Holly Bowling has never been one to gather dust. Whether it be as the keyboardist in Ghost Light or in her solo pursuits of transcribing the music of Grateful Dead and Phish to grand piano, there is always work to be done. Even when the pandemic started and all concerts ground to a halt, Bowling embarked on a series of weekly livestreams from her living room in addition to a new record of Dead covers, Seeking All That’s Still Unsung.
Yet, after weeks and weeks of streams—gathered and released in eight volumes of Alone Together (The Living Room Series) —Holly needed a change of scenery. Enter the Wilderness Sessions, a six-week run of weekly livestreams from breathtaking natural vantage points across the United States. Live For Live Music caught up with Bowling by phone in the midst of the tour, as she found brief respite in Maine before heading west again across the country. Read about the Wilderness Sessions and how they came together below [Note: transcript edited for length and clarity].
Live For Live Music: So, how are things up in Maine? Taking a little bit of a break?
Holly Bowling: Yeah, it’s pretty amazing up here. Also, it’s just nice to like be in one place for a while after living out of a van for a few weeks and being out in the middle of nowhere.
Live For Live Music: How’s it been going with traveling and everything? I know that, especially up in the Northeast, some of the states have quarantine orders for people coming out of state.
Holly Bowling: Yeah, the way we decided to travel when we decided to do this trip, I didn’t want to do it unless we could do it completely self-contained, both because I want to be safe and I don’t want to be contributing to moving this thing in the wrong direction. It’s shutting down everything I care about, so I was like, ‘I’m not going to be part of the problem here.’ So we don’t stop anywhere where we’re around people and it’s been like that until we got to Maine. So it’s been pretty mellow, just because of the way we’re doing it.
Live For Live Music: Yeah, it seems like the tour, like the whole Wilderness Sessions, is pretty conducive to not being around a bunch of other people.
Holly Bowling: Yeah, dude. It’s like a social distancing taken to a real extreme.
Live For Live Music: As far as when you’re filming these, do you see many other people out at these parks or anything like that?
Holly Bowling: We did when we were in some of the places that are a little bit more well known and close to civilization. Like Yosemite, you’re never going to be there and not see other people. It’s just not possible. But when we were out at the Salt Flats and out in Bruneau Canyon, Idaho, we didn’t see another human being.
Live For Live Music: Did you have to set this up with the parks or reserve a spot or something like that?
Holly Bowling: No. None of these were national parks with the exception of Yosemite. Like, even the Badlands, we actually filmed right on the edge of the park. One limitation we ran into is you’re not allowed to fly drones in national parks and we really love what the drone footage brings to these. So we did the one in Yosemite and then everything else has just been on public land.
Live For Live Music: Cool. So what made you want to do something like the Wilderness Sessions?
Holly Bowling: Well, there’s no touring in places with audiences right now. And so the alternative for a while was I was doing these sets from my living room and just streaming from there. And after a few months of that, I was feeling claustrophobic and uninspired and just like I needed to find something else, like a different creative outlet. And I also just needed to be out on the road. And the place I had been feeling most okay during all of this mess was when I’d go hiking up in the mountains and stuff.
So we hatched this idea, like, ‘if we can’t be playing to audiences anyways, why am I trying to be in something that feels like a traditional venue? Why don’t we just run with it?’ … If we can’t be around people and we’re playing to no one, then let’s go set up and play in the craziest places we can think of. And so it’s also been sort of swapping the inspiration and energy that comes from the exchange between the crowd and the performer at a show with inspiration that’s coming from all these crazy places that are pretty out there and many of which were new to me. So it’s kind of trying to pull energy from something else.
[Photo: Jeffrey Bowling – Salt Flats]
Live For Live Music: Do you think you found that, that thing you were looking for that wasn’t in your living room that inspired this whole thing? Have you found that energy?
Holly Bowling: Yeah, a hundred percent. And it’s cool because each one of the places we’ve been playing and filming, I say we—I’m playing but my husband is filming. So we’re a team of two doing this whole thing. Each of the places that we’ve been has been really unique and different. So I feel like my playing has been altered by the place in each instance. And there’s been some pretty cool moments that have surprised me.
Like on super windy days, I have like a little zither on top of my keyboard and the wind would be playing the strings on it without me touching anything. There’s just been a lot of these cool moments where like it’s out of my hands in a way and the place that I’m in has shifted the direction that the sets going or where the improv is going and that’s been super cool.
Live For Live Music: So, in a sense, does it kind of feel like a little bit like a tour in that way?
Holly Bowling: It does. I have the rhythm again of you get up, you drive to where you’re going, you load in, you do sound check, you play, and then you break down and get back in the van. And there’s a part of that rhythm that I definitely missed playing from home. I also just think that these outdoor sets, they feel different than the living room sessions did. There’s like a spaciousness to the music from playing in these just wide open spaces with not a lot of people.
I’ve always felt like, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the show at The Gorge, but I’ve always felt like shows there you can almost feel that they’re different just like in the music, because you hear this big, wide-open spacious sound in the way bands play there. And I felt like these sessions have been like that for me, too. There’s just a longer timescale and kind of a willingness to let the music unravel at its own pace because you’re not in like a room with a bunch of people in a venue. It’s just you, alone, out in this big, wide open place. So it’s just a different animal altogether.
Live For Live Music: In terms of that, the effect that the landscape has in your playing, what’s your favorite place that you’ve been to so far?
Holly Bowling: Oh man, I hate playing favorites, but the Salt Flats was really incredible. It’s just such an alien landscape and because of how hot and intense the conditions there get pretty early in the day, we set up in the dark before dawn out of necessity. But waking up and playing to the sunrise in a place that’s that insane, it’s just pretty hard to top.
Holly Bowling – Salt Flats, UT – 9/17/20
[Video: Holly Bowling]
Live For Live Music: And so going off of that, what other challenges has doing this remote tour presented to you?
Holly Bowling: Oh man. Well, I mean, I guess the first thing is we’re living out of this van in pretty close quarters. It’s pretty stacked. I’ve got all my gear and then the whole video rig and we’ve got our giant dog with us and all of our possessions that we need for two months out on the road. So it’s definitely the most interesting van pack I think I’ve ever seen assembled [laughs]. But I think the other thing has been there’s a new set of challenges with playing outdoors, not that I haven’t played outdoors before, but it’s really different. Like, playing outdoors at a festival is really different than like playing in a place with absolutely zero infrastructure and often really unpredictable and wildly changing weather. And so I think the first couple shows there was a settling-in period of trying to learn how to work around that stuff.
And then, as the tour has gone on, it’s become less of a working around those things and more about seeing what can those things bring to the set. Like I mentioned, the wind playing the strings on the zither and I think, if that had happened to that extent in the first two shows, I probably would’ve tried to back off of that and not let it taint the set. And by the third show at the Salt Flats, I was more at a point where I was like, “Okay, cool. What’s this going to bring to the set?” So it became like working with my surroundings instead of working around them or against them. And that was a really cool shift to kind of feel happen as we kept doing these.
[Photo: Jeffrey Bowling – Salt Flats]
Live For Live Music: From where you are right now partway through the tour, even with all these challenges, are you still glad you ditched the living room sessions for going out on the road like you are right now?
Holly Bowling: A hundred percent. They’re really different series, too. You know, the living room sessions was recorded at the very beginning of this whole COVID crisis unfolding, and there’s some pretty dark stuff in there. It was very much rooted in current events and the place where I was. Like, in San Francisco specifically, there’s some sound clips that I integrated into my sets that were from the emergency broadcasts that they were sending to residents of the city. And it’s just, it’s very much that time and place. And these Wilderness Sessions is kind of, they have a whole different feel. I’m out again, out in the world. And I think that there’s just like a lightness to them that’s really different than what the first indoor round of streams where. … I’m super glad we did it and I’m happier than I’ve been in months.
Live For Live Music: That’s good to hear. So then to switch gears a little bit, how are things going with Seeking All That’s Still Unsung?
Holly Bowling: Really good. It’s been a crazy process. I started recording that album in 2019 and I’ve been working on it steadily since then in between solo tours and tours with Ghost Light, so it was kind of slow progress working around that schedule. But then I managed to get it finished pretty much before COVID shut everything down. I was getting the final mastering done right as the studio shut. So then the rest of it has just been a really, really good thing to work on while I’ve been off the road. It’s kept me motivated and I’m really excited for it to come out.
One of the coolest things is I did a Kickstarter for that album, and I was really nervous about it because I’m trying to put this record out there into the world at a time when I can’t tour to make money. I can’t go out on the road and tour behind this album and try to make it successful that way. And we’re in a time of economic crisis and a global pandemic and a massive civil rights movement and all these much bigger concerns that made me feel like why the hell am I launching a Kickstarter to try to put out a record right now? Who cares? But people’s response to it was really positive. And I think it’s just kind of testament to music still being important through all of this. … The fact that I am putting out this record with the backing of a bunch of, for the most part, total strangers that wanted to help bring some more music into the world just feels really good.
Beyond that, I’m just super excited about the record itself. I had so much fun making this one. Played around with some techniques in the studio that I’d never really done before with multiple piano tracks. And so it’s a good one.
Live For Live Music: Circling back to what you’re saying about how can I put out and ask for money right now when there’s all these other things going on, I think that is a sentiment that I saw with a lot of artists at the beginning of COVID, and then as social justice movements really started to pick up. And I don’t think those things really have to work against each other. All things can come together in tandem and even help those other issues.
Holly Bowling: Yeah, yeah. I think there’s a way to do it right where that is true. And it’s just a weird time to be trying to make a living as a musician. I think it’s a weird time for a lot of people. Even the streams for me have been really interesting as far as like what’s the right way to do this. It’s a weird time to try to ask people for money for something artistic when people are struggling to pay bills.
But so for me, I’ve felt really good. We’ve been streaming all these Wilderness Sessions and keeping them free because I want everyone to have access to them. And some people are in a position to support music right now and continue to make it available for other people and other people aren’t and they should still be able to be able to be part of it and have music to get them through this. So it felt really good doing these, just like a donation-based streaming thing, and it’s worked really well. People have been super supportive and I feel really good about it. And I’m good about putting this stuff out into the world right now.
Live For Live Music: Good. Yeah, I mean, from my own experience as someone who has been financially impacted by COVID, I realize also that all my favorite musicians are as well. And so if anything, even with more limited resources, I want to give musicians my money because I realized that they’re in a very similar situation. Obviously it might not be as much as I would give them going to concerts, going to festivals, doing all this stuff I would have done this summer, but it makes me and a lot of other people happy to give what we can.
Holly Bowling: Yeah. And that’s like if we’re going to talk about finding silver linings in the midst of all this mess, I feel like as grim as things look for the music industry and for anyone in the arts and for people in many, many industries beyond that… underneath it all, there is a sense of people still looking out for each other, even when they’re working with less. And I don’t know, we’re kind of off track here [laughs], but it is a very cool underpinning of all of this that I think is part of what’s going to pull us through to the other side.
Live For Live Music: So you have these Wilderness Sessions, it seems like there’s always something on the back burner. What’s next for you on the horizon?
Holly Bowling: I haven’t been thinking that far ahead through this whole thing. It’s a weird time to try to plan because none of us really know how long we’re off the road for. I’d like to say that the next thing on the horizon is to be back out there, making music with people in the room and hopefully going out on tour again, like a traditional tour, but I don’t think any of us really know. So I think when I’m out of the van and I’m home and the wheels starts spinning again, if we still haven’t gotten back to normal, I’ll have some next plan then.