Review Summary: The intersection of nature and humanity, as captured at a sheep farm.Songs of Sonoma Mountain
asks us to close our eyes, to listen, and to revel in the serenity and stability of the world around us while also reflecting on the fragility of the human experience. Ismay is the pseudonym of Avery Hellman and friends, with Hellman being the only consistent member, as well as the name of a town in the Montana plains that has a grand population of nineteen people. Songs of Sonoma Mountain
was recorded at their family’s 100-year-old sheep farm, where Hellman has also worked for the past five years. It is a sort-of concept album that describes the Sonoma Mountains that surround the ranch, with many songs seemingly told from the perspective of the nature that surrounded Hellman, but still mixed with incredibly enchanting lyrics that reflect on human belonging.
Hellman’s lyrics are truly the star of the album, but the vehicle that delivers them is just as important as the imagery and pictures they create. The album, (co-produced by Robert Cheek, who has worked with Band of Horses and Chelsea Wolfe) is largely comprised of wandering melodies, finger picked acoustic lines, and Hellman’s perfectly meandering vocal lines. Songs rarely follow a typical song structure and often seem to be as much of a stream of consciousness concoction as it is a planned composition. The final product is absolutely entrancing, lulling the listener into a sense of serene focus where there is no choice but to pay attention to the lyrics. Even though the album is about our connection with nature, it truly tells the story of nature, not just a shallow focus on the imagery or the beauty of it. In “The Stones”, Hellman describes their first encounter with stones near the property of a ranch that, if a black light is shined on them, seem to reflect the stars. The premise of the song is simple, but the execution of the sound and storytelling aspect of the lyrics create an almost haunting exposition.
The brilliance of Songs of Sonoma Mountain
is when the line between the nature surrounding Ismay and their own personal experiences are blurred. “The 100 Mile View from Virginia City” describes exactly what the title implies - A bar in Virginia City that boasts of having a window with a view that goes for one hundred miles. Hellman describes their experience of entering the bar and seeing the view, but the lyrics also tackle the idea of destructive change in a still world, both in the grand scheme of destroying nature and attempts to destroy the human spirit. Seeing the vastness of the desert from the bar window reinforces the fact that, no matter the destruction, there is a beauty that will continue to exist somewhere.
“When I Was Younger I Cried” is the most clearly personal that Ismay gets, describing Hellman’s experience of knowing from a younger age that they did not feel comfortable identifying as either male or female, but didn’t yet know that they identified as non-binary or genderqueer. Even though this realization is made and Hellman openly discusses their gender identity, the song doesn’t become a large celebration. Instead, Hellman sings “When I was younger I cried/Now that I’m older, I hide
”. This isn’t an expression of shame of their gender identity, but an honest and wrenching acknowledgement that it is easier to hide it from people than expect their acceptance, although the song does end with a hopeful I think it’s time that I tried
. The song is full of heart wrenching allegories that are still based in the nature surrounding Hellman, none more so clear than the pseudo-chorus.
“For I want to be like a mountainside
Crumbling away but still with my pride
Why can’t I can’t be as a river of stone
Not he or she but still not alone.
Songs of Sonoma Mountain
takes the magnificence of the world around us and compresses it into a simple folk experience that is also absolutely magnificent in its own right. Each song contains the incomparable splendour of nature yet also pairs it with incredibly authentic individual emotions. Ismay has created an album that is both a snapshot of the epic world around us but also a deep, personal reflection on self and others. Hellman shared an interesting anecdote regarding “The 100 Mile View from Virginia City” that describes the unpredictable relationship between humans and their environment. The song contains sounds from their trip to Virginia City, including returning to the same bar when it was hosting an NRA convention, a place that doesn’t seem the most welcoming to a non-binary individual. Regardless, Hellman entered the bar and began recording sounds. As they were leaving, two individuals approached them asking why they were recording.
“I'm recording sounds of Virginia City for a record I'm making,” Hellman said.
The two men smiled, said “Oh ok”, and returned inside.