Mountain Music: Lizzy Plotkin and Natalie Spears discuss making their new record
Who: Natalie Spears & Lizzy Plotkin
What: ‘Just Over the Ridge’ EP Release Party
Where: Streamin’ Steves, grassrootstv.org
When: Friday, Jan. 15, 7:30 p.m.
More info: stevesguitars.net
Inspired by our mountains and the creatures we share it with, the half-dozen songs on Lizzy Plotkin and Natalie Spears’ “Just Over the Ridge” are steeped in American musical traditions and powered by angelic vocal harmonies.
The album opener, “Seasons Change,” is an original they’ve been playing at shows since they began performing together four years ago. Spears wrote this poetic chronicle of a sleepless night spent contemplating the natural life of a mountain valley about six years ago during one such night in an old farmhouse off Highway 133 in Carbondale.
“I woke up in the middle of the night and started writing that song,” she recalled recently. “I was just looking at (Mount) Sopris. It captures a lot of the love I have for this valley and he beauty that’s in this valley.”
The duo is releasing the six-song EP on Friday. They will celebrate with a virtual concert hosted by Steve’s Guitars in Carbondale as part of the “Streamin’ Steve’s” series that’s kept the small venue’s years-long streak of Friday night live music going through the pandemic.
While the new record sticks to the sounds of traditional Americana and the combination of vocals, banjo and fiddle, it ranges across styles of the folk idiom. There are moments of smirking sweetness in the John Hartford tradition, there’s old-time, country and bluegrass and acoustic blues.
These original compositions will fit in with the covers and classics that make up the bulk of Plotkin and Spears’ live set lists.
Their “Carry Me With You” is a fiddle tune that that hits like a secular hymn written centuries ago. In the up-tempo “Sweet Song in the Tall Grass” they sing of “workin’ and singin’ and prayin’ and dancin’ and whoopin’ and hollerin’ all around,” with the energy of a campfire boot-stomper passed down by generations of cowboys.
Both were drawn to Colorado by the land and came in hopes of deepening their relationships with the natural world.
Plotkin first came here during a college summer for work as a bird researcher at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Gothic.
“My songwriting started in Gothic,” she said.
The humbling perspective of being a human in mountains allowed her to write meaningful songs. She found landscapes and animals frequently made it into her lyrics but they’re also an active part of her creative process.
“When I’m writing a song, I always like to take it out on a walk with me,” she explained. “That rhythm is now just in me and I can muse on words and ideas while out in the land.”
Spears ended up in the Roaring Fork Valley through the natural building movement, working in cob and adobe home construction and coming to Carbondale for an apprenticeship in straw bale houses.
“I thought I would just come and spend a little bit of time in Carbondale and then move on,” she said. “The people here are what captured my heart and convinced me to stay.”
Her work in natural building fed her songwriting in unexpected ways. Studying land with an architect’s eyes, it turns out, is not so different from doing so as a poet.
“To learn how water moves on a landscape or where the winds come from or where the sun’s going to rise, I learned the value of connecting on a deep spiritual level,” she said. “It just became a big part of my life.”
She went on to run a nature-based summer camp for girls, which gave Spears new ways of looking at the world around her here. These days, Plotkin and Spears teach music.
They write lyrics separately, but arrange songs and write music together. And though this EP is their first release together, they have more in the works.
“We bring a song to the table and we know that it might not be exactly what we want for a few years,” said Plotkin. “That’s part of the process and of our partnership.”
Both also trained – separately – at Victor Wooten Center for Music and Nature, and both are the daughters of musicians (Plotkin’s dad a fiddle player, Spears’ a jazz pianist).
The creative fit was evident from their first times playing together.
“We have these overlapping musical interests and histories and life interests,” Spears said. “It’s special to find a music a partner with whom you share those things.”
The new EP was recorded in the fall of 2019 in Fort Collins. The duo had planned to release it in the spring of 2020 but the pandemic changed those plans. The pair played a handful of outdoor shows last summer at venues like the I Bar Ranch in Gunnison, and did a few virtual ones, and they’re hopeful they’ll be able to play to audiences again this summer.
But Plotkin and Spears are at ease putting the record out at a moment when they can’t tour to support it, not knowing when they might.
Though the pandemic delayed the release of “Just Over the Ridge” and, as much grief and stress and fear as the public health crisis has brought, it has also given the pair a creative freedom for which they’re grateful.
“It’s been nice to have this space to write music without the pressure of performance,” Spears explained.
And they’re trying to go easy on themselves, accepting that the all this at-home time during the pandemic may not be all that productive. Plotkin, noting that she lost a close friend early in the pandemic, said: “A lot of artists, everyone expected us to just be creating. It’s like, ‘We’re going through this, too. There was a lot going on that I think at some point will come out in song, but hasn’t quite emerged yet.”