Molly Erin Sarle is watching a man fly a model airplane. The singer-songwriter reclines on her deck in California, perched over the wide expanse of a nature preserve. Birds chirp in the background, and Sarle gasps and giggles as the man loops his airborne contraption a bit too close to her for comfort. "Take your time," she says to me in her easy, doll-like voice, holding the phone to her ear. "I'm getting a tan."
Sarle is one-third of the haunting female folk outfit Mountain Man. The trio — rounded out by Alexandra Sauser-Monnig and Amelia Randall Meath — fashions ethereal, ghostly harmonies over simple, resonating guitar lines. The women's rustic voices fall like layers of raw silk over lyrics about nature, lost love and sublime emptiness. It's a sound built for seafaring and soul searching.
Though Mountain Man never meant to graduate past its humble beginnings in rural Vermont, the group has ridden a whirlwind to success over the past year, including a tour with Jónsi of Sigur Rós and a full-length debut, Made the Harbor. Now Mountain Man is on the road as part of the Decemberists' tour for The King Is Dead. The Pitch picked Sarle's brain on the band's beginnings, singing in old ice-cream parlors, and drunken Scotsmen.
The Pitch: How did the three of you find one another?
Molly Erin Sarle: Alex and Amelia and I met at Bennington College, a small university in the middle of Vermont. Though I took a term off of school because I hated my first year of college, I'd been writing songs. When I returned to school, Amelia heard me playing "Dog Song" in our common room of the dormitory. We were both pretty heartbroken at the time, but we weren't really friends yet — we were kind of scared of each other. She demanded I teach it to her, and then she taught it to Alex. We came together over that song.
Do any members of Mountain Man have musical backgrounds?
Not really. Alex's dad owns a music store in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Amelia's been singing with her family her whole life. I was in an elementary school choir. Music is just something that's a natural release for all of us.
What prompted you to release an album?
We all kept writing songs when we had something to say, and kept sharing our lives through our songs with each other. We ended up with enough songs to record an album and decided to record last February in our friend Justin's attic. He lives in an old ice-cream parlor, and the attic was still covered in patches of pastel pink and blue and lime-green tiles. The walls all reverberated sound differently. Sometimes one of us would sing into a tiled window, the other into the old wooden walls. You can really feel the presence of the room on the album.
What do you draw inspiration from?
We wrote most of the songs on the album about two years ago, so I draw inspiration from different things than I did then. Now we draw inspiration from our experiences of being humans, and women. The three of us have very distinct, unique internal worlds. We all try really hard in our lives to connect our internal worlds with the external one, and we draw inspiration from that process.
What's the strangest thing you've drawn inspiration from?
My friend Angela had a dream about a black dog that was bleeding everywhere while she carried it in her arms over to an avocado tree. The song I wrote about her dream didn't actually make it onto the album, though. We recorded Made the Harbor in two days, and we actually forgot to record two songs for it.
What was touring with Jónsi like?
Musicians are unpredictable people. We really hit it off with Jónsi's band. The bassist and I gave each other matching homemade tattoos. We haven't met the Decemberists yet but are looking forward to joining them on tour.
What's the best place for someone to listen to your music?
Maybe walking to the beach or lying down on the couch with somebody you have a crush on. Cooking with friends — but anything done while cooking with friends is good. I think it really depends on the individual and where they're at in their life. I honestly don't listen to our album that often, but when I do, it makes me feel at peace with myself and like I can start to deal with things in my life from a place of relaxation instead of stress. I hope it does that for others, too, and creates an environment for them to find their own peace.
Where's the weirdest place you've played music so far?
This past summer, we played in the Highlands of Scotland in an old, abandoned barn that was also a clay-pigeon shooting range, a miniature racing track, and a child's playpen with a ball pit like the ones they have at McDonald's. It also had an old café that made us excellent chili for dinner, an accordion museum, and a pet anaconda. The audience was mostly old, drunk Scottish men. It's hard to understand what an old Scottish man is saying to you, especially when he's drunk, but they seemed to dig our set.