It’s kind of funny to think that Kelley McLachlan is only now releasing an official solo effort.
She’s the primary singer/songwriter for a host of folk-driven groups over the years, including The Post-Timey String Band, The Prairie Willows, and The Boomtown Waifs. Her voice, a riveting instrument that can bend toward plaintive Appalachian folk one moment and wail with the bountiful emotional excess of Jeff Buckley in the next, has long been an vital presence in the Columbia music scene.
So why a solo album now, particularly one that features so many of her collaborators and musical friends over the years?
“It’s weird to call it a solo record,” McLachlan says of the new Misty Valley. “More of my friends played on it than anything else I’ve ever done. But it is definitely the most personal album I’ve ever written. So, the songs felt more like mine. And there’s real variety from one track to another — some songs I’m just playing with one other person, some with two, some with a full band, so to call it a band name didn’t make sense.”
That remarkable range of arrangements is in part what makes the album so distinctive. Over the course of 11 songs, McLachlan moves easily from mournful acoustic confessions (“Decay and Wait,” “Misty Valley”) to grandly beautiful and elegiac chamber Americana (“Tumble Down,” “Peace”) and towering folk-rock Zeppelinisms (“Steady Hands,” “Dark Oak”).
The record is also noteworthy for the seriousness of its themes. McLachlan previous group efforts mingle sad tunes with moments of quirky frivolity, strict genre homages and hard-drinking ode.
But this new connection lays its emotions bare, bringing her songwriting talents to the fore. The tunes mix rage and resignation, with a mournful sense of loss and searching, deftly blending relatively contemporary confessional singer/songwriter tropes with the richness of traditional folk music the and the broad eclecticism of modern-day Americana. It’s a lot, but McLachlan owns it all.
The intentional thematic consistency, she explains, stems from the fact the majority of the songs were written during the same period a little over three years ago, during an emotionally turbulent time in her life.
“I had made a huge decision in life to leave Columbia, to leave the community that I loved,” she recalls. “And everything that I knew was going to work out fell through, and I had to come back. I had no job, I was divorced, and still support the decisions of the person that I’m divorced from. It was a really trying time. It came out in a lot of the writing.”
Despite the personal and intimate nature of the songs, a spirit of friendship and collaboration define the record.
“It felt like this album needed to involve other people, because they’re the people that have helped me through this trying time,” McLachlan reasons. “There’s still something very personal and sort of intimate, even, in the songs based on who is included in them. I have lots of musical friends, but there’s people that know me very well, and they’re the people on the record.”
Those performers include frequent collaborators like Kristen Harris and Sean Thomson, but also Idris Chandler, Ethan Fogus (The Witness Marks), Steven Harrod and Branhan Lowther (Slim Pickens), Brodie Porterfield, Steve Nuzum (Quark Lepton) and Mario McClean.
That last name feels particularly instructive, if only because he’s the most prominent secondary and harmony vocalist on the record and duets with McLachlan on lead single “Only Thing We Share.”
The tune sifts through the emotional wreckage of a relationship, and McClean’s presence gives it the feel of two friends sitting up late at night, pondering it together. You can almost feel her duet partner lifting up McLachlan with his own sadness, as if the shared rumination is bringing some small light into the darkness.
It’s that kind of emotional terrain that the record is meant to explore,
“People say when you’re in the best spiritual place, you’re high on ‘Jesus Mountain’ or whatever,” McLachlan says. “And when you’re in the misty valley, in those dark times, you see who your real friends are. You see the people that are going to surround you with the love and help to lift you up. And the valley isn’t a bad place to be, it’s just a place that you need encouragement, need people to love.”
“And it’s honestly the most revealing place to be in,” she concludes, “because it shows you who the important people in your life are. And for me, they’re all on this album.”
What: Kelley McLachlan
Where: Blue Moon Ballroom, 554 Meeting St.
When: Saturday, June 1, 7:30 p.m.
With: The Restoration, MidiMARC, Rae Hatton (comedy)