The music Hunter Park has made under the She Returns from War moniker has, until recently, been a mostly spartan folk affair. A charismatic performer with a penchant for poetic, knee-buckling lyrics, she became one of the most celebrated up-and-comers in the South Carolina music scene with little more than an acoustic guitar and an aching voice.
While her 2015 effort Oh, What a Love hinted at a broader, more atmospheric sound, She Returns from War's new album Mirrored Moon Dance Hall entirely abandons the bare bones live sound for a suite of eclectic and electric arrangements dreamed up with Charleston producer extraordinaire Wolfgang Zimmerman.
"We started working on the second record pretty much right after the first one was done," Park says. "I knew I wanted to work with Wolfgang, and the idea was to take our time and really get the whole community involved. The number of incredible musicians that are on this record blows my mind."
The new guest player approach is felt from the opening moments of "Psychic Voyage," as the Mobros' Kelly Morris tears into the acoustic guitar intro with a righteous blues thud and dazzling solo that gives lines like "First Assembly of God/ I woke up early just to wash it off" an added menace. Elsewhere, Tyler Morris of ET Anderson brings his own idiosyncratic stylings to tracks like "Swamp Witch" and "Dream Machine," giving each tune a push away from pure Americana toward something a little more jangly and strange. They are joined by the likes of Susto's Corey Campbell and Jenna Desmond, Caryn Egan (Mike Martin & the Beautiful Mess), Christian Chidester (Brave Baby), Jordan Igoe, Grace Joyner, and Clay Houle (The Artisanals), among others, sprinkled throughout the credits.
But it's Zimmerman whose fingerprints are all over the album, from the wash of strings on "Athena" that brings some '60s pop grandeur to one of Park's signature inventive melodies to the Cranberries-esque dreaminess of the closing "Quitting Smoking." The album can often feel like a careful spin through a Rolodex of Charleston musicians and sounds to achieve their expansive vision.
"Every time I brought in a song to a studio session, I was open completely to the idea that whatever happens, happens," Park says of the recording sessions. "Sometimes we would have to backtrack a little bit, but we'd never really had to rerecord anything because I just wanted to naturally let the song breathe on its own."
She "trusted the process" of working with Zimmerman, confident with the end results even if it felt rocky in the moment.
"Wolfgang taught me a lot about keeping a way more open mind," she says now. "I thought I was an open-minded musician, you know? But the most wonderful thing about Wolfgang is that he is so genuine and he teaches people a lot about not only being open-minded but being expansive of mind and trusting the soul in the process of what music is about.
"It's been a hard three years for me," Park continues. "I've gone through a lot of changes, and personal life stuff has been hard. But it's amazing how he can turn something like recording into a healing thing."
An example of their relationship she points to, somewhat ironically, is the most unadorned track on the album, the live favorite "Thieves."
"We did have an arrangement, and I can't remember who played on it, but the [actual take] was recorded on the day of the eclipse," Park explains. "Ryan and I had studio time, so we went and watched the eclipse at the Royal American and then went to the studio. We set up the microphone and acoustic guitar and that was it, just this magical experience."
The song, which often closes out She Returns from War shows, is a song about the weight of living, with a big chorus that often devolves into a near-shout live. The recording, though, taps into something else, feeling more like an empty room a la Ryan Adams' Heartbreaker rather than a rock club.
"Thieves" aside, the range of the new material has Park playing more electric guitar live with an expanded lineup, at least for now.
"I want to always keep expanding on this idea of the cosmic [Americana] thing," she concludes. "I want to keep building and changing my sound. So it's just one of those things where it was like, 'Yeah, sure, this record can be like a rocker.' I just wanted to see like what I can do. I like changing it up all the time."