Sarah Vos has heard the term "old soul" a lot. And indeed, for someone still in her '20s, the Dead Horses frontwoman sounds startlingly mature. Her high, clear, plaintive voice has echoes of Patty Griffin or Nanci Griffith, and over only two albums, she's displayed a mastery of acoustic folk and bluegrass with a dash of gospel emotion thrown in. And from a strictly biographical perspective, that mixture makes sense,
"I grew up in the church," Vos says. "I grew up singing in choirs. And a lot of how I learned to sing was from sitting in the pews at church and listening to my mom sing hymns. It was something we did every day. I went to parochial school, too, and singing hymns was just something that you did."
And in a sense, hymns are a form of folk music, songs that are passed on over the generations with subtle variations developing over time. Those songs instilled a love of folk in Vos, and she always felt a natural attraction to acoustic music. But that's just the bio; where does the sense of depth, the ability to channel a lifetime's worth of experiences through her voice, come from?
"There's an emphasis in my background on the eternal concept of time," she says. "That's certainly part of it. But I think it's also innate for me. Even now as my beliefs have evolved into my own and I've let go of a lot of the orthodox beliefs that were taught to me, I still find an appreciation for certain aspects of religion. It's part of who I am. It's in my DNA."
It was that questioning of those childhood beliefs that led to a real struggle in Vos' college years, to the extent that she left college in Milwaukee and headed home after what she calls "an internal crisis."
"Growing up is about picking and choosing what you want to keep of the things you grew up with, and the things you want to let go of," she says. "It was a big struggle for me. I ended up shutting down and letting go of a lot of things I'd been working really hard for."
It was in the midst of that struggle that Vos reconnected with some high school friends who were playing gigs around town, and it was through those friends that she met her primary collaborator in Dead Horses, upright bassist Daniel Wolff. Wolff started out as a punk rock drummer in Oshkosh, but he switched to bass so that he and Vos could take part in the town's newly thriving bluegrass scene.
Vos immediately felt a musical connection with Wolff. "I just have an enormous appreciation for the relationship we have together, and for who he is as a human being," she says. "He's a really special guy, and we've played so much music together. In the first couple of years it was for $50 and free beer, but we played as much as we could, and we've never really stopped. We'd be happy playing almost anything."
There's a lot of bluegrass in Dead Horses' debut, 2014's Space & Time. The songs are full of double-time tempos, sparkling guitar and mandolin breaks, and that reliable one-two bass thump. But on their follow-up, last year's Cartoon Moon, the duo, alongside producer Ken Coomer (former drummer for Uncle Tupelo and Wilco) on percussion, keyboards, and banjo, expanded their palette considerably. There's still a hint of bluegrass in the songs, but with Coomer's drums as a foundation, Vos' vocals have a new confidence, and her music abandons any specific genre to embrace a wider range of acoustic music.
And Wolff did some evolving as well, using a bow on his bass for a more mournful, resonant tone. "His bowing is very beautiful," Vos says. "The bow adds a lot of versatility and texture."
The album certainly benefitted from Coomer's skill behind the kit, but his skill behind the board helped as well. Rather than let the band focus on a specific style or genre, Vos says Coomer was all about the songs themselves. "Cartoon Moon was a big step away from the bluegrass we were trying to play before," she says. "It was a step forward. It was wonderful working with him, because he has so much experience gigging nonstop for years with Wilco and Uncle Tupelo, but he also has a ton of experience drumming in the studio. We're working with someone who understands what it's like to be a touring musician, which is really fun and has its difficulties."
In fact, Coomer advised Vos and Wolff against adding too much gloss or layering to the songs, because he knew the band was going to be playing them onstage in their more stripped-down format later. "He encouraged us to play more simply, and he wanted to cultivate something authentic," she says. "It's easy to go into the studio and do a lot of stuff that you can't do live. I love the authenticity. It has a live feel, because a lot of it was recorded live. It was pretty courageous of Ken to want to do it that way, but it made sense because we're much more gigging musicians than studio musicians, and he encouraged us to be that way. It was so great to collaborate with him."