Inside the Songs: Rayna Gellert's Journey Into Memory

Rayna Gellert is perhaps best known as the fiddler for firebrand alt-old-time band Uncle Earl, and though her old-time fiddling is truly wonderful, with her new album, Old Light: Songs from My Childhood & Other Gone Worlds, she's turning over a new leaf as a singer and songwriter. Of course, many artists have tried this before, but it's not very common for someone to nail it quite so well. Released this October on New York-based Story Sound Records, Old Light is a gem of an album, and Rayna's original songs are proof positive that she's an new talent in this crowded field. Of course, Rayna's voice should be familiar to any fan of Uncle Earl, but listening to this album, she seems to have come into her own even more as a singer. On Twitter I called her "the American Kate Rusby", and I still stick by that statement.

The songs on Old Light are split evenly between original songs from Rayna's pen and traditional songs pulled from Rayna's lifetime spent immersed in American old-time music. She learned many tunes from her dad, Dan Gellert (a renowned old-time banjo player), and more from friends on her many travels. I was curious how learning tunes for so many years and now moving to writing tunes interacted with her musical memory bank, and it turns out Rayna was curious too. Much of the album is a musing on memory and what a fragile hold it has over our lives. I'll let her tell the rest in her own words:

Hearth Music's Inside the Songs with Rayna Gellert

Rayna Gellert: "Nothing"

"I had been picking away at this album for quite a while when a friend lent me a book called The Seven Sins of Memory (by Daniel Schacter). It's about how and why our memories are inaccurate, and the trouble this can cause. I'd been reading Musicophilia(the Oliver Sacks book about music and the brain), and I'd already written "The Platform" [the song on her album most concerned with memory] -- so this brain-related stew was swirling around for a while. This song came bubbling up out of that stew, informed by how the stuff we take for granted (our memories of our own experience) can be utterly WRONG. It's also addressing the project itself, in a way -- my friend David MacLean, who wrote the liner notes for my album (and about whom I wrote "The Platform"), referred to "Nothing" as my "mission statement". I guess it's a bit dark, since it's dwelling on how fragile and liminal it is to be alive and cognitive; but it's also saying we're all in this together, which I find very comforting."

Rayna Gellert: "The Stars"

"Being new to writing songs, it's really fun for me to find out what other people hear in songs I've written. This one has elicited all sorts of personal projections from folks, which is really touching, and makes me feel like I tapped into something. It must be a universal experience to reach a certain age and gaze back on a past that seems magical and innocent, before whatever loss or life-change or trauma came in and knocked us for a loop. When we recorded it I wanted it to sound a little drunk, but, despite the sense of disorientation in the lyrics, it's not about actual drunkenness. It's a sort of kaleidoscope of youth and music and blissed-out-ness that I'm trying desperately to make sense of through the veil of time, while simultaneously pinning so much onto a past that's gone. It is a personal song, and an exploration of one of my own "gone worlds", but one I hope other people project their own experiences onto."

Rayna Gellert: "The Fatal Flower Garden" (traditional)

"Most of the traditional songs on this album are songs that my parents sang. This one isn't -- it's one I heard on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music (aka "the anthology"), which we listened to all the time when I was a tiny kid. It's performed by Nelstone's Hawaiians, and is creepy as all get-out. My vivid early-childhood imaginings of the story this song tells are burned into my brain. I pictured it all happening in our yard and our neighbor's yard (and house). My brothers and I frequently talk about how traumatized we were by some of the songs we heard as kids, but how those uncomfortable songs were the ones we wanted to hear over and over again. My goal in recording it was to evoke the melodramatic creepiness this song carries in my memory."


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Tags: Dan Gellert, Daniel Schacter, David MacLean, Musicophilia, Old Light, Oliver Sacks, Rayna Gellert, The Seven Sins of Memory, Uncle Earl, music and memory


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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.