I did need to be pretty intentional about feeding that part of me by going to the big, beautiful parks that are in New York — going to Central Park and foraging berries to make jam. Doing things like that to kind of counteract all the asphalt, I guess, that you're surrounded by."

On faith and music and 'Holiest Day'

"I wrote this song when I was on a writing retreat in eastern Tennessee. So I went out one day on this drive, and I stumbled upon this community of Old Order Mennonites. That was kind of wild because I was raised a Mennonite — that's my roots. And so I found these people who were so close to this alternate reality of me. They have no electricity and they're lives are filled with faith and family and food, kind of all the basic necessities. And so when I went out there, I just wanted to stay. I felt so drawn to their world and it was so deeply familiar and strange. Instead, I bought the raw milk and I went back each week for butter and yogurt and that kind of stuff. And I wrote this song.

"I think probably the biggest way that faith has influenced the path I've taken is that I grew up with a lot of music. I grew up with so much awesome music in the church. The harmonies were so rich and so necessary, and so from the earliest times I can remember, I wanted to be a singer. Just making music together, raising it up to the heavens, whatever that means, is something I don't know how to not be drawn to."

On leaving music  and coming back

"Right after [my second album] "Without a Bird," Anais Mitchell and I realized a country EP ... but after that I quit playing music completely for about three years. I was really run down, physically and emotionally, from touring. I had really had enough of the striving and the hunger for something more. I think I'd sort of forgotten how to actually enjoy music, and that felt so deeply wrong. So I decided to completely quit and let that show me if music was still important.

"Turns out three years of not writing a song and not making any music, not even around the house, it turns out that's kind of awful. That clearly was not the solution, and so I just decided to come back to music, but do it on my own terms."

On 'Words' and the art of language

"This is a pretty monumental song for me, because it's the first one I wrote when I was coming back — when I decided to not be quiet anymore, when I decided to write ... It's about words and language and words being a flock of birds in your mouth, and you don't necessarily have control over them, and they flit away and they come to you. To a certain degree, songwriting is a giving up of control.

"I committed a songwriter's sin by throwing in a "la la la" chorus at the end. But that was a very willful decision on my part because it's sort of admitting ... here's my song, here's all I have to give, and in the end maybe that's just "la la la." But I've got to say something, so here you go."

Patti is an integral part of VPR's news effort and part of the team that created Vermont Edition. As executive producer, Patti supervises the team that puts Vermont Edition on the air every day, working with producers to select and research show ideas, select guests and develop the sound and tone of the program.
Ric was a producer for Vermont Edition and host of the VPR Cafe.
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