The nostalgic homespun philosophy of Rachel Ries

The singer-songwriter has carried her style from her childhood among the Mennonites in South Dakota, and her vintage dresses evoke that world

Wed, Apr 30, 2014, 01:00

She loves Clonakilty black pudding, makes her own homemade jam to sell at concerts and, for people who helped to fund her album, hand-stitches cloth covers for the vinyl version.

Singer-songwriter Rachel Ries has carried her style from her childhood among the Mennonites in South Dakota. Her vintage country dresses evoke long walks on the plains and days of innocence. Her music is from another time: she records on analogue equipment and has a penchant for LPs and turntables.

With her pale skin, matt red lipstick and clothes from vintage shops, 33-year-old Ries’s style evokes homespun nostalgia. When she lived in New York, she gathered winterberries in Central Park to make jam. If there is a slow-music style in the same vein as the wholesome slow-food movement, it is epitomised by Ries, whose jazz-blues-folk songs are sung prose with the feel of Raymond Carver stories, each tight phrase a little pinch of hurt.

“I’m a ghost of a gardener,” she sings.

Who is the ghost? “I was, trapped in the apartment in New York, missing green. I’ve left the city behind for now,” she says on the phone from Texas as she tours the US with her new album, Ghost of a Gardener . It is her first album since 2007’s Without a Bird , and was crowd-funded through Kickstarter. com">Kickstarter.com ($22,528 was raised).


Home-stitched album covers
On her Kickstarter page, you can see her 1950s vintage kitchen in New York, watch her “knitting” music and hanging home-stitched album covers out to dry on a line. Her visual style is of someone who has carried on the Mennonite and homemaking traditions, and these carry through to her music and videos.

Mennonites, who escaped persecution in Europe by travelling to the US, are similar to the simple-living Amish, but with “a liberal and modern aspect”, she says, and this includes a strong international aid programme. Ries’s parents were missionaries in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where as a young child Ries learned to sing church music. But unlike the fashion of the Amish, to whom they are related, Mennonites “don’t stick out in a crowd”, she says, although she was not allowed to wear miniskirts.

While she is no longer in the church, “I identify ethically and culturally and I have a deep respect for my family’s lineage”, she says. In her early 20s, Ries ripped herself away from the “very, very conservative” community and moved to New York.

“I was living my life in a way that my home community had no reference for,” she says. “I’m quite a sizeable mystery to them. I have a very close relationship with my family now, and that in itself has been a long road. They were very fearful of the path I had chosen and the rock-music culture I experimented with. I’m worldly, but I’m still their daughter.”


‘Lost and clueless’
Ries’s fragility comes across in photographs. She quit performing for three years from the age of 28, feeling “brutally lost and clueless, and very lost within a relationship”.

What happened? “I had to find out who I was without music. I’m a rather tender person emotionally, with not much of a thick skin. [Performing] was taking its toll in [terms of] anxiety. I felt very alone. Being a musician is a massive endeavour, and it requires a bit of a village. I felt I didn’t have that village. It felt bleak. Physically, the stress started to manifest in so many ways. I had migraines, my immune system was depleted. I wasn’t happy, and I did not love the music any more. I needed to figure out what else was there.”

Ries’s music is fragile. “I’ve known for so long to embrace that fragility and not hide it, because I know it has a power. People think they can’t admit fragility and fear. That’s what I feel I have to do in song. My audience is a small and tender audience made up of small and tender people.”

Ries ended her three-year musical silence by opening for her close friend, singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell, and she was amazed to find herself nominated for a city of Chicago arts grant. “[It] came out of nowhere, it was a cosmic affirmation that this was the right direction for me,” she says.


On tour:
Coughlans, Cork, today; De Barras, Clonakilty, Co Cork (special guest to John Spillane), tomorrow; Whelan’s, Dublin (supporting Lake Street D ive ), Friday; Ruby Sessions, Doyle’s , Dublin , May 6; Arthur’s, Dublin, May 7; No Alibis, Belfast , May 8

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