IMAGE: Alicia J. Rose
[AMBIENT FOLK] Liz Harris is about to quit her job. It’s not a stretch by any means to say it’s a risky idea; with the economy in the tank, Oregon’s unemployment rate over 8 percent and President-elect Barack Obama facing a possible $1 trillion debt, this is not the time to leave a solid, dependable position as a social worker—unless you’re really confident in your art.
“It’s probably a bad time to leave,” she says over tea at North Portland’s Fresh Pot. “But a big reason why I moved here is that not only can you afford to work only a little bit and do art, but it’s socially acceptable.”
Her art—recording ambient folk tunes under the name Grouper—is faring notably better than the economic trend. The 27-year-old Northern California native moved to Portland three years ago so she could pursue music and avoid the 9-to-5 grind, and it appears that’s finally a reality. Her dreamy, hazy and frequently gorgeous music hit a new high in 2008 with Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill, a pastoral record of folk songs hidden under layers of dried leaves and distortion. Recorded straight to her four track and released over the summer, the record strips the dense web of noise and drones that dominated her earlier work. Harris made an album that is wholly listenable without sacrificing her outsider art tendencies, a combination that placed it high on many year-end best-of lists, including taste-making blogs like Pitchfork and Gorilla vs. Bear.
Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill is at once comforting and a bit unnerving. Adorned with an odd picture of a child in the woods that Harris drew for the cover, the record has a deep sense of transition and distance. Harris’ vocals sound like they were recorded a room away, and though most of the album’s songs consist of only her voice, a strummed acoustic or electric guitar and some ambient fuzz, they sound best in transition: riding the bus to work, falling in and out of sleep. Two songs have “sleep” in the title, but the record isn’t about losing consciousness; it’s more the state in between dreams and reality, where everything looks a little bit blurry.
Though she answers most questions without hesitation, talk to Harris about her music and she begins to drift away—kind of like her songs. “The album hopefully is a balance between that weird dreamworld and sleepy feeling and something slightly uncomfortable,” Harris says, fumbling with the Frankenstein paperback she brought to the interview. “Sort of imposed on that is the way that the theme of nostalgia or memory can be related to that.”
Harris is nostalgic for the past (an oft-cited influence, Slowdive, was indeed an “obsession” in college), yet her work is constantly moving forward. She mentions possibly upgrading to an eight-track, and (despite reservations about touring) a trip to New Zealand in March—where she’ll play a few shows with her friend Pumice and record a split 7-inch—all opportunities perhaps out of reach for someone working full-time. “I always end up working too much,” Harris says, laughing. “This is just a different type of work.”
SEE IT: Grouper plays Holocene Wednesday, Jan. 14, with Strategy, Cloudburst and more. $7. 9 pm. 21+.