The Invisible Comes to Us is a new album from the pioneering partnership of Anna & Elizabeth. Released on the significant Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, the record is a spellbinding reconfiguration of ancient folk ballads that sees the duo’s immersion in Appalachian music move to a place of boundless experimentation.
They combine two powerful and very distinct voices. Elizabeth LaPrelle was raised in rural Virginia and is frequently lauded as the finest traditional singer of her generation. Anna Roberts-Gevalt is a multi-instrumentalist whose musical curiosity has taken her from old time fiddling in Kentucky to a more recent immersion in Brooklyn’s avant-garde community. Together they find new ways to tell old stories of love, loss and intrigue, while relishing the tension that arises between their very different backgrounds and orthodoxies; holding firm to the roots of the music while removing the limits of how that music can be played and presented.
Joining the duo on The Invisible Comes to Us are drummer Jim White of The Dirty Three, and experimental pedal steel player Susan Alcorn, whose perceptive musicianship helped create the sonic world that Anna and Elizabeth visualised for these songs, a world that also brought in brass, woodwinds and synths. The album was co-produced by Anna with Benjamin Lazar Davis from avant-pop outfit Cuddle Magic, who brought new technologies and tools to the pair’s recording process; while his partiality for structure and detail acted as a welcome counter-force to Anna’s more intuitive composing methods.
Many of the ideas for the record were stitched together during artist residencies that Anna and Elizabeth undertook at the MacDowell Colony and the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, following a year of song collecting. The result is a record where the sounds themselves are integral to the retelling of these tales, alongside the sometimes cryptic and complex narratives of the sung and spoken words.
“These are songs we first heard in small archives in our home states, Vermont and Virginia,” the duo wrote in the sleeve notes to the album. “Recordings made in living rooms and kitchens, of songs learned in childhood. The characters, and the landscapes they occupied, grew rich in our minds. This record grew out of the desire to show you the world we saw in these songs.”
This is not an exercise in nostalgia, nor some notion of a simpler, purer time. Although Anna and Elizabeth aren’t singing about their own lives, they’ve imagined themselves within the settings of these songs. Finding empathy, for example, in the heart-breaking loneliness of Farewell To Erin; pairing Elizabeth’s piercing lament with drones and pedal steel that evoke an unchanging ocean. Anna’s contemplative vocal that begins Jeano and Jeanette is suggestive of a woman full of wisdom with no way for her profound and true words to be heard beyond the small town around her. With a more inscrutable ballad such as The Irish Patriot, fragments of sound (inspired by the collage work of Philip Jeck) create a light-dappled forest from which the song’s mysterious old man emerges. The troubled meandering mind of the Old Virginia Rambler is illustrated by Elizabeth and Jim White’s purposefully listless interplay. Throughout the record we hear a unique palette of influences that include Laurie Anderson, the poetry readings of Patti Smith, chopped storytelling inspired by NPR’s Radiolab, Irish folk heroes Paul Brady and Andy Irvine, Dublin group Lankum, and the conceptual work of Meredith Monk and Fluxus movement composers.
With The Invisible Comes to Us, Anna & Elizabeth are revealing what they find buried between the lines of traditional music; showing us what they see. The result is an immersive, novelistic and groundbreaking exploration of old and nearly-forgotten songs.
Anna Roberts-Gevalt is a voracious and curious musician who nestles in the space between ancient ballads and new sounds. After spending years in Baltimore’s underground art scene, she now resides in Brooklyn, NY. She fell in love with the sound of banjo in college, moved to the mountains, and learned with master musicians in Kentucky, Virginia, and North Carolina. She has been a fellow at the Berea College Traditional Music Archive and OneBeat (Bang on a Can’s Found Sound Nation); three years artistic director of Kentucky’s traditional music institute, the Cowan Creek Mountain Music School; and co-curator of Baltimore's Crankie Festival. She is a summer 2017 fellow at National Sawdust in Brooklyn, and recently studied in a workshop with Meredith Monk.
Elizabeth LaPrelle is a world-renowned ballad singer who resides on a farm in Rural Retreat, VA. The student of master singer Ginny Hawker and National Heritage Fellow Sheila Kay Adams, LaPrelle was the first recipient of the Henry Reed Award from the Library of Congress at age 16, and won the 2012 Mike Seeger Award at Folk Alliance International. She has been hailed as “the best young Appalachian ballad singer to emerge in recent memory” by UK’s fRoots Magazine.