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Interview: Nonconnah

My introduction to Lost Trail was via their excellent Wist Rec release The Afternoon Vision, which came in a jackdaw folder complete with soil survey maps, distorted photography of various landscapes, and poetic phrases stranded on the back of curious images. Meanwhile, their music feels shaped by the graceful erosion and disruption of nature, with guitars dampened by rain or muffled by winds on open plains, their timbres pocked by the effects of rural intimacy. Immediately, I became aware of the connection between the duo and their physical environment. Listening to Lost Trail feels like plunging a hand into the earth and letting dirt run between the fingers; befriending the land through sound or touch, sieving sediment for little beads of buried history.

Given the significance of physical environment, it’s no surprise that the duo’s move from North Carolina to Memphis led to a reinvention of their artistic identity. Denny and Zachary Corsa have shed the Lost Trail moniker to become Nonconnah, named after the creek that runs through southern Memphis. Below, we discuss new album The Gloom And The Glowing, the grandeur in collapse and the process of settling into a new home.

There’s been a lot of change in your personal and artistic lives as of late: firstly in terms of your recent move from North Carolina to Memphis, and then with the adoption of a new band name. If you don’t mind me asking, what led you to move? How has the change been for you, and how are you finding the process of settling into this new phase of your lives?

Denny’s job happened to be relocating to Memphis, and being burned out on the music scene in North Carolina after years of struggling, we thought it would be a good opportunity to try what we do in a new, possibly more receptive, area. We love Memphis, it’s a beautiful city with pleasantly laid-back people and an overall vibe of cultural appreciation and gracious living. There’s no shortage of things to see and experience here. We still get homesick for North Carolina, mostly for family and familiar faces, but we’re settling in quite well. We have a home in the country just outside of the city, we have our animals, and all is unfolding as it should.

I’ve been listening to your upcoming record, The Gloom And The Glowing. I’m in the process of moving house myself, and this title leads me to consider the internal negotiation of nostalgia, retrospect, apprehension and optimism that accompany the process of leaving somewhere behind and arriving at somewhere new (physically and otherwise). I’d love to know more about the significance of this title to you.

Our work has always been about contrast between conflicting, yet subtly complimentary, ideas. The title just seemed to sum up a life experience in general, especially on the brink of great change and personal upheaval. It’s just another way of pointing out the meeting of darkness and light in anyone’s life, and it’s also a less-than-obvious nod to The Glow, Pt. 2 by The Microphones. If anyone is an influence on this idea of music communicating the warring forces of daily minutiae, it’s Phil Elverum.

The new record seems to work prominently with the refraction and erosion of beautiful sounds. The Nonconnah website refers to your music as “damaged hymns”, which encapsulates this nicely. What is it about this marriage of beauty and damage that appeals to you?

It’s an idea that’s been integral to our music since the beginning, but it also speaks to a general truth about our lives, that we’re able to see the essential beauty in decay, the grandeur in collapse and in matter falling apart. The contrast between the man-made and the natural, as well as something polished and lively versus crumbling and degrading, is important thematically to what we do, whether it be in the perceived obsolescence of using tape and antique instruments as recording components or our fascination with abandoned places and ‘lost’ geography, which is something we first bonded over. It all comes back to the lush beauty of a spring tree versus the rot of a fallen log. The home truths of any society are found in their outskirts and their ruins.

I’d love to know more about the selection of Nonconnah as a band name. I understand that it’s taken from Nonconnah Creek, which runs all the way through the south of Memphis. Can you tell me about your relationship with the creek itself, and what led you to adopt it as your new artistic identity?

Nonconnah Creek is one of those ‘lost’ places in a city that’s full of such mystery, the weight of the past in present living. There’s an almost magical Nonconnah Greenbelt in southeast Memphis near the creek that was never finished, and now the bridge is half falling apart, the dragonflies are taking over, and the trails are overgrown with blackberries. We also liked that the Mall of Memphis once stood along the creek’s banks. The former mall property is this eerie wasteland now, surrounded by rusted fencing and covered over with tall grasses, once again a site of man-made ruin being overtaken by nature. The creek is an important archaeological site as well. Nonconnah is Chickasaw for ‘long stream’, and I think that dovetails nicely with ‘lost trail’. It’s all an extension of that same concept, wanting to honor a sense of place in the music, anchor the music in some haunted local topography. We build such roots so that they may reflect our home.

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The name Lost Trail was also derived from physical location (a trail in Halifax County, Virginia). Is there a particular reason why you seem to be drawn to coupling your musical output with a specific facet of the landscape? Is this perhaps a means of asserting a physical home for yourself and your music?

Definitely. So much of what we do is rooted in an idea of place, a longing for place, the mysteries of the past and how they get tangled up with this idea of a home, a landscape. We have often said we’re very much a Southern band because the South seems so defined by this idea of the past in transparency, just beneath the surface of modernity, of sprawl and bustle and the ‘New South’ overlaying the old like a double exposure. So much of memory and nostalgia is tied to specific ideas of place. Zach’s reading a wonderful non-fiction book right now, Places Of The Heart, by Colin Ellard, which is about how built landscapes affect one’s emotional response. It’s really a resonant idea artistically, as people who are trying to communicate ephemeral ideas through mostly instrumental music.

How has this period of transition affected your relationship with your music? Have you been drawn to re-evaluate the role that artistic creation plays in your life, and what you wish to fulfill through it?

Music is still a crucial and central part of our lives, but its receded a slight bit as Zach’s begun to branch out into other interests, such as his volunteer work with rescue animals, which he hopes will lead to a second career in that field eventually. The move definitely caused him to re-evaluate his relationship to music, how much it had come to dominate every sphere of his life, and how to manage its importance to him without driving his being entirely. But the art we create will always be a major force in our lives, and it will always be there in one form or another, foreground or background.

Now that you’ve disconnected yourselves from the Lost Trail name, do you feel better able to reflect on your experiences and accomplishments with the project?

We don’t really consider it, because it’s essentially the same band, the same two primary members. The music is hopefully going to be a bit more collaborative with other artists, and also more ambitious in scope and in crossing genres. We want to take what we did in Lost Trail and make a widescreen version. It’s certainly freeing to have the weight of such a massive back catalogue off our backs and to start fresh with less expectations. All of our experiences as Lost Trail are deeply appreciated, more than can be expressed, but we feel our most relevant work is still ahead of us, over the horizon.

What does your studio space look like at the minute? Has it been easy to identify a place in your new home for making music?

It’s finally 99% ready, as of tonight. Honestly, we’ve been too busy putting it together the past couple of months to make much music, but now we can finally break it in. The space is a large open room that was once a beauty salon, built as an addition to a house in the countryside of Fayette County, Tennessee that’s a pure portal to 1964. We have a dairy farm across the road and cows grazing just up the hill. The space itself is filled to the brim with amps, pedals, guitars, vinyl records, shelves of antique treasures, and a Baldwin Fun Machine organ. We’re very excited to discover the possibilities of what we can create here. We’re calling it Ghost Salon, in honor of the space’s original usage. We even have the original sign from the salon hanging up in the room.

I keep returning to thoughts on the connection between music and place as I put these questions together. I’m forever having experiences that remind me of how sound and location converse with each other; not least during walks across Bournemouth beach with headphones on. Do either of you have any stand-out memories of times where music and place aligned in a particularly potent way?

Zach has a vivid recollection of a late-night drive with a friend in college, in the mountains of western North Carolina, and watching a massive forest fire consume a hillside while Mount Eerie’s Lost Wisdom played on the car stereo. It’s one of those still-earth moments that keeps recurring for him when making our art, and there’s been a huge foldout poster of the cover art from Lost Wisdom in our studio space for many years. For Denny, it’s childhood memories of making up silly dances to her dad’s Allan Sherman records. The musical touchstones that remain with us are as mysterious as music itself.

What’s on the horizon for Nonconnah?

One major shift from Lost Trail is that we won’t be churning out endless streams of albums anymore. We’re taking our time at a measured pace from now on, taking the steps to craft something really special and lasting, hopefully with the help of many talented friends. So it may be awhile before you hear much more from us, outside of the occasional live performance, but when you do, it will have been well worth the wait.