"I never imagined doing this." It's a sentiment that Mariee Sioux, a singer-songwriter from Nevada City, returns to many times in our phone conversation: specifically, her genuine surprise that adapting her poetry to music has resulted in a life as a touring musician. "I was terrified playing at that show," she says mirthfully, describing her first big out-of-town gig at Brightblack Morning Light's Quiet Quiet Ocean Spell Festival in Big Sur. "The whole tour that followed helped me get used to performing.... It sucks being scared all the time."
Sioux did seem a little shy or quiet, anyhow the first time I saw her play, but it only served to underline the concentrated energy of her music. Spiritual poems attuned to animals and ancestors, songs like "Wizard Flurry Home" and "Buried in Teeth" burrow deep inside you, with reams of words propelled by intuitive, circular guitar patterns. The circumstances of the show organized by friends in a eucalyptus grove overlooking Berkeley certainly helped, though I imagine Sioux's diamond-in-the-rough talent would have been just as readily apparent in a club.
The compositions Sioux performed that night most from her self-released EP, A Bundled Bundle of Bundles seemed pointedly unhurried, more akin to the folk sprawl penned by Michael Hurley and Joni Mitchell than your typical verse-chorus-verse songwriting. Her guitar melodies are often a step behind her alliterative narrations, so it makes sense that the words came first. "I always wrote, since I was little ... weird writing," she explains. "And I was just surrounded by music, so I guess this all started when me and a couple of friends wanted to start learning guitar. We formed this little girl band." She laughs. "And on my own time I started making these songs."
As is so often the case, the turning point came on a journey. "I left for Patagonia for three months, and I took my guitar with me because that was my new thing I had found. So I took it with me, and I had lots of solitary time in Patagonia," she recalls. "So I just wrote more songs and practiced and basically taught myself guitar." It was only through the prodding of friends that Sioux entertained the idea of recording these new songs: "I wouldn't have even thought that people would want to hear it."
If word hadn't gotten out of Grass Valley, it's easy to imagine Sioux's music being rediscovered some years down the line. Unshaped, personal to the point of being hermetic, this is the stuff record collectors live for. As it happened, though, Brightblack Morning Light has employed the singer-songwriter in a steady opening gig following that Quiet Quiet appearance, and now Nevada City's Grassroots Records is readying her first full-length album, Faces in the Rocks, for a September release.
When talk turns to the album, Sioux gushes about collaborating with Gentle Thunder, an American Indian flute player who "felt this immediate connection to the project," and her bluegrass musician father (the two duetted at the Great American Music Hall a few months ago). And it sounds like she's found a good partner in Grassroots, a homespun label with plenty of singer-songwriters on the roster. Label founder Marc Snegg writes, "Mariee's songs, poetry, singing and performance dig deep in time, soar high in spirit, and possess a breadth of natural wisdom beyond her years or any years."
Still, while it might just be the jet lag following a European tour with Brightblack talking, Sioux sounds a little tentative about the musician's life on the phone. She's stoned on the album but wondering when things might settle down. "I've just been going for over a year. I haven't really lived anywhere. I need a fixed point.... I want to decorate a room," she says.