A Conversation With Wisconsin Folk Singer Sarah Vos Of Dead Horses
Who does a song belong to? Is it the person who wrote it alone in her Wisconsin bedroom, reaching for the perfect chord or revising a lyric to make it leaner? Is it the band who plays it with her, adding a strum of mandolin here and a low harmony there? Or, what if it belongs to you and me, when we gather under a tent at a music festival on a muggy summer night, and sing along as loud as we can?
For Sarah Vos, the answer is that it belongs to every single one of us. Though chief songwriter and frontwoman of Milwaukee-based band Dead Horses, the kind of bluegrass-inflected folk she makes draws its power from the collective energy of her closest collaborators, the voices in the crowd, and the deep traditions of music in the heartland itself. When that powerful community combines with Vos’ own powerful storytelling ability and rich personal history, you get a depth of sound that will make you want to lend your voice to the melody, too.
We spoke with Vos about how her music was shaped by growing up in (and leaving) a fundamentalist church, an early stumbling into the music of Bob Dylan and the evolution of human song itself.
Tell me a bit about how you first discovered your love for making music.
I grew up in the church, so from a really young age music was just a part of daily life, especially through worship. Somewhere in middle school we got the internet, and I could start exploring lots of other music, and that opened up a lot of doors. It’s just been very innate for me, and I’ve always really loved it. I have a relationship with music, a practice. It’s one of the most fulfilling things in my life.
Was the denomination of the church you grew up in one for which music was especially important?
Well, kind of; I grew up Wells Lutheran and my dad was a pastor in that church, and, like a lot of denominations, almost half of those services are just singing hymns. I was so ingrained in that culture as a kid. I also went to a parochial school, so I had to memorize hymns and bible verses all day, too. When I really look back, before I had the chance to explore music on my own, that was really central. Even the way I write songs is reminiscent of hymns, which are really folk music, too. That’s maybe why I was so drawn to folk music to begin with: it’s geared towards communities singing it together. It’s a collective thing. I’m thankful for the influence [church] had on me, in that way.
I hadn’t thought about folk music quite that way before.
I mean, you could write a whole book about what folk music is. But for me, folk music is the music of the people. I would consider certain types of rap music folk. Hymns, definitely, are folk. Bluegrass, too, is part of folk because it grew out of rural areas of America, from people who didn’t have sheet music—just instruments they could make with their hands. [Scientists] think that the way music itself evolved was almost like a way to keep predators away late at night; early human beings would sit around and make a ton of noise when they saw a predator coming. They think that might be why people feel such a sense of togetherness when they sing together.
That idea of music being something really important for our survival, of it being something protective and loud and able to take down a predator, is so fascinating. I’m wondering how that plays into folk music’s deep connection to protest music, which has a similar kind of urgency; did you write the songs on your new record, “Cartoon Moon,” with a political message in mind?
It’s hard not to, at this point! [Laughs]. But really, yeah. Protest folk musicians like Bob Dylan were the first people I heard that romanticized being a folk musician, who made me want to do it. Dylan’s kind of my man; at this bluegrass festival I’m at today, I just played a few Dylan covers. What’s interesting about him is that a lot of the songs we attribute to him were just already folk songs at the time, and a lot of them were protest anthems.
When we sat down to make this record, we looked through everything we’d written, and what we found was that, of course, we had a lot of political songs. I think that’s on just about everybody’s minds right now—though not everyone in the folk community likes it. I mean, I never want to offend. There was one show we played last year when we were opening up for Elephant Revival. I didn’t think I’d said anything political—I might have mentioned the election, but that’s about it—and a woman came up to me afterward and bought some merch from me, and then she really reamed me a good one for being political at all. She was like, ‘We’re just here for the music.’ And I was like, ‘You and I have completely different ideas about what music is.’ Music is expression. If I’m at Thanksgiving dinner, I’m steering clear of politics. But the whole point of art is to express yourself.
Are there any particular Dead Horses songs that feel especially political to you?
I think the song “American Poor” is pretty direct, and it’s pretty personal. My father was a minister for all of our childhoods, until we left the church. He was a pastor for 30 years, and if you leave, often you’re kind of screwed. He works at Walmart now, and interestingly enough, Walmart employs a lot of ex-clergy people. I think that the act of service is one of the most beautiful things you can do as a human being, to serve someone else. It’s just perplexing to me that we treat people in service like they’re in menial jobs. They make the least, they get the least respect, and I think that’s what I was trying to get at with that song in particular: this backwardness to what we value. The ways we’re trying to stuff ourselves, trying to feel full, and we can’t, because we’re putting the wrong things in.
Your whole family left the church, but I know your own decision to do so was really personal. How did that time in your life influence you?
I think I had doubts and struggles—intellectually as well as emotionally and spiritually—with the type of fundamentalism I was brought up with. Even as a young child, I remember thinking that certain bible stories—like Job for example—when they’re taught very literally, which they were in my church … even as a five-year-old, I remember being like, ‘Wait a second. God lets Satan kill Job’s family? This is a literal story?’ So, I think I had struggles with that all along.
But I was also being fed in a way because there were so many good things about the experience of church and religion, and especially the idea of practice. At some point I realized, ‘Wow, I’m not going to die if I let go of believing.’
I don’t want to say it was easy. I do think I forgot who I was for a little bit. I also left the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee at the same time that I left the church, and that was hard. I was on a path, I was going to be a teacher—I was always really good at that. But it’s not good for the human spirit to be put in a box. I moved home, and I couldn’t even really do anything at that time; I could barely go to the grocery store. I just had to stop it all for a second, I think. But I got through that rough patch.
That rough patch also led to you moving home and meeting your bandmates, which is part of why Dead Horses exists today. I know you market yourself as a duo with your main collaborator, Daniel Wolff, but you play with a larger band, and it seems like you bring a lot of new voices and instruments into your sound. Do you think of Dead Horses as more of a duo or a collective?
A little bit of both, actually. Dan and I have just been there from the start, and we’ve worked together for so long. He’s one of the most influential human beings in my life, and it’s one of the most important relationships I have as a person. I just admire the shit out of him, and we work really well together.
But yeah, you’re right; Dead Horses is a collective, too, and we have different players come in and out and we’ve worked with different producers. I love the idea of it being a project that changes as we build. You’re part of this project now because you’re spending your time talking to me. You’ll think about us and write about us. I just ran into a couple who saw us play in the very beginning, and it’s seven years later now, and I’m standing under a tent with them. They’re part of it, too.
You’re the songwriter for the band, and the literal voice of the music, since you’re the lead singer. Tell me a bit about how you create this music, from the time you conceive of the song to the time you’re performing it with Dan, and the others, and letting the project grow from there.
If you’re writing, hopefully it feels just like a practice. You have to say to yourself, ‘This is something I do.’ I think people who don’t write envision songwriters, like, sitting down like they’ve never sat down before, but for me, it’s more like the song never ends, nor does the story. You just write, and you then you take it and shape it, especially if you end up working with and performing with other people.
We actually just finished recording a new record, and now I’m trying to sit down and rethink how our process works. I really want to home in; I’d like it to be more deliberate, to really make how we communicate efficient so we have more space to be creative together. I’m not sure how to do that yet, and I think part of that is going to relate to how we record it. I’m thinking about how, if the songs get born at home with me, and then they get re-born again when I record it with the band; how does that change the music? Should we be sitting and talking about every note, or does it get written by playing it? Folk music is usually simple and easy to learn at first, and then it gets reborn every time it’s played. I look at what Paul Simon does—holy shit. He’ll work on a song for years and just really sit with it. I love that. I love writing and people creating stuff together, and all the different ways different people do that. It all makes me feel like it’s okay to be a human.