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Climbing the World Tree; an Interview with Bluebird Gaia of Lasher Keen

Bluebird Gaia

Bluebird Gaia | Credit: Dennis N. Scott

.:.CLIMBING THE WORLD TREE.:.

An Interview with Bluebird Gaia of Lasher Keen

by Ian Campbell

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Lasher Keen is the strange and wonderful creation of a wife/husband duo (with various other collaborators) based out of Nevada City in Northern California. Bluebird Gaia and Dylan Sheets combine the sounds of acid folk, traditional song, bardic storytelling, and theatrical performance into a synthesis of manic music that has just the perfect touch of insanity. They’ve been compared to Comus or The Incredible String Band, but Lasher Keen incorporates modern ambient sounds, Pagan themes, and even influences as seemingly diverse as Motown and funk. Last year’s Mantic Poetry, Oracular Prophecy saw the band delving deep into psychedelic songs, with the whole album being dedicated to the psychoactive amanita muscaria mushroom. 2015 has seen the band take a new and unexpected turn. They wrote and performed a musical. The Middle Kingdom, written by Sheets, premiered in February, and the soundtrack to the play has been released as a new Lasher Keen album on their new Crystal Cave Records label. Heathen Harvest contributor Ian Campbell was henceforth given the opportunity to speak with multi-instrumentalist Bluebird Gaia about this new undertaking.

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Heathen Harvest: Those who aren’t familiar with Lasher Keen might think it’s strange that a folk band is making a foray into theater. To me it makes perfect sense as your shows have always been highly theatrical. You and Dylan Sheets often do much more than just play songs; you wear costumes, tell riddles, and even dance. The grand nature of a musical seems like a logical step for you, where for others it might seem unimaginable. I’d like to start by talking a bit about this new play, ‘The Middle Kingdom’. I know it is based around the Irish tale of the ‘Wooing of Etain’, which, again, seems appropriate to those who know your love for the ancient Celtic myths and songs. What inspired you and Sheets to take the steps towards making such a huge undertaking a reality?

Bluebird Gaia: Dylan and I were in the bath one night (we have a large bath tub) and through the steam we started dreaming of a sustainable way to play our music and support ourselves as, often, touring only pays for gas and food.  I remembered my college days when I was a theater minor and recalled all the traveling acts that came through on the college circuit. We were a duo at the time and came up with some ideas about a traveling show, with props and a theme. Dylan had just read The Wooing of Etain, which is one of my favorite stories from way back, and he was really inspired by it, so we thought that would be our first theme. At the time we thought it would just be the two of us and mostly just music telling a story with some narratives thrown in. Dylan then surprised me with an entire musical with many characters and all the music already written. Dylan dreams big. I was admittedly shocked, overwhelmed, and skeptical all at once, but here we are two years later, making it happen. We hope to take it on the college circuit and perform it still around the country. Next step: grant writing.

Bluebird Gaia | Credit: Dennis N. Scott

Bluebird Gaia | Credit: Dennis N. Scott

A side note and another reason we decided to do this, is that we had gone to see a guy play early music in Berkeley. About five early instruments, an hour-and-a-half set, $25 a person, sold out and, in my humble opinion, rather dull. Dylan and I immediately thought “we must do this, but in our own way.” Paying to play is just not sustainable. So we are putting it all on the table and trying to make a living with our “outsider music,” by widening our audience and branching out into mostly unknown territories.

HH: It’s a very bold move—especially for a band who is independent and very much underground. But it seems that you take the underground scene’s do-it-yourself community ethic into this new pursuit as well. The cast and crew of ‘The Middle Kingdom’ is replete with frequent collaborators and friends of Lasher Keen. Nils from Faun Fables is playing Midir, Leonna Sapphire is joining you once again, and the role of Etain is even being played by your daughter Fiona. How did you go about putting together the cast and crew, and who are some of the other important players?

BG: As far as putting together the crew, it happened fairly naturally. We always had some ideas of who would play what role, such as Nils being Midir, but we didn’t know if it would work. The role of Fuamnach, the sort of villainess, had a rotating cast of actresses that we thought would be great, but Elizabeth Grady ended up being cast and she has been wonderful. A lot of the cast are friends of ours that have never acted and were interested in being part of a new project. The High King of Ireland, Eochaid, is played by a local musician that we have known for years, Patience Yanderling. We have played several shows with his band, The Wicker Men, and it has been great working with him in this collaborative project.  We also have Tynowyn, who has been involved in the local theater scene here for many years. She is somewhat of a co-director and she also transposed all of the music and wrote harmonies for the choir. Every person in the production is bringing something different and exciting and is doing a great job of stepping in to something that has never been done before with really good attitudes and a lot of patience!

HH: You mentioned you’d like to have the play go on tour. Are there any solid plans for more performances? Any plans to film a performance for those who can’t physically attend?

BG: Actually, yes we are hoping to film it and make a DVD. We are hoping to use the DVDs to shop the show around and maybe get picked up in the Bay Area, or anywhere really! Someone from Humboldt State University just asked us for the script to see if we might possibly do a run up there next year.  Ideally, we would perform it at college campuses, but we are open to other theaters as well.

HH: That’s great news! I wanted to ask about the soundtrack, which is being released as a new Lasher Keen album. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing it and I think it might be the most accessible Lasher Keen album yet. Were there any particular challenges in arranging the music around the play? I notice there are usually only three or four instruments playing at one time on each song which makes me think things were more stripped down this time around. Also, where and how was it recorded? It has a very “live” and spacious sound. I could picture actors and musicians on stage while I was listening.

BG: Dylan wrote the music and the play as one, so they really fit together seamlessly. We worked on the arrangements twice a week for a year before we put the project down to work on Mantic Poetry, Oracular Prophecy. Dylan gave me one month after we finished our tour for Mantic… before we began working on the music again. Originally, it was only Leonna Sapphire on piano, Dylan on harp, and me on cello. We met James Word in the late summer of 2014 and asked if he wanted to join us. He did! We recorded a lot of Mantic Poetry, Oracular Prophecy live and decided that we wanted to record a mostly live album without many overdubs, which is why the sound is so stripped down. Dylan had visited a beautiful music temple down the road from our house with a friend a few years ago. He contacted them and they agreed to let us record there. We brought our 8-track Tascam 48 analog recorder out and hired our good friends Alex and John Renoir.  The ceilings were 30 feet high in the 2500-square-foot room. They have an 800-pipe organ in there that the owner has been building since 1962, a harpsichord, 3 grand pianos, and a ton of natural reverb.  Our goal was to make an old-style album like they did in the 40s-70s; one microphone in the middle with all the players in a circle around it.  It was the easiest album—and in some ways the most difficult—that we have ever recorded.  Also, we had only been given three days by the owners to record it! Many songs we did in one take. At one point, in one of the longest songs which ran to nine minutes, Leonna had to leave to teach a piano student immediately after. So we had to get it in one take. I was moving from cello to bodhrán, which I often do, and unfortunately, from habit, I shut the holder which squeaked and bumped my cello, and of course the mic picked it up! At first I was mortified, now I feel it adds character.

Bluebird Gaia & Dylan Sheets

Bluebird Gaia & Dylan Sheets

HH: I see you were trained in costume making. What or who were your inspirations for learning that art? Did you have any specific inspirations for the costumes of “The Middle Kingdom”? The visual presentation of the members has always been a big part of Lasher Keen performances, I imagine you’ve had a hand in that since the beginning?

BG: When I was in college, I was at a club fair and I met a bunch of kids dressed in medieval clothes. I had taught myself to spin wool when I was 20 and I also was a weaver, knitter, and crocheter. I was extremely interested in ancient textile arts and I fit right in with these kids. They were part of the Society for Creative Anachronism.  In this historical learning group, most everyone sews their own clothes, so I got a job at the campus costume shop and voila, 20 years later, I am a seamstress/costumer. I was first inspired to recreate the gowns in J.W. Waterhouse‘s paintings, but in my studies I have become interested in the styles of many different periods. In school I studied corsetry, millinery, and pattern drafting.  I’ve recreated outfits from 5th century BC all the way to 1930. I love it. After being involved in theater and the SCA, which can be quite stringent, Lasher Keen has been a way for me to release my creativity and cut loose the ties of historical accuracy. It has been really fun. What first attracted me to Dylan were the hand-stitched leather pants he made. I found a partner equal in my passion to create!

My inspirations for the costumes of The Middle Kingdom are Die Niebelugan by Fritz Lang, the illustrations of Stephen Reid, and the 6th century Celts. I have to constantly battle with myself to let my imagination soar and not get too uptight about if it’s period or not. Costuming, for me, is like cooking: If your ingredients are high quality and you don’t burn it, it will be delicious. I only use silk and linen. Things usually turn out pretty good.

[Author’s Note: The play had its premiere as we continued the interview; the last few questions take place just after the opening weekend.]

HH: From what I could see online it looks like the premiere of the play went very well. How are you feeling having realized this project?

BG: I feel great and a bit exhausted. It has been a whirlwind year. I’m so happy that people liked the play so much! Mostly, I am considering how we can take it on the road, finishing the costumes and making them better! I had only two solid weeks to work on the costumes which is really not enough. I definitely felt rushed. Otherwise, we already have a date to perform the play on a bigger stage in May which will be really nice. We sold out all 4 shows and they were turning people away! It just absolutely confirmed our theory that playing a gig in a bar, which I absolutely love doing, is not the way to support ourselves and our music. In this way, we got to share our music with a much broader audience and we got standing ovations every night. It was such a strong confirmation of our new direction that Dylan already has three new plays written!

HH: I also wanted to ask, as sort of a separate question, about the dynamics of performing with your family. It’s not something you see all too often, but it’s obviously a very big part of Lasher Keen. The band is headed by a wife/husband partnership, and now your daughter Fiona is involved through the play. Tell us about how this differs from collaborating with other friends or colleagues.

BG: It has been amazing to work with Dylan and be married to him also. I feel like our music has evolved drastically because of it. When I listen to our first album, Wither, and then our 5th album The Middle Kingdom, I am flabbergasted at how much we mesh now and how much more the music flows. It is astonishing. Other players, who are friends, come and go. I think that is why working with family is so unique. I can trust them with my feelings and ideas more, because I know they aren’t going anywhere! Working with Fiona has been a dream come true. Being the parent of teenagers can be trying at best, but I have found that incorporating her into our lives and projects so closely in this way has created a bond between us that is incredibly special. Her older sister was so taken with the performance that she is anxious for the next one, so she can be in it too. I am so glad to finally be part of the ancient tradition of families performing together. It is such a great way to keep your family close and still live your dreams. I recommend it!

HH: Thanks very much to you for your time and the interview. It’s good to see that this new project has had a successful beginning. It looks like this might be a turning point for Lasher Keen, so I’m very excited to see what the future brings. I’ll leave any last words to you.

Lasher Keen | Credit: John Taber

Lasher Keen | Credit: John Taber

BG: I’ve been playing music for half my life now, and eight years or so with Dylan in Lasher Keen. What I have learned, from Dylan, mostly, is to hold on to my vision. There is no need to compromise or give up on your art, because in essence, it is the extension of yourself. As big and beautiful as you can dream, that is what you can share with the world. I have been so humbled by the response to the play, but at the same time, I feel this intense excitement that says “What can we do next? How can we make it even better?” I truly feel limitless.

It has not been an easy road, playing strange music that is forged of a new sound and yet inspired, as we are, by antiquity, but it is a good one, and one I hope to journey on for many years to come.

Lasher Keen’s The Middle Kingdom

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