The story of Mountain Man is a story of true love. Bandmates Amelia Meath, Alexandra Sauser-Monnig and Molly Sarlé still remember the first time they ever laid eyes on each other — down to the rainbow striped Moon Boots, floral patterned clothes and dyed red hair. When I spoke to the three of them on the phone about the 10th anniversary edition of their debut record, Made the Harbor, their relationships were often inseparable from the music.
Sarlé described their connection as the “alchemy of our souls,” and explained that, “We all kind of immediately had this innate access to each other’s insides, and could really deeply sense what each of us was feeling and would also feel what the other people were feeling. Which makes for really incredible music and sensitivity, and can also be a difficult thing to navigate in a Prius on the road.”
That alchemy has brought them back to each other, after an eight-year hiatus between albums, and separate musical endeavors — Sylvan Esso for Meath, Daughter of Swords for Sauser-Monnig and a self-titled solo project for Sarlé. But before all of that, there was just Made the Harbor.
“The way that the first record happened was, we kind of all were like, ‘Well, I have these songs.’ And then we all worked on the arrangements together,” Meath said. Sauser-Monnig added, “We didn’t write anything together. We just sort of presented each other with things that we’d made. And at that point, I think we were sharing the first songs that we’d ever written.”
The result of these first collaborations is a stunning collection of songs that are all the more affecting because of their simplicity. Most of the tracks are just Meath, Sauser-Monnig and Sarlé’s voices coming together. The trio, now having written songs for other projects outside of the band, can still clearly define what makes something a “Mountain Man song.”
“Songs that feel like they have distilled something down to the point of not needing almost anything end up feeling appropriate to me to be Mountain Man songs, because all of our songs can exist in that realm of extreme unadornment and minimalism and accomplish the thing that they’re trying to accomplish,” said Sauser-Monnig. Meath said, simply, “There are no rules in it,” before explaining that songs for the group can be “so much less,” relying more on feeling than form.
“A Mountain Man song usually to me is kind of like a moment in time,” said Sarlé. “It’s a weird little tune. And it’s, like, ‘This doesn’t need anything other than more feelings.’”
Asked if they’d change anything about Made the Harbor, Sauser-Monnig said, “No, I just would want to give it a big hug. Like, reach my arms back and give each of us a big hug.”
Now, each with a decade-plus of experience in the music industry, there’s nothing they wish they could go back and tell themselves. “I loved how clueless we were. It was really confusing and beautiful and so free and wild feeling,” Sauser-Monnig said, “Everybody has to learn things for themselves, including us.”
Meath added, “I love how because of how green we were, I don’t think we were aware of how truly intimidating we are as a group of people.” She described how they would firmly say “No” to their team: “Everyone would really listen to us and also be terrified, which is very funny, because for me, I was trying to be decisive because I was very fearful. And the fact that it read like that really worked — that it worked both for us and against us fills me with joy.”
Photo above by Shervin Lainez
For the anniversary edition, there’s an entire LP of alternate recordings of songs on the original tracklist, as well as new and previously unreleased tracks and covers. “Buffalo,” “Sewee Sewee,” “Honeybee,” “White Heron” and “Animal Tracks” on the bonus LP are some of the first recordings of the band — at least, the first recordings that “really shine,” according to Sarlé. They were recorded during a session at Greenwall at Bennington College in Vermont, where the trio met.
Reflecting on other early recordings from around that time, recorded at a building on campus called Barn 100, Sarlé said, “I do remember that after recording those at the barn that I thought to myself, ‘Now I can die.’ And that’s special. I’ve never really had a feeling like that after a recording since. I think that was because those were the first-ever recordings.”
“I always remember how adults, when I was a kid, would be, like, ‘Oh, yeah, when you’re young, everything is so dire and intense.’ And talking about this record is making me realize how true that was. I feel like I felt the same when we were done,” Meath said, “And every moment of discovering how to write songs, or how to sing together, in the air was like this incredible bridge from the ground into the air, into a different universe. It felt like an actual magical spell.”
All of the new and previously unreleased tracks on the anniversary edition are sourced from within a few years of the release of Made the Harbor, including “Bird Song,” the only new Mountain Man original on the record, which was written in 2011 for NPR’s Song+Stories series (originally called “Vision,” it accompanied a story about frozen migratory birds). This edition of the record also includes the first official release of “Play It Right,” the track that would go on to become the origin story of Sylvan Esso, after Nick Sanborn remixed it.
The traditional “Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies” and cover of Arthur Russell’s “Kid Like You” have a throughline of heartbreak that the band identified with — especially the lines “I’d fly away to my false true lover / and when he’d speak I would deny” and “They’re like the stars of a summer’s morning / first they’re there and then they’re gone” in “Come All Ye.” They chose “Kid Like You” for the sorrow, and because they listened to Russell a lot in the car between shows.
The inclusion of the cover of then-Vermont contemporary tooth ache’s “Holy Father” is simple: Meath had “a giant crush” on the person who wrote it, and was looking for “complicated, weird songs” that they could learn from.
Photo above by Shervin Lainez
The gatefold of this version of the album features a collage of photos and memorabilia from around the time Made the Harbor was first released, and includes a rider that asks for “3 pairs of underwear two small, one medium (you do not have to get these if it makes you uncomfortable, but you know how it is.)” According to Meath, they only got underwear once, because “that made everybody feel uncomfortable.” Sarlé said they asked for it because they thought it was something they’d need on tour, unsure if they’d be able to do laundry. Meath, who’s currently touring with Sanborn for Sylvan Esso, noted underwear is still what she brings the most of every time.
The band has too many favorite parts of the collage to list them all, but an agreed-upon highlight is the photo of them by the truck with the huge strawberry near the ocean in California — before that picture was taken, they had just eaten samples of “the most amazing jam.” Sauser-Monnig points out the abundance of cats and brings up something that sounds straight out of a fairytale: “That picture of Molly with her hand on her chest [is from] when we were playing at Green Man and found that field full of wild horses and that old sheep barn and climbed to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain.”
As our call came to an end, Meath said, “I love Mountain Man. It’s the best, the older I get and the deeper into my life I become, the more I think that Mountain Man is actually the most essential — the thing that I derive the most joy from.”
At this, Sarlé interjected with a joyful scream, before Meath continued, “It’s true. It’s just so good.”
Sauser-Monnig said, “I can’t imagine my life without it, that’s for sure.”
Meath agreed, “We’re just so lucky that we found each other.” Sauser-Monnig added, “Out of all the humans in the world.”
“Yeah, just actual true love,” Meath concluded.
Collage design by Will Hackney; photos by Jim Brueckner, Georgia Kral, Madalyn Baldanzi, David Yousling, Jess Luther, Brian Lebarton, Charles Spearin, Molly Sarlé, Amelia Meath, Alexandra Sauser-Monnig.
Theda Berry is a Brooklyn-based writer and the former Editor of VMP. If she had to be a different kind of berry, she’d pick strawberry.