Meet Rising Appalachia’s Leah Smith

Rising Appalachia
Hemmie Lindholm/Courtesy

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Folk group Rising Appalachia blends its southern roots with influences from travels to create a sound that’s at once traditional and brand new, worldly and homey. Throughout their eight albums, Rising Appalachia points to problems in the world and aims to inspire listeners to do good.

The band is led by sisters Leah Smith on vocals, banjo, bodhran and Chloe Smith on vocals, guitar, fiddle and banjo. Alongside them are David Brown on stand-up bass and baritone guitar, Biko Casini on world percussion and n’goni, Arouna Diarra on n’goni and talking drum, and Duncan Wickel on fiddle and cello. 

Explore Steamboat chatted with Leah Smith ahead of Rising Appalachia’s show at 7 p.m. Sept. 28 at Strings Music Festival. AVIP upgrade to the pre-show music and conversation event is available. 

Explore Steamboat: You and Chloe grew up in a folk music family and often sang together, but being professional musicians and forming a band together wasn’t always the goal. When did you two decide to make music be more than a hobby?

Leah Smith: I don’t think we ever had an “aha” collective moment. We really recorded our first album as a gift and documentation of our musical background, and over the years, we’d get a few more invitations to play live. Everything’s been a response to the audience’s appreciation of the music.

ES: You guys have toured in most forms of transportation (on sailboat, train and van) and played in a lot of the world’s most incredible venues. Do you have a favorite place or time that you’ve played?

LS: There are so many amazing favorites. We started a project called the “Slow Music Movement” — we’ve been able to go to the farthest, most peculiar corners of the world, and that’s been such an inspired part of it. We’re not just tourists, but we’re able to make an exchange and see how people live in all different places. I think that what any good traveler learns is that there’s not really a right or wrong way to do this whole “life” thing. There’s such a massive learning curve when you see all the different ways of living — there’s just so many ways to do it. At the same time, all the core values are the same anywhere in the world — family, community, creative integrity and basic human rights. It’s the same desires anywhere.

ES: Your newest album, “Leylines,” is the first recorded outside of the South, in a castle-like studio in California. How did the change of scenery affect your process and music? 

LS: We’ve been talking about that a lot. I think our music over the years has continued to bring us further into the world; though our roots are in the South, our music is a reflection of all the learning we’ve done around the world, and we wanted to be able to record in a way where we could reflect all of that. We started in Appalachia, but we’ve risen above that and realized how to build bridges everywhere. A clean slate in our environment was important for telling the story of this body of work. 

If you go

What: Rising Appalachia at Strings Music Festival
When: 7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 28; pre-show VIP upgrade available at 
Where: Strings Music Festival, 900 Strings Road

ES: Ani DiFranco and Trevor Hall contributed to “Leylines.” What did each of them bring to the album? 

LS: Trevor has been a friend and collaborator over the past several years; we’ve been able to share stages and witness his music and his own musical journey. His lyrics and style of songwriting fit (the song we brought him in for) so well. He spends a lot of time telling incredible stories through his work, especially around his relationship with the sacred. So, it felt like a really ripe crossover.

Ani DiFranco is one of the biggest inspirations of our lives. She rewrote the rules for what folk music is and the role of women in the folk industry. That’s a really big marker in our work; the song we brought her in for is all about human rights and social justice, our role as southerners, telling the role of justice in the South. Her musical art has been so prominent and impactful. It was a really exciting crossover.

ES: What’s the balance of operating the band? Do you and Chloe split duties down the middle, or do each have different spheres you focus on? 

LS: We really have different spheres and different strengths and challenges in who we are. In our management and visioning of the band, we do hold different realms. It’s not cut and dry, but I do a lot around the scheduling, booking, organizing, routing and picking areas we want to go to. She does a lot around keeping an eye on our health, wellness and rest and works more in the financial realm. We both do a lot of creativity. She does a lot in songwriting; I do, too. I also do a lot in the visual realm, with albums and posters.

ES: Rising Appalachia has always proactively blended a lot of different art forms and invited artists of various backgrounds to collaborate, ranging from poets, to dancers, to painters, to nonprofits, to farmers. What have you learned from this level of collaborating? 

LS: Our whole premise of our project has been about collaboration. We entered the music world from a background and family of music; music was just one part of our creative process. As we started getting access to a microphone and stage, it was natural for us to want to share that with our elders and teachers and create a wide girth of art. I think there’s something very strange with what’s happened in the U.S. in the music industry: you go to a show, it’s all about the stage and the lights, then it’s over and you leave, and it’s an isolated experience. In most of the history of the world, music was part of everything — celebrating, mourning, religion, learning, daily life. We’ve always wanted to have as much of an engaged, interactive platform as we can.

ES: Rising Appalachia has incorporated social and environmental justice causes into your music, with the aim of educating and inspiring positive change. Do you have any tips or words of encouragement for fans who want to do more to support social/environmental causes? 

LS: I do think so many people come to our shows with that question: “How can I be more involved, how can I have more of an impact?” I think that’s a question most of us are asking in our lives. Our role primarily is not to have those answers but create a space where we’re able to invite on the ground local nonprofits to really engage in the audience and get people involved more in their community. It shows up over and over again as such an exciting process; there are always folks doing work around food justice, homeless youth education; we don’t have one cause because we try to lean into the need of the city we’re in. each city has its own set of issues. The most exciting thing is the basic thing of seeing people learning more about their own communities, and how to get more involved with the work that’s already happening — how we can help push that needle even further.

The very simple thing is to do due diligence about who’s already doing the work. We live in the era of information over-saturation. You’ve got a passion, but you don’t know how to plug in, but there are so many amazing projects. Where you think you can add time, energy, money — do a little research about what’s already happening. We need more, more, more community. Everybody’s getting so much separation time, and all our tech devices, working from home, a lack of public transport — we’re all kind of in silos. So that’s a really simple way, i think to build allyship. Do some exploring about what’s happening in your interests. From there, a lot more information will come. 

ES: As activists in such a turbulent time, I imagine it can be easy to feel pessimistic or exhausted at times. When that happens, how do you guys get fired up again to keep fighting for the causes you believe in?

LS: Totally. I think the highs and lows are a natural part of life, and there’s an amazingly intense sensation of despair and panic that’s part of this day and age. There’s a few things we do: If you hang out with young people, they’re so on fire and inspiring and committed to finding the answers; we’re always really inspired by the youth movement that’s going on around environmental justice. Who knows what’s coming? We don’t know what’s coming. I think art has been a really powerful tool for all of us to be able to lean into when we’re feeling uncomfortable.

ES: When you’re on tour in a new place, how do you like to explore that new place? 

LS: Today, I went paragliding, which was a pretty extraordinary way to explore. We do a lot of walking; we’re big on getting into the closest natural setting and going on foot. Also, trying to eat locally, as simple as that is — having a relationship with something grown nearby. 

Julia Ben-Asher is a contributing writer for Steamboat Pilot & Today.

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