words by tom johnson
If ever an album laid itself out for all to see on through its very first words, then Sun Riah’s astonishing “Sitting with Sounds and Listening for Ghosts” is it. Streaming in full for you below from today, it’s a spellbinding and crushingly personal ode to people and places and the weight we carry with us from living in and around such things. Opening with ‘Grandma’s Room’, perhaps the record’s most poignant track, the song, and album as a whole, will cut incredibly deep with anyone who has suffered the loss of a family member; grandparent or otherwise.
“When I grow up I want to be an old lady with lots of buttons. I want to solve problems with needle and thread. When I grow up I want to find your face in mine…” M. Bailey Stephenson sings with a tenderness and raw honesty that prickles the senses, even as we write this now, even though we know these words already.
“The album centers around the house where my grandmother was born in 1926 and lived until she died in 2015,” Stephenson says of her incredible record, which is released fully tomorrow, via the Keeled Scales label. “I wish I could say that (we) had an easy relationship, but that wouldn’t be true. I admired her, and I loved her deeply. I also am unwaveringly grateful to her because she and my grandpa took care of me when no one else would or could, but we didn’t always get along.”
Drifting between personal anecdotes (“The Middle Room” is the original foundation of the house, and the room in which Stephenson’s Grandmother was born, for example) and far more universal themes of love, and loss, and longing, and the sheer scope of the weird little things that become our life and our own story. Such, often overwhelming, themes coupled with the care and quality of the work itself results in one of 2017’s most striking albums; a record of such warmth and wonder and powerful sincerity that’ll it’ll leave you exploring and questioning the fabric of your own existence – and we say that with as little hyperbole as possible.
Stream the album in full below right now; here are a few more words from Sun Riah about how the whole thing came together:
After my grandparents were both gone, I watched the house change with loneliness and lack of care. I went into the house almost a year after her death. There were still dishes in the sink. Her walker was rusted on the front steps. Her toothbrush hung in the bathroom. She was all around me in ways, but the sounds of her living were gone. I did the dishes, and then I sat in her room and began to imagine the life of the house in song, in sound. I started with journaling, just writing down memories, moments that we shared, sounds that I remembered as a child, and sounds that I imagined once lived in the house but that I personally never knew.
Eventually, I turned to my harp. I sat at my harp with my journal perched on my music stand, and I found in my journal that months before I had musically notated my grandmother’s name. There is an old musical practice in which composers encoded words into their works by attaching alphabet letters to musical note names. I had employed some variation of this in my journal. I sat at my harp, and I played my grandmother’s name: R A C H E L.
Her name encoded in song is the basis of the album. Her name is the beginning harp melody of the first track on the album, “Grandma’s Room and Trains in the Distance.” It shows up again in various ways throughout different tracks, and it is the final musical phrase of the album. My grandfather’s name is hidden in the album too. Once I found the melody, I played my grandmother’s name again and again, and then the words spilled. The album fell out of me, it soothed me, it took me back to her, to her house.
“Sitting with Sounds and Listening for Ghosts” is released tomorrow, via Keeled Scales