Rachel Grimes :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Who gets to decide history? Who shapes the narrative of the stories and founding myths a country is built on? Who selects the pains that will be remarked upon culturally, and which will be obscured? Last year, composer Rachel Grimes offered up something like an answer to these difficult questions: The Way Forth, a Southern folk opera blending historical fact, family memoir, and investigative fiction.

Grimes’ minimalist piano playing serves as the bedrock—fans of her chamber music group Rachel’s will recognize it quickly—but it’s only a starting point, as the journey winds through gospel, folk, and ragtime sounds, interspersing blooming string orchestrations with spoken word. Joined by guests including folk singer Joan Shelley, guitarist and Alan Lomax archivist Nathan Salsburg, harpist and Jack White collaborator Timbre Cierpke, and many more, Grimes has created a multi-layered document, at once moving, sly, funny, mournful, and gripping.

There’s no easy sentimentality or breeziness, as Grimes refuses to shy away from events and systems often downplayed in polite history—slavery, the expulsion and murder of Native Americans, the subjection of women. Instead, the author and musician gets into the heads of those trying to navigate a system not built for them, exploring the faiths, dreams, and family ties that sustain them, while also serving a vehicle for profound personal grief (her brother and Rachel’s bandmate Edward Grimes passed away in 2017) and exploring how deep her Kentucky roots are buried in the soil.

“To me, the more you look into [historical] context—both in a family sense and a country sense, the more you see how this stuff has been going on forever,” Grimes says, joining Aquarium Drunkard by the phone. “There’s a lot of evidence pointing to why we could wind up where we are. There are just generations of deception and corruption.” Grimes says that we are still learning how to live as a “pluralistic country, peacefully,” and while she isn’t unrealistic about the amount of work to do, The Way Forth nonetheless suggests that we can begin by truly addressing our collective past, by heeding the messages that challenge existing power structures and authority.

The Way Forth is accompanied by a film of the same name by director Catharine Axley. A section of it, “The End of Dominion,” is presented here, along with an interview with Grimes about the need to puncture holes in the lies that keep us from attaining true equality: “We’re in a churning place where there’s a lot of change [societally]. There’s a lot of questioning power and the power structure…It’s a charming idea to think that this country was founded on freedom and one person, one vote, but it’s a lie. It’s not true. In some ways, it’s still not true. I think we can aspire to make that actually true.” words/j woodbury

Aquarium Drunkard: It’s kind of tricky to come up with a term for describing The Way Forth —it’s a set of songs with thematic unity, but the timeline jumps back and forth, and it folds in history along with fictionalized accounts. If pressed for an “elevator pitch,” do you have one?

Rachel Grimes: I think of The Way Forth as a folk-opera. I wound up there because “song cycle” was just not cutting it. [Laughs] I think of a song cycle as a set of related material, maybe with one or two characters and the sort of programmatic music that goes along with it, but what I realized pretty early on was that there were many voices and there were a lot of different styles and a chorus here. I realized that right there makes this project theatrical or operatic. This isn’t a staged opera, in terms of people wearing costumes and moving around, but it is one work that has these many characters and there is a through line.

There is a narrative, but it’s not a linear narrative. I think of it as kind of a zig zag, so it’s zigging and zagging between a contemporary observational point of view and looking into the past through the first-person voices of people from the past, and most of the voices—characters, as I call them—are women. I think of this as a folk opera looking at the last 250 years of Kentucky history and culture and music through the ears and eyes of women and as observed by these contemporary listeners and observers. I think of it as this nonlinear investigation into not only our cultural inheritance, both through my family’s lens and through the lens of many people who I’m not related to or moments in history or looking at the bigger history in Kentucky, even through the millennia.

AD: The album incorporates personal details from your family history. At one point did that idea present itself to you, to sort of anchor this work in that familial lineage?

Rachel Grimes: That was pretty early on. I didn’t just sit down one day and say, “I’m gonna write a folk-opera with all these characters.” It kind of came about because of things going on in my personal life. I was dealing with the loss of my brother and with trying to help my parents transition into better nursing care. It’s just a process of trying to figure out what to do with their personal things and that includes, of course, a lot of memorabilia and photos and papers and letters. In both of their cases, they had things from multiple generations, so I actually was starting to think about this musically with particular objects in hand.

AD: There are a lot of sounds on the record—from ragtime to gospel, folk, classical. Did the connections you were exploring inform the musical direction as well?

Rachel Grimes: One of the last pieces that I wrote, the medley “Fontaine Ferry,” I wrote as a sort of nostalgia love letter to my brother. I lost my brother two and a half years ago. It was a very sudden and traumatic loss to me, and still is. He and I both were in a band together. He’s a wonderful singer and drummer. We have a lifelong bond together with music and memory and all the people in our family that made music. That was what was leading me through the medley. I was also able to revisit some of the musical styles that we learned from our grandmother. She learned all these ragtime songs, late 1800s popular tunes from her mother, and her mother’s mother. It’s this really clear line of musical inheritance. My dad was a great pianist. I just wanted to reference all these different styles as a way of traveling back in time. I didn’t want to stay in it too long, but I wanted it to be honest and feel the way I would’ve heard that music or played it myself.

AD: How did the fictional elements allow you to further expand the scope of what you were doing?

Rachel Grimes: I think sometimes when we hear narration or we read something from the past, we tend to have this matter of fact way of interpreting it, and when you have images or music that accompanies it, it kind of gives it this more inviting or impressionist bed to experience it in. That’s what I was also messing with: how can that support what this person’s saying, but not really illustrate it per se, just support it and allow the voice to come through? The fictional aspects of this project, where I was writing the lyrics and dancing at the internal and notional environment of this particular person’s point of view because I didn’t have any first-person words from that person, it’s really just coming from me. I’m drawing on what I could gather fact wise, and I’m imagining what it must have been like for this person based on what I know about that time and place. It’s loosely interpretive. It’s not terribly scholarly, but where there are historical facts or moments in time that are factual, I’ve definitely done my due diligence to make sure that I’m representing that person’s voice. I’ve checked with their family descendants, or I’ve checked multiple historical sources to make sure that I’m really getting the facts right because there are a lot of little details. 

AD: Directly Catharine Axley has provided a set of visuals to go along with the record via a film. How do the images, lyrics, and sounds connect? They seem to suggest more than concretely portray scenes from the record.

Rachel Grimes: There’s nothing traditional about the way we went about filming for this project. It started as this sort of notion that I had that I had all these photographs, these archival things that I wanted to represented on the screen while we were playing the music, but I didn’t really want to do a bouncing ball kind of thing like “This is the image that goes with this moment and this character.” I didn’t really want that literalism, but I did want to be able to share so many of these captivating images that had been a part of making this project. I also wanted to have moving picture and current contemporary film, and I knew that getting a lot of tracking shots traveling throughout the state symbolizing the process of thinking through these things and these character’s moments in time. I knew basically what I wanted to do, but I didn’t have a shooting schedule or script. We would just find a weekend that we had two or three days available, and I would make a list of things that I knew I wanted to shoot. We would get in my truck and just head out and talk about what kinds of things I was looking for as we were headed to the location. We’d keep our eye on the weather and try to figure out when would be the best time of day to try and grab this shot on the river or shots of creatures. Usually dusk or dawn are really good for anytime you want to get sunlight or animals. But we didn’t have this really strict way of going about it. It was very intuitive.

AD: The record concludes with an instrumental, “A New Land.” That feels like a pretty specific choice, to end this without words. It suggests to me the idea that the future is unwritten—that there are more stories yet to be told.

Rachel Grimes: That’s what I would hope that a listener would feel by the end of this journey: this sense of reorienting how we listen, what’s important to narrative, who we listen to, and questioning what we have been presented with in our past and our collective past with what is the truth. It’s very clear, especially with regard to American history and the voices that have been able to put something in writing in printed book, it’s a very small percentage of our population. What’s different about now, maybe to our detriment, is that we have more ability to have our individual voices heard and to be able to share our stories. That’s a beautiful thing. I think it’s a much more fair playing field for people to be able to use digital recording and podcasts and writing techniques, self-published books. To be able to get their stories and their creative work out in the world.

We also have the advantage of a lot better research available to so many people, as far as genetic research, DNA, genealogy. We are understanding much more everyday about who we are, what is our personal background, what is our collective backgrounds as a society. I think that for me, what that means is that the narrative I heard a lot as a kid and certainly was taught a lot during school should be questioned. It might only be a narrow band of the actual story. For sure, the story is more complicated than a lot of folks would like to have it. It’s not simple. It’s ongoingly complicated. Now more than ever, we have a bigger collective of voices to which we can listen to and learn from.

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