Ask a group of outdoorsmen about hiking with an iPod (as Blue Ridge Outdoors magazine recently did), and you'll get a host of opinions. About half will snub any notion of bringing any additional sound into what nature provides. Others will say you should listen, but listen quietly, to something rootsy and real, like bluegrass or Joni Mitchell. Rap or electronic music would just overpower the serenity of one's surroundings.
But what if the electronic music sounded like a swim through a waterfall or a trek across a desert mountain?
Maybe it's our movie-soundtrack-infused minds that creates the illusion, but Emancipator's 2010 release, Safe in the Steep Cliffs, sounds a whole lot like a hike in the forest. At the very least, it's a mountain bike ride.
"I haven't yet found a way to set up a studio in the woods," says Douglas Appling, the 23-year-old producer who adopted the Emancipator moniker for his 2006 debut, Soon It Will Be Cold Enough. "I grew up in the woods of Virginia. I draw a lot of inspiration from being out in nature and hiking."
Appling's first release was largely recorded in his dorm room at the College of William and Mary, where he studied psychology. An improvised session with singer Thao Nguyen (of San Fran folk/pop group Thao with the Get Down Stay Down) before class one day led to the track "When I Go," a staggeringly beautiful progression of synthesizers, beats, and Nguyen's abstract, earthy vocalizations.
After graduation, Appling relocated to Portland, Ore., where he attracted the respectful attention of everyone from STS9 to the late Japanese super-producer Nujabes. He arrives in Charleston fresh off appearances with the Album Leaf and Bonobo at the Mayan Holidaze festival in Mexico. It's his third time to town and second to the Pour House.
On this tour, Emancipator consists of Appling and violinist Ilya Goldberg, who performs the album's hauntingly beautiful bowed string sections while the producer cues beats and synths. Appling is himself a classically trained violinist, but he says he's most proficient on guitar and drums. He plays guitar at shows, and the albums include his work on banjo, mandolin, and keyboards. Translating all of that into a live show was a careful process.
"I had to brainstorm and wrap my head around it, deciding which parts I wanted to retain and keep original, and which parts I wanted to control live or play on an instrument," says Appling.
One day, Appling says he'd like to record an album on a mountaintop. If he ever does, it'll be hard to debate the value of listening to it there.