At times as gentle as a whirring harmonium, at others as fierce as a soul diva plowing through an encore, Aby Wolf's voice is a mesmerizing and time-stopping force. On a freezing Thursday night in Uptown, Wolf and a trio of other female folk singers gathered to play a hootenanny, taking turns telling stories and singing songs at writer and songwriter Jim Walsh's curated event. Though the other singer-songwriters showed promise, no one could compete with the way Wolf's voice held the room rapt.
Tall and slender with a wave of dark brown hair, Wolf sat bolt upright with her eyes pinched shut, rocking back and forth as she strummed her guitar and emitted waves of beautiful vocal melodies. Next to her, traditional Norse folk singer Kari Tauring explained that Scandinavians believe that all music is channeled from nature, that no songwriter has an original musical idea. Smiling politely, Wolf gave her neighbor a no-duh stare; she's been channeling music her whole life.
A singer since childhood, Wolf's earliest memories of music include listening to her mother's folk and new-age records and attending an annual folk and bluegrass festival in Dubuque, Iowa, across the border from her tiny northwestern Illinois hometown.
"There was this festival called the Mississippi River Revival, which was essentially a big hippie folk fest summer jam annual thing," she explains over tea and Nepalese food the day before the hootenanny. "I have memories of being there every summer and seeing this community of kids.... I have these sensations of community that are very much tied with this musical experience—moms and grandpas and children all dancing around in circles and holding hands."
Wolf has found that feeling of community again as an adult, she says, as she has become increasingly active in the local music scene. She cut her teeth performing as a backup singer for R&B and hip-hop artist Omaur Bliss. Bliss was quick to recognize Wolf's talent as a powerhouse singer and burgeoning songwriter, eventually pushing her to leave the group and focus on her own project. "Big thanks go out to Omaur Bliss," Wolf says. "He did the recording and also really encouraged me so much, single-handedly, to do the project."
The resulting album, Sweet Prudence, is a remarkably accessible and cohesive effort. Though Wolf's voice is by far the most captivating element, the record also showcases her diverse abilities as a songwriter. The songs range in instrumentation from sparse and minimal ("Give Listen," "Redwood Aisle") to plush and violin- and accordion-heavy ("Keara") to pop-infused, beat-heavy R&B ("What U Waitn 4," with Bliss guest starring).
The most mesmerizing songs on the album are also the simplest. "Thanks 4 Listening" finds Wolf alone in her messy bedroom, singing to her red lamp in the corner. "I could write my name in the dust on your face," she sighs, lamenting her overbooked life. It seems silly at first, dedicating an entire song to such a mundane moment, but it ultimately offers a deeply personal glimpse into the inner workings of Wolf's busy mind.
"I feel like I work really well with assembling bits and pieces that are already in front of me, and then adding to them or subtracting from them," Wolf says of her songwriting, deconstructing her process scientifically. "Most of the time I start with a riff on the guitar, or figure out where to put my hands to get a good chord, and then move it to the next spot, and then build something from there. And then the lyrics come after that."
Aside from the solid songwriting, the songs on Sweet Prudence are tied together by the haunting beauty of Wolf's vocal melodies, which meander through high and low ranges with the ease of a nimble trapeze artist. Wolf says she has taken voice lessons off and on for years, most recently studying with a unique kind of private teacher. "She's a Buddhist priest," says Wolf. "Her approach to music and the voice is very holistic. She really takes into account how I'm feeling and how my body's been doing in the winter, and what's been going on in my life, because all of those things really inform what comes out of your mouth.
"It's not like playing guitar," she says, adding a trill to the end of each of her words as if to emphasize the point that singing is an innate and sometimes irrepressible force. "Your instrument is part of your body."
ABY WOLF will perform a CD-release show with Black Blondie and Lucy Michelle and the Velvet Lapelles on SATURDAY, JANUARY 24, at the CEDAR CULTURAL CENTER; 612.338.2674