Hunter Park, the leader (and sometimes only) member of She Returns from War, likes to call her music "abandoned house folk." It's a good way for the Charleston singer-songwriter to get at what makes her songs tick, as the ghostly emotional residue of the past is never far from her mind.
"I think we're all constantly haunted by our own thoughts, and they kind of create a big universe inside our heads," she says haltingly. Then she laughs. "That probably makes no sense."
What she means becomes clear when you explore her songs, something which will become much easier when She Returns from War releases their debut full-length Oh, What a Love via Columbia label 10 Foot Woody Records this Tuesday.
Park's subject matter, as the title indicates, is usually romantic love, but almost always with a poetic, non-linear approach that wanders through scenes and metaphors in an attempt to create an emotional landscape rather than simply tell a story.
"Oh, what a love we have found/ in decomposing houses in the steam that rose from the cups we were drinking from," she sings on the title track. Elsewhere, like on "Connector," vague and cryptic phrases work through the mysteries of love, as Park laments, "This aching pain that we all share/ of who we are and what goes where."
"I'm sure in time we'll come to know/ of why we're here and where we go," she concludes.
That she sings these lyrics in her high, reedy voice that swoops and leans into each lyric with a distraught conviction makes them all the more poignant.
"I think, especially in live performance, it's really therapeutic for me to sing these songs and kind of meet people in the middle," Park says. "I always like for people to have a personal time at my shows. I really do like having connections with people, so I write music that I hope some people can relate to."
"Sometimes the songs aren't palatable for everyday listening-in-your-car-type stuff," she continues. "Sometimes they are, but sometimes you need to spend time alone with a song and you need to know that other people are feeling similar things, whether it's a good thing or bad thing. The vulnerability [of my songs] is my way of asking people to join me. I know that I don't want to be alone or scared."
While She Returns to War tends toward a fairly bare-bones sound live, usually just featuring core members Jesse Ledford (guitar and vocals) and Charlie King (drums), Oh, What a Love also presents a far more fleshed out and fully realized sound for the group. Produced by Don Dixon, whose credits include the likes of REM and the Smithereens, Park's acoustic guitar and vocals are still in the foreground, but reverb-laden guitars, keyboards, and other effects have been added to the mix for a true "cosmic" Americana sound.
"I wanted to make it a little more atmospheric on this album — not so cut-and-dry folk music — so we kind of wanted to juice it up," Park explains. "We had some interesting techniques to that. I remember at one point Don used a vacuum tube and started blowing into it. That was really interesting. Johnny Delaware came in and fleshed out some of the ethereal guitar sounds and distortion stuff, too."
The net effect of all of these additions is a sound that provides an extra sonic heft to the haunting nature of Park's lyrics. The production reaches its peak on "Little Pharaoh," a tune which previously existed as a quiet, lo-fi acoustic ballad on the group's EP Coyote Soda. Here, the central guitar line mostly remains but is augmented by a kitchen sink of effects that plays up the dream-like quality of Park's declaration of love.
In the end, though, there's a beautifully haphazard quality to the way Park approaches the emotional contours she explores in her songs, something she seems to actively strive for.
"I kind of get in trouble when I don't have a general theme," Park adds. "But I think the general underlining theme is 'I'm a human,' and I'm curious about making a unique-sounding song. Sometimes it just gets a little messy."