Musicians raised in folk traditions explore genre’s roots

Songs of Water will perform in Charleston on Friday at the Charleston Music Hall.

In the South, conversations often start along familial lines. Go to any community gathering, and you’ll hear people shriek about their common connections left and right. Everybody’s asking where you went to school, or where you grew up, or if you know so-and-so, making little discoveries bit by bit.

But at a communal jam session in California in 2007, where the two key members of Songs of Water met, the fact that they were both related to bluegrass legends didn’t even come up.

Stephen Roach, cousin of flat-picking phenomenon Tony Rice, was there jamming with Luke Skaggs, the son of Ricky Skaggs, a famous folk player who had collaborated many times with Rice. The two even put out an album in 1980 called “Skaggs & Rice,” which is now sold on Amazon as “The Essential Old-Time Country Duet Recordings.”

But that commonality isn’t what drew Roach and Skaggs together that day. Was it fate? Were they genetically predisposed to get along? As far as Roach knows, it was just a powerful dose of musical chemistry.

“When we met, we realized we both had a love for indigenous music and for musical exploration,” Roach said. “I think he had an Irish bouzouki. I had a couple of frame drums. So we just kind of started picking together ... It quickly became apparent that he and I were going to be collaborating.”

Roach had been working on Songs of Water back home in Greensboro, N.C., for a few years, and as it turns out, Skaggs had been planning to move to the Tar Heel State in the near future. So they made plans to get together once they were settled back East.

Soon after, Skaggs joined the band, and that’s around the time when Songs of Water started to take shape.

While the group had put out a few recordings prior to that, Roach regards their album “The Sea Has Spoken,” released in 2010, as the band’s “first really serious work” because it’s a showcase of his first collaboration with Skaggs.

And it’s understandable why their new bond was so influential. Both musicians grew up immersed in traditional American folk, and both were inspired to trace roots to cultures around the world and experiment with ancient instruments.

“I think growing up in that environment, it just really fostered our own creative exploration even though we didn’t necessarily take it in the traditional route that we grew up in,” Roach said.

The band’s other members — Jonathan Kliegle, Elisa Rose Cox, Greg Willette and Michael Pritchard — are all trained multi-instrumentalists, some with composing skills, that all played pivotal roles in crafting the band’s larger-than-life sound.

The result, Songs of Water, defies all boundaries of categorization. Its central axis may be folk, but the eclectic mix of instruments most passive listeners have never even heard of — the Afghani Rebab, vibraphones and the African kora, for instance — demands the audience to broaden their Western concepts of modern music. As Roach put it, they’re de-constructing American folk traditions down to the last thread, and using the pieces to build something entirely new.

“Thinking about bluegrass and traditional American folk music, we just know it as traditional American music, but you have a mandolin that came from Italy, a banjo that came from Africa, a fiddle that came from Ireland,” Roach said. “So, that music really does have roots in a multicultural expression, and ... I think there’s still a link there to that heritage.”

While “The Sea Has Spoken” in 2010 was an ambitious voyage to every edge of the musical map, “Stars and Dust,” released in June, seems to be the bridge to the band’s cross-over point. On the new album, worldly sounds are no longer the central focus; they’re the foundation of a lyrical, melody-driven portrait, the attic corner where they weave a lush web of spellbinding songs. And like a stunned insect, you’re eased into this soundscape so carefully, you forget to distinguish the ancient from the modern, the familiar from the foreign.

“On some of the previous albums, it still feels like sort of a compilation whereas this album, I think we assimilated all those sounds into one even and fresh, coherent sound that is songwriting based,” Roach said, adding with a dash of pride, “It’s definitely not a traditional folk album.”

While the new work has been well-received by indie folk fans and critics so far, Roach said the band doesn’t plan to do any extensive touring to promote it. They’re particularly interested in writing scores for films after working on one independent production earlier this year.

“Our sound really lends itself to films and television ... so, that’s one area we’re really trying to pursue,” Roach said.

Catch Songs of Water live at the Charleston Music Hall on Friday for one of the band’s only upcoming performances. The doors open at 7 p.m. and local singer-songwriter Grace Joyner takes the stage at 8 p.m. for an opening set.

Tickets are $10 in advance and $12 at the door. They can be purchased online at www.charlestonmusichall.com/event/songs-of-water/.

Reach Abigail Darlington at 937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail