Contrary to its name, the delicate, airy vocals of Mountain Man are more evocative of open plains and prairie skirts than shady peaks and bushy beards. Molly Sarle, Alexandra Sauser-Monnig and Amelia Meath comprise the acoustic folk trio, whose sparse lyrics are grounded in nature and femininity; nurtured by a culture of impromptu house shows at Vermont’s Bennington College, the band will release its debut LP, Made The Harbor, on July 20, just a few weeks after Meath’s college graduation. Between moving out of the house where Mountain Man began and kicking off the band's first large-scale tour through Europe and North America, the new Bennington alum took some time to catch up with Paste about Cyndi Lauper, weird nooks and songs that make her weep.
Paste: Can you tell me the story of how the three of you came together?
Ameila Meath: We figured out that we needed to sing together. It was basically a serendipitous event where I heard Molly singing “Dog Song” and I made her teach it to me and then I taught it to Alex, and then all three of us decided that we needed to be a band, particularly after we sang for our friends and there was such excitement. We were really excited but then when other people started expressing excitement about what we were doing it was like, “Oh, of course, we want to keep on sharing this and keep on doing this.”
Paste: Did that happen at Bennington College, in someone’s living room or something?
Meath: Oh yeah, it was my living room, in the house that Molly and I are in the process of moving out of right now. I moved in there like a year ago and our first show was the inaugural house show of that house.
Paste: Did it end up being one of many house shows?
Meath: Yeah, it was. In fact, we set up a tour last summer that was mostly house shows and small venues.
Paste: So this all came together your junior year?
Meath: It really came together the end of my junior year—that was when Mountain Man started. It really started coming together as a band, we practiced the most and spent the most time together at the end of my junior year.
Paste: Are house shows a big part of the culture of Bennington College? Did they happen pretty frequently?
Meath: Yeah, I mean, they’re the most important thing. House shows are a religious experience.
Paste: What’s Bennington like? Is it a pretty small school?
Meath: It is a pretty small school. It’s like a school of, oh damn, I don’t know. The sexual ratio is 70% women and 30% men. You design your own major there. A lot of fun people went there, like Bleeker—Alex Bleeker. He’s the bassist for Real Estate. He lived in my house.
Paste: So you were in a pretty musical environment for much of your time at Bennington?
Meath: Oh yeah, totally. We lived in Colonial houses, 30 people to a house, so there was this family vibe, and you have a big living room, and you can have your friends come who are on tour and play in your living room. So there are lots of little impromptu good shows popping up. Oh my gosh, it’s awesome.
Paste: Before Mountain Man, were you participating in that at all, or was the formation of the band really the first time that you were able to participate?
Meath: No, I have always sung with some of my friends. Alex and our friend Maya Friedman and I played a couple of times. Alex and I became musical partners when we realized that we both wanted to cover the entirety of She’s So Unusual, the Cyndi Lauper album. You know, it has “Witness” on it, it has, oh, “When You Were Mine,” and “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” You know, that song was written by a man. How hilarious is that?
Paste: Did you ever make progress on that project?
Meath: No, no we didn’t. Summer started and we just got really into hanging out on the front porch and shooting PBR cans with BB guns and got distracted.
Paste: Priorities, Amelia. Priorities.
Meath: I know, I know, I know—but then Molly came along and we all snapped to attention, as it were.
Paste: So when Alex graduated, how were you able to move forward with music after she had left school?
Meath: Alex moved to Virginia, and really everyone kind of relaxed. We took a Mountain Man hiatus. But people started getting into the tour album, recorded in part by us the night before we went on tour by singing into Molly’s computer, and in part by my friend Trevor. And then our friends started getting it out to their friends and it started going on the Internet, and then we were swooped up like a barn swallow.
Paste: Who did the majority of the writing for this record? It it shared?
Meath: We all do the writing. I mean, we all write some. No one person did the majority of the writing. I think Molly has more songs on this album, by nature of the fact that she writes a lot of music.
Paste: Are there defining characteristics to each of your voices, lyrically?
Meath: Oh yeah, totally.
Paste: Some songs are more sparse than others, some have more nature imagery and some have more human, more sexual imagery. Can you point to who is who?
Meath: Well, let’s see. Molly’s music usually is more explicitly about sex. Alex’s music is more nostalgic. Since I don’t play an instrument—I just write a cappella songs—they’re kind of just weirder, and usually have to do with, like, motherhood.
Paste: Did you study Women’s Studies or Gender Studies in school?
Meath: I did not but it’s always been something that’s very important to me. Feminism is incredibly important to me. It always has been.
Paste: Is there a real place for that at Bennington College? Does a culture that’s really interested in feminism exist there?
Meath: I think that I was lucky enough to fall into a really beautiful group of women who supported me and who became my family once I got to college. I had always been a feminist, but the group of women that I fell into taught me so much about how to think of being a feminist objectively as opposed to just getting really fucking mad, which is usually what I do, and how to start talking about it, to go and learn and try to change people’s mindsets.
Paste: So it sounds like there was a lot of opportunity at school for good dialogue in the community you were in.
Paste: How are you feeling about leaving all of that as you graduate?
Meath: I’m pretty ready. I’ve been given such an exciting opportunity to get paid to gig every night and sing incredibly intimate songs about being a woman to new people—what a dream! What a dream. I mean, I would quit school for this, for a while anyway.
Paste: And that’s what Molly’s doing? For a little while, anyway?
Meath: Yes, for a little while. I have been told by numerous professors that we need to make sure that she finishes her degree.
Paste: Tell me a little about your musical background. You said that you have been singing for a long time, and I’m interested both in your singing and performing background, but also in your history as a listener of music.
Meath: I grew up in a singing family, which means that usually after dinner, we would sing. We lived in this big house in New Hampshire every July and all of our friends would come and live there too, and we would have dinners and my mom would say, “All right, I think it’s time for everyone to sing a song.” So I grew up doing that, and singing with my dad. In Cambridge, Mass., there is a community of people that puts on something called The Revels every winter solstice, and it’s a celebration that’s mostly just a bunch of people in really hilarious costumes singing traditional music—different kinds of traditional music depending on the year. My dad was in the Italian-themed Revels, I was in the Gypsy-themed Revels, I was in an English-themed Revels. There are standards that everyone keeps in their repertoire. After the show we would all go out as a cast. I was lucky enough to go out because my dad was in the adult cast. We would go into Harvard Square and take over the bottom floor of a restaurant, and people would bring their fiddles and sing like crazy. So I grew up doing that—a lot of that.
Paste: As a kid and also lately, what has been very important to you as a listener of music?
Meath: Oh gosh, all sorts of things. It’s always so funny because people expect us to be incredible folkies, and that’s really not the case with me. I grew up listening to so many different kinds of music. Mostly a band called NRBQ, and Willis Alan Ramsey, and then when I discovered indie music, it was Animal Collective, Final Fantasy and Of Montreal. ... Now I listen to mostly Michael Hurley—a lot. Molly and Alex and I all love Michael Hurley. What else? Harry Potter on tape. A lot of my friends’ bands—Real Estate, Family Portrait, Twigz. I’m having an Animal Collective resurgence in my life, which is really nice. Oh, God, the first time I heard Sung Tongs, I wept. Granted, I was applying to colleges at the time, so the song “College” came on and I almost died.
Paste: Has any song done that to you lately, in this season of graduating?
Meath: Yeah, but you know, I don’t know the name of it. There’s a song that one of Molly’s friends made her called, “Playing Baseball With Your Hands Tied Behind Your Back and No Clothes On.” And there’s an incredibly beautiful song that if Molly was here we’d sing it for you. I’ll try to get the title to you. Other than that, nothing in particular has made me feel like everything is going to be all right forever, you know, the way some really amazing songs do. Oh, you know, that’s a total lie! It’s a Paleo song! Sorry, I got really excited that I just remembered. It’s a Paleo song and it’s called “Everything Must Go.” It’s from his latest record, which I don’t think is out yet. The whole album is really healing me right now. It’s really good.
Paste: I read that Made The Harbor was recorded in an old ice cream parlor. Why did you choose to record in that space?
Meath: Oh, it wasn’t really an ice cream parlor. It was in my friend Justin Wolf’s house, and his house used to be an ice cream parlor, but it’s not anymore. Now it’s just a house. We were in his little beautiful attic space. It was really nice because there was pink tile on some of the walls, so it lent to some really nice noise-making.
Paste: What are some of your favorite spaces to perform in—either venues or weird nooks?
Meath: Usually weird nooks. Pink tile. Alleyways. Sometimes churches. I really want to go sing in Grand Central Station next to that oyster bar. I want to do that. I really like being able to sing for like 10 to 20 people. That’s really exciting for me. Not that it’s not nice to play shows, but it’s so nice when you can really be with the people that you’re singing for.
Paste: Will you have the opportunity for any of that on either the U.S. or U.K. tour, or are you playing all medium-sized venues?
Meath: On the UK tour there’s one show that I’m really excited about, where we’re playing in a tower called Saint Augustine. There are only like 35 tickets, so it’ll be really small and good. Other than that, this tour I am personally going to get used to playing for larger groups of people. I don’t not like it—I would just like to be able to maintain the same kind of intimacy that I can with 35 people with 200. I am trying to figure out how to do that.
Paste: Is this the first time that you’ll have to do a long string of large shows?
Meath: I think our longest tour so far was a week and a half or two weeks, so yes, this will be our first long string.
Paste: The sense that I get from the record is that there isn’t one dominant voice, and that you three share vocal prominence and responsibility. Am I hearing that right? There’s not a lead singer?
Meath: No, there isn’t.
Paste: That’s a neat thing.
Meath: We think so!
Paste: Well, enjoy these last few days of rest before the craziness of your summer starts. And enjoy the craziness of your summer!
Meath: Thanks! Yeah, I hope to. It’s going to be a very loud adventure. So far, our theme for the tour will be Triumph. I’m really excited about it.
Paste: Can’t go wrong with that.
Meath: We also named the tour the Hey, Mom, Look At Me tour.
Paste: What will you do for the US release date of Made The Harbor in July? Is there a celebration in the works?
Meath: I’m sure. I don’t know if there’s going to be a large-scale party, but there might be. Hopefully there will be. Or we’ll just be in some tiny apartment in Brooklyn yelling. That’s what I always prefer.
Mountain Man on MySpace