Eyes in Your Mouth
an interview with songmaker Mariee Sioux
In “Braiding Sweetgrass,” Robin Wall Kimmerer describes her hope for a reciprocal relationship between people and earth, a future in which the land will give thanks for the people. Mariee Sioux calls this image forth in her music, which dreams of a time when the rift between people and land is healed. In songs like “White Fanged Foreverness,” Mariee invokes ancient ways of living with the earth, in respect and mutual blessing, and gently moves us, the recipients of her gift, to a new place of listening and understanding.
With compassion and grace, Mariee's songs bring healing, contemplation, and a meditative experience to her listeners. She doesn't claim to be a song "maker," but rather, she describes her experience as being gifted with songs that she, in turn, gives away to others. The songs themselves come from a place of divine inspiration and have a life of their own, existing now as wandering stars, lighting the paths of whomever they come across.
Since the first days of Cordella Magazine, we have hoped to connect with Mariee Sioux and share her artwork with you. What an honor it was to meet with Mariee in this way! May you be blessed and inspired by her work as we have been.
CORDELLA MAGAZINE: While you write and perform as a solo artist, you are also a consistent collaborator, working with family members and friends, as well as other artists, such as Gentle Thunder and Will Oldham. How do you experience working individually versus collaboratively?
MARIEE SIOUX: I think it really depends on the project and the moment. I love getting deep in the moment alone onstage sometimes, but I've also loved sharing that with others as well- especially my Dad who is just so sweet to play with. I also really loved singing on tour with my friend Ashley; having another woman's voice was very powerful for the songs. She passed away and it traumatized me, and has kept me from working so close with someone again, but I think I'm ready for a new phase. I can't afford to travel and play with other people at my shows right now, otherwise I probably would.
Cordella: You have a diverse and nuanced ancestry. Could you describe how this ancestral identity has affected your creative process, and how this identity comes through your music?
Mariee: Yes, I have a pretty mixed ethnic background but so do most people these days I think. I didn't grow up with much influence from either the Native or Eastern European cultures that my blood is from, yet I miss the lack of their languages and knowledge. I think that yearning for things that were lost, really in just a few generations, is where I pull a lot of my feeling from. I feel so close yet so far away from these things, and their ways.
I did however grow up in a really simple way on a farm in the woods of the Sierra Nevada, and plant life and nature was something that truly informed me since birth. Those things I hold as dear and true as anything, and they've probably influenced me much more than my bloodline. That being said, as I have gotten older my interest and connection to different Native ways has grown and deepened. I give thanks and honor their ways as some of the most beautiful that exist, and the feeling I have for Indigenous peoples knowledge for life, healing and connection is one of great humility and beauty that we just don't get to witness much, even living in this land from where these people came.
Cordella: You grew up in Nevada City, CA. How do you experience identity in connection to place? How does such an experience come through in your music?
Mariee: The town of Nevada City is the ancestral home to the Nissinan Maidu. They have some beautiful gatherings in the area for Indigenous Peoples Day and I'm always amazed at how few people are there to share such experiences. It's always deeply heartbreaking to me to be in most places in this country and realize that just a couple hundred years ago there were entire races here living in harmony with nature, with languages and medicine and ceremonies that have been lost, or are being lost, as we speak. The town I grew up in was settled after 1849 when gold was discovered nearby (it was probably one of first cities on the west coast during that time and was almost made the capitol of California I believe). Everything growing up was linked to the gold rush- we learned about it so much in school, and our high school mascot was the Nevada Union Miners. Everything I learned growing up was basically a reminder that settlers came here and killed and displaced most of the tribes living in this area in their quest to get rich. Also a weirdly reminiscent thing is now happening with the green rush in the past 10 years. It's not nearly as dim as what happened in the gold rush, but people are moving to NC to get rich off the ganja industry while nothing is given back to the local Native tribes still surviving in the area. That's disheartening to me.
Cordella: You have described songs as being gifts that are given to you. Can you tell us a bit about your song writing process? How does the experience of inspiration as a divine gift giver integrate into your creativity?
Mariee: I say this a lot because I honestly never intended or had any dream of being a songwriter or performer of any type growing up. I always loved and cherished my favorite music, but I never for a moment thought I could or would do that. I was a really hyper-sensitive, deeply feeling young person, and always felt like I was missing things. Something deep and cultural was lacking, and I grieved it from a young age even when I didn't know really what I was dealing with. I didn't understand school, and anytime I left my family's farm land I was pretty confused and felt like a very old soul, on earth for its first time. I transmitted a lot of those feelings through writing poetry and photography.
My first songs sort-of spilled out by chance on a trip to Argentina when I was 19; I had brought my mom's guitar and had just begun learning chords. I wrote about 10 songs there, which became my fist home-recorded EP in 2004. Songs seemed to happen to me- I had to write them to process the things I was dealing with. I didn't even want to record them or ever sing them in front of anyone, until certain friends of mine kindly pushed me to. Most of my songs have come out this way. I have very rarely "tried" to write a song.
Long periods of time have gone by where I will not write a complete song, maybe just snippets of lines or melodies, and I'll think I've completely lost the ability to complete a full song ever again (this has proven not to be true this far, but it sure can feel strange). Most of the stories and feelings in these songs have percolated over time and experience, and then are condensed into one five minute piece. Most of the songs contain many different times, feelings and ideas in one. I am definitely more inspired at some times than others, but this whole life of song sharing has truly surprised me from the beginning. It is still something that unfolds itself to me in all its different facets, including in the stories of others healing experiences of the songs. Through these humbling and truly remarkable stories, the music has revealed its deeper purpose to me: these songs have been gifts to people for healing purposes, for births, for deaths, for helping to reconnect to their inner child, to nature, or to their ancestry and remembrance.
Cordella: While you are clearly influenced by folk and traditional Native American music, your contribution to a Cure tribute album suggests that you draw from other musical genres. What other broad influences have impacted your work? What was your relationship with music like while you were growing up?
Mariee: I listened to a lot of 70's music as a child and teenager. My first musical obsession was Simon and Garfunkel, and in 4th grade I made my own mix tapes of their songs for my drive to school. Growing up I loved all sorts of bands and music. I loved true authenticity and strange lyrics. I don't believe I sang out loud a lout until I really got into some of my most cherished records as a sophomore- Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and Neutral Milk Hotel. I balled my eyes out all the time listening to Joni Mitchell's "Blue" even before I'd had a first kiss, let alone a first love. I would listen to Bob Dylan in my room, and pen all the lyrics down as he sang them and just CRY MY EYES OUT. I didn't even know what I was crying about, but I knew I was being touched by something I had always wanted to feel and hear. His understanding of soul, words, and feeling was so beautiful- it gave me a lot of hope and comfort. I was also listening to Jimi Hendrix, Nirvana, Modest Mouse, Elliott Smith, Cat Power, Built to Spill, Radiohead and Björk. I loved, loved music in high school- it really saved me.
My father Gary was in a bluegrass band (and is still in the same one!) so I also grew up going to bluegrass music festivals, hearing lots of tight harmonies and finger picking. Although I loved music I never wanted to learn to play, and didn't ever pick up the guitar until I was 18, at the very end of high school. I hadn't learned any other instruments growing up either.
Cordella: Your lyrics contain numerous evocative metaphors and allusions to myth stories/allegories. I'm specifically haunted by the images conjured by the song "Buried in Teeth." Could you describe how this particular song came to you?
Mariee: To be honest, I barely remember writing this song and many others. I was feeling pretty lost and hopeless at the time, I think I was about 20. The questions of identity you've asked above were what I was thinking about a lot. I didn't feel like I belonged to anything, any peoples or culture. I yearned for the old way, so I wrote about that... a connection to something I was deeply missing and couldn't seem to find. It seemed that the creative world was where I could feel comforted and like I belonged.
Cordella: Your live performances have been described as trance-like and meditative, even hallucinatory. Do you actively intend to create such an effect, or does it come without intention? Do you see this quality as integral to your artistic identity?
Mariee: When I sing the songs live I often get very lost in them... lost or found, I don't know what you want to call it. It's really meditative for me, like I'll go the whole song without having a single thought or even really have to put any effort into remembering finger shapes, hand movement or words, it just flows out. I've been singing them for so long now, it's really peaceful and like nothing else I've ever experienced before. It's gotten more like this as time has gone on and I've developed this very psychedelic relationship with them. The songs have lives of their own; they are out there in the world, taking on different meanings and evoking different feelings in people for years. They have actually done the same thing for me, taking on different meanings at different moments of my life, the feelings in them have evolved and deepened years after being first written, and perhaps that is what's coming through- the depth of life's different experiences kinda pours out through these vessels, though the song itself might not have changed since its birth.
Cordella: In this strange world of the internet, songs can be streamed millions of times without an artist making a penny! How does a rural artist, striving to maintain connection to traditional ways of living and sharing music, make a living with one’s art? Has this been a struggle for you?
Mariee: Well, at this point I have really done this as a labor of love. I make a very small amount of money, and I often don't rent a house, instead traveling in and out of my parents extra bedroom, friend's homes or house sitting, or I am just on the road. Sometimes I have help maintaining my Subaru through the support of fans, because people want to help, and the music seems to have touched some of them deeply and they want to give back more than ten dollars for the ability to listen to a record for the rest of their lives. I truly feel blessed to feel that kind of intimate support at times, and its helped me stay afloat, or fed, or my car brakes fixed! I'm still figuring this one out 10 years later. I have finally gotten all my music streaming online through my own personal account, with no one in the middle. I would say retaining all rights and putting up the music yourself onto online distribution is the best option for the internet world, unless you are a much more well-known artist. As for the other stuff, constantly playing shows and just keeping the music alive and in people's ears, and being connected to your fans online for support through things like Patreon and crowdfunding, can be really helpful.
Cordella: What's coming up for you?
Mariee: The next big thing is working on my new record this November! I'm so excited!
Mariee made this wonderful mixtape for Cordella's readers, full of songs that have guided her on her path. Click on the playlist below to listen.