Zoe Boekbinder & Dustin Hamman
Among Horses II
words by maria sledmere
They say that seven is a lucky number, linked with creation, cosmology, the colours of the rainbow. There are seven days in a week, and a lot you can do in those seven days, if you put a few minds to it. The Among Horses project, which lies at the heart of Barcelona’s Son Canciones records, is an opportunity for two musicians to meet one another, live together, write and record music over just seven days. At Mas Casanova, Spain, there’s a farm nestled in pine trees surrounded by herds of wild horses. The farm’s owner, Merçè, describes it simply as ‘a home for horses and people’. It’s an environment where time slows down, where the focus is on coexistence, on giving and making. An musician’s residency of sorts, a place for living clean and beautifully. It’s easy to imagine melodies swirling in the air around those pines, catching the first gold tones of a sunset as free-range chickens squabble in the dust.
Following Among Horse’s debut duo, Barcelona-based Lieven Scheerlinck (A Singer of Songs) and Scotland’s own Dan Willson (Withered Hand), Among Horses II features California’s Zoe Boekbinder (Vermillion Lies) and Portland’s Dustin Hamman (Run On Sentence). Boekbinder and Hamman both possess the sort of mercurial voices that complement songs collaborative and solo, with an old-time Americana feel that’s strikingly charismatic—can tell a tale but similarly string a catchy hook. In Run On Sentence, a rotating lineup of Portland talent allows Hamman to keep his multi-instrumentalist visions fresh and eclectic, sliding through narratives and characters in folk songs that craft emotional, sonorous landscapes of the road, the plains, the wide open skies.
Despite the playfulness, there’s an insistent sincerity to Hamman’s approach to songwriting—the Run On Sentence website describes its music as ‘Indie-Soul-Folk to make you feel!’ Those lulling acoustic arpeggios carry Neil Young’s prairie vision while staying rooted in that quirky Portland energy: unafraid of wavering melodies, plumes of brass and darkly romantic, fairytale lyrics with their sometimes lively, ramshackle quality. Boekbinder’s work in Vermillion Lies, an Oakland-based project with her sister Kim, has that sort of retro-classical She & Him quality of cabaret folk. She & Him, only with any residue twee ground up in the fiery, phantasmagoric pages of an Angela Carter novel. Vermillion Lies often experiment with a variety of domestic sundries in their music: in addition to toy pianos and accordions, typewriters, BBQ grills, pots and pans and flour sifters often lend a glitzy metallic aspect to their crunchy saloon tales of lost memories, shape-shifters and childhood myths.
Boekbinder is no stranger, then, to making magic from everyday materials, and Hamman no stranger to jamming with different musicians and pulling tunes from the land. The Among Horses II EP is a record of this exciting chemistry. Six songs is generous for an EP, but every song is its own unique slice of experience from seven days of recording. Opening track “Sixty Spanish Horses” vividly sets the scene: “I want sixty Spanish horses to carry me home / My heart is settled but still I roam”. Throughout the record, this theme of the languid pleasure of stasis versus the traveller’s insatiable hunger feels partly a continuation of the old rock’n’roll mythology of the restless soul, and partly a reflection on our existential condition as humans in a dramatically changing world. “I wanna help, I wanna try / Wanna work hard to stay alive”, Boekbinder sings on this track, referring perhaps to the process of back-to-basics, hands-on and collective living encouraged by the farm. There’s a sense of attempting to defamiliarise the world around us, to recognise the simple miracles of the land—drawing clarity from finding one’s hands in the soil, trying to believe “in things you can’t see”.
Boekbinder and Hamman ask us to be conscious of what we’ve forgotten by living fast and living in cities. There’s nothing preachy about this record, it feels more like an earnest exploration of what it means to be flawed and human: “Everyone’s lost / Even those who claim to know the way / What is the cost / Of moving so fast / I wanna finish last”, the pair sing together on “Get It Right”. In every hesitation, every reflective hovering, they remind us that even the simple things are now imbued with higher stakes. Deliciously, their voices rise to subtle tremolo in synchrony, a sort of chorus that calls us to pause our routines, to rethink our pains and pleasures. In our everyday capitalist rat-races, where can we find micro-utopias for respecting things on unique merit, devoid of cost? Where can we slow down, to hold someone’s hand or smell the roses? Where can we find space to reach out to others? It’s clear one of the answers here is music.
One of the unique merits of this project is its environmental consciousness: the packaging materials are completely plastic-free, made of lovely, sugary-brown card. It’s a way of responding to material scarcity in the age of screens, by reminding us that we can still enjoy the physical object in more eco-friendly forms. We can covet something as craft: the unique object of labour, each record containing a sleeve-note of lyrics and the enchanting story of the farm, hand-signed by Mabel and Lieven at Son Canciones records. They describe ‘how the dry wind seems to sing all day long’ and you can’t help think of the way Boekbinder and Hamman’s voices weave around one another, ribbons in a breeze; more restrained perhaps than their usual deliveries but only to give space to the shape and colour of the other. Sometimes the ribbon frays deliciously into a slight falsetto, entwines in a chance harmony. You can’t help conjuring those verdant hills and shimmering trees in your sense of the sound.
“Holy Whisper”, led by Hamman’s sweet and peaty tones, recalls the hopeful but honest existential reflections of Among Horses I. It’s a pensive bay to the lonesome night: “Everything’s dying / And there ain’t no way around / We all go in the ground”. Over minimal acoustic twangs, Hamman holds his warbling notes to a sort of Jason Molina old-time cry, images of “frozen blue” giving birth to a “warm sun waiting / On the other side / Of the cold blue night”. In the darkness, there’s the promise of an internal voice that shivers with light; music perhaps provides the necessary mirror. Out on the farm, you can imagine the way a clear night’s sky might invite such reflections, remind us of our relative insignificance and yet prompt us to draw strength from within. Among Horses II evokes the origins of folk as something once sung under the stars, a genre that expresses the intimacies of human experience while gesturing towards what lies beyond.
While the EP has darker moments, vignettes portraying how far off the earthly path our consumerist actions have led us, the overall tone is brightly commanding, leading us towards humble, future promise. Following the saturnine tones of “Holy Whisper”, “Celebrate” opens with clean, exuberant brass and blooms quickly into a carnival atmosphere of calypso rhythms and lively strums. Boekbinder’s warm voice provides sparkly eloquence to lyrics that list all things in nature we can love, while urging for a new way of living: “We want to be the ones to decide what we make of our lives / What we make with our hands, what we take from the land / Celebrate cause we can stay up late and stargaze with the moon”. A stint on Mabel and Lieven’s picturesque farm isn’t just an exercise in learning to live from the land, but also a festival of sorts: a place and time apart from regular routine, a place where you can learn to change the pace of reality and in that glimpse of utopia create something joyful and new.
In the record sleeve, Mabel and Lieven write: ‘you’ll never forget the first time a horse looks straight into your eyes’. This might be the stamp of authenticity that guarantees the EP’s beauty as a record of memory and encounter: encounters with another creative soul, encounters with the land, between listener and singer and perhaps most importantly, encounters with horses. Allowing yourself into the worlds of these others, while bringing your own light and life to the story. Among Horses II is as much a conversation as it is a record. Gentle and strange, bristling at the edges like long grass brushing your bare legs as you walk in the late afternoon. It’s two minds meeting in the magnified diurnal space of seven days; two minds meeting with the wind and the sun, the plants and the animals. Two minds entwining memory with thoughts for the future, ribbons knotted upon parcels of stories to gift to generations past and present. It feels both timeless and timely: a plain, humanly experience with Arcadia that’s also attuned to the urgencies of now, our growing ecological disconnections. On the final track, Boekbinder and Hamman mingle voices warm and cool, sun and moon, to sing: “There’s so much white noise / Living in the night”.
Among Horses II tunes into this static, picks out fragile details from the bewildering atmosphere of our distracted lives. Boekbinder and Hamman ask us to find a sort of holy enchantment in the quotidian, the little glisters of mystery hidden within our daily existence. It’s a record of pleasure and pain, sorrow and hope; a record of healing. Maybe we all need to find our own way through the white noise, seek our place of quiet, our sixty Spanish horses.