While backstage at Pickathon, XRAY’s Amalia Boyles had the pleasure of sitting down with Leah Song to discuss her life in Rising Appalachia – the values that inspire her work, her experience of performing at Standing Rock, and the challenges of touring in bus fueled by vegetable oil.
Listen to the full interview here –
Leah Song: Hi, I’m Leah Song, one of the founders of Rising Appalachia, one of the sisters. We’re here at Pickathon–our first time.
Amalia Boyles: Welcome! So, you are on tour right now doing [Pickathon]? Is that right?
L: Yeah, we’re always on tour. We’re just permanently on tour.
A: So, what’s a crazy story from tour that you can tell me?
L: Well, you know actually I was going into the archives, because I think when we first started–we’ve been touring for about thirteen years and my sister–and I started, the two of us with a percussionist.
And we toured all around the country in a biodiesel–in a vegetable run grease bus, just the two of us and my crazy wolf-dog and our amazing percussionist in this old like, beat-up, punk rock school bus with, you know? Robert Johnson stencils all over it.
But that bus broke down, I literally think like, every other day for the fourth months we traveled around the country. We were talking about it the other day; when we arrived in Boston it broke down in the main Boston tunnel. With like six lanes of traffic on every side.
We got the bus hauled out. It stopped at a truck stop and we worked the whole mechanic system out there. It was just amazingly hilarious that we’ve been doing this for as long as we have. The early days were hard.
A: Do you have any [memories] that are, strikingly disgusting or memorable?
L: Yeah, totally. When we first toured in Europe, we toured in Ireland.
Our promoter put us up at his apartment in Ireland. And it was like the essential, most archetypal, disgusting bachelor pad you could possibly imagine.
[The host] said, “I’ve got space for everyone.” And we got there and there was one couch.
And a dog is sleeping on the dog bed and he said, “This is a big bed-dog bed.” There was mustard streaks all over everything.
The bathroom was clogged and we were just thinking, “what are we doing with our lives? This fricken sucks.” So, those are brutal memories.
A: How do you practice self-care? Like, in those moments where you are confronted by things that are disgusting or unforeseen circumstances?
L: Oh, well we’ve dialed our systems a lot more. We got to a place where we will not stay in bachelor pads anymore. It’s just a universal rule.
We’d like there to be a woman somewhere in the home or associated with the home. Or have a really good relationship with our friends. I just think we lean a little more communally.
We also do a lot of work in social justice and I think when you really dig into working with communities of people that are in actual dire, oppressed situations, then your capacity to handle annoying things is heightened.
If you really are working with folks that are down-and-out, then you have a really different understanding of what down-and-out means. And many times when something is uncomfortable for us, it’s not threatening.
So, that keeps us really I think humble and balanced and grateful, also. About wherever it is that we are.
A: Your role as a musician and as a creator, coming into communities from all different demographics, all different spaces and being able to give your craft to people knowing they’re coming from so many different backgrounds. Do you see yourself as advocacy or mission-driven?
L: Yeah, I mean I think everyone one of us would answer differently but I think that’s a really big central piece of our project. And I think also just as individuals. All four of the primary band members all started as heavy activists.
You know, I met our drummer at the School of Americas protest, which is a giant paramilitary school that has a big annual vigil every year. Our guitarist does a lot of work in primitive skills and mountaintop removal. And I’m kind of the re-wilding of earth based-living and, you know, my sister was a tree-sitter. She was doing a lot of work in the redwood trees.
Literally, like way, way up in the trees building Robin Hood camps to try and keep these great old redwoods from getting taken out.
So, this was all of our lives before this band started. I spent a lot of time in Latin America too. Just really digging into a lot of the international human rights work and social justice work that was going on in Southern Mexico and in Columbia. And so, we have all had a wealth of experience in advocacy. And in just sort of front line, experiential, on the ground, direct to action work.
And I think, Rising Appalachia happened by accident and it happened slowly. We were all doing it part-time while we were doing other things and it very slowly occurred to us that we would reach a lot wider, through something that is cathartic like music.
A: What’s the hardest show that you have played? Maybe emotionally, not technically.
Leah: I’d say the hardest show we’ve played in a technical and in an emotional and even just like temperature-wise, was when we played at Standing Rock.
We were invited to participate and we were really hesitant to go. Not because we weren’t involved, we were very involved in Standing Rock from the early days. But because we felt like we really wanted that to be a native run, an indigenous lead movement.
We got invited by the International Indigenous Youth Council. And they said, “Please come, we want your voice here and we want you to do a show.” And we did a show with three other women-run bands. And we did it on Thanksgiving Day.
It was, like, right after the water cannons had gone off. Nothing will ever hold candle to that.
A: That’s amazing. Where do you see your work taking you in the future? Do you see intentionally moving towards points of advocacy in social justice? Or do you see that as just being the way that music is entwined in the world naturally?
L: The truth of the matter is that my personal agenda is very much in advocacy and I don’t want the two to necessarily always go hand-in-hand. I think that our music can reach people and impact people with or without the activist component. And I really believe that part of our mission is to create music that reaches people where they’re at.
And then it isn’t always tied into justice, because maybe somebody is having a hard day or they are exhausted or they just want a really good love song or a heartbreak song. And there is a place for music to just reach in, in its sheer melody. You know?
And I think that’s an important part it–of our work.
And my personal life, I think advocacy steps higher and higher up on the totem pole. And I would love to be touring less and organizing more and studying more and writing more. And, finding a way to actually channel all of the power that has come from the stage into some of the work that no one will see. That we’ll go behind closed doors, that we’ll be the support of the quiet organizers and the public school teachers and the urban farmers.
I love being in those places, where there’s nothing to do with a big party or the lights and the glam and the mics.
Getting enough breathing room so that other things can fit in there will be really exciting.