Interview: Starling Arrow – “Examining Existential Meaning in Rapidly Changing Appearances”.

Starling Arrow Hilltop Color

Five American singer songwriters, multi-instrumentalists and storytellers: Tina Malia, Ayla Nereo, Marya Stark, Leah Song (Rising Appalachia) and Chloe Smith (also Rising Appalachia) are all members of Starling Arrow – arguably one of the most distinguished cappella groups on the scene right now. As I explore the concepts of improvisation as a necessary component to the innate Starling Arrow soundscape, particularly during lockdown, Marya describes this glorious phenomenon similar to that of a murmuration in nature, “true to starling form” and here marks the beginning of Starling Arrow. 

It is without need for predetermined, structured arrangements within their sound and space during the pandemic that the girls find their standing here. Marya explains: “the other songs incorporated this kind of approach to sound capture as well”. The girls generated each track quite serendipitously during this time and despite the risks and pitfalls of collaborating long distance, she further explains: “it allowed for a certain level of presence, jumping in wholeheartedly, capturing our best swiftly, and working within the magic of the moment”. 

Cradle examines social and political unrest through the magic of improv, grounded in expression of true self, wisdom, and unknown territories, and these are manifested graciously through five-part, soothing harmonies. Cradle is therefore the epitome of purity, playfulness and peace of mind. 

Marya talks more about the journey of their new debut album Cradle and other worldly influences on its inception. 

If there is one thing the pandemic gifted us with was the power to connect through music, in a very foreign way. Lockdown we know gave birth to your new album Cradle. I have a question that has intrigued me since I imagine your vocal arrangements require a certain level of intimacy, warmth and intuition –apart from being deprived of much of this; what were your limitations during the creation of this album if any, and how did you overcome them?

This is an interesting question. I think the only real limitation we had was the distance between us as a collective, we overcame this by dedicating a few chunks of time for solid recording intensives, and documented as much as we could in the time allotted. Living spread out in various parts of the world, Zooming internationally, and not being a formal performing ensemble- we didn’t have a lot of time to rehearse, plan, and get super detailed with the arrangements before going into the recording sessions. I think this was really to our benefit, because instead of being perfectionistic and overly vigilant in the moment, it allowed for a certain level of presence, jumping in wholeheartedly, capturing our best swiftly, and working within the magic of the moment. Sometimes limits are our best creative allies. A lot of the album was created with this intuitive self-organising energy, which of course Tina masterfully polished and arranged in the mixing process. 

I am a fan of improvisation in music, and it requires a certain level of sensitivity to who/what you are working with. Your vocal arrangements often feel uncontrived as if you are improvising. Which track(s) from your set list of your latest album Cradle did you feel came more from a place of spontaneity and feeling?

Something really special about the recording process of this album was how we tracked together live in a room for many of the songs, with lots of improvisation of the chorus. Midnight Hum, for example, was one of three improvised hum tracks we created. At the end of each night of recording, we would record ourselves humming for a half hour as a way to integrate, and to see if we could capture anything worth sharing. All the Pretty Horses, Swoon and Wander, Into the River- these songs were sung with five of us live singing together in a room, following the invisible centre of the song- listening and intuiting with minimal rehearsal, and lots of just going for it. Listening. The other songs incorporated this kind of approach to sound capture as well, especially for the choruses and any oooh sections. It was very magical to track this way with minimal pre-determined vocal arranging- we were kind of amazed by the murmuration nature of it all as it was happening. True to starling form.

Starling Arrow has a beautiful, very delicate ring to it. How did this name come about? What does this symbolise? 

This was the final piece of our collective, and was decided a few weeks before we announced it publicly. After years of songwriting, recording an album, and doing all the filming, we THEN decided to release it under a joint project name. We wanted the name to feel like a poem, and something that encapsulated our journey together. We kicked around a lot of different ideas for a few weeks. The word ‘Starling’ popped in sort of serendipitously. Tina had remembered that Chloe threw it out many months before as an idea if we were to create a project name, but we had forgotten about it for months. Learning about the cooperation and murmuration patterns these song birds create together rang true for us in how we had been emergently weaving – both as a songwriting accountability squad, and in the recording process itself. The word ‘Arrow’ came in as part of the directive- a name to appreciate the warrior spirit that was also present with us during lockdown in our song writing crucible, and I think speaks to how we would meet each week with our aim set on a particular song muse, yet each of us received our own song baby in this collective nest. 

Although many of you are from different musical groups, the pandemic forged a very new path for you all. It is the gift of Starling Arrow! Have you noticed any differences in the way that you now approach or transcend your inner voices, since the new project began during lockdown? 

Working in collaboration is very different to working solo. With solo projects, we are each the visionary stewards of our own domains. Perhaps differing a bit for the sisters of Rising Appalachia, since they have been working as a pair and an ensemble for decades, so they have had more practice with each other. Within a group, there is a lot of give and take, and surrender into the collective centre, which I have found to be very helpful in changing my perspective – adjusting from ways I may be overly attached or critical of my art- there’s not a lot of room for perfectionism and rigidity in this kind of crew- which is very relaxing. I find that I have grown a lot in my personal realm of music and leadership in response to co-stewarding this collective prayer and intention. It’s easier to let things be what they are, not get hyper vigilant, let things be beautiful, imperfect, alive, and wonderful. It’s very creatively liberating.

We know the world changed a great deal surrounding the pandemic. Apart from lockdown itself, what were the external, worldly influences to your songs on the album? 

This is an awesome question- throughout the journey of writing these songs, we captured all kinds of movements responding to the various intense moments of history- earth changes, fires, social justice movements, community scandals, primordial fear, researching historical figures, examining existential meaning in rapidly changing appearances. The dissolution of the old ways of being. But I think what’s special about this album is that while all the songs were fodder for our creativity flow, and meeting the moment as it was, the songs here were the sweetness and nectar distilled from letting all the stuff move through. We decided at one point to shift our focus from writing about apocalyptic subjects that were intensifying in our community, and wildfires, to what would potentially help us soothe our nervous systems. This is how the ‘lullaby’ theme came about- we set out to write a simple lullaby about the wind. Then a lullaby about the mountains. Then songs about bones and pre-internet, harkening to the old ways. Many of the songs chosen for this collection were the harvest of these specific prompts, around lullaby, cradle, soothing magic to help our weary bodies nest into something gentle, life-giving and harmonising. These songs became literal medicine for us in a moment of peak exacerbation. 

Fabulously put! And what were the creative processes which differed between tracks? (Instruments used, recording techniques, vocal style etc) 

Almost half the tracks were recorded acapella, with all five of us in the room singing together on our own mic. The other tracks feature guitar, rhodes, charango, banjo, bodhran and a little bit of fiddle. We would capture the main lead and instrument first, layer some improvised parts individually and collectively. It was such a fun process to see this come about, intuitively, and easefully.

Leah has mentioned a few times how five folks being great songwriters and singers doesn’t necessarily guarantee that they are great harmony singers as well. Harmony singing is its own skill, and so for five of us to come together and fall into a natural groove together in this way was a wonderful serendipity. It could have been a much more challenging process had that not been the case.

This might be a long shot but can you describe your musical genre? 

I think of this genre as Sentient Indie-Folk, and A Capella Folk Choir. A blend of traditional folk, devotional and contemporary song writing. Soothing polyphonic soul bath. 

I imagine your influences come more from the changing world, including your own, and the wisdom you acquire from it, rather than other artists as such. But can you name three cappella groups that you draw inspiration from musically?

While we were recording, we definitely paid attention to the magic of ‘Sweet Honey and The Rock’, as well as ‘Beautiful Chorus’ and Gillian Welch. Also, the group Rock-Appella is a personal favourite. Several of us also grew up singing in choir, so layered harmonies are in our bones. 

What is your next move? How will you be showcasing your work in the coming months?

You can follow each of the artists’ individual projects. There are a lot of upcoming travel and live shows from different members of the band.

Collectively, we have an online course coming up called SongArcher. This is a four week songwriting seminar with us guiding a group of participants in the same style of journey we led ourselves through during lockdown. This will be an awesome way to bring folks right into the creative process with us, play inside the song muses together, and share in the collaborative joy that we all have found catching songs with each other.



– You can listen to and purchase your copy of Cradle,  Starling Arrow’s debut album, HERE


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