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"Life is extremely spiritual," says Bethany Valentini emphatically. "It just is. No matter what sort of control we think we have or what sort of decisions we make or we don't make, our lives have a certain momentum and are guided by something."
The Ericksons play an album-release show on Thursday, January 17, at the Cedar Cultural Center; 612.338.2674
For all the artists claiming to know something about spirituality, Valentini is actually qualified to discuss it. The co-frontwoman for folk-rock act the Ericksons has led a strange life, filled with twists and bumps along the road. In early 2006, Valentini's first husband, Lee Erickson, had fallen ill and was dying, and it was through the excruciating process of losing him that year that the Ericksons were born. Sitting at a crowded bar with her sister and bandmate Jenny Kapernick, Valentini sheds some light on the circumstances that have guided her music and the band's latest album, The Wild.
"The songs started coming together two years ago," says Valentini slowly. "We started playing them out and seeing if they worked. Writing for The Wild was...I just kept thinking, 'Just let it go.'"
Letting go, it turns out, was the best possible approach for the sisters. For the first time, Valentini was working on an electric guitar, creating music that was bigger, fuller, and more expressive. The opening track, "Gone Blind," sounds like a ghost monologue, while "Dirty Dishes" is a pressure-perfect ballad of frustration and loss.
The Wild is hugely different from the Ericksons' 2010 release, Don't Be Scared, Don't Be Alarmed; it traverses genres and influences, from the stark and solemn echo of electric strings to Valentini and Kapernick's seamless Appalachian harmonies. Aptly named, The Wild pulses with an extraordinary vibrancy as Valentini uses songwriting to understand her grief.
"My time with Lee was so real, so raw. Any time you're dealing with life-and-death stuff on a daily basis, stuff is real. But it was also real in this very...beautiful way," explains Valentini carefully as Kapernick nods, concentrating on the words. "During that time, I kind of found myself, and we found ourselves musically. I tapped into my most real place. As I continue writing and as we continue working, that place is like this eternal thing, and the context of life changes, but it's this thing, this base that is always the same. Lee was someone who encouraged me to get there."
"Lee gave [the music] a place, where you would have never done that," says Kapernick to her sister. "It would always be in the corner."
"You need extreme circumstances to have the courage to look at your true self, you know? Because you can go day to day. You can be whoever you want to be. You don't have to face yourself," says Valentini. "But it was a combination of things — it was [Lee's] artistic spirit, plus those extreme situations of life and death and sickness that just forced me to get there."
That said, The Wild is not a coping album, or a contrived response to a tragedy. It doesn't sound like a regurgitated sympathy card, and that's because Valentini doesn't look at her music like that. What the Ericksons have constructed on their new album is a sound that puts emotion first and composition second; the flow is impeccable and precious, like a bread-crumb trail to the heart.
"Someone could ask, 'What's that song about,' and usually, I have absolutely no answer. It's not that I don't want to talk about it. It's just my most honest way of processing my experiences — good, bad, whatever," explains Valentini. She has been sitting composedly on her barstool, hands resting on her legs for the duration of the interview, calmly thinking through her answers. When asked about where she writes from, she pauses.
"To create anything real, for me, it starts with a place of silence, because if it starts from my thoughts or my desires or my wishes, it's probably not going to mean that much to you," she says with finality. "But if it starts in that place of silence, where it isn't about me or what I may want to say...it's having the courage to find that silence and listen."