The Kalamazoo songwriter now based in Ann Arbor plays The Pyramid Scheme in Grand Rapids Friday and performs at the upcoming Winter Wheat with the Hearth & Hymn duo. The Local Spins Artist Spotlight.
I’m on a Facetime call with Elisabeth Pixley-Fink when she tells me about a dream she had the other night where she was writing a song with Paul Simon.
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“It didn’t go very well,” she says.”
Pixley-Fink experiences vivid dreams frequently. A few have even influenced her work as a songwriter.
On her new record, “Heartskin,” she gracefully examines the timeline of grief associated with relationships and how many have a tendency to slowly dissolve over time.
“These are songs I’ve written over my early 30s, mostly navigating relationships, and the personal realizations or transformations that come from being close to somebody. Then on the other side, there’s the process of letting go of that person, and finding yourself again,” she says.
“It takes me a really long time to get over people. I think grieving is just the mirror image of how much we cared about someone.”
Pixley-Fink performs at Rugger’s Up and Under in Kalamazoo on Thursday (Feb. 8)and The Pyramid Scheme in Grand Rapids on Friday (Feb. 9) with her full band; Max Lockwood co-headlines at The Pyramid Scheme, with doors opening at 7 p.m. Tickets are $13 in advance, available here. Her full band includes Graham Parsons (vocals, guitar, lap steel, synth), Samantha Cooper (vocals, violin), Joel Pixley-Fink (bass) and Adam Danis (drums). They’ll also play The Alluvion in Traverse City on Feb. 17. Details here.
“Heartskin” is set to be released later this year. It was recorded at La Luna Recording & Sound in Kalamazoo with Ian Gorman and at The Deli in Hamtramck with John Hanson. Session musicians included Michael Shimmin (drums), Mike Savina (guitar), Alex Rosenblatt (guitar, lap steel) and Jordan Hamilton (cello).
Pixley-Fink is also one-half of the “minimalist” folk duo Hearth & Hymn, with Samantha Cooper. The pair has released two records: “Lullaby Bangers,” in 2019, and a self-titled album in 2014. They plan to record a new album this fall and will play the rescheduled Winter Wheat festival at The Intersection on Feb. 18. Details, tickets online here.
“What makes that project special is the chemistry and alchemy between me and Sam: the way our vocals weave in and out together,” she says.
“We call it blood harmony, singing like we’re sisters. Someone recently described us as sharing lungs, hearts and singing like we were in the womb together. It feels amazing to sing with Sam, and we catch each other’s every note. It’s also really amazing to bring that chemistry and precision into the context of the full band for my songs.”
VIDEO: Hearth & Hymn, “Sweet and Low” (Dogtown Studio)
A NEW SOLO ALBUM THAT’S ‘RAW AND ROCKING AND A LITTLE PUNK’
It’s a week after our call. I’m in Ann Arbor wandering the aisles of Argus Farm Stop, located near the University of Michigan’s campus. I’m a bit early so I casually survey the plentifully stocked store: fridges full of kombucha, racks of exotic spices and rows of organically grown produce.
When Pixley-Fink arrives, she sheds her winter boots and sits cross-legged on a couch in her socks. She has a calming presence about her.
A Michigan native, Pixley-Fink is known for penning heartfelt folk ballads and wistful piano numbers. Although, in recent years it’s been more common to see her wielding a 1994 black fender Stratocaster than it is to see her seated behind a keyboard.
“I like that I can walk or run or kick onstage, you know? I really bonded with my electric guitar. The new stuff is really influenced by Riot Girl and Girls Rock,” she says.
“The sound on the album is raw and rocking and a little punk. And then also like, delicate. My little tagline is ‘delicate folk and bratty garage rock.’”
These days, she’s focused on the art of performance. In fact, she doesn’t currently own a piano. (Though she is considering swapping one of her bookshelves for one).
“I think early on as a performer, I was a lot less open. I was having my own solitary experience on stage. Which is what a lot of what those songs were about,” Pixley-Fink says.
“I think now, performance is a much more open, connective, collaborative, and outward experience. I think it was just an intention I set. I used to really struggle with being in my head on stage.”
There was a time during which Pixley-Fink put music on the back burner. In 2013, she moved 2,000 miles away to Portland, Ore., and taught at a Montessori elementary school.
“I did keep performing but turned to being part of bands, formed the indie-rock Family Almanac and released an EP, and was inspired by Portland’s independent music scene and got to see so many national artists play. I also started making garage-rock albums with my brother and releasing them on Bandcamp.”
She also concedes: “I definitely tried to quit music. After ‘Bloodroot’ came out, I toured and had some pretty bad experiences with venues promising things that didn’t end up coming through and I don’t think I had enough support on my team. Non-male people get treated as an idiot a lot. I’ve had experiences where I’m pointing out an issue to a sound person, and they wouldn’t listen, and then people ended up getting shocked by a microphone.
“So I was like, ‘OK, I’m just gonna become a teacher.’ Do music on the side. But I always had this nagging, intense feeling that I needed to carve out more space for it. So I stopped teaching.”
Pixley-Fink returned to Michigan in 2021. She settled in Ann Arbor and completed her masters of social work at the University of Michigan. She’s a therapist now, which she says “combines really well with music.”
“I just knew I wanted to be here. I love Michigan, and the Michigan communities.”
This year, Pixley-Fink plans to take her band on the road in support of “Heartskin,” for which a release date still hasn’t been set. She’ll tour the East Coast in March.
There’s a song from her upcoming record called ”Hidden Camera,” that brilliantly captures the rehabilitation process of returning to one’s self. Being present. Noticing the little things.
For Pixley-Fink, “Heartskin” feels like a “debut album,” a return to herself and to her art.
“Hidden Camera,” one of the few songs on the album where she plays the piano, reflects that with a simple accompaniment to a few heartfelt lines: “I’ve been staring at moss, trying to make art, collecting rocks, and writing you letters in my head.”
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