Rising Appalachia brings sustainability to the music business
For sister-fronted folk band Rising Appalachia, action speaks louder than lyrics. The group is passionate about protecting the planet and broadening their scope of sustainability practices. This includes taking their good work on the road to spread their message—not by merely singing about the need for change, but also by leading by example.
“We try and put our activism in our actions and not necessarily bludgeon everyone with our lyrics,” Leah Smith (aka Leah Song) said during a recent phone interview. “I think activist music can be a little preachy. Although we are all pretty radical in our lives, I don’t want to be making music that is not subtle and nuanced.”
Rising Appalachia’s sound is just that, subtle. Familial vocals and serene harmonies lie atop simple musical beds made up of folk, Americana and roots instrumentation, a fluid grouping of strings that keep the songs moving at a brisk pace. The group is currently finishing up the Sea to Seed tour off the coast of British Columbia, traveling entirely by sailboat in collaboration with the nonprofit Over Grow the System “to promote a culture of resilient localized food systems in the gulf islands … through music, feasts and storytelling.”
That might sound like a radical undertaking, but for the Smith sisters, Chloe and Leah, it’s part of a continual commitment to sustainability that’s become a way of life. Chloe spent years tree-sitting in the redwoods with Earth First, and Leah went to Latin America to study the political climate of the Zapatistas. Music, actually, was a somewhat secondary interest.
The sisters grew up in a musical household. As adults, they realized what a rare gift that was, and in turn made a gift for their family, a CD of folk songs recorded in a day. After being invited to perform a show in their then-home base of Atlanta, the sisters brought along extra copies of the recording and sold out in one night. The surprising turn of events led the Smiths to spend the next few years figuring out how they could combine music with their other interests.
“I think from that we realized that activism, social-justice work, storytelling and the catharsis of music was feeding so many of the other things that were important in our lives,” Leah said.
As the project grew, the band put an emphasis on finding ways to be environmentally conscious, such as building their own veggie-powered tour bus, staying in locally owned inns, encouraging venues to provide seasonal local food in green rooms, etc. In 2015, the sisters decided to dub their efforts the “Slow Music Movement,” named after a TEDx talk Leah gave in 2014.
“Like anything in life, I think when you name something, it strengthens it,” Leah said. “We were able to really accelerate our intentions, and articulate our intentions a lot more.”
The sisters also have spent the last few years developing relationships with nonprofits across the U.S., and often invite them to set up informational booths at shows.
“The stage is a very powerful tool, and at any size or any level, opening up the power of the stage to talk about local issues is something anyone can do,” Leah said. “Finding out something that’s going on locally, or asking somebody to come speak for five minutes about it before the show.”
Focusing on both musical and sustainable practices takes a lot of time, and the band often works nonstop between gigs to make everything fall into place.
“I think if we just said, ‘Let’s just take the standard path of music, get on the tour cycle, let the music industry guide us,’ we’d have more mental bandwidth to do other things. But I think it’s still so satisfying,” Chloe said. “I think we work harder, but our caliber of connection and purpose is also higher.”