(photo credit: Claire Packer)
There is something deeply unsettling, yet strangely soothing about the music of DC duo Coven Tree.
Local musicians Hannah Burris and Alexia Kauffman may play classical instruments (viola and cello, respectively) but the duo make music together that is anything but traditional.
The combination of Hannah’s melancholic viola and Alexia’s stately cello cast a gorgeous spell of somber melodiousness. Add to this some genuinely odd electronic elements and the end result is like the soundtrack to a surreal yet highly emotional scene in a David Lynch film.
But as moody and unsettling as the music is, I find it somehow strangely comforting. This is especially the case in a live context. Every time I have seen Coven Tree perform, I find myself completely immersed in the duo’s strange sonic world. Coven Tree make “strange” a wonderful place to be.
If you are looking to check out the band for the first time, allow me to recommend the duo’s split EP release with Tadzio on Blight Records. The two tracks on offer are arresting, beautiful and odd in a way that is rare for music these days.
With the band set to play the March 2020 edition of WE FOUGHT THE BIG ONE, I got in touch with Hannah and Alexia to learn more about their remarkable project.
1) How did Coven Tree form? What can you tell us about the name?
Coven Tree: We have played together in various forms for years – we started playing together in Teething Veils, and have worked together as a classical duo, and on various recordings of other DC bands. In 2018 we decided to try writing our own music together and see how it would go. We started with the goal of trying to play our first show at Rhizome that year, and we did, at the Sonic Circuits festival.
As far as the name – we threw around a lot of ideas, but the first song we actually started playing around with when we were beginning this project was the Coventry Carol – an old English traditional song that we really love and had played as a classical duet. We really liked how it morphed and changed when we added our drones and electronic elements and our sound developed through playing around with that song. Coven Tree comes from that song title, but also we like the witchy aspect of splitting the word Coventry into Coven Tree.
2) Your compositions are unconventional to say the least, particularly with the blending together of experimental viola and cello with electronic elements. What is your process for writing music like? Has it evolved since you’ve been working together?
Coven Tree: It has been a pretty natural process – very experimental for us. Where previously we played together with just our classical instruments – viola and cello, in Coven Tree we have added (and continue to add) pedals to manipulate our instruments, as well as electronic synthesizer sounds. Writing involves improvisation and experimentation, figuring out what sounds interesting and good to us. One of us might bring a seed of a song to practice, and then we just play with it, maybe over many rehearsals, to land on what sounds good to us, but often songs can sound different in subtle ways from performance to performance as there’s still an element of improvisation with some of our music live.
3) When do you feel most creative? Or do you find there is no rhyme or reason to feeling creative or not?
Hannah: I do not find there is any consistent trigger for my creative output, but having pockets of time is necessary, whether by myself or while tossing around ideas with Alexia. However, I am often inspired by hearing unusual music, whether it is similar to what I might play or not.
4) Last fall Coven Tree released a split EP with Tadzio on Blight Records. How did that come about and what was it like recording the tracks “No Land” and “Coventry Carol.”
Coven Tree: We recorded “No Land” and “Coventry Carol” with no concrete plans of a release. We recorded with our friend Ben Schurr (Blight Records) who we had both previously collaborated with, and really clicked with him. He made the recording process so smooth for us and he really “got” and supported what we were trying to do. After the tracks were mixed he said he would like to release them on Blight as a split tape with Tadzio, and we were thrilled with the idea.
5) As dark and foreboding as much of Coven Tree’s music is, I always come away seeing your live show with a sense of calm. Your music has a healing affect on me that I greatly appreciate. What moods/feelings/emotions do you want to convey with a Coven Tree live show?
Alexia: Thank you so much, Rick! I really just go into a show with the intent of being as present and in the moment of creating as possible, and trying to be as in sync with Hannah as possible. Some songs do have a power greater than me or us though, I think. When I’m playing some of our songs I kind of feel waves of energy and feelings wash over me from the music, which then goes back into the music, kind of an amazing flow. I can feel physically tired at the end of playing but also internally energized from the music and the energy in the room. It makes me happy to know the music has a calming and healing affect on you.
And check out Coven Tree’s live show at WE FOUGHT THE BIG ONE on Friday, March 6th!