Spotlight: Mountain Man
“It was based largely on the feeling of throwing a dinner party at your house,” says Mountain Man’s Alexandra Sauser-Monnig of “Rang Tang Ring Toon,” the hypnotic centerpiece of the indie-folk trio’s second LP, Magic Ship. “It’s the way time moves slowly in anticipation of people showing up, and then cascades in a series of visual impressions and sounds and happenings once you’re surrounded by all the people. In my mind, it takes place at the beautiful, rambling old farmhouse I lived at in rural Virginia, several years ago, where wild dinner parties tended to end in the pond.”
That’s also an apt description of the group’s aesthetic in general. Since the beginning, Mountain Man’s sound has been based around closely woven vocal harmonies, backed by the occasional hazy sigh of an acoustic guitar—conjuring the gentle ebb and flow of back porch confessionals and campfires illuminated by shared bottles of whiskey.
That intimate atmosphere was also the hallmark of their debut LP, 2010’s Made the Harbor, which the band—Sauser-Monnig, Amelia Meath and Molly Erin Sarlé—recorded after meeting as college students in Vermont. There isn’t a particular evolution on Magic Ship, but that feels like the point—as if they picked up a sentence that happened to trail off eight years ago. But the album’s breeziness defies the winding journey that brought the songs to life.
Mountain Man moved quickly with Made the Harbor, earning warm reviews and backing Feist on tour—but instead of leveraging that momentum, they fell into an unplanned hiatus. The members moved to different parts of the country: Sarlé to California, Sauser-Monnig to Minnesota, and Meath to Durham, N.C., where she struck up an electro-pop collaboration with producer Nick Sanborn as Sylvan Esso.
Meath and Sanborn recorded two LPs, 2014’s Sylvan Esso and 2017’s What Now, expanding the singer’s profile to a wider audience with seductive singles like “Coffee.” With all the Mountain Man vocalists busy with other music—Meath with her new band, Sarlé and Sauser-Monnig with solo projects—a new LP felt like a long shot. But they continued to stockpile material—some of which felt appropriate for their old band, if they ever got another crack at it.
And geography eventually made that possible. Sauser-Monnig wound up moving to a farm in North Carolina, and Sarlé—at the urging of her friends—took a leap and left California to join them in the Tar Heel State.
“I wanted to move to Durham to be with Alex and Amelia because of our friendship,” says Sarlé. “And they both took time out of their lives to drive me and all my stuff across the country. We had a huge bag of shit strapped to the top of my Corolla. I think the road trip was a gesture of love and confirmation of our importance to each other as friends.”
The reunited trio trekked across the country, camping and partying as they made up for lost time. Sarlé highlights a particularly celebratory stretch in New Orleans, where they took part in a parade that led to some revelry at an art installation. “[It was at a warehouse] that had a few storage containers in it,” she says. “One of the storage containers was filled with popcorn; another was a jungle gym made out of ‘noodles’ like the styrofoam kind you float on in pools; another was used as a photo booth for taking tin-type photographs, complete with a dress-up station. There was a dance party happening in the middle of the warehouse and also a human-sized hamster wheel you could run on.”
After that bonding experience, it seemed natural to revive Mountain Man—and with a 2017 slot at Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner’s experimental Eaux Claires Music Festival in Wisconsin, they found an ideal vehicle to re-emerge. “[That] was the testing of the waters,” says Sauser-Monnig. “The waters felt magical and positive. And, at that point, we began talking about making another record, collecting songs, putting dates on the calendar for recording to happen.”
Their first instinct was to craft a children’s album—and they even went so far as to rehearse some material for that project, gathered in Meath’s kitchen. “[But] that idea slowly evolved as we realized what we wanted the new iteration of Mountain Man to be,” Sarlé says. “We have all changed so much as people and collaborators over the years that it was a little bit like writing a new language, while continuing to work with the natural alchemy that our voices have together.”
The trio compiled their material and wrote a few new songs for what became Magic Ship, which they recorded over two brief sessions with Sanborn at Sylvan Esso’s small studio in the woods. “What we do together is so simple and everything is present just by us being present together and singing,” Sauser-Monnig says. “We all shared the goal of just bottling that experience, Nick as well. So while we were singing, he was arranging different mics around the room to capture both the magic of singing as well as the feeling of the room and the bugs and frogs and birds outside.”
“We really wanted the record to feel like you were in the room with us,” Meath adds. And, listening to Magic Ship, you certainly do—like one of several house guests at a mountain house party, dinner plate in hand.
This article originally appears in the December 2018 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.