INTERVIEW // Sun Riah

Post by Misha

Sun Riah is a an experimental folk harpist with a gift for creating interconnectedness from sparsity. Her new album, Sitting With Sounds And Listening For Ghosts (available now via Keeled Scales) is a beguiling meditation on home, loss, and identity.

Listening, I heard resonances from my own childhood in rural Washington state, growing up among all the complexities that come from three generations of family living along the same dirt road. The album wrestles with questions that have been central to my own growth, and I was excited to have the opportunity to talk to Sun Riah about the new album, music + environmental justice work, and how playing the harp is like dancing.

 

Can you talk a little about the exploration of place, family, rootedness, and loss that led you to create this album?

I spent a great deal of my childhood in cars, driving back and forth between my grandma and papa’s and my dad’s and my mom’s. So having a space that was constant meant a great deal to me; however, even though my grandma lived in the same house in the same town for the entirety of her life, in ways she was still homesick for places that she never knew.

My personal exploration of these things includes my music, but also a great deal of research and reading about Oklahoma history, land, and place. Oklahoma, like the entirety of the United States, is a place of great trauma with a history of unimaginable violence enacted against indigenous peoples, communities of color, and labor organizers. I’ve been reading Rilla Askew’s new book, [Most American: Notes from a Wounded Place] and I’d like to answer part of this question with a quote:

“There are voices in the earth here, telling truth in old stories …One story they tell is about longing, for this is a place of homesickness. The land has become home now, and so the very core of this land is sorrow. You can hear it longing for the old dream of itself. Like this continent. This country. Oklahoma. The very sound of it is home.” 

What does music bring to this exploration, as a medium?

I think an advantage of exploring questions of place, family, rootedness, and loss through music is that music is received in a variety of ways by different people. While a song might mean something very specific to me, there are layers of storytelling and multiple ways to interpret and experience music. It can feel and become as personal to the listener as it is to the creator, and I think that is a really powerful exchange. I’m still listening to the songs and learning new things about them, even though I wrote them. I’m learning things about myself, finding patterns that weren’t intentional but hold deep meaning for me.

You also do work in environmental justice. Do you see lessons in this album that could be expanded to a more macro level awareness around environmental issues?

This work is very much connected to environmental justice for me in that it attempts to provide a space to meditate on our connectedness and our influence on changing places and landscapes. I think too, for me, shame is an important theme in the album. What did we do to get here, and how do we move forward? Sitting with these questions is something that the album attempts to do at a very personal level. I think these questions – questions connected to history, connectedness, and action, are applicable more broadly to multiple struggles of social justice.

 

To care about social justice in Oklahoma is to care about environmental justice.

 

Why is environmental justice such an important cause for you? 

I think it’s important to start with my grandfather, my pa-pa. He taught me to respect nature as a partner, a collaborator, a relative. He, my grandmother, and my grandmother’s home taught me a pretty intense respect for and appreciation of living things, and I think my connection to environmental justice work begins with the lessons that I learned as a child about the ways that we as humans are connected to our environments.

All of that being said, I’m from Oklahoma, and living here and being concerned about issues of social justice, it is impossible to avoid the relationship between issues of environmental degradation and disparity. Oklahoma was largely opened for settlement because of the desire to transport and exploit mineral resources. Oklahoma is known as an oil and gas state. Cushing, OK is called the “Pipeline Crossroads of the World” because almost all pipelines in the U.S. cross through there. Pipeline spills, leaks, and pollution are regular occurrences in Oklahoma, not to mention human-made earthquakes.

Living in Oklahoma City, environmental racism and injustice are overwhelming. On the north side, where mostly wealthy white folks live, pumpjacks are rare and barricaded off with large fences when present. On the east side, a historically African-American neighborhood, there are active wells with little or no barriers within feet of homes, preschools. There are pumpjacks and small tank farms next door to schools and parks. The connections among environment, industry, and social disparity are glaringly obvious if you live here. Industrial development disproportionately burdens communities of color, low-income communities, and rural communities. To care about social justice in Oklahoma is to care about environmental justice.

What are the major EJ challenges you see in the future and how can the arts community be part of the fight?

Obviously, there are lots of EJ challenges that we currently face and those challenges vary depending on place. However, I think that underlying all of these challenges is the struggle to organize and decolonize/indigenize. We must work to reshape the way that we relate to the environment, center indigenous voices, acknowledge and heal from historical trauma, and adopt a viewpoint that honors and values life, rather than viewing nature and living things as commodities.

I think the arts can be particularly powerful in this reshaping of our relationships to places and people. Art can help us heal, rage, and confront our feelings, but also, art can provide space to appreciate, reflect, and sit with our relationships to places and people.

 

Playing the harp is kind of like dancing.

 

Talk a little bit about the harp. What draws you to this instrument, especially as a non-classical artist? 

The harp is magic. You hug it when you play it, the vibrations hit your whole body, and one of the ways that you most commonly produce sound is with your fingertips, one of the most sensitive parts of the body. Playing the harp is kind of like dancing.

What’s next?

I’ll hopefully be playing more shows on the west coast in the coming months, but dates are not confirmed yet. I’m excited to take some time to write and chill with my cats and dog for a bit actually, but I’ll still be playing shows and traveling around some.

Do you have a favorite song from the album?

My favorite song currently is “Our Garden.” I’m really connected to this song currently because of its personal significance to me, and its ability to transcend my own experience. Even though I wrote it, I feel like I’m still learning new things from the song as I listen to it.


Buy Sitting With Sounds And Listening For Ghosts here.

 

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