“I went over the river and into the woods.
Where did I go?” – My Morning Jacket
There are a lot of fractured reflections in Grace Sullivan’s debut EP as Apartment Lights. “The White River” is an album composed of three songs that emerged from restorative moments in the natural world.
“‘The White River’ is the real White River,” Grace told me. “I stayed at a cabin with my sisters and mom in Greenwater [near Mount Rainier] about a year ago, and had my first post-Goldfinch writing session when I got home. It felt like a miracle and so that river feels like a buddy.”
The music she wrote during that session may not be what you’d expect after so many days spent hiking, swimming, camping, and fishing. It also may not be what you’d expect to hear from the former member of Tacoma’s Goldfinch – a band with its own distinct approach to heartsick folk-inflected indie rock.
On “The White River”, the listener is usually alone with Grace and a piano. Her singing style has not changed – it is still daringly assured, never coy or cute. The recordings are hushed and simple, which might usually indicate intimacy. But these songs are not intimate. They are vague, veiled, and broken – willfully introverted.
Something is going on here – Grace has gone into the woods, and the traces of her path are faint but intriguing. In these poised works, there is hardly a hint of the naked vulnerability we heard in her work with Goldfinch.
That sense of composed reservation is what makes this record so unexpected. It is brimming with sophistication and fragmented suggestions – like the blurred images that run in the mind before falling asleep.
I met with Grace near the home she shares with her husband and two children in the north end of Tacoma. She was unfailingly courteous and open, and eager to talk about her new music.
Before “The White River” was released, she had taken an extended break from performing, and at the time we spoke, had just performed her new material for an audience for the first time. “So far, it’s been so personal, and not having anything to do with an audience,” she said. “Thinking about what people might be hearing is a new angle for me. I don’t like to over-think the songs.”
That performance at the Columbia City Theater in Seattle was her first as a solo artist. “I had never been on a stage alone before,” she reflected. “It was a huge unknown for me. Aside from my husband and my kids and a couple friends, no one had heard those songs. It was really exciting to share those songs for the first time on that beautiful grand piano – and, for the first time, to be a solo performer.”
The experience allayed a lot of Grace’s anxieties about being in front of a crowd, alone, with material she had created in total freedom. She played a half-hour set and debuted a beautiful music video created by The Art Department for the record’s title track.
Grace has another performance in Seattle this week. On Wednesday July 25th, she will be playing the Triple Door as part of a showcase series for Pacific Northwest songwriters (details and ticket information here).
It’s an exciting opportunity, since the Triple Door is known for typically hosting big name acts. The line-up for the showcase reflects the camaraderie, innovation, and connectivity of the evolving Northwest songwriting community.
The recording sessions for “The White River” were helmed by Doug Jenkins of the Portland Cello Project. The tracks Jenkins and Sullivan walked out of the studio with sound as fresh, deliberate, and unadorned as the experience of composing them, almost as if the songs are taking shape at that very moment.
Some of the novelty apparent on the songs of Apartment Lights might be attributed to Sullivan’s deepening relationship with the piano. Despite coming from a large family that encouraged her in artistic pursuits, she’s only had about a year of piano lessons.
“Before this year, I did not have a very good relationship with the piano,” Grace said. “I saw it as more of a means to an end. It was definitely an obstacle to writing. If I had an idea and wanted to expand on it, I just couldn’t find it on the piano. But now, It’s slowly turned into this obsession – it’s starting to feel like it’s part of my voice. It’s become an outlet for me.”
It’s an exciting time for this Tacoma native, but Grace Sullivan is approaching her new musical career with hard-earned balance. “I am planning to finish the whole record with Doug in Portland when I’m ready – hopefully in the next year or so,” she says. “I don’t plan to play [shows] often. I really like my home life and the balance I’m working on in pursuing my health and my motherhood and my garden. Music fits in there somewhere, but not front and center.”
There will be an Apartment Lights show in Tacoma someday, but so far, nothing is on the calendar. In the meantime, I highly recommend that you catch Grace when you can, even if it means driving up to Seattle.
She has several new songs in her catalog, and it is impossible to predict when or where they will make their public debut. If “The White River” is any indication, Apartment Lights will continue to surprise us.