Adventures in patterns with Sarah Louise

The solo guitarist plays April 7 at Arts + Literature Laboratory.

North Carolina-based guitarist Sarah Louise's two instrumental solo albums may be unmistakably rooted in folk music, but capture a musician more interested in expanding her language than simply re-hashing tradition. In an era that's as fertile as ever for inventive guitar music—from the elaborate, sometimes effected-beyond-recognition soundscapes of Noveller to the more raw approaches of Bill Orcutt and Tashi Dorji—Sarah Louise, real name Sarah Henson, stands out with harmonically dense compositions built around unconventionally tuned 12-string guitar and fingerpicking patterns that rarely fall into the familiar rhythms. On 2015's Field Guide and her 2016 entry in the excellent VDSQ solo-guitar series, Henson works within defined compositional structures, but never lingers too long in any one groove. On tracks like "Hellbender" and "Silent Snow," Henson uses her 12-string to discover beauty and tension, clustering notes together to create an atmosphere that's at once eerie and comforting.

Henson also forms half of the Appalachian folk duo House & Land, in which she sings and plays guitar but also other stringed instruments including banjo and bouzouki. The duo have recently finished recording their first album, due out this summer on Thrill Jockey, and have just come off a tour with alt-country oddballs Lambchop. Sarah Louise also has been at work on another solo album, which will span instrumentals and some songs with vocals. She'll be playing a solo set of new and previously released material on Friday, April 7 at Arts + Literature Laboratory, sharing a bill with guitarist Nathaniel Braddock (Trio Mokili, Occidental Brothers Dance Band International), who will also be playing a solo set. Ahead of the show, Henson talked with us about her two Sarah Louise albums so far and her striking, versatile approach to the guitar.

Tone Madison: You play a lot of different stringed instruments including banjo and bouzouki. Of all these stringed instruments, which one was your first and why did the guitar become your central focus?

Sarah Louise: Guitar was the first instrument that I got really serious about, but I did play banjo for a while. It's tough because clawhammer banjo especially really interests me and it's a really cool right-hand technique. But guitar with the fingerpicking, I think what attracted me most was all the pattern possibilities. You could really just divide those up and make new ones. From a creative standpoint, I think I felt like maybe I had more to offer on that front.

Tone Madison: But does playing other stringed instruments inform the way you approach guitar, or help you see guitar from a different vantage point?

Sarah Louise: Yeah, and in fact one of the things that I do on 12-string a lot, I first did on banjo. You would technically call it clawhammer but I was doing things that you wouldn't normally do, which was a ton of drop-thumb. In clawhammer, you'd lower your thumb on certain strings just to get a slightly different syncopation or rhythmic feel there. I would do it on each string and it kind of created this almost cascading sound. On the 12-string, that's a really great thing to do because that gives you those high-octave strings, so if you're coming from the top down with your thumb, you get the high octave on a 12-string but if you're picking with your index and middle fingers, then you're getting the lower octave. It's just a way to kind of control which octave string you're getting, which is pretty fun.

Tone Madison: And just given all the different kinds of tunings that exist for banjo and bouzouki, have those instruments informed the tunings you use on guitar?

Sarah Louise: I think that it definitely opened up the possibility of different tunings in a big way in my mind, because in banjo, I would typically play in three different tunings. They're traditional tunings, although I did eventually play around with tunings on that a little bit. But with the guitar, the first tuning that I made up, I was actually trying to replicate a gamelan scale. That was years ago. But then of course some of the first pieces that I wrote on 12-string were inspired by lined-out Appalachian hymns, and trying to create arrangements for that led to certain tunings. I think that all my tunings really come from each other. I really do sort of think of it like a lineage. I could kind of map them out and maybe two or three different strings are tuned differently from each one. I just kind of go with what sounds good at the time, and sometimes I'll be writing a piece and I'll go, "I'd really like these notes in there," and I'll sort of adjust the tuning as I'm composing, too. So it's fluid in that way.

Tone Madison: You've also said in previous interviews that you look for a bit of dissonance in your tunings. Why is that?

Sarah Louise: I do enjoy dissonance. Certain composers that I really like, like Henry Cowell for example, would play with tone clusters, as opposed to a chord. And I'm not really good on music theory, but I know a bit about this from reading about him, is that you'd play notes next to each other. Sometimes he'd put his whole forearm on the piano. I think it's nice because it can sort of lead you to move outside of one- or two-string fretting and it really makes me search for chords and different chord sounds. I think if you can write something in a dissonant tuning, it can help lead to more harmonic diversity in there, because you're actually fretting quite a bit.

Tone Madison: Why are you drawn to the 12-string in particular?

Sarah Louise: I played six-string for many years before I played 12-string, and I did write my first pieces on six-string. At one time I had digitally self-released some of those. So I think part of it might just be random timing, and that as I progressed as a player I got the 12-string and the timing worked out for me to have some more visible releases with that. But I also find it really interesting, again, just looking at the patterns, because you have those two courses of strings. I was talking a little bit earlier about the direction that you're hitting the strings on. You can kind of determine whether you're getting the high or the low octave. For someone who loves thinking about patterns, that's a really added bonus, to be able to decide when I want to bring in those high-octave strings or stick to the bass-ier sounds. I've been playing around more with six-string recently too, but I think they're both great and they both have things to recommend them.

Tone Madison: The pieces on the two solo albums all tend to have a pretty defined compositional structure, but how much does improvisation factor in when you're recording these?

Sarah Louise: Field Guide was way more improvisational than my VDSQ release, and I think part of that is just that I decided to record myself, and I ended up getting some things that I was happy with. It was less planned out—that's not true of all of them, but there were quite a few improvised moments in there. I always start with improvisation because I don't write music down in standard notation or anything. I watched this documentary on Philip Glass one time, and it was so amazing because he was just, out of his head and not even sitting at a piano, just filling up this manuscript paper with musical ideas. It'd probably be interesting to ask him, "Wow, can you improvise in your head like that?" For me, because I don't have that theory background, it's all, I think, pretty intuitive, but I will just repeat parts a lot and change the structure around. So I think it's fair to say that it's all born in improvisation but then there's a lot of refining. You could think of it as letting the chaff fly away from the wheat over time.

Tone Madison: In an interview last year you even shared a picture of these song diagrams you draw out on piece of cardboard with markers.

Sarah Louise: [Laughs] Yeah, it's a mess. I still do that and that really helped me become more prolific, because before, I would rely purely on my memory or write something on a receipt or an envelope, and that's sort of more naturally how I am. For me, it wouldn't even work to have a notebook. It's like, I need this giant square of cardboard that I won't lose. When I do that, it'll be chord shapes that I'm writing down with numbers. I guess it's more related to tablature. Especially recently, I'm writing a lot. I'm writing descriptions of different picking patterns and I have sort of shorthand names for the different patterns that I've developed. But it ends up looking a bit mad-scientist-y.

Tone Madison: In your solo releases I hear a lot of rhythmic things going on that I'm not used to hearing in most guitar music or folk-influenced music. Where do some of your rhythmic ideas come from?

Sarah Louise: I do listen to all kinds of music but I think the rhythmic stuff that I have in there really is born out of a lot of my right-hand technique and just using different patterns. Different patterns, if you think about it, can be in different time signatures, and so I'll switch back and forth among different patterns and that'll create different rhythms. But a lot of it is very intuitive and it'll just be this feeling that I'll just go for.

Tone Madison: On this solo tour you'll be playing some songs with vocals, in addition to instrumental guitar pieces. How do the solo songs you're writing depart from the songs you write in House & Land?

Sarah Louise: Well I'm actually finished with all of them for my next record, so I'll be recording that soon. I would say that they are pretty different. There's definitely meandering structures and that sort of thing that are in my previous releases.