Rachel Sumner Photo: Adam Gurczak

Interview: Rachel Sumner, Traveling Light Shine Bright on New Album

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While music occupied most of her time since Rachel Sumner became a founding member of Boston-based genre-blending band Twisted Pine in 2014, much more weighed on the singer-songwriter’s mind by 2019.

Family health issues included her own battle with the bottle. Sumner needed to address those crucial concerns as she considered what career steps to take next. The multi-instrumentalist serving as Twisted Pine’s guitarist, who also shared lead vocal duties with Kathleen Parks and was one of the unconventional string quartet’s primary songwriters, made what she called a “very difficult decision.”

With a heavy heart, Sumner left behind Twisted Pine. After reflecting and researching, it was inevitable she would handpick a few other Boston-area musicians to record her own songs. A bullish band packed with skills was soon ready to go — Rachel Sumner and Traveling Light. The smooth and stylish self-titled debut album she also produced will be released Friday (August 5).

“I felt like my songwriting had begun to lend itself to a different sound,” Sumner explained in an  interview for Americana Highways. The departure not only provided more family time but also gave her “an opportunity to write a bunch, chase that sound, and see what happened. I tried out different combinations of instrumentation [including drums, cello and mandolin] and put on some really fun shows with some fabulous musicians.”

While the global pandemic sidelined many a music maker, Sumner enjoyed some creative freedom to write 10 songs for a yet-to-be-released album with Sam Kassirer (Lake Street Dive, Josh Ritter, Langhorne Slim). She then assembled a “versatile” string band that not only could be effective in a live show setting but also “made the most sense for my songs.”

Banding Together to Build Repertoire

The core members — “all scattered around the Greater Boston area” who rehearse regularly in Somerville — include upright bassist, friend and longtime collaborator Mike Siegel, along with Kat Wallace (fiddle, harmonies) and Ira Klein (acoustic guitar), both of whom Sumner learned about from mutual pals and Instagram videos she watched during the lockdown.

“I asked them all if they’d play a show with me when Club Passim, my home base, opened back up for live music,” offered Sumner, a California native who is the historic Cambridge venue’s sound engineer while also managing the organization’s School of Music after attending Berklee College of Music. “We only had 20 days to work up a set, but it was very clear from the first rehearsal that these were the perfect folks to bring life to my songs.”

Sumner will continue touring with what she calls the “mighty” traveling trio, and “we’ve become interested in functioning as a truly collaborative band that can shine in various contexts. For instance, we’re playing more and more old-time and trad bluegrass music, building a repertoire together. It’s mostly because we have fun doing it. We’ve been known to drop in on local jams when we’re on tour. But it also comes in handy for wedding gigs and warming up before a soundcheck.”

For the album, Sumner’s friend Alex Formento was an expressive, impressive addition, laying down glad-to-feel-sad pedal steel notes on several tracks, including “Unrecorded Night,” “Easton” and the instrumental “Come Along, Rowan.”

The songs, mostly written after Sumner finished her lockdown LP, were tracked at The Record Co. studio in Boston over two days in November and another in March.

Seeking a band name by perusing lyrics from her favorite songs, Sumner disclosed that Traveling Light was taken from “Waltz of the 101st Lightborne,” a song from 2015 written by Joanna Newsom, who’s obviously an artist she admires greatly. (See the “Bonus Tracking” segment below.) Citing the line — “Never saw what we could unravel / In traveling light” — Sumner added, “It seemed like the right fit for us — a little bit of a dad-joke, but mostly a reference to the stars. I wanted the band name to reflect the feeling that it could evolve and change over time if it needed to — whether that be stylistically, instrumentally or lineup-wise — and light shifts constantly!”

Sumner, whose wistful vocals often unite with fiddle and pedal steel virtuosity that’ll make grown men weep, wrote the album’s six original songs. (There also are three varied covers from A-list artists.) She did elicit some help from Wallace for the “Homegrown Sorrow” chorus — “But I hope we find / more yesterdays in time.” Since then, the two started writing together. The entire outfit also helped with song arrangements and mixing the album.

“I really love collaboration in a band, and I admire Kat’s writing in her own projects. I think variety is what makes for a good album, and cowriting is a fantastic way to capture that! I am very excited to see what we come up with for the next record!” declared Sumner, who admitted in the track-by-track description that it took her “roughly seven years” before finishing serene album opener “Hunting Doves.”

Sumner’s most personal song on the LP, though, might be “Unrecorded Night,” where she opens up about “fighting the good fight” after giving up alcohol. Asked how her sobriety is going, she responded in an email received on July 28, “It’s still going! I’ve got 3 years, 7 months and counting of sober living, and it keeps getting better the longer I go. I still get cravings, but the support system I’ve created in my life and within the band is so strong and keeps me to my commitment.

“Before I quit altogether, I had tried to practice moderation, only drinking one drink every so often. My thoughts soon became consumed with the question, ‘Is tonight the night I can let myself have a drink?’ and I hated giving up that much mental real estate to a habit. So, I decided altogether to just make the choice to quit. I realized alcohol was at the center of the worst experiences in my life and that I could be more present for my family and friends if I quit. The most difficult part of the journey to sobriety was divorcing my creative process from drinking. That took a lot of time and patience, but I feel like I’m making my best work now that I have a fully sober mind.”

I had grown weary of the well / And the work it took to waste myself /
Too numb to stir awake / Too weak to own my own mistakes

Lyrics from Rachel Sumner’s “Unrecorded Night”

Finding Her Voice

Deciding to tackle a drinking problem is among plenty of right choices Sumner has made in her life. Born on December 2, 1992, in Southern California, she and five siblings grew up in Lancaster, nestled in the Antelope Valley on the edge of the Mojave Desert.

“We moved a lot, so I went to seven different schools between K-12,” she shared. “One of those schools was a charter school whose campus was at a mosque. I learned Arabic at that school. I skipped the seventh grade, started high school when I was 12 and graduated when I was 16. I am 29 and still don’t have my driver’s license, though I’m hoping to remedy that this year.”

As a fourth-grader, Sumner found the drive to play the flute. She her mother Arlene would sing along to tunes by the Everly Brothers, James Taylor and many others they heard on CDs, tapes and the radio, “especially in the car,” Sumner recalled. “It wasn’t until I was learning bluegrass songs and then writing my own songs that I started to get serious about singing. I’d say that was probably about a year into my schooling at Berklee.

Rachel Sumner and Traveling Light

“I was all about harmony singing at first — I worked up a bunch of Hazel & Alice songs with my school friend Molly Tuttle, and soaked up as much of the bluegrass idiom as I could through my time with her and through deep study of old recordings. After I could convincingly sing bluegrass songs, I was able to focus on figuring out what my own voice sounded like when I sang my own songs.”

Along with discovering the music of Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard, Sumner began following the career of Anaïs Mitchell in 2013. “I’ve admired her ability to take on such a wide variety of musical projects and interests,” said the former classical flutist who initially enrolled at Berklee to study composition, intending to professionally pursue film orchestration.

Mitchell has built a “career template” worth establishing for herself, Sumner revealed. “One where I can make an album of my own songs one year, write a musical the next, and then go and reimagine traditional folk songs with my friends. Not that I’ll necessarily do all those specific things, but the freedom to follow my muse and my interests is what’s most important to me,” she maintained.

Pining for Prime Time

With Boston and Berklee forming a common geographical bond, Twisted Pine emerged at Cantab Lounge, a dive bar on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge. Sumner and her bandmates — co-lead vocalist and fiddler Parks, mandolinist Dan Bui and bassist Chris Sartori — started a residency there, playing bluegrass on the first Tuesday night of each month.

Their interests in other genres such as jazz, pop and British balladry gained them an early following and some success. They won the FreshGrass band competition in 2014. A recording contract with prestigious Northampton label Signature Sounds was another sign of affirmation. Their self-titled full-length debut album in July 2017 included Sumner’s “Easton,” which she revisits on her new release.

Twisted Pine first came to my attention before they released a splendid EP of covers titled Dreams in June 2018, as they took on classics such as the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” the Cranberries’ “Dreams” and Blondie’s “Heart of Glass.” Debbie Harry’s breathy vocals were captured on the latter song, which was featured in a music video they presented along with our interview at PopMatters.

Three of Twisted Pine’s original members remain, with Anh Phung (flute) the new addition ahead of their most recent release — 2020’s Right Now.

“I’ve loved seeing how they’ve grown as a band in the time since I left!” Sumner stated. “They are wildly creative. And I’m glad to see them making their mark on the acoustic music scene in exactly the way they want. We are all on good terms — I still see and talk to them every now and then. I’m rooting hard for them!”

Seeing the Light

All is obviously going well for Sumner, too. Not only has it involved her continued sobriety and a renewed sense of purpose with Traveling Light. She found personal happiness in 2019 by marrying Ian Fitzgerald, a New England-based folk singer-songwriter. In the album liner notes, she dedicates this work of art to family members, including her mom and grandmother Ascencion. Sumner also gives “infinite thanks to the man who gives me the courage to shoot for the stars and offers everything and anything to help me get there: my love and darling husband, Ian. I love you to the moon and back.”

In this interview, there’s a shout-out to all three worthy of a group hug as she calls them “my No. 1 supporters and my favorite people on the planet.”

Sumner knows all about top billing. Some of her songs gained high marks in recent competitions. By winning the folk category of the John Lennon Songwriting Contest last year for “Radium Girls (Curie Eleison),” her ballad about the horrible conditions female factory workers faced around World War I, she and the 11 other genre champions competed for Song of the Year and $20,000 (that was awarded in July to country’s Brittany Ann Tranbaugh). Sumner also was one of 24 finalists in the 2021 Kerrville Folk Festival’s New Folk event and among the top Massachusetts entrants in NPR Music’s Tiny Desk Contest in 2020 (“Radium Girls”) and 2021 (“Unrecorded Night”).

“It’s been VERY affirming, and I’ve been so honored to have had this positive feedback about my writing from such established competitions and musicians,” a grateful Sumner proclaimed. “I do think it’s helped some more people find my music, which was my main hope when I entered into these competitions.”

After previously releasing a five-song EP with Fitzgerald —  Sing Me an Old Tune — on Valentine’s Day, 2019, and two more — 2018’s Anything Worth Doing and 2019’s The Things You Forgot — under her own name, Sumner leaves the door open for other possibilities … and a change of scenery. “I’m pretty happy right now here in Boston, but I’m always open to moving wherever it makes the most sense for me to be career-wise,” she contended.

Yet since Sumner enjoys her “day job” at Club Passim, where Twisted Pine will appear on September 14 (reunion, anyone?), the Winchester resident hastened to add, “For the foreseeable future, I’ll remain near Boston and Cambridge!”

Before another studio album with her latest group, currently without an agent or management team, the road will beckon again. Shows will give more devoted fans and newbies a taste of what’s in store.

We’re looking to play a whole lot in the future!” exclaimed Sumner, who has two solo appearances, including a free show at the Rhode Island Folk Festival, in August, then a Cambridge date with the Traveling Light trio at Atwood’s Tavern on September 18, just before summer turns to fall. “I am the one making the connections and booking, and it’s been quite an experience learning how to make this touring stuff happen! … This is a good bunch of folks, and we work hard to support each other on the road and make sure everyone is happy and feeling healthy. We are crossing our fingers for as many tours and festivals as we can take on next year!”

So this Un-Twisted Sister seems content to continue Traveling Light during this transition period. ’Tis the season for dear hearts, open minds, gentle songs and sweet, soothing voices. The Sumner of Love has arrived.

Bonus Tracking: Rachel Sumner Looks Inside the Album

American Highways: You wrote six of the nine songs on the album. The others are from an eclectic mix of artists (Joanna Newsom, Johnny Cash, and Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings). How did you choose the covers? And how do they fit in with your songs?

Rachel Sumner: All the covers are songs by writers I greatly admire, who’ve influenced my own writing. All the songs are also deep cuts from their respective catalogs, which always appeals to me; I enjoy introducing folks to lesser-known works by artists they might be familiar with. The connecting thematic thread I discovered within this record was the concept of transformation of self, of relationships, and of the world surrounding us. I felt these songs fit in perfectly with my own in that regard.

AH: How/when did you come across the book (Forever Words) that included Johnny Cash’s poem? Are you the first — and only — artist to turn his poem into a song?

Rachel Sumner: I found the book on an unusually warm day this last winter. “If You Love Me” was the very first poem I flipped to. The first few lines took my breath away — “The fluctuating worth of this very terminal earth / And the satellite that glows at night above me / Won’t bear upon my mind, but concerning human kind / I won’t care if you’re there and if you love me.” Climate change was weighing pretty heavily on my mind and I couldn’t believe I was reading a love poem seemingly for the apocalypse written by Johnny Cash in 1983! The music came very quickly. It was only after that I found out Elvis Costello had set it to music as well.

AH: Considering “Hunting Doves” took you “roughly seven years to write,” I’m guessing that might answer this question: What was the most challenging song for you to write, and why?

Rachel Sumner: Funny enough, it wasn’t the most difficult song to write! I’d say “Homegrown Sorrow” was the most difficult one to finish. I made lyrical edits right up until I was tracking vocals for the album. “Homegrown Sorrow” was a song I started writing a few years back during an extremely raw moment in my life. Revisiting that moment and trying to honor the origins of the song was a little difficult, but I’m happy with the final version. I feel like I can finally lay those feelings to rest.

AH: “Colleen,” the cover of Joanna Newsom’s quirky folk ballad, seems to have some inherent challenges of its own. How difficult was it to sing? Were there many takes?

Rachel Sumner: A lot of people have strong opinions on Joanna Newsom’s voice in particular, with many saying they don’t like it, but the moment anyone tries to work up one of her songs, they see what a stellar singer she actually is! It was not an easy thing to do … this was one of the few songs I did not track live vocals to — I wanted to be sure I was able to get it right. The “hups!” from the instrumental bits alone took … like 15-plus takes for me to be satisfied! 

AH: Since you said “Come Along, Rowan” is a banjo tune, and it figures prominently on the instrumental, who played the banjo? It wasn’t in the credits.

Rachel Sumner: Oops! I forgot to list it, but I play banjo on the tune!

Thanks for talking with us, Rachel.

Find more music and tour dates for Rachel Sumner here: https://rachelsumnermusic.com/

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