Sun Riah – In Their Own Words

It was just three months ago that we premiered the video to Grandma’s Room And Trains In The Distance, the stunning single from Sun Riah. Since then M.Bailey Stephenson, the songwriter behind the pseudonym, has released her debut album, Sitting with Sounds and Listening for Ghosts, moved the small distance of 1000 miles from Oklahoma to Tuscon and started a PhD in Sociocultural Anthropology. It would be fair to say it’s been a pretty productive summer.

Focusing on Bailey’s musical achievements, Sitting With Sounds and Listening for Ghosts, is a remarkable piece of work. Built around the same twin pillars that underpin most of her songwriting, namely her remarkable vocal and the harp, it is the most coherent album she has ever produced. It is an album of memories, not of a particular event or even a particular person, but of a house. It was the house where her grandmother was born and lived her entire life. The record focuses on different setting in and around the house; the kitchen, papa’s workshop, the middle room where her grandmother was born. Viewing these places, Bailey takes us on a journey, examining families, relationships, and how entwined all those ideas are with the idea of place.

Musically, Sitting With Sounds and Listening for Ghosts is a masterclass in the use of space within a recording. It’s not that it’s a simple record, or even a particularly minimal one, it’s just that no note is ever wasted. Each pluck of harp, stunning vocal inflexion and wave of warm electronic backing seems to have been perfectly chosen for maximum emotional impact. Put simply, Sitting With Sounds and Listening for Ghosts is just one of the year’s most impressive releases, and today ahead of a show in her new home town of Tuscon, we chat to Bailey about life on the road, the recording process and how she ended up playing the harp in the first place.

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Photo by Ariel Bridget

FTR: For those who don’t know, who is Sun Riah?

My name is M. Bailey Stephenson, and Sun Riah is my solo music project. Basically, I combine harp, vocals, and effects to tell stories through sound.

FTR: Where does the name come from? Where does M. Bailey Stephenson end and Sun Riah begin?

So… my first name is Moriah, and my middle name is Bailey. I’ve gone by Bailey my whole life. Bailey was my great grandmother’s maiden name, and it’s a family tradition that many folks in my family go by their middle names. When I was a child, Bailey was not a very popular name, and I was teased quite a bit for having both a “weird” name and a “boy’s” name. Party of Five was a thing then, so I guess people thought Bailey was a boy’s name? Anyway, I hated my name, but I thought Moriah was too pretty. I wished my name was Sun Riah; I thought it sounded like sunrise and Moriah combined. The name Sun Riah is about my imagined self, my childhood imagination, feelings of disappointment and disillusionment, learning and challenging social boundaries, and also childhood optimism and insight. For me, the name is about all of those things and about realizing a space to preserve and embrace my own emotions and thoughts. I also have a lot of anxiety, so it helps me to perform under a moniker. I don’t know where Bailey begins and Sun Riah ends. I think Sun Riah is a part of me. Lately though, people have been frequently asking me if the moniker is a Sun Ra or a Sunn O))) reference. I love Sunn O))) and Sun Ra and respect Sun Ra’s music and musical significance tremendously, but I never intended the name to be a reference. I’m not sure that I feel comfortable with people assuming that I’m comparing myself to or making reference to someone who I hold in such high regard. So, I’ve been considering dropping the moniker on future releases. Who knows, we’ll see.  

FTR: You recently released your third album, Sitting with Sounds and Listening for Ghosts, what can you tell us about the recording process?

The record took around a year to record. I worked on it off and on while also working on some other big life projects. It was mostly recorded in my house. Some of the songs, I had mostly orchestrated in my head, and I just sat down to record them. Those songs were recorded really quickly. Others were written and rewritten through the recording process. I experimented more on this album with attempting to capture the echoes and reverberation of the harp. For all of the vocal tracks, I recorded the soundboard of the harp run through effects pedals as it picked up my voice. Some of the background vocals were recorded through the harp pick-up, and not through a vocal mic at all.

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Photo by Mark Elliott

FTR: What did you do differently with this record as compared to your previous output?

This album was a complete thought at the time that I started recording. It didn’t exactly end up how I imagined it would, but I had moments, a picture, and an overarching story that I planned to convey through the songs. I also wrote it in a sort of order… It started with Grandma’s Room and Trains in the Distance, and then the rest of the songs kind of flowed from that song. Firefly Night Light is an album about my own experiences with abusive relationships, coping with abuse in unhealthy ways, and struggling through those relationships to try and find my own footing and some kind of light. Most of the album is very dark, and honestly, I didn’t know what the album was about when I was working on it. My rage was in it and a great deal of shame and also strength, but there was a chaos to it. That chaos was also embodied in the writing and recording process. I think one of the biggest differences is that Firefly Night Light is much more sound-driven, whereas Sitting with Sounds and Listening for Ghosts is more lyrically-driven. On Firefly Night Light, I experimented with the potential of the harp to be jarring by using tools and effects pedals to create dissonance and tension, but in Sitting with Sounds and Listening for Ghosts, I experimented more with the harps capacity to hold and carry sound in order to create warming soundscapes that fall back and kind of cradle the lyrics.

FTR: There’s obviously an impracticality to playing the harp for a touring musician, what inspired you to take it up?

It’s a pretty long story. The short version is that I had musical ideas that I thought could only be realized through the harp. I was just incredibly inspired by the harp’s potential to do many different things. I just kind of fell in love with it and found the harp at a time when I really needed it. Sometimes, it doesn’t feel real that I play the harp, but then other times, it is hard to remember my life before the harp. I view it as this extension of myself that I struggle to imagine living without.

FTR: Who are your musical inspirations? What were you listening to when you recorded the album?

I have so many musical inspirations. A short and incomplete list of folks that just immediately come to mind: Joni Mitchell, Fiona Apple, Bon Iver, Erykah Badu, Sufjan Stevens, Bibio, Laura Mvula, Helen Money, Julianna Barwick, Grouper, Lost in the Trees, Loreena McKinnit, God Speed You Black Emperor, Kate Bush, Don Caballero, Judy Garland, Meat Puppets, Radiohead, musicals. Tons more.   

Since I recorded the album over the course of a year, I listened to lots of different things during that process. A few things that come to mind: Helen Money’s Become Zero, Laura Mvula’s Sing to the Moon, and Mitski’s Puberty 2. I was also listening to a lot of Y La Bamba, Wye Oak, Ibeyi, Leyla McCalla, Adam Torres, Moon Honey, Esperanza Spalding, Sound of Ceres, and Beyonce’s Lemonade, of course. Also, I listened to a lot of Keeled Scales artists. I went through a phase where I listened to Caitlin Kraus’s “Waiting for the World” on repeat for hours. I did the same thing with Real Live Tiger’s “Denatured.” Oh! And I listened to a ton of Chance the Rapper. Lots more, but these things stand out, I guess.   

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Photo by Mark Elliott

FTR: You’ve played with some impressive artists (Megafauna/Julie Byrne) – what have you learnt about life on the road? Is it something you enjoy?

I actually met Julie long ago when we were both pretty new to playing our original music live, and we worked together briefly at a health food store in Chicago. Her music is completely amazing and enchanting. But yeah… touring is both incredibly difficult and incredibly rewarding. I’ve learned to drink alcohol a whole lot less and water a whole lot more, to find time for self-care, and to plan but also be really okay when things don’t go according to plan. I love performing live and seeing different acts around the country. Honestly, most of my biggest inspirations in recent years are bands or individuals that I met while touring.

FTR: What are your interests outside of music? We read you’re an Environmental Justice activist?

Yeah. I have at times been heavily involved with environmental justice groups and organizations in Oklahoma. Related to EJ work, I’m interested in Oklahoma history, particularly indigenous history and histories of resistance to colonialism and resource extraction. I love language and books and horrible thriller movies. I’m also a huge scrabble and chess nerd.  

FTR: You’ve described this record as being about a single home in Oklahoma, can you explain that to us?

Yeah. I guess it’d be more accurate for me to say that it was inspired by a house and town in Oklahoma. The album is framed by the house where my grandma was born in 1926 and lived until she died in 2015. She was actually born in the middle room of the house. Each song was inspired by a particular place either within the house or surrounding the house in the town. The album attempts to capture the life of the house, but also, changing relationships to place that come with loss and time.

FTR: There’s a lot of references to loss on this record, but also to a feeling of home, do you consider it a sad record?

I love this question because lots of people have talked to me about how sad it is, but I don’t think it is sad. Parts of it are sad, very sad, but compared to Firefly Night Light, I think it is a really warm album. For me, the overwhelming feeling of the album is one of warmth. There are lots of themes in the album: home, longing, and change. Of course, there is sadness in some of that, but for me at least, sadness isn’t the overarching theme.  It’s much more about a sense of home for me. I guess for me, it’s sort of about the place and people who have always provided me security in times of hardship. The album is sort of a question as to how my relationship with that place has and will change without the people there who made it what it was for me. There is definitely sadness in it, but overall, for me, it is a very warm album.

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Photo by Mark Elliott

FTR: You’ve recently moved from Oklahoma to Tucson, what inspired that move?

I am starting a PhD program at the University of Arizona in Sociocultural Anthropology. I am interested in connections among industry, environment, identity, experiences of belonging, and narratives of resistance. University of Arizona actually has a really great anthro program, so I’m here. It’s been a big move, and I’m still transitioning. I certainly miss Oklahoma, but I’ll be back to visit often.

FTR: What’s next for Sun Riah?

I’m not entirely sure. I hope to play lots more shows in Arizona and also in surrounding states. I’m excited to meet more people here and to share music with folks.  

Sitting with Sounds and Listening for Ghosts is out now via Keeled Scales. Click HERE for more information on Sun Riah.

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