photo: Dan Hartigan for Starling Arrow
Back in April 2020, the global pandemic was wreaking havoc on just about everybody’s lives, especially working musicians. With people unable to safely gather in groups or in public, live performances and touring schedules swiftly ground to a halt. The unprecedented pause slowly trudged along with no clear end in sight, leaving countless canceled concerts in its wake. Artists were left reeling and confused, with uncertain futures and quite a bit of time on their hands.
During the early stages of the shutdown, five women began meeting together on a weekly basis, commiserating by way of virtual video technology. Tina Malia, Marya Stark, Ayla Nereo, and Rising Appalachia sisters Leah Song and Chloe Smith—songstresses long affiliated through conscious communities and the sounds from within—converged rather cosmically, seeking to root down through dialog, to learn, share, and sing through the struggle.
Every week, these sirens would turn off the world, tune in to one another, and enjoy a spirited free exchange of ideas. At the conclusion of each meeting, they would select a new topic and/or songwriting style to further inspire. After seven days, Nereo, Malia, Stark, Smith, and Song dutifully returned to their digital coven, each sharing something newly conceived.
Week after week, rinse and repeat.
Imagining they were seated together “in the round,” taking turns unveiling melodies, lyrics, and stitches of song, one singer presented to the group and then passed it onto the next. It was, in essence, a “songwriting accountability squad.” Some weeks were spent expounding on the latest vibrant vamps; others dug deep into personal treasure chests of still unfinished expressions, seeking to unearth a long-dormant passage to be polished anew by four sets of fresh ears and voices.
This crucible initially convened in response to apocalyptic developments outside their doors. Through geographic miles of separation and the cacophony of societal divisions, the musicians began to alchemize the chaos of the ever-mutating world around them, then sow the seeds of love and understanding into their prolific songwriting. Later came a topical about-face, with a decided leaning into gentler themes. The serene ditties that followed blossomed into lovers’ folk, and lilac lullabies.
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Well established in their own individual careers from the outset, Malia, Stark, Nereo, Smith, and Song invested in this intimate process solely for themselves and one another. There were no real plans for recording or performing, nor any intentions to become a proper band. However, the regular conclave proved to be fruitful and rewarding as more and more songs flowed from their weekly meetings.
When Chloe Smith made a trek to the West Coast in May 2021, the women casually gathered in person in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, ostensibly to record a few things for a mythical “time capsule.” The results of these nascent recordings resonated deeply among them. The weekly meetups continued, and six months later, they converged for a week-long recording retreat in the Appalachian mountains. All five women were tasked with preparing two original songs each for inclusion.
Fortunately, Tina Malia is well trained as a producer and recording engineer. In the studio, she took the helm and flowed into both roles with relative ease. This allowed the other four writers to focus completely on their songcraft, trying various harmonic combinations and tracking their individual parts. These November sessions created the perfect environment for the group to patiently flesh out musical concepts without the pressure of a record label deadline. For visual accompaniments to this music, they swiftly assembled a creative team and gathered a final time in the Appalachian Mountains in the summer of 2022 for marathon photo/video shoots.
Starling Arrow – “Fly Away”
Indeed, this is spiritual music truly meant for the masses—a medicinal balm for the magnitude of the moment. This realization inspired a shift in direction and intention within the group. They were going to have to share these songs of folk devotion with the world.
The group discussed assorted avenues through which to release its music via previously established channels, but the limitations of streaming services prevented them from finding an equitable way to do so. Eventually, they decided on a fresh start, a new dawn, a new day.
A marathon WhatsApp thread followed as they brainstormed a band name. The singers sought something that felt like a poem, subtly reflecting the journey they’d shared. They eventually settled on Starling Arrow.
Starling Arrow – “Into The River”
As the group learned more about the starling, the moniker felt apropos: The iridescent songbird is renowned for cooperating with other birds to weave marvelous murmuration patterns in the sky. Invoking the “arrow” is emblematic of both the warrior spirit and the purposeful aim the women possess.
Behold, Starling Arrow. The name is intended to evoke “the song sent with aim from the bow of the muse.”
For the name of their debut album, Starling Arrow chose “Cradle,” a sacred space for this nest of newborn songs. Gathering in the mountains, they used the idea of a collection of lullabies—an offering of nourishment, melodies for restoration, healing for the pandemic-weary soul.
Starling Arrow mines hymns from collaborative inspiration, instinctively directing the songs towards beauty sui generis—a gumbo of traditional folk, devotional, and contemporary styles. Ask the women what genre they’d consider the project, and you’ll hear everything from sentient indie-folk to an a cappella folk choir.
Starling Arrow – “Wild Sweet”
A patient, intentional rollout began in the fall of 2022, with each member unveiling a song by their own hand, leaving several weeks between each single to allow for maximum marination. Ayla Nereo leapt first with “Wild Sweet”, a serene number mined from the depths of her voluminous archives, born of a loop pedal and a New Year’s morning sunrise set at a festival many moons ago. Second single “Into The River”—an a cappella wonder—came to Chloe Smith as she sat by a running river, listening to the rhythm of the rocks in concert with the moving waters.
In addition to her duties working behind the mixing boards, Malia brought forth her wintery rumination “By the Jordan”, arriving right on time for the chilly months when families and friends so often commune and celebrate. Inspired by mystical osteology (study of the skeleton/bones) and a simpler time before the interwebs ruled the day, Marya Stark followed with “Fly Away”, a song that reaches toward the healing powers of ancestral magic. With sweeping harmonic interplay and a triumphant apex, Leah Song’s “Oh Darlin’” is a contemporary lullaby for today’s real world parent grasping for the serenity to serenade a child to rest.
Cradle delivers a dozen delectable tracks in total. Nearly half of the songs were recorded a cappella, with all five women in the same room together, singing celestial harmonies on individual microphones to manifest a magnificent sum far greater than its parts. The remainder of Cradle’s compositions feature sparse, delicate instrumentation: acoustic guitar, Fender Rhodes, banjo, bodhrán drum, charango, and slivers of fiddle. Imbibe the enchanting sounds of Starling Arrow’s debut album below.
Check out SongArcher: a 4-week online songwriter’s circle inspired/hosted by the women of Starling Arrow!
Starling Arrow – Cradle