Trillium Project Residency: An Ode to Moss

(Originally posted  May 7th, 2018)

Hey all –

Hard to believe that spring time is rolling in already, but I’m glad it is. It’s my favorite season in Oregon, and the pre-summer tension of what may surprise me in the warm weather always keeps me on the edge of my seat. April was not a cruel month in the slightest, and I got to spend a good chunk of it on the road playing shows in new cities in Oregon (Port Orford/Langlois area was a treat) and revisiting California haunts with a couple of fantastic songwriters.

I had the pleasure of welcoming in the month of May at an artist residency in the Suislaw National Forest last weekend. The residency is called the Trillium Project and it is organized by Oregon State University’s Humanities and Environmental Studies department. The interdisciplinary nature of the program makes for some really interesting cross over of artists who share the space during the residency, and my friend Claudia (a painter) and I shared the cabin with three writers all working on independent projects. While we all were hopefully able to get some good thinking and writing done, the cabin had a nice collaborative feel to it, and we ended up cooking meals together, drinking wine and whisky, swapping stories, and giving each other space to create. I would have stayed a lot longer if given the opportunity.

It isn’t often these days that I have uninterrupted creative time, but I’m finding more and more that that’s the only kind of time I really care about (besides spending time with loved ones and making food with people).  It usually takes me about a full 24-hours to clear my head of the 9-5 grind I’m currently pulling, and by the time I can really sink into that second day of creative reflection, I’m quite literally jerked back out of it (this is why I believe in a 20-hour work week and universal basic income), only to be sat at my desk again, or driving to meet a client, or sitting in a court room, or a hospital, or prison. I’m an advocate for folk with disabilities, so I spend a good amount of time in government-related buildings.  These spaces I visit for my job are steeped in the context of a superstructure and history that leave me with a lot to think about at the end of the day, and it has always had a place in my songwriting. I’m really appreciative of the time I had at the residency to lay fallow and stew on concepts that have occupied my mind while writing my first cohesive full-length solo album. 

The cabin and the land it sits on is stunning. We didn’t have WiFi or cell service, and I liked that – I am way too addicted to social media and the internet these days. The cabin wasn’t quite off the grid because it received its power from a small municipality called Burnt Wood. As I drove home on Sunday evening I literally saw them burning a giant pile of wood next to a sign that said ‘Burnt Wood,’ so yeah, they mean it.

The cabin is filled with relics from past residents, works of art and poetry, books, a nice keyboard, cushy armchairs, and maps. Very romantic. I spent the majority of my time sitting with my notebook reading Robin Kimmerer’s “Gathering Moss.” She’s an ecologist and a fantastic writer, a combination I’ve always had a weakness for. In high school I wanted to be a science writer (I loved chemistry and geology), and then I picked up the guitar and changed my mind, but recently I’ve circled back around to that internal monologue of paying attention to the small concrete things that make our world go round. I think it’s somewhat of a knee-jerk reaction to the complete political chaos that is, rightfully so, getting everybody down a bit.  In college I turned my attention to art and the intellectual history of revolutions and gender studies, but these days I find myself grasping for something more black and white, almost measurable, to help me feel grounded. So I’ve been reading books about dirt and moss.

Why would reading about moss help me write songs? That is seriously a great question and I never thought I would be here writing this, telling you that I’m writing songs inspired by moss. A friend in Portland recently got me thinking about the plant because he was equally intrigued by them, and I’ve gone down a soft mossy wormhole. (omg that sounds so gross)

Kimmerer has a great line about how looking for moss is a meditative act: “Learning to see moss is more like listening than looking. A cursory glance will not do it.  Straining to hear a faraway voice or catch a nuance in the quiet subtext of a conversation requires attentiveness, a filtering of all the noise, to catch the music.” Songwriting, at least for me, is a relatively meditative, in-my-own-head, kind of process. I know I write a decent song when, right before I write it, I’m hyper-aware of tiny details all around me and I’m listening to my environment (whether that environment is a drop of dew sliding down a tree trunk, or a judge mispronouncing the name of someone who’s just been served a sentence they don’t deserve). When I finally sit down to write it, the world falls away, and I’m left with a melody, some words, and hopefully a genuine experience captured in 3-4 minutes of sound. I spent a few hours of the residency walking outside with my Tascam recorder, stopping every few minutes to record bird calls, the rustle of leaves, frog songs, and whatever else my ears picked up out there.

The residency was a great opportunity to flesh out ideas/lyrics I’d been wanting to work on. I also was able to settle on an album title. I’m not going to share it yet – I have to keep holding the tension somehow so you’ll keep reading my blog.  But I know I’m done writing my first full-length album. I’ve got about 20 new songs to choose from and I’m really excited to have the band fill them out, record them, and put them out – realistically next year. I’ve got a good feeling about 2019 and things to come.

Until then, we’re releasing a single called “Don’t Be Alarmed” in about a month. We’ll premiere the song on June 22nd at Turn Turn Turn, along with a few new tunes we’ve been working out.  Thanks for reading, and see you at the show.

Love & moss & stuff,

O xx

Olivia Awbrey