Artist Spotlight: Dark and Dreamy Compositions from Space-Folk Duo Astralingua
Somewhere in between the space where life meets death lay Astralingua, a space-folk duo with roots in Denver but experiences all across the globe, from staying holed up in a cabin in the great Mojave Desert to living in the sacred spaces of Indian temples to making memories with indigenous tribes of the Amazon, to name a few. These experiences — so rich with culture — have afforded Anne and Joseph Thompson of Astralingua worldly perspective, built endlessly on top of their own personal touches of tragedy over the years that have only served to further unite them.
With a background in music production and classical composition, Joseph writes, arranges, and performs all of Astralingua’s pieces, assisted by Anne on vocals (and the integral component of offering feedback and recommendations about how best to build their next composition). They are a perfect pair, each mind having been formed by unique forays into intellectualism and real life’s wallops, not to mention their sheer talent as musicians. Today, we introduce our readers to Astralingua’s space-folk tunes in preparation of their upcoming full-length album, Safe Passage, dropping early next year.
We had the pleasure of learning more from Anne and Joseph in our exclusive interview, but they even offered an eloquent audio clip where they tell our readers a bit about the production process behind their body of work already released. You can hear them discuss it below, followed by our review and interview for Astralingua.
A few months ago, Astralingua released “Visitor,” the first single off Safe Passage. Buzzing with a soft string crescendo before twangy strums join the arrangement, it starts off as a folk slow burn, creeping with haunting harmonies and the growing sear of strings. For the length of the song, “Visitor” navigates between being stripped of its bittersweet melody line — left simply with just guitar — and decked out in a more grandiose sweep of flute twinkles. All that remains constant is the breathy wisp of vocals and a sense of hopeful mystery.
A month later, the duo released “Plunge,” their second single. This time, Astralingua strayed from their introductory ethereal work, opting instead for full-speed ahead. “Plunge,” like its predecessor, is awhirl with searing strings and a desperate pull to the celestial world in Astralingua’s signature sparkles and swells, but it’s significantly more rapid-fire than “Visitor” was. Here, there’s a schizophrenic energy dictating the tempo of each instrumental component. Urgent percussive pulses and a wailing string octet trek through the swampy composition, robust in its frenetic spirit while two-part harmony pushes through the classical folk arrangement.
Astralingua’s latest single, “A Poison Tree,” was released just a few days ago and premiered (to rave reviews) on Atwood Magazine. In a stunning tribute to Anne and Joseph’s shared love of prolific poet and artist William Blake, the duo set music to his poem of the same name. The result is a mesmeric folk ballad in which Joseph crafts a composition emboldened by the sharp clarity of a mandolin trio. Here, we get vocals that are steadied by a soft strength floating above the sweet hum and trill of the string-based arrangement. It’s a remarkable ode to an artist we like to think would have been floored by such a loving take on his own work.
With each release, Astralingua seem to turn to the side just a few degrees, clarifying new fragments of themselves. From ambient soundscapes to twangy folk to classical orchestration, there is much waiting on the duo’s upcoming album.
The Music Mermaid: First, can you tell The Music Mermaid a little about yourselves and your music?
Anne: We’re a duo that makes crafted acoustic songs centered around eerily harmonized vocals featuring chamber instrumentation, otherworldly soundscapes, and introspective lyrics. We call our sound space-folk. Joseph is the composer and songwriter of the band, and I sing vocals with him. It’s all handmade and we do everything ourselves -- the writing, recording, mixing, artwork, web design, videos, etc.
Joseph is from Detroit and has a background in classical composition and the recording arts. I studied English literature and grew up in Brooklyn. We travel often and as far as possible, writing and recording as we go.
TMM: You are a wandering duo. Currently you’re based in Denver, but you’ve spent time in many places, honing your craft and soaking in new worlds. Has there been one music scene you’ve felt has most resonated with you and inspired your work?
Joseph: We love the rich folk tradition that still thrives in the British Isles. It’s connected to so many long-ago periods of music and burns with mysticism. Also, the street performers in European cities have stopped us dead in our tracks on a number of occasions. It’s not uncommon to hear a Beethoven violin sonata sing sweetly from an alley or archway there, which rarely happens in the States.
That kind of music inspires us -- 500 year old songs still being played in the streets beneath thousand year old buildings. It’s the kind of music that we want to make -- not just something that fits in with the fads of today, but songs that are lasting, music that’s played in the streets for generations to come.
TMM: What was the production process like for your first two singles, “Plunge” and “Visitor”?
Joseph: The whole album, Safe Passage, was recorded on a mobile recording rig in various places over a couple of years’ span. Each song developed at its own pace, some needing more time and work than others, so likewise they were produced in different places. We wrote and recorded basic tracks for half the album in a cabin in the Mojave desert. The same was done for the second half in a cabin in the Sierra Nevadas. Overdubs were done in LA, New York, Denver, and later Besançon, France.
Regarding the first two singles, it was different for each. We wrote and recorded the guitar and vocals for “Visitor” over two days in a cabin in the Mojave. We wanted to preserve its pureness and build whatever production around it. I wrote the lyrics in such a way to leave undefined who the singer is and whether they are malevolent or benevolent. Who they are is less important than the lulling, luring quality of their voice, and the desirability of their offer. In a slight allusion to the Pied Piper of Hamelin, I chose flute for the accompaniment and solo. Flute, especially with big echo, is mesmerizing. That was recorded in New York. Later in LA, the bass was written and was played by Mike Clairmont, who also played double bass on a few tracks.
“Plunge” started the same way, by laying down the guitar and some rough vocals. The lyrics in the song are sparse but poignant, and in production I wanted to evince the anxiety and courage of the narrative. There is not a more exciting timbre than strings and I thought the charm of a chamber ensemble would make things more vivid. With the arrangement, I let the strings tell their own version of the story while weaving in and around the vocals.
I worked out a first draft of what became an octet and had an associate violinist record the various parts and send them to me via the internet. Then, I listened back and made countless revisions over many months. We were in LA when I had a version I thought was pretty complete, so I tracked some more strings there, in a house in Highland Park, which I mixed together with the first recordings. The percussion and more vocals were added later, in Denver and Besançon, France.
TMM: Your new single “A Poison Tree” is your sonic representation of a popular William Blake poem by the same name. Can you talk a little about why you chose to pay tribute to Blake?
Joseph: Blake and his works have been an inspiration of mine since high school. I bought and still own a pocket edition of Songs of Innocence and Experience that I would often carry with me and read in quiet moments. “A Poison Tree” always stood out to me among the other poems. It has a playfulness, that to me, reads like Montresor’s voice in Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.”
I have not heard that playfulness expressed in the few adaptations of the poem that have been done and always wanted to make my own version. It’s challenging to make a derivative work from something a master has done -- how do you touch their works? But I wasn’t rewriting the poem itself, just adding music and giving it a voice, and I think Blake would smile upon such a thing. In a strange way, it’s like collaborating with the dead.
TMM: When you’re sifting through your discography to choose your next single, what exactly are you looking for? In pop music, it’s the hook appeal -- the radio recipe. In rock music, it’s typically something with a thick percussive base. What makes an Astralingua song an ideal candidate for a single?
Joseph: With our first three singles, we wanted to show the different sides to what we do, and demonstrate that although you might not know what to expect from a new Astralingua song, you can trust that it will be interesting. You can expect craft.
“Visitor” was chosen for its haunting ethereal quality which is the fundamental of our sound and the first impression we wanted to make. “Plunge” balanced that with its upbeat semi-pop form, while also evidencing our love for strings and chamber music. “A Poison Tree” is our playful homage to the great visionary William Blake. It connects us to our past and hopefully turns new people on to Blake’s great body of work.
TMM: In what ways is Astralingua inspired by the world outside of music? It’s clear you are both rooted in both the real world and the spiritual world to some degree -- do you often find yourselves inspired by literature, the social climate, religion, cinema, etc in ways that music doesn’t afford you?
Joseph: At this point in my life, the two biggest inspirations are walks in nature and people-watching. Either can fill me with worlds of music. Beethoven once said “I love a tree more than a man.” And so it is with me.
There are a lot of subtle references on Safe Passage to folklore, mythology, and literature. I’m not sure they’ll be picked up on by the casual listener, but they are there. Folklore and mythology are interesting, especially when you draw parallels between the stories of different and distant cultures and see that they are describing the same kinds of experiences as each other. Science tells you that all of it is made up by superstitious people. After your own investigation, common sense tells you that they are too wild, yet similar, to be just mere coincidental fantasies.
Literature and film inspire in two ways. The first is just by drawing you into their world, taking you out of your own and giving you something new to experience. They help you dream, and I need to dream to write. A good story teaches you something about yourself, which affects everything you do afterwards. The second way they inspire is through their craft or lack thereof. When I read a novel, see a film, or hear a piece of music that blows my mind, I take it as a challenge to make better work. If I wonder if I’ve given enough to something I’ve created, I listen to the Ninth Symphony and remember that Beethoven was deaf when he composed it. On the flip side, if a modern film has a disappointingly unresolved ending, one that makes me wonder if I just wasted 1.5 hours of my life, I’m challenged to make sure my own works are based on coherent, complete thoughts, with a beginning, middle, and end.
TMM: Who are three musicians you think the world needs to hear ASAP?
Joseph: Arstidir (from Iceland), especially their first two records. Elina Järventaus Johansson -- I’m not sure that she has put out an album, but she has a Youtube channel with videos of her singing Nordic folk songs a cappella. It’s lovely.
Anne: These musicians are already known and well-respected, but I think we should spend more time listening to their full albums and bodies of work. So often these days I meet people that say they know an artist, but have really only heard the top three songs that their streaming service chooses for them on a playlist -- and these bot-curated tracks are rarely the best examples of the artists: Leonard Cohen (especially his early albums), Jeff Buckley, and Frédéric Chopin.
TMM: What has been your most memorable musical moment so far?
Anne: We both agreed on this one… several years ago we stayed with the Secoyas, an indigenous tribe, in the Ecuadorian Amazon. During our time there, we participated in many Ayahusaca ceremonies and heard the Secoya Shamans sing the icaros (power songs) that they had learned during prior Ayahuasca visions. Each shaman has his own unique songs and stylings, and though very much indescribable, they can best be compared to the wildest and most complex Indian Ragas. Their ability to transport the listeners to other planes and realities, was incredibly surreal and beautiful. It was an entirely other level of what music and sound can be -- really amazing.
TMM: What’s the main thing you hope to accomplish with your music?
Joseph: Connection. Communication. Discovery. We want that upon listening, people experience the same sense of wonder we had when creating the works. The still unreleased songs on Safe Passage are much slower pieces, more like “Visitor.” So slow, in fact, that even a lot of the musicians had trouble calming down enough to play the parts. We want to come at the listener from a direction they haven’t yet considered or paid any attention -- draw them in quickly and slow them down, calm them, then take them somewhere they haven’t been before. Make them think about things about which they aren’t used to thinking, then drop them back off safely. Anytime we can achieve that, we’re satisfied.
The Music Mermaid: Finally, what’s next for Astralingua?
Astralingua: We have two albums’ worth of music that we are anxious to record, and would very much like to go tour the British Isles, if the gods will it so.
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Featured photo of Astralingua by Lisa Siciliano