Rachel Sumner & Traveling Light make music steeped in tradition, with modern, lyric-forward songs and snaking chord progressions; their version of Joanna Newsom’s “Colleen” is no exception. Noted for its commentary on identity and feminism, the mystical folk ballad has earned a fandom of its own, with examinations of its fascinating lyrics throughout the far corners of the internet.
“This story of a woman who feels like (and may actually be) a fish out of water beautifully illustrates the way our society has forced women into restrictive roles and works to homogenize anyone who might try and stray from the script,” Sumner says. “Brilliantly, the name bestowed on this woman by the folks who find her washed up on shore is Colleen, which comes from the Gaelic word 'cailín' which simply means 'girl.' It’s an incredible, magical story of self-discovery.”
“You can tell each lyrical, musical, and structural choice made is done with painstaking attention,” she continues. “Joanna Newsom’s songs are airtight; I really admire that and strive to be just as intentional with my own.”
The nine tracks on Rachel Sumner & Traveling Light (Aug. 5) find the band reimagining songs of others – “Colleen” and a “lost” Johnny Cash entry among them, along with Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings’ “Strangers Again” – while also presenting originals nearly a decade in the making. Throughout, the songs are as sweet and biting as the nectar and venom in Sumner’s voice, while simultaneously highlighting the acrobatic range of her brilliant bandmates Kat Wallace (fiddle/harmonies), Ira Klein (acoustic guitar), Alex Formento (pedal steel) and Mike Siegel (upright bass).
“There’s a thread through the songs in this Traveling Light album of people feeling other or finding they’ve transformed into strangers, whether it’s to someone they were once close to, or to themselves,” Sumner says.
The album begins with “Hunting Doves,” which took Sumner nearly seven years to write. The track originally lived as two separate melodies for two separate songs, but eventually morphed into what it would become after nearly two handfuls of versions; the imagery and melody is based loosely on English ballads and the structure of the song was provided by some of the final words of “Finnegan’s Wake.”
“Easton,” originally written for Sumner’s bluegrass band, Twisted Pine, marked a turning point for Traveling Light, signaling the magical moment when the group realized how like-minded they were when it came to interpreting songs together. “If You Love Me” offers their take on a “forgotten” Johnny Cash poem, written in 1983 yet resonant today: “The fluctuating worth of this very terminal earth/And the satellite that glows at night above me/Won’t bear upon my mind, but concerning humankind/I won’t care if you’re there and if you love me.”
“Come Along, Rowan” is a banjo tune originally coined to coax a friend’s baby to join the family – his mother did, indeed, go into labor after listening to the voice memo. “The Arms of Your Mother” was a product of a songwriting workshop in which the provided prompt was the word cradle.
“I had this image of my mom holding my toddler self at bedtime while reading ‘Love You Forever’ by Robert Munsch, and I began to cry,” Sumner says. “It has become a very sweet, emotional moment in my live shows and the stories I hear from the people who come up to talk to me afterward have been so vulnerable and heartwarming.”
Sumner is, in fact, no stranger to the stage. She spent her early career on the bluegrass circuit, singing and writing with the genre-bending Boston group Twisted Pine. Since setting out on her own, Sumner's songs have been critically acclaimed, winning the Lennon Award in the folk category of the 2021 John Lennon Songwriting Contest for her song "Radium Girls (Curie Eleison);" earning her a spot in the Kerrville New Folk Competition, and being chosen two consecutive years by WBUR/NPR as one of the top Massachusetts entries in the Tiny Desk Competition.
Originally a classical flutist from the dusty Mojave desert, Sumner relocated from California to Boston a decade ago intending to study Composition and Film Scoring at Berklee College of Music. While at school, she found herself in the orbit of roots musicians like Molly Tuttle, Bronwyn Keith-Hynes, and John Mailander who introduced her to a trove of traditional music, started her off with a few chords on the guitar, and encouraged her to write her own songs. In the short time since, Sumner has become one of the most vital voices in Boston's thriving roots music scene.
Rachel Sumner & Traveling Light Track Listing:
If You Love Me
Come Along, Rowan
The Arms of Your Mother