Sarah Louise doesn’t just sing about the natural world. Sarah Louise seems to be one with the natural world, and she is also a songwriter. Thus, her songs radiate the mysteries and wonders of the natural world, consistently and easily.
“I share my feelings with the land around my house,” she sings against a droning fiddle in “Pipevine Swallowtails,” near the midpoint on Deeper Woods, her new album on Thrill Jockey Records. “Put my faith in the connections underneath the ground.”
In recent years, the North Carolina-based artist has made a name for herself thanks to her prodigious solo acoustic guitar playing, as well as House and Land, her collaborative project with Sally Anne Morgan, multi-instrumentalist for progressive old-time band the Black Twig Pickers. The former has earned Louise a place among the planet’s most promising young pickers, while the latter scored a slew of positive reviews from prominent publications. Not bad for a release of its kind.
On Deeper Woods, however, Louise fully finds her voice. Literally. It is as much a vocal album as a guitar album, and Louise’s voice is a ideal complement to her six-stringed wizardry, only heightening the beauty and deepening the mystic vibe of her songs. Louise’s voice is a versatile thing; strong and resonant on the low end, suffused with emotion on the high end, constantly sliding up and down between the two. She’s an impressive singer, especially for someone known as a guitar player.
Louise wastes no time showcasing her voice with a wide-ranging performance on opening track “Bowman’s Root,” an ode to the spiritual power of nature with a roiling 12-string guitar part, rumbling drums and an alto recorder giving the song some ancient roots. “When Winter Turns” does more or less the same thing, except this time with electric guitar providing heady vibes.
The aforementioned “Pipevine Swallowtails” might be the prettiest song on Deeper Woods. A patient elegy for permanence, it is highlighted by a wonderful wandering melody and underpinned by Morgan’s fiddle drones. Cello drones form the foundation for “On Nights When I Can’t Sleep,” another restless moonlit worship song for creeks and katydids and hemlock trees. A bird’s song chimes in, and even gets credited in the liner notes to a Carolina Chickadee.
It’s worth noting here that Louise’s guitar work on all these songs is gorgeous and supple and soaked not only in technique, but also in feeling. That her playing feels simply like part of the whole on Deeper Woods is a testament to the care that went into writing and arranging these songs.
At the same time, it must be said that two songs stand out because of their lack of guitar: “The Field That Touches My House and Yours” is built on a bed of psychedelic electric piano and synthesizer and nothing else (except for Louise’s voice), and “Fire Pink and Milkweed” is an a cappella hymn to plant life and/or a lost love. The former is lovely but slightly tentative in places, while the latter is charming and imperfect.
Perfection is not the goal, of course. Louise apparently learned to play instruments for Deeper Woods rather than bring in experts to play certain parts. And while her guitar skills are top-shelf and her voice holds its own, it’s Louise’s need—and willingness—to explore that will carry her to the kinds of transcendent moments she so plainly seeks. Let’s hope she continues to take us along for the ride.