Roots music: New album draws from memories and connections made in Southeast Alaska

This article has been updated to correct a song title.

It’s a hackneyed trope to refer to a location as “another character” or uncredited contributor when describing a piece of art — but it’s also tough to overstate just how much Southeast Alaska and an idiosyncratic institution helped shape “From the Land of Rusted Dreams.”

The new 12-song album from Juneau singer-songwriter Erin Heist will be released on April 8, amid the 47th annual Alaska Folk Festival, a week-long, free music fest featuring dozens of artists and bands that typically prompts musical performances in just about every capital city venue that can accommodate live music.

“I grew up going to Folk Fest, and the first stage I ever played was at Folk Fest, my husband (Andrew Heist) and I had our first-ever date at a Folk Fest dance,” Heist said in a video interview, adding that everyone featured on the album is in some way a connection forged or deepened through the festival.

“From the Land of Rusted Dreams” was made possible through Juneau Community Foundation and Juneau Arts and Humanities Council individual artist awards. A release party for the album is planned for April 9 at the Crystal Saloon in downtown Juneau.

Heist, who is a past president of the Alaska Folk Festival board and continues to volunteer, teach and perform at the festival, said the album embodies some of the Folk Fest’s eclectic tendencies.

“I’d been a little worried that the album would feel too scattered or all over the place,” Heist said. “But then I realized it was basically what you’d hear late night at the Alaskan Hotel when you’re wandering room to room to room. It just occurred to me that that’s what this album is. It’s the kind of cross-genre and experimentation at play in Folk Fest.”

“From the Land of Rusted Dreams” is Erin Heist’s debut album. It features Andrew Heist, Luke Ydstie, Gabrielle Macrae, Barry Southern, Kati Claborn, A.J. Srubas, Beth Christman and Christ Stafford. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)

“From the Land of Rusted Dreams” is Erin Heist’s debut album. It features Andrew Heist, Luke Ydstie, Gabrielle Macrae, Barry Southern, Kati Claborn, A.J. Srubas, Beth Christman and Christ Stafford. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)

Putting it together

Heist said most of the songs on the album were written in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic during a project in which Heist aimed to write at least one song per month. Songs written during that period also ended up on Heist’s “Another Rainy Day ” EP, which was released in the summer of 2021.

Ahead of recording the songs, Heist reached out to Gabrielle Macrae, an accomplished fiddle player and recording artist, for advice. Macrae and Heist knew each other through —what else? — Folk Fest.

“Because I love hanging out with Erin, I was like, ‘Well, you can always come out to Astoria,’” Macrae said in a phone interview.

So that’s what Heist did.

A formidable lineup of artists from Southeast Alaska and the Pacific Northwest helped the album come to be.

Credited contributors include Andrew Heist (vocals, mandolin and fiddle), Luke Ydstie (bass and percussion), Macrae (fiddle, banjo and party vocals), Barry Southern (guitar, banjo and Cajun triangle), Kati Claborn (producer and harmony vocals), A.J. Srubas (pedal steel), Beth Christman (fiddle) and Chris Stafford (Cajun accordion).

Macrae and Southern, who are married, write and perform together as the roots music duo The Horsenecks. Claborn and Ydstie are both members of folk band Blind Pilot. “From the Land of Rusted Dreams” features photos from Juneau singer-songwriter-playwright Annie Bartholomew.

“All of these people who are on this album are all just people I admire so much and just love to death,” Heist said.

Over the course of a “very fun, very rainy” week in November 2021, Heist and company set to work recording the album in Rope Room Studio.

“The sound’s great in there, it’s got great equipment, it’s mostly down to the engineer Kati Claborn who made it a great experience,” said Macrae, who painted beams for studio time when Rope Room Studio was being built.

While musicians featured on the album were unfamiliar with Heist’s songs heading into the project, Macrae said it was fun to figure things out.

“The process was super fun.” Macrae said, adding it was nice to play on a project that wasn’t her own. “It felt care-free. It was fun to spend the week doing that.”

Heist had effusive praise for everyone involved in shepherding the songs toward a full-length, tangible album.

“Every person involved was just the best person,” Heist said.

“From the Land of Rusted Dreams” is available on streaming platforms and as a CD. Heist said it will eventually be available on vinyl, but a worldwide vinyl shortage means that plan has hit delays. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)

“From the Land of Rusted Dreams” is available on streaming platforms and as a CD. Heist said it will eventually be available on vinyl, but a worldwide vinyl shortage means that plan has hit delays. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)

“From the Land of Rusted Dreams” will be available to purchase at the Juneau Arts and Culture Center’s gallery and Downtown Disc. It’s also available for order through Heist’s Bandcamp and can be heard as on major streaming platforms, Heist said.

Eventually, “From the Land of Rusted Dreams” will be available on vinyl, but a worldwide shortage of vinyl means that release has been delayed.

Heist said the logistics and work involved in producing, releasing and promoting a physical album have been both a learning experience and a lot of work —but it’s an effort that can be rewarding.

“Someone out there is going to have some kind of connection to it, and that makes it worthwhile,” Heist said.

Southeast sensations

Folk Fest is a formative force for “From the Land of Rusted Dreams,” but it’s far from the only slice of Southeast Alaska life to influence Heist’s songs.

The album’s three cover songs are pieces that have personal meaning for Heist, and its six original songs are generally inspired by lived experience.

“They’re all kind of about aspects of growing up in Southeast Alaska, about loving this place, but also feeling a little bit trapped here,” Heist said.

“Downstream,” which leads off the album and serves as a de facto title track, is shaped by memories of growing up in Ketchikan, where Heist lived until she was about 9.

“Milk Run” takes its title from an (in)famous series of daily wee-hours flights that help keep Alaska connected. Its lyrics come from a Twitter thread that solicited oddball causes of delayed flights. Responses included everything from wildlife to weather to a broken-down catering truck blocking a plane.

“I was really surprised at how many people responded.” Heist said. “I think the only detail I couldn’t include was balancing the load, and the load that had to be balanced was fish boxes. I think my favorite delay was birds on a runway.”

“Out of Town,” the album’s first single, explores the mindset of a young 20-something living in Juneau and feeling stuck, Heist said.

“I think that feeling is universal,” Heist said. “I think it’s a little more exacerbated when you live somewhere not connected by road. I think that’s part of the reason I love traditional American music as well. It feels like it really connects with what it means to live in a place like Alaska.”

• Contact Ben Hohenstatt at (907)308-4895 or bhohenstatt@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BenHohenstatt.

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