By SILAS HOUSE
Two of Kentucky’s favorite and most talented native sons have come together to create Dear Companion, a collection of 11 songs that illuminate the issue of mountaintop removal mining without being an outright protest record. Ben Sollee has become known for his huge part in bringing the cello into folk music, his startling songwriting abilities and his mesmerizing singing. Daniel Martin Moore has emerged as one of the most beautiful voices in modern folk, and his talent was so noticeable that he managed to get a major record deal by sending his demo in unsolicited, leading to his album being produced by Joe Chiccarelli, a heavyweight producer who has worked with The White Stripes and The Shins, among others.
Together, Sollee and Moore are a powerhouse of voices and instrumentation on an album that has been produced by another of Kentucky’s brightest stars, Jim James, the guitar god and vocalist who became known as a member of My Morning Jacket and has now embarked on a solo career and as a member of Monsters of Folk.
I’ve had the pleasure of working with Sollee and Moore on several projects, putting on events together everywhere from New York City to back home in Kentucky. Our relationships have been strongly forged by our work on social justice issues and the arts.
For Dear Companion, I wrote the press kit and, along with Jason Howard, the liner notes for the album. Recently, the three of us sat down to talk about Dear Companion exclusively for New Southerner.
Silas House: So tell us how this album came into being. What was the spark?
Ben Sollee: Initially, Jim [James] and I got together while we were in NYC and got to chatting about the issue. Both of us were passionate, so I followed up with the idea to do a project to raise awareness. So the seed was sown. When I ran into Daniel’s music on Myspace, I realized there was a lot of potential for a collaboration.
Daniel Martin Moore: We met in person and realized we were both wanting to do something on a larger scale to raise awareness and that it might be interesting to join forces and see what we came up with.
BS: He seemed like a real gentleman, and we found that there was a strong connection, and I asked Jim to be involved on the production level, and that gelled with him.
DMM: Yeah, it just seemed to all fall into place, the way things do when you’re on the right track. We did a lot of work, especially Ben, to connect all the dots, but schedules lined up and music came when we needed it to, and before we knew it, Dear Companion had become its own thing—something that I don’t think either of us had fully expected it to become when we first started out.
SH: Sometimes I think the only way to fight something as big as greed and corruption is art, specifically words and music. What do you think about that?
DMM: I think there’s a straightforwardness possible in music—and especially in folk tunes—that cannot be denied or spun or bent into anything other than what it is.
BS: Music and art has a slower, more profound approach. It slips in the back door of the brain and connects itself to the most personal parts of people’s lives without ever feeling intrusive. People share music with their friends, parents, lovers—use it to say things like, “I miss you,” “I wish I could have …” “I’m sorry.” We’re using our music in the project to say, “We’re all in this together. Let’s change things.”
SH: So many of us are tired of consumerism and selfishness. I believe that music can serve as a balm for this sort of scourge that is spreading across the globe.
BS: Definitely. While people buy music, they don’t feel a materialistic relationship to it. In the best case, it becomes part of their life and relationships to others.
DMM: Music is among the more life-affirming things in all of creation. Even the fact that we willingly treat it as a commodity can’t completely obscure its power to uplift or challenge or soothe us, and we’re endlessly drawn to it for those reasons.
SH: How does one write an album on this theme without it becoming a polemic? You’ve totally done that with Dear Companion, so how did you do it?
DMM: One thing that we’ve said from the start is that this isn’t a political issue for us. This is a human rights issue. There are a whole bunch of folks who are being forsaken and mistreated, literally poisoned. That’s the bottom line. We wrote from that perspective, hoping to shine a light and to let the rest of the country know what is happening to the people and to the land.
BS: When I think of protest songs, I think of things like “Masters of War.” In this way, we don’t have any protest songs on here. But all of them take on an air of opposition. Since they’re told from the personal side, they just never come right out and say “Stop this now.”
SH: It’s more subtle than that. And I would say more effective, too.
BS: Yeah. Daniel and I tried to concentrate on our own role in the issue: we are consumers of electricity, we use electronics that are energy intensive, we travel great distances to play these songs for people, and so on. By focusing on the most local aspect of the issue—ourselves—we were able to access a more global picture. Which brings up another point: we are not coalfield residents. Neither of us really spent a significant amount of time in the region. But that doesn’t really matter because we’re all connected.
SH: Sure. There’s a saying in the movement: we all live downstream. And that’s so true. As someone from Appalachia, I’m really thankful to anyone who is helping out with this issue, and it’s everyone’s problem. We really are all connected.
BS: My family is tied to coal mining on my mom’s side, but even if that wasn’t the case I’d still have the same stake in the energy/environmental/humanitarian struggle that exists in Appalachia and our country as a whole.
DMM: And on the album we also wanted to look forward in anticipation of brighter days that are sure to come.
SH: Yes, it’s an album that’s full of light and hope, while also reporting the truth. I love that about it. I think part of that comes about because of the great chemistry the two of you have. A duo has to have that, and to have a great intuition, and that definitely exists between you two. What was it like to work as a duo after becoming known as solo acts?
BS: I think one of my and Daniel’s greatest strengths is our contrast. Jim says that Daniel’s voice “sounds like snowflakes” and mine is “like a sword” and together “form a knight in the snow.” That’s imagery!
DMM: Ben’s a phenomenal musician and a person whose kindness and optimism is very real, so I didn’t have any reservations about taking on this project with him, other than maybe my own worries about being able to perform at his level. I really like what we end up with when we work on music together. We get to something that neither one of us could really do on our own.
SH: Jim James is a true giant in music right now. What was it like to work with him?
DMM: Jim is as generous and imaginative as people come, and that spirit is plain in the music he makes. I think Jim, having himself been concerned about mountaintop removal and the issues around it for a long time, felt a kinship with the songs right away, and had so many great ideas about how to treat them when it came recording time.
BS: He’s one of the most intuitive musicians I’ve ever worked with. He never really “thought out” a part. Instead, he’d just say, “Let’s just see what ole Bess has to say about it,” pick up his bass and, in the way that someone looks for the placement of a puzzle piece, divine some unexpected and perfect part. In this way, his production style was never intrusive and did just what it needed to tell the story of the song.
DMM: It was also his idea to make the project into a full-length record. Originally it was set to be a five-song EP, but he knew it would go further for raising awareness if it was a proper album. That was wise, and that’s pretty much how I’d sum up old Double-J.
SH: Do you think being raised in Kentucky, or the outdoors, or a combination of those things has informed you as an artist?
BS: Absolutely. I am who I am because of the consistent inconsistency of Kentucky’s weather and landscape.
DMM: You grow up learning (both in church and at home) what it is to be a neighbor, and you witness and appreciate the natural order of this world firsthand. That background makes it all the more jarring to see nature disrupted and hard-working communities torn apart. Around mountaintop removal in particular, I think that is what has motivated all of us.
SH: Well, it’s a beautiful record, and on behalf of music-lovers and mountain-lovers everywhere, I want to thank you for creating such a fine piece of art.