Folks around Winston-Salem might remember Sarah Siskind as Sarah Wingate, back from when she was a teenager in the ‘90s.
“I was the kid playing in all the coffee shops,” said Siskind, who married in her 20s and took her husband’s name. She’s since remarried, but she moved to Seattle and then to Nashville and built a career with her first married name attached to it, so she still uses that.
“It’s really confusing,” said Siskind, who spoke with me by phone from her home in Brevard, North Carolina, last week. Siskind plays the Muddy Creek Music Hall in Winston-Salem on Nov. 10. She and her husband (Travis Book from the Infamous Stringdusters) and children have been back in the state for two years, after a few years in Virginia, enjoying the mountains and the relative proximity to (and relative distance from) Nashville, where she still goes to work several days a month to collaborate on co-writing projects.
Siskind, whose parents played music, had her formative days here in the Triad and enjoyed a close connection to the community at Parkway United Church of Christ, performed in musical theater, studied piano and wrote songs.
“Music was everywhere,” she said. “My dad would sit around the house and play guitar all the time. My mom plays banjo. They would take my brother and me to bluegrass festivals since we were babies.”
She has memories of falling asleep in the velvety lined case of an upright bass as a kid while her parents and their friends were playing somewhere.
Siskind has a wide-ranging style rooted in country and folk but with touches of gospel melisma, jazzy harmonies, bold phrasing and indie-rock atmospherics. She’s toured with artists like Bonnie Raitt and Bon Iver, who also has covered one of her songs and who in 2013 re-released her debut full-length record, “Covered,” on his independent label.
The album features the spectral guitarwork of Bill Frisell. Country stars like Alison Krauss and Randy Travis have also covered Siskind’s songs. Her material has been featured in shows like Nashville and HBO’s The Wire. Siskind also has a — uh, well, I guess you’d have to call it “awesome” — prog-nerd side.
She’s maybe that rare Americana-tinged artist who has a taste for both the Carter Family and the Georgia Sea Island Singers along with a fondness for groups like Rush and Mahavishnu Orchestra. Wisely, she doesn’t exactly try to blend the two, but one can hear the influence of both ends of that spectrum showing up in her music.
“I have a very traditional side, and I have a very progressive side, and sometimes the two collide in a song,” Siskind said. “And sometimes I write very traditional, and sometimes I write very progressive.”
She may call it a collision, but one rarely hears any jarring or abrasive crashing. Siskind is more subtle than that.
It’s true that if you listen close, you’ll hear Siskind’s openness, both in her emotional insights and in her willingness to showcase counterintuitive sonic textures or rhythmic and melodic touches. On “Soldier,” from “Covered,” Frisell comes in with haunting sounds that could be passing sirens, the muffled roar of a distant airplane or atmospheric washes. On “Falling Stars” from 2009’s “Say It Louder,” Siskind drapes a beguilingly staggered piano line over the chorus.
The timbre of Siskind’s alto can bring to mind Christine McVie of Fleetwood Mac, but Siskind sings with much more controlled force, climbing high when she feels like it and executing expressive quivers or bluesy runs. She’s an impressive singer (listen to both the melody and the way she embellishes it on “Naturally.”) Her songs surprise the listener with their careful unspooling of detail and her tricky way of adding emphasis with her phrasing, a pause here, a repetition there.
As a songwriter, Siskind is one of those artists who approach the craft almost like a short story writer, feeling her way into people’s lives, into imagined scenarios and complicated emotional equations. In Siskind’s songs, the simple comforts of family are real and deep. Seasoned, untroubled love is an ideal. A few of her songs express the less common, but still somehow surprisingly underexplored desire to have a child–a small, soft thing to love, caress and nurture. She made a Christmas EP, 2010’s “All Come Together Now,” which celebrated the pleasures of family gatherings, food, music, childhood longing and hope.
“I get inspired to do stuff,” she said. “And I remember one day I just heard a voice that said ‘You’ve got to make a holiday record.’ I know it sounds cliche – but Christmas is my favorite time of year.”
Siskind’s album isn’t a record of familiar favorites. It’s an album of songs she wrote on the subject of Christmas. Some of them actually sort of sad.
“It was a great exercise to write with a theme in mind,” she said.
As much as Siskind might gravitate toward songs about familial warmth, nostalgia and the love of children, she can also dive deep into the territory of romantic struggle, of desire leading people astray, of combustible attractions and the urges that propel some toward a tragic isolation sometimes.
“Love is a very complicated, complex thing — everybody knows that,” Siskind said. “And I’ve been through a lot, and I have a very vivid imagination, I have since I was a child. And I can latch onto scenarios, whether they have happened to me or they have not, or I want them to, and I can really dig in.”
Some of Siskind’s songs are built around conversations she’s wished that people would have had, or from the perspective of someone talking to her. Others are entirely imagined dynamics between made-up people.
“I get to write my own movies, and then be in my own three-minute movie,” she said. “It’s really fun.”
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.
See Sarah Siskind at the Muddy Creek Music Hall, 5455 Bethania Road, Winston-Salem, on Friday, Nov. 10, at 8 p.m.