Mary Sutton grew up playing cheap pianos—those battered uprights and antique instruments that anyone can grab for next to nothing (or free) on Craigslist. Not ideal, maybe, but not the worst way for a student or a dabbler or a broke musician to learn and try out new tunes.
But sometime after graduate school, Sutton decided to level up. She purchased a proper grand piano—a 1900 Chickering—that she describes as having “a unique, warm, rich tone and hauntingly long decay. It sounds like nothing else I’ve ever heard.”
The sound of this instrument cracked something open in Sutton, who records and performs as Saloli. As she practiced and started working out the bones of some new material, she started envisioning an island. An isolated place filled with nature where the only audience for one’s music would be the animals and plant life and the surrounding waters. “For some reason, I imagined a violinist,” she says, “prancing and playing a jig. Which is odd. I don’t know why.”
The music that came out of Sutton, though, was far from jaunty. As heard on her upcoming album The Island: Music for Piano Vol. 1 (out on December 21), her new compositions are tranquil and unwind gently with plenty of open space for the resonance and dissolution of her notes and chords to hang in the air like a mist. In my mind’s eye, I saw an expanse of land covered with snow and ice, birds zipping overhead.
Having the music she plays conjure up mental pictures is apparently unusual for Sutton. Normally, she says, the sound affects her physically and emotionally, pushing her hands and body to move from one note or chord to the next.
“It’s something called ‘melodic tendency,’” she says. “It has deep roots in a lot of the music I grew up playing. I’ve given into it, basically. Certain notes really want to move in a certain way. Like if you’re in the key of C, the very last note really wants to return to the first note. There’s a sense of always wanting to return and arrive and be at home in this cozy place. That’s what I’m tapping into when I’m composing: these innate physical relationships between the tones.”
That sensation was apparent even in Sutton’s first album, 2018’s The Deep End, which was created using synthesizers. Her melodies, even as they are warped by the instrument’s wowing, unnatural sound, feel inviting and comforting. A journey into the unknown free of anxiety.
At the same time, though she has been studying and teaching piano music throughout her life, Sutton has some trepidation about releasing The Island and performing its music in front of an audience. Mostly, she says, because of how seemingly simple and accessible it is.
“I grew up classically trained, which means I grew up with this idea of what counts as good piano music,” Sutton says. “I was drawn to more vigorous music. I was into more atonal music as a youngster and grew out of it. I wonder what I would have thought of this music when I was younger. ‘You’re putting stuff in a major key? And it’s slow and it has a melody?’”
Saloli performs with Luke Wyland at First Congregational United Church of Christ (1126 SW Park Ave, Portland OR) on Tuesday, December 21 at 7:30 pm. Tickets: $8-20 (sliding scale). Proof of COVID vaccination or negative COVID test required for admission.
Julia McGarrity, the singer/songwriter at the helm of folk/pop ensemble June Magnolia, devoted much of her life chasing some measure of musical perfection. Classically trained on piano and viola, she spent her free time performing in competitions through her teen years. The strain began to take a toll on her mentally.
“It was competition after adjudication after recital,” McGarrity remembers. “It was really, really intense. I actually quit playing all music at one point. I was like, ‘I want nothing to do with this. I don’t have a really healthy relationship to it, mentally.’”
She stayed silent for nearly four years until a friend, visiting from Seattle, left behind their guitar. McGarrity started teaching herself how to play, working out her favorite Beatles, White Stripes, and Cat Power tunes. Soon, her own songs started pouring out. “It was a really amazing experience to fall in love with music for maybe the first time,” she says.
“When I first started doing it,” McGarrity continues, “I was full of energy that needed to be released. I remember the stereo in my car had been broken for two years so I didn’t listen to any music. I would sing to myself. I was driving down US 30 and I had to pull over, rummaging around for a pen and writing furiously on the dashboard. In a matter of 15 minutes, I had written an entire melody and all of the lyrics and had all the changes in my head.”
The song that came out of that spontaneous burst was “Night Muse,” a highlight from Sankaras, June Magnolia’s 2017 debut. The springy melody and McGarrity’s performance of it calls to mind cult artist Norma Tanega with its playful yet spookily sensual undertones (“Rise for me dance let your limbs unhinge / And sway despite your fright”). The rest of the album is just as darkly alluring, with McGarrity trying to resolve some deep emotional scars over a backdrop of sounds that stirs together electric folk with plunging strings and elements of avant jazz.
What McGarrity also hears in the songs on Sankaras is the pain that she has carried within since her childhood. In addition to the demands of her musical efforts early on, she bore the weight of a very strict upbringing. “I think it comes from having a parent who grew up in a different country, and the generational trauma that that puts on families,” she says. But when she was 17, the burden became such that she had to leave, moving to Portland to live with her older sister. Even talking about that decision now, McGarrity’s voice sounds lighter and unencumbered. “I found myself newborn. Directing a lot of unharnessed energy in a new place.”
McGarrity has found plenty of outlets for this energy and a lot of people to help her direct it. The current lineup of June Magnolia is a diverse batch of players with a wide array of experience playing jazz, world music, rock, and beyond. “My band is my family,” McGarrity says. “They’re all such exceptional spiritual beings and musicians that are propelling this energy forward.”
As well, McGarrity finds a lot of inspiration in her work as a K-5 music instructor in the Beaverton School District. In a given week, she teaches about 500 kids who have become the #1 fans of her original music and, as she puts it, her “test subjects” for new songs and concepts.
“I’m definitely able to heal my inner child and celebrate and create joy with them,” McGarrity says. “Half of what I do is helping kids understand how to feel uncomfortable and improvise. Knowing that is healing other people and giving them that space and energy is a part of my life that is continuing to help me. I do feel like a big silly kid making this music.”
June Magnolia performs at Holocene (1001 SE Morrison St, Portland OR) on Sunday December 19 at 7 pm. Tickets: $12 advance, $15 day of show. Proof of COVID vaccination required for entry.
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