There are times when Stephen Roach looks out into the audience at his band Songs of Water’s shows and notices people scribbling in notebooks. While most performers would be insulted that the crowd wasn’t focused intently on the band, Roach views it as another extension of the band’s music – the cycle of art, if you will.
Songs of Water isn’t your average contemporary band. Although the music, which Roach describes as “cinematic folk,” falls loosely into the Americana category, its originality and connection to classical and world music helps it escape being lumped into the current folk-rock boom.
Its latest album, “Stars and Dust,” has more in common with Nickel Creek’s 2005 album “Why Should the Fire Die?” than the Avetts or Mumford. That record found Nickel Creek outgrowing its bluegrass roots and embracing orchestral folk with a focus on songwriting.
“Stars and Dust” similarly finds the Greensboro outfit settling into a place between the instrumental symphonic world-newgrass of its early work to more of a lyrically focused world-folk style with orchestral pop elements that could help it find a wider audience.
The band celebrates the album release at Neighborhood Theatre Saturday.
Roach jokes that he was condemned to be a musician. His mother was one of 14 siblings whose family played bluegrass, and his father was a third-generation fiddler. Flatpicking guitar legend Tony Rice is his cousin.
“Sometime when I was a teenager a world music shop moved into Greensboro, and through that I began to play traditional Turkish, Greek and Middle Eastern music and I trained in African percussion. That, as well as having the bluegrass background, shaped me,” explains Roach, who also admits to a fling with death metal.
Bandmate Luke Skaggs had a similar experience. The son of Grammy winning country and bluegrass legend Ricky Skaggs and singer Sharon White (of the Whites), Skaggs studied sitar and electric guitar. Multi-instrumentalists Elisa Cox, Jonathan Kliegle, Michael Pritchard and Gregory Willette have similarly eclectic backgrounds.
Roach describes “Stars and Dust” as “an exploration of contrasts,” which recalls how Ricky Skaggs describes Songs of Water – “biscuits and curry.”
Roach says producer Elijah Mosely helped “catapult us into a place we wanted to go naturally. He said, ‘You guys play 40-plus instruments, but your strongest material (features) your songwriting,’” recalls Roach, who worked with Mosely at Lincolnton’s Threshing Sound Audio.
“We’re using eclectic instruments, but you hear a modern rock song,” says Roach referencing the Chinese Guzheng, hammered dulcimer, West African percussion and Cox’s string arrangements. There’s even a lightbulb struck with pencils and lots of beating on the floor.
“It was a challenge as a lyricist. Instrumental music is more subjective. The moment you put a lyric with a meaning you’ve defined it to a degree. My approach was I wanted it to be more abstract,” he adds, with audiences drawing their own stories or visual interpretations. Hence fans with notebooks and live shows that play up that visual aspect with shadow dancers, live painting and other artistic collaborations.
“Part of the fun for me as an artist is to see it continue to grow. David Byrne called it emergent storytelling,” explains Roach. “You start to see this song you’re making has a life of its own.”
Courtney’s blog: cltsoundbites.blogspot.com
Songs of Water
WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Neighborhood Theatre, 511 E. 36th St.