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On The String: Phoebe Hunt’s Unified Theory Of Music

Phoebe Hunt
Evan Felts

In 2016, Phoebe Hunt made a life-changing pilgrimage to India where she did something musicians almost never do, which is to live in silence. Ten days of meditation it was, with no speaking, no fiddling and no singing. Then, she re-entered the world of tone and voice and expression through 10 days of intensive study with Indian violin star Kala Ramnath. As Phoebe and I sat on her covered back patio in Nashville on a warm August afternoon with wind chimes tinkling nearby, I was dying to know how that transition felt.

“It was amazing - just to hear music again. That was the one thing I had really missed during the silence,” Hunt says in Episode 189 of The String. “I remember jamming with (husband Dominic Leslie, who did the retreat with her) as we were sending people off and walking through the grounds of the meditation, just playing. And then going into the study with fresh (perspective). You know, looking at music as a beginner again, just doing my best to start over.”

This exercise in elevating her fiddle playing and her outlook is just one of the ways Hunt manifests her music beyond the realm of performance and recording and into the territory of healing, social cohesion and philosophy. Nashville based since 2019, the singer, songwriter and fiddle player has been on quite a journey over the past decade, launching a music education initiative, producing numerous recordings for the youth led One Village Music Project, giving TED talks and founding a songwriting retreat. Ten years ago, she was a new touring artist, playing progressive western swing with the Belleville Outfit out of her hometown of Austin. Now she’s applying her lessons from travel, yoga, study and youth collaboration to her band The Gatherers and her two recent, highly complimentary albums, Shanti’s Shadow (2017) and Neither One Of Us Is Wrong, out last Friday.

Phoebe Hunt

Asked if she had a trajectory early on toward a holistic practice of music advocacy and therapy, she says, “I had no idea. I was just like going with it, because it felt really important to me. I just put one foot in front of the next, and I thought that One Village Music Project was super important. So I did a Kickstarter to raise money for it. It was easier for me to put energy into that than into my own music.” With time and a move from Texas to New York City, she did turn her focus back to her projects.

Shanti’s Shadow was deeply informed by Hunt’s India trip, which many from her band took with her. It’s a worldly folk fusion that decorates tracks about self-awareness and spiritual longing with microtonal flourishes and complex percussion. While touring that music heavily with The Gatherers in 2017 and 18, Hunt decided that with her group in peak condition, it was time to return to the studio. “I just had this feeling in my heart, in my gut, that while we were touring, it was time to record the next album - like, while we were playing together all the time. And because maybe (my) intuition said this won't last forever,” she says.

Hunt and company recorded 14 songs, some new and some up to a decade old. Then the pandemic hit, and with that time, Hunt refined the set to ten tracks that felt like they held together around the theme of reconciliation. We hear it in track two, “Good Blood,” which goes back years, and which was previously recorded by string band Della Mae. Hunt’s version of the plea for positivity and forbearance is set to a snapping cajun beat. The title track “Neither One Of Us Is Wrong,” is pretty self-explanatory. Perhaps my favorite song is “Fall To The Street,” with an off-kilter melody that Hunt says was composed by husband Dominic before she set lyrics to it. The idea is about letting go of comparison, with her singing, “Won’t you let what’s tearing me apart disappear?” And that’s followed by the especially lush and rootsy “Take My Love.”

We cover a lot of ground in our conversation, because Phoebe Hunt takes on a lot of projects that amplify not just her music but the point of music in our lives.

Some Things Change I Phoebe Hunt & The Gatherers

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org