Freak Folk Earth Folks: An Interview With Høly River

by | Sep 6, 2022 | MUSIC

It had begun to rain as I was on my way to meet with the members of Høly River at Earth Folk, and I drove right past their driveway on my first pass. Having made a sharp u-turn after my GPS informed me that I was going the wrong way, I inched slowly along the road until I noticed a natural archway ringed in leaves and plants of various kinds. I was in the middle of a dense southside neighborhood, so I assumed I was in the wrong place, but I tentatively turned down the dirt road that led into what I can only describe as a hidden forest. 

To my right was a tall house adorned with a colorful mural. Car parts were scattered around the yard. Passing beneath two tall trees leaning over the driveway, I emerged into a clearing where a turn of the century house sat nestled into the trees to my right, and across the way a colorful garage stood out as a centerpiece. Nervously making my way onto the grounds, I noticed off the left an old fashioned teardrop camper adorned with awnings that looked at once comfortable and intimidating. I was at summer camp.

My approach to the door was tentative, as my confidence that I was in the right place was still quite low. I knocked, and glanced above the small doorway to a sign that read “WATCH YOUR HEAD.” It was a short doorway. I immediately forgot the lesson, though; when Laney Sullivan and Jameson Price of Høly River opened the door, I did in fact bump my head on the door frame. 

A brief tour around their home was a journey through time. They bought the home, a 19th century sharecropper’s house, five years ago. It was then condemned, but they have spent a considerable amount of time since turning it into a beautiful family living space. They led me into their bedroom, where they had a couch in the corner, and while I set up my recorder and laptop, Sullivan brought in their daughter Sunny Lu, who would be joining us for the rest of the interview. As they cooed and rocked Sunny into a provisional sleep, the three of us sat down, and they began telling me about their background. 

Høly River at home. Photo by Jay Paul.

Sullivan grew up outside Washington D.C. as the stepdaughter of an organist and choral director at the Cathedral Choral Society, where her mother also sang. Being constantly surrounded by intense choral music, she was intimidated by the classically trained professionals, and never considered herself much of a musician. She didn’t start playing until she came to Richmond, joined up with the house show scene, and began playing the accordion in an all-female punk group.

Price grew up in a parsonage in Mechanicsville. The son of a pastor, Price was constantly around the church, surrounded by intense liturgical choir music. He began coming into the city as a teenager to participate in the same burgeoning house show scene that was developing in the smaller neighborhoods of downtown Richmond. Sullivan and Price met while they were both working at Harrison Street Cafe, and began a relationship. With a desire to travel, the two began picking up seasonal jobs and setting off across the world, before finally making a big move to Argentina semi-permanently.

It was around this time that the two started playing music together under the name Lobo Marino. Without much plan for the future, the group released its first album, Kite Festival, under that name, and then went on to release three more records before changing their name to Høly River. Under that name, the group has now released two albums, with plans to continue further. 

With a basis in freak-folk but with punk origins, Høly River’s music is trance-like, drone-based meditation music with lyrics covering themes of nature preservation and personal spiritual growth. Høly River’s music feels as if it came straight out of the Appalachian mountains, but one could just as easily imagine it as the backing track to a Scandinavian Midsommar festival. It may fill those who listen to it with an overwhelming desire to dance around a Maypole. Price often plays an acoustic guitar or any number of fretted string instruments, but what powers their sound primarily is Sullivan’s harmonium, which usually provides the drone and chord progression that the songs are based around. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LOMwiszyNCk

Høly River collaborated with Hourglass Sessions to produce a one-shot live music video of the song “Courage.” You can watch the video on RVA MAG TV starting at 1 PM on Tuesday September 6th, and read further for our interview with Høly River, in which we discuss harmoniums, donation-based performances and music releases, and what it’s like to change a band’s name after they’ve already experienced success. 

Tell me about the harmonium, and how it came about that you started playing that.

LS: I was playing the accordion, and we were traveling around. I had it strapped to my front, with my backpack on my back. I encountered the harmonium first at a Hare Krishna community in Argentina that we were staying at, and I was able to touch a harmonium for the first time. And then we were staying in a commune in California that had a harmonium, and I got to spend more time with it. We purchased one off of a scratch-and-dent website where you can get lightly damaged instruments, and I wrote a bunch of songs that are on our album Kite Festival — that was the first experimentation with the harmonium. 

JP: Harmonium is a really interesting instrument. It’s in the pipe organ family, so a lot of folks here in the United States view it as an eastern instrument. People will associate it with yoga or something, right? But as with a lot of these pump organs, they went through folks, during colonization, going to other countries and bringing these traditional Christian instruments, trying to evangelize the folks. They’ve become these sort of fusion instruments. When we traveled in Europe… it’s still traditional to see the harmonium in choir, church settings, in Sweden or in France. But if you travel with it in India, some folks don’t like it, because it represents colonization. 

LS: So the harmonium is a child of the accordion. It was created in Germany and France, and missionaries brought it over to India. Then, a lot of people in India were like, “You can keep your religion, but we’ll take this instrument.” So now, there are more harmonium makers in India. But you can see from the structure of the instrument, the way it’s made, that it comes from the accordion — with the brass reeds, the keys and the pump. It is a really interesting niche.

JP: It’s such a deep, droning instrument. Playing the accordion, Laney was really just playing harmonies of so many things, right? So I was playing guitar, and then Laney was there playing a melody, or dancing with it. But the harmonium, when she started playing it, became so powerful. You can set a drone on it, and it just became the most powerful thing.

For a while you were known as Lobo Marino, and then the name was changed to Høly River. Why change the name, keep the music on the old account, and then post music on the new account?

JP: I think we knew that it was going to be a hard business move to make, but we knew it was something that we had to do for our soul. Lobo Marino, we named when we were living in South America. Lobo marino is a sea lion in Spanish, and we were speaking Spanish all the time, and so it just felt really casual. It felt really easy to just name it that, because that was the language we were using. We didn’t expect to continue to be a band, if I’m being perfectly honest; we just wrote an album and called it Lobo Marino. We kept going, and then we noticed that people kept asking about our name. “Tell us about Lobo Marino.” And at some point, we had so much distance from that trip, and so much distance from living in a Spanish-speaking country, that it felt like we were rushing the origin story just to get to talk about what we wanted to talk about: an interconnection between nature and ourselves. It started to feel like it was no longer authentic to our mission. 

LS: Now Høly River’s on the forefront, and what does that mean? And in one sentence I can tell you: we drink the rivers, and they become part of our bodies, and we’re connected to the Earth. And that’s one of the reasons why we need to do a better job of respecting it, and treating it with care. But also “Holy River,” our song that we wrote as Lobo Marino, has been a completely transformative experience. So many people have told us that they use that song for birth, or death, or marriages, for all these different really important rituals in life, and it has different messages for people in all of them. We just realized the power in that particular song that, in some ways, feels like it’s beyond us. We didn’t try to create that.

JP: We think of our songs like kids, right? You can birth this song, but then it goes on to live its own independent life, and it’s just doing its own work. But “Holy River,” since it was our most powerful song, definitely our most popular song as Lobo Marino… we knew we also wanted to honor the lineage of Lobo Marino, so fans of that band would connect to something.

I want to pivot a little bit and talk about the music that y’all are releasing now. Are you doing pretty much exclusively streaming?

LS: No, we’re not doing exclusively streaming. We have all our music in almost every capacity that you can produce music available, we just only sell it in person at our shows.

JP: And our Bandcamp has vinyl.

LS: And we’re going to be working to get our vinyl in a digital store. Shipping is just hard, because we tour so much. Yes, we stream on all the platforms, but also on Bandcamp, and everything on Bandcamp is pay what you want. So you can download it for free if you put zero [dollars], but you also can download it for $100. We just wanted our music to be accessible, because we think it’s important that people can listen to it if they feel inspired to.

JP: And even though touring is our primary focus, that is our job, that’s how we primarily make our money, we really are hyper-focused on donation-based shows, and pay what you can. 

LS: You know, the Richmond DIY punk scene — making things light in scale, making things donation, making things all ages, make the music as accessible as you can. Don’t whore yourself out to capitalism [laughs]. 

JP: I don’t want to judge. Anyone else can value their art however they want to. This has just been important to us as a personal practice. So everyone else can make whatever choice they want to make, but for us it felt really important to continue to carry that ethic; it resonates with us. It’s never given us a reason to challenge it. Because we feel like we’re cared for, because we are financially stable through our music without having to challenge that sliding scale donation-based pay-what-you-can [model]. 

LS: It always balances itself out. 

So what went into your decision to release your music on vinyl? Because everyone I’ve spoken to, save for a few, are doing it now, and I’m always interested to hear all the different approaches and philosophies that artists have for doing it. 

LS: We released a full length on vinyl in 2015 — and they’re sold out; you can’t find them anymore. That was We Hear the Ocean. This vinyl that we have now is a special release with our new band name changed, so it’s a 7″ that’s a single of “Holy River” remastered, and then a remix of the “Holy River” song on the other side. It sells slowly, but our CDs sell more than this vinyl. For us, at least, when we’re playing shows. We’re not in stores. Plan 9 and local places will carry it sometimes, when I go through the process to give it to them. Being a local DIY band, I don’t have a database of stores around the nation that I can ship to.

JP: I think we’re still figuring out a lot of our online distribution. So much of what we focus on… and again, it works for us, so we understand what we want to work on. But for us, touring and being in person and the in-person connections… We screen-print all of our own shirts, on shirts that we get from thrift stores. We hyper-focus on things that we know we’re gonna go on tour with, and that’s the main vehicle of how our music is moving.

Holy River at Unity Fest. Photo by Sarah Sha, via Holy River/Facebook

Well, how do you go about writing your music? It’s very trance-like, and there’s clearly a message to it, but where does the inspiration come from, and is there a specific way that you approach it?

LS: Well, they happen in different ways. Sometimes they start just passing through the ether, and you have to catch it. I’ll catch it by making a quick voice memo — that is a seed of a song. [For] our last album, Courage, we had a writing retreat.

JP: It was the first time we had ever done that, and we felt really rewarded by that ritual. Before, we were always just collecting the songs. This is the first time we just sat down and collaborated so much, on so many songs. I would say most of our other albums are collages of primarily Laney’s songs with some of my influence, and primarily my songs with some of Laney’s influence, whereas with Courage… those songs do exist on that album, but it’s a strong fusion of our work together. I think, luckily, we both like writing poetry, and process our feelings in a poetic way. So we’ll come with a lot of words and lyrics and things already prepared, or things that we’ve been sitting on that maybe didn’t have a melody yet. 

LS: I was telling a friend today about songwriting, and how, when I go to write an album, I feel like I’m going to the well, and I don’t know much water is in the well. I don’t know if there are going to be songs there or not. If there are songs, I am struck and in deep gratitude of what’s coming through, but it’s not a cerebral thing that I’m doing. It’s more of a feeling. I try to switch up the instruments if I get stuck in a pattern — because I will with certain instruments — and do different practices to break up the patterns and see what comes out. 

When a rock band tours, you will see them playing dingy bars and clubs, or maybe places like The National, but this last tour you took was not like that at all. You were playing a lot of open fields, communes, vineyards… is that what most of your tours are like? 

LS: Yeah, and I feel like… we’ve opened up this genre of Earth Folk, which is what we call this place [their house]. And there are other bands that have used that term, of being Earth-based folk music. And I feel like through this culture that we’re creating — of people who are intentionally trying to live in better harmony with the Earth, people who grow their own food, live in community — we focus a lot on those places, and people doing that kind of work. We go to them, because we’re all networking, sharing ideas, and learning from each other to build this big network. It’s actually a global network — the tours look the same in Germany. We go to some cooperatively owned house where people are sharing a vegetarian potluck.

JP: Maybe a farm or a community center. The place where we end up crossing over a lot with our fans is at festivals, right? But festivals, if you’ve been to them, they can set vibes very distinctly. 

LS: So we go to grassroots festivals a lot, or burn-esque festivals. We were just at Flowjam, which has elements of burn culture, but also yoga and healing arts. And Mountain Run Jam, which has primitive skills and farming and agriculture workshops, stuff like that. So, we’re just working more with people who are working with the Earth, and that inevitably leads us to these stages outdoors, with plants and people who are making mead and celebrating the solstice.  

So tell me about making the Hourglass Session, and what inspired your very interesting choice to have ballet dancers along with your performance. First thing though: where did you film it?

JP:  It’s the pump house in Pump House Park, right near the Seven Nickel Bridge. The pump house used to be an old hydro-electric plant, and the top part of it was turned into a ballroom. So we were in that ballroom section of the pump house, which they’re procuring funds to rebuild. It’s part of the James River Park system. So that attracted us to being there; not only is it a beautiful building, but it’s also raising awareness of a place that is trying to raise money — to both rebuild this place, and also for the James River Park system itself. The Virginia Ballet… Laney actually has connections to them, because she had been in contact with the ballet for a collaboration we had been talking about for a long time, and we’re actually doing this year. We are raising awareness of our waterways and our watershed to dancers at the ballet, and so it’s gonna be a multimedia [presentation]. We’re playing music, the dancers will dance, and there’ll also be some spoken word about our waterways, and the interconnection of our watershed to our bodies. We had already been in contact with them, and when Hourglass asked us if we wanted to do a session, and if we had a place in mind, these connections were already there. And so we thought, “Let’s just do all these things together.”

LS: I had been talking to Mac, who’s from Friends of the Pump House, about… he was wanting to have musicians play in the pump house, and I was like, “Yeah, that sounds great.” To help raise money to help rebuild some of the windows, because it’s in pretty bad shape. I had been talking to some dancers from the ballet about dancing to some of the groups that are playing, and he was like, “Oh my gosh, that sounds incredible. We need to document this, and we should live stream it.” It was during COVID, so they were gonna live stream it, but I had done enough live streams at that point. I had seen things be live streamed in a way that did not honor the experience – just somebody’s crappy stagnant camera on a tripod trying to capture this.

And at the same time I was having these conversations with Mac about the ballet playing, Tyler from Hourglass Session wrote and asked if we would be interested in doing an Hourglass Session. And I was like, “You know what? I’m in this conversation with Friends of the Pump House and the ballet about this live stream there as a fundraiser for the Pump House. Would you all want to be the production coordinators for that, so that we could have nice audio production and visuals?” And they were like, “Yeah, that sounds rad.” So it was pretty miraculous that all those things happened at the same time, and everyone was just down. So they filmed… I think we did seven songs that we streamed as part of the fundraiser, so there’s more. But that one piece, “Courage,” is the one that Hourglass Sessions did in their style. But I edited all the other audio and visual pieces that Tyler and Dillon collected, and I edited a whole show that would be live streamed for the fundraiser. 


You can watch the Hourglass Session for “Courage” by Høly River on RVA Mag TV starting at 1PM on September 6th. Their music is available for download on Bandcamp, and for streaming anywhere you normally find music. Høly River will also be performing on the main stage at Mountain Run Jam, in Sedalia VA, on Saturday, October 1. More info and festival tickets can be found at mountainrunjam.com.

Top Photo: Holy River perform at Okechoobee Music Fest in 2018. Photo via Holy River/Facebook

Andrew Bonieskie

Andrew Bonieskie

Andrew Bonieskie is a writer and composer living in Richmond, Virginia. After graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2020 with a Bachelor of Arts in music and a minor in creative writing Bonieskie has gone on to score feature and short films, released a book of poetry, and frequently performs lead vocals with the band Pebbles Palace.

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