In her medicine bag

Nevada City’s Mariee Sioux crafts a subtle but staggering debut album

Mariee Sioux won’t be able to hide much longer.

Mariee Sioux won’t be able to hide much longer.

I’ve got a well-entrenched habit when it comes to the stash of promotional CDs that pile up in the arts guys’ office. I look for women with guitars. And though I’m predictable, women with guitars are not. I’ve found everything from Jen Chapin to Susan Tedeschi in there, and I can usually walk off before the “guys,” testosterone-fueled music buffs that they are, even miss ’em.

So when I picked up Mariee Sioux’s debut album, Faces in the Rocks, scheduled for release on October 9, I thought I could slink out the door unnoticed. But Sioux’s been getting all kinds of buzz, from Spin Magazine to—of all places—Parade, the Sunday newspaper supplement stashed amongst the comics and the thick mess of ad circulars.

So instead of a stealthy getaway, I was grilled: “Is she any good?”

Yes. Yes, indeedy. I say that with all the authority of a listener well-versed in music made by, that’s right, women with guitars.

Sioux, who lives in Nevada City, is one of a number of talented local artists signed to the fledgling, but solidly represented, Grass Roots Record Company (see “Out of the woods” by Jackson Griffith, SN&R Music, February 22). Faces in the Rocks features eight songs that meld together the best of the folk-pop tradition with a contemporary vibe, tempered with traditional American Indian instruments and spirituality. The overall effect is that of a stripped-down, less self-conscious version of the Indigo Girls, if Buffy Sainte-Marie was the vocalist.

“That’s not what most people say,” Sioux replied in a phone interview with SN&R, both embarrassed and flattered. The most frequent comparisons she encounters are to Joni Mitchell and Kate Wolf, the latter of whom is an acknowledged influence. Sioux’s parents introduced her to a variety of music—the Grateful Dead, Simon & Garfunkel—and dad is accomplished musician Gary Sobonya, who plays mandolin on the album. But “I discovered Kate Wolf for myself,” Sioux said. “She just kinda wrote the most genuine, perfect folk songs.”

Sioux aspires to that facility with composition, though her creative process usually follows the whims of inspiration. “Songwriting is always kind of a mystery to me,” Sioux said, “because it’s different every time. I just start writing randomly when something’s coming out and somehow a song comes out.” She wrote all of the songs on the album, working out the harmonies and arrangements in collaboration with her father and with Gentle Thunder, who provided flutes and other traditional instruments.

The songs have the feel of incantations; the lyrics flow in a repetitive progression that produces a sense of ritual. That’s heightened by the use of traditional instruments, no doubt, although to untrained ears, the flute passages take on a jazz-like quality. On songs like “Two Tongues,” Gentle Thunder’s flute engages in a free exchange with Sioux’s vocals.

“Those passages were improvised by Gentle Thunder,” said Sioux. “When we recorded, she played the flute live with me. We did a few different takes, but we’d take the one that felt right.” The resulting songs balance polished performances while retaining the best of a jam session’s spontaneity.

Sioux is pleased with the final product. “I love how ‘Two Tongues’ came out,” she said. Sioux’s lyrics—“For it’s a test of courage to kiss the snake tongued people / the fork tongue people / ’Cause it’s like two tongues at one time”—gradually lead into a ghost story about a lost culture. “It was like a collection of parts of songs that I’d written over about a year,” Sioux said, “little snippets of things that came together into one song, with a lot of sadness about past history.”

Right now, Sioux is gearing up for a Grass Roots Records tour on the East Coast, slated to run from October 12 to 20. Several of the label’s acts will tour together, with a showcase set for the CMJ Music Festival in New York City.

“Maybe we’ll do a release party in Nevada City,” Sioux said. She had the wistful voice of someone who knows her schedule won’t be her own for long.