Siri Undlin remembers why people wrote songs in the first place: to pass along tales that didn’t require a pen and paper to preserve them.
The title of Undlin’s new album as Humbird, Pharmakon, comes from a Greek word with two diametrically opposite meanings: remedy and poison all in one. It can describe a spell or a charm that brings the answer you seek, but that answer can also kill you.
Coming home to Minnesota may be the much-traveled songwriter’s own personal pharmakon. It’s necessary to recenter her world, but staying here can invite complacency and deaden the capacity for change, as Undlin shares from her Minneapolis home on a late summer evening.
“You know, I’m a white woman living in Minnesota, and I think it’s really important for me to be constantly aware of my own privilege and also the complacency that comes with it,” says Undlin. “I think part of what draws me to songwriting and touring is this really insatiable, constant questioning of ‘What’s behind that next horizon? Who’s that person? What can I learn from them? What can they learn from me?’ It’s this curiosity thing, and I feel it’s my quest to figure out how it all connects.”
Like a cicada finding new life by squeezing out of its skin, Undlin hit the road a few years ago and took some jobs unrelated to music. She worked on a flower farm in Vermont for a month, harvesting dahlias, foxgloves, and yarrow. The day’s hard labor left her sweaty and dirty but allowed her mind to wander, fueling creative late afternoons and early evenings, when she cultivated the ideas that had sprouted in her soft-focused mind.
The songs Undlin wrote during this period dreamily conjure days gone by. Only later did she realize she’d unwittingly written about strong women whose experiences and stories were connected by universal themes.
Undlin worked with engineer Brian Joseph (Bon Iver, Sufjan Stevens) and producer Shane Leonard (Field Report) to bring the songs to life. When they finished recording, she took a step back and looked at the songs she’d strung together and realized the lyrics all concerned women, real and mythological. She found that each track had its own narrator coming from a different perspective, but that each also centered around the struggles women have faced for thousands of years—the policing of their bodies, the roles they are forced into, and how they do what they can to push forward.
Undlin wrote the opening track, “48 Hours,” from her own experience after working a double shift at a pizza restaurant. In a quick minute and forty seconds, Undlin manages to capture all the claustrophobia of being stuck in a job you hate with nowhere to turn.
Through the women she writes about, Undlin has lived many lives. “I like educating myself on the history of women through time—and not just women, but I know I tend to gravitate towards those stories, because that’s how I identify, and it helps me to understand so much of my behavior,” she says. “So much of what I think I’m supposed to do is really just certain voices and power trying to keep women oppressed. The body is this wild animal thing; we are not separate from nature, we’re part of it, and the civilizing of women’s bodies is a really dangerous thing.
“That leads me to constantly question my own choices and my complacency when I get too comfortable,” she continues. “I should be asking more questions of myself as to how can I be more active and present. Questions like, ‘I’m a woman, and I’m being pushed into certain boxes. Am I pushing myself into them? Am I listening to voices? Is this about a certain kind of pressure that’s thousands of years old? Or is it specific to my own era?’ I don’t know. I don’t really have answers, but I was wrestling with all those ideas when I wrote these songs.”
After she releases this new album, Undlin will hit the road for five weeks with her band to shake off the comforts of home. She would never have found her stories and songs without traveling, but touring does take its toll. “Being on the road so much really comes at a cost of your mental and physical health,” she says. “I think I am really trying to hold myself accountable, because if I’m not healthy, I’m definitely not doing good work. I want to connect with people and to have conversations with someone who says, ‘This song made a difference for me today.’ That’s such a gift.
“Then other days—especially with social media, like the self promotional aspects of it—it feels like this big ego indulgence. You can feel both of those things in the same day, so it’s a lot of whiplash. The older I get, the more I realize that’s OK. I think when you start to fight that inner voice—the one that says I need to settle down, even though you don’t want to—that’s when it’s detrimental to your mental health. That’s when you can miss out on the beauty that is around you, because you’re so focused on that fight.”
With: The Nunnery, Bad Posture Club
Where: Parkway Theater
When: 8 p.m. Fri. Sept. 7
Tickets: All ages; $10/$15; more info here