This Sunday, June 11, ArtRat Gallery celebrates Pride with Americana Sundays: An Afternoon with Hearth & Hymn. This edition of ArtRat’s monthly concert series runs 3-5pm at 46 Division Ave. S in the heart of downtown Grand Rapids. (Admission starts at $15; tickets available from Eventbrite.)
Hearth & Hymn is a close-harmony, minimalist folk project produced by songwriters, song collectors and multi-instrumentalists Samantha Cooper and Elisabeth Pixley-Fink. Beloved artists in the Michigan folk scene, their masterful harmonies and seamless vocal blend capture a room. Raiding family songbooks and sharing old tunes, Hearth & Hymn reimagines songs that move them through a queer, feminist lens.
Ahead of the show, ArtRat asked Sam and EPF about their origins and their aspirations for old-time music.
Americana Sundays focuses on roots music in Michigan, a scene you both grew up in. Tell us about your formative influences and how you developed your vision.
Elisabeth: I grew up in a musical family. I took piano lessons growing up and spent lots of time at the piano in our living room singing out of songbooks with my family. My mom is a musicologist, and my dad is a forever music enthusiast and our house was full of old song books and church basement hymnals. It felt like there was a song for every occasion: car rides, chore time, hikes, and each song was complete with vocal harmonies. I started writing my own songs while in college, and exploring vocal harmonies. Sam and I met in 2009 and have been co-writing and singing since then.
Sam: Like Elisabeth, I grew up with a musical family. My Oma played accordion, and my Oma and Opa loved singing together and leading folk singalongs with family and friends. My folks met at music school, and my dad works as a jazz trumpeter. I grew up learning Suzuki violin with my sister and my dad. Whenever there were “folk songs” in the repertoire, I’d tend to feel extra connected to them. At one point, I learned that I had dance fiddlers on both sides of my family tree.
I got some lessons with Les Raber as a kid, a legendary Michigan farmer & fiddler that my great-grandpa Orlie used to play barn dances with. I started picking up more fiddle tunes from teachers at Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp, and from my own research.
My main motivation throughout college was activism, but in college and beyond, I started attending local jams in Kalamazoo, MI and events like Wheatland and Battleground. I also started immersing myself in the local music scene in 2009 and meeting and playing music with lifelong friends like my bandmate Elisabeth Pixley-Fink.
In the summer of 2010, I decided to quit my activist job at the university and travel with John Hatton of Clef’d Ear. We toured to different old time music festivals in the south. We’d sell old-time records all day, and then jam with local musicians through the night. I also studied old time music and dance at the Augusta Heritage Center that summer. I didn’t get the most sleep, but I made leaps and bounds with my playing, and collected a lot of tunes.
I came home inspired, and determined to build a community of musicians that could play as fast as they did down south! I wound up hopping on several Chris Bathgate tours after returning, but I was home long enough to co-found Square Dance Kalamazoo in the winter of 2011.
I started this collective in order to help grow the local social dance scene, build community, and be part of the square dance revival I saw happening in bigger cities. A couple of bands that I played with for years were born from this monthly dance scene (The Bowhunter Stringband, The Rico Samwich Stringband.)
You view your songwriting through a "queer, feminist lens." How does that perspective interact with or challenge the history of the genres you work in?
Elisabeth: I grew up going to an Episcopalian Christian church with my family, which impacted my experience as a young, queer kid as well as my understanding of spirituality. In Hearth & Hymn, we take songs I grew up singing in church or at Sacred Harp/shape note conventions with my family, and rewrite the music to include a more expansive view of the divine. So in the song Lloyd, from our first album (with lyrics from the late 1700s) “my savior and my king” becomes “my sister and my queen.” And in a song off our second album, Lullaby Bangers, “When He Cometh,” a song about Jesus becomes “When She Cometh,” a song about our grandmothers through changing just a few words. We also make women and queer people the protagonists of our music rather than silent outsiders.
Sam: There is a lot of power in the word “tradition.” Through many years of immersion in the old-time music community, I didn’t come across much traditional or folk art that uplifted queer stories and voices. I’m interested in helping to create and uplift queer traditions of music, dance and art.
I distanced myself from the old-time music scene for a while, partially because it felt so uncomfortably straight; white; and artistically rigid at times, too. I've been glad to see folks helping shift this in recent years. For instance, Nic Gareiss curated a couple of events called “Queer Traditions.” I wasn’t able to attend, but just knowing that they existed meant a lot to me as someone who identifies as queer.
While I identify as spiritual, I grew up without a religion. I’ve always loved some hymns, but felt strange about the content in some of the hymns I love. I’m interested in creating spiritual music that is inclusive of everyone who wants to connect with it. Sometimes we do that by rewriting certain passages of hymns, changing pronouns, or writing original music with stories centering strong femme characters and the joy and power of femme friendship.
Sam just performed at ArtRat June 2 with Chris Bathgate and Graham Parsons. (Welcome back!) What other projects are each of you working on, respectively — both separately and together? And what makes the Hearth & Hymn project special for you?
Elisabeth: Besides Hearth & Hymn, I also have a songwriting project under my own name, Elisabeth Pixley-Fink. I have put out several albums and have a full-length called Heartskin I am planning on releasing. I enjoy performing my songs as a full band with Sam on violin/harmonies, my brother Joel on bass, Graham Parsons on lap steel/guitar/synth and Adam Danis on drums.
Hearth & Hymn is special to me because it highlights the vocal blend that Sam and I have been syncing up for over a decade, and it is a truly collaborative project where we each get to bring our visions and superpowers. I am drawn to the way that we can be minimalist in our interpretations and create spiritual space for listeners. I love that our music speaks to so many people: toddlers, grandmothers, young queer folks!
Sam: Hearth & Hymn feels special for many reasons, one of which is that I get to continue making music with one of my favorite people! Elisabeth and I met in Kalamazoo in 2009, and we have a really special musical connection. Continuing to invest in that feels both powerful, and healing.
I have a solo music project (Samantha Cooper). I’m working on a grief journey album called Open Field. I paused the project for years, but I’m glad to say I’m working on it regularly again. I’ve got a second collection of songs that I’m close to finishing recording, too.
I back up a number of songwriters like Chris Bathgate, Elisabeth Pixley-Fink and Seth Bernard. I also do session work on people’s albums, work as a teaching artist via youth songwriting programs, and volunteer as a water rights activist. Finding time to finish my own music has been challenging in recent years, but I’m honing in on it.
What do you like about performing in downtown GR?
Elisabeth: I am originally from West Michigan (Kalamazoo!) and recently moved back to Michigan after 8 years in Portland. I have enjoyed getting to know the Grand Rapids audiences again, and got to share a show with Jes Kramer at Books & Mortar in downtown GR this March and play at Midtown in April with the Earthwork tour. The GR crowd has been sweet, loving, bighearted, loyal, and I’m so excited to keep connecting with more new people, including being part of building queer community in GR.
Sam: I have played in Grand Rapids as a solo artist, and as a backing musician with other projects. However, I don’t think my duo Hearth & Hymn has ever performed in Grand Rapids. We’re excited to come play for you all!