BLUE OF DISTANCE.
LEA THOMAS TELLS THE STORY OF MAKING AN ALBUM IN THE WILDERNESS OF MONTELLO, NV WITH HER PARTNER & MUSIC COLLABORATOR JOHN THAYER.
Told in Conversation with Alex Free
Photos by Lea Thomas, Top Photo by John Thayer
Brooklyn, NY 10/02/2019
John and Lea were awarded space at the Montello Residency in late 2018 to spend time collaborating on and recording the folk-ambient songs that have become ‘Blue of Distance,’ released Oct. 4, 2019 on Spirit House Records. The first days they spent recording, and exploring the space around their residency home on foot and bike.
About midway through their stay, they traveled through the canyon systems and mountain ranges of Montello to visit the Bonneville Salt Flats and shoot a music video. Lea Thomas shares how the way back, and being confronted with the realities of wilderness in a new sense, changed the way the album was being recorded, and their understanding of what it meant to be there.
We had a nice time, we shot a music video, and then we came back, and it had been storming the whole time we were gone. But we didn’t know. Between us and our living space was a series of mountains, and the storms would get sucked into different mountain ranges.
We hadn’t been rained on, but where we were living a torrential downpour had been going on. We took the eastern entrance back to the house, and the canyon roads were turned into mud-slicks. Going up for 17 miles on mud that was 8 inches, a foot deep, and no traction in this little car. We got about halfway and got a flat tire, and the sun was starting to set, and it was starting to rain again.
We would have had to walk 10 miles to the nearest person if there had been no spare tire. And it was a rental, so there was a moment of panic that there wasn’t. John was driving, sliding around. We were in a canyon ravine, so flash-floods could’ve happened. It was the first time in my life that I felt actually, physically threatened.
After that we were stuck there, at the residency space. We let the roads dry out and we patiently waited for a couple days, then we tried to get out, and we got stuck in a giant mud-slick. It took two days to dig ourselves out.
It’s a different experience, feeling lost in an entirely alien landscape with no way to ask for help. All these what-ifs, all the mind games that you play.
At first the energy was really peaceful, and we used the music to really enjoy and color the space. But after our incident, it became more a means to calm ourselves.
Because otherwise we were just alone, and it was deafeningly silent at night. We were just alone with our thoughts. Having the music was so cathartic. Out there it felt like I needed to make music, because I had to move the emotion out of my body. I had to be physically pushing that energy through, otherwise it was just too much.
I’d never really experienced anxiety on such a visceral level.
My response to stressful or anxious things in life is to ask ‘how do I slow this down and create harmony out of this dissonance?’ I let songs come when they wanted to come. Everything that we worked on there was written and recorded in that same space, so it was very it was a great songwriting exercise, it was a great improvising exercise— but what was so beautiful for me was that I can imagine being there and being in the room, and letting it go, in a way. We probably created more in resposne to what happened rather than to challenge it; countering it with something more gentle.
The space was also so expansive. At the same time that we were feeling these small, human feelings, we really wanted to do more justice to the space. Almost a documentation of the landscape, itself. And the landscape is not experiencing emotionality, you know, the landscape is just huge.
There’s a little blip of a song, a vignette on the record called the Valley is Wide, and the lyrics are very true to that imagery.
‘Timeless, unrefined, night falls heavy
The valley is wide and all-knowing.
Black, chained shadows unbroken by silvery light.
And I’m holding on tight when that cold wind blows.’
It’s very wide. It’s a very open space. It’s a terrifying kind of thing to feel, when you’re a part of that space. There’s so much you can do with that information—you can try to fill that space, or you can witness that space, or you can get carried away or blown around in that space.
That’s why we really leaned on ambient tones for that experience, because ambient is such a grounding genre, a grounding expression: to be improvising and reacting to; it’s just direct expression. It has it’s own expansiveness but it’s also rooted in some kind of harmonic or melodic element.
It was so freeing, but to spend that much quiet time with yourself is intense. It’s something entirely different, when you’re in a space where there’s truly no intersections, no human intersections in an entire day. I think it can be both frightening and fascinating, what comes to mind and what becomes unearthed, musically. There’s really no way to translate that into an experience you can recreate for an album, but I think that if in trying to, if that’s as close to sharing that experience with other people, then I’d like to try.
John recorded and mixed everything, it was mastered by our friend Heba Kadry. We just packed everything in two suitcases and drove it out into the middle of the woods. It was really a far-out experience of recording. Everything was solar-powered.
John brought a four track cassette recorder. We used pro-tools too, but a lot of the warbling on the record is not emulated, it’s real cassette recording. It was very raw, and very analogue for a lot of it. It was a very intentional choice. There were a couple songs where the tape hiss was quite loud, and we talked about doing a hi-fi version, but this was not a hi-fi experience.
We went there knowing that we wanted to make an ambient-folk collaboration. We had never really equally collaborated on a release; John has recorded my albums, and we’d been in bands together, but this was a John and Lea kind of an album.
We’re so compatible when it comes to making music together. Especially through the genre of ambient music, making something that is harmonious and long-form, and patient, and ultimately, I think, beautiful is where we’ve really found common ground over the past few years.
We live very easily together, we exist very easily together.
We really wanted to create a record that was less about our personal stories and more about what it means to just witness a place. It was really just to bear witness to this landscape, and the mountains, and the coyotes. The sounds that John recorded, field recordings, they were all just present and there. Walking through the mud, coyote calls, falling juniper berries.
I want that to translate, what it means to have had that experience, and bring back a little of that feeling. I feel that ultimately being humbled by your landscape is something that a lot of people living in the city lose touch with, and that’s such an important part of being human, especially in a time of ecological turmoil.
I think that, ultimately, environment is the greatest truth that I know, in life.
It creates a greater foundation for your on voice to emerge, re-emerge, because you are listening more. If you’re in a new environment, you’re slowing down, you’re listening—that’s everything. You’re watching the insects, and you’re watching the sky, the way the clouds change, and you can really understand so many things about a new place when you have those tools to pay attention.
It’s really good to dig deep, and get to know what’s around you, because I think that’s where you develop real understanding.
John and Lea Montello Residency—