Jandek Affiliate Heather Leigh Brings Appalachian Soul and Pedal Steel Guitar to Improvised Noise

The West Virginia-born and currently Scotland-based musician talks about introducing her grandma to noise, and her time spent touring with avant-rock legend Jandek.

Dec 14 2015, 7:40pm

Photo by Tine Bek

West Virginia-born, Texas-raised and currently Glasgow, Scotland-based musician Heather Leigh Murray has been operating on the fringes of the underground since the 1990s. She and writer David Keenan ran legendary UK record store Volcanic Tongue, and she's been a member of psychedelic noise band Charalambides, and teamed up with that group's Christina Carter in the duo Scorces; she's toured Northern Ireland and Australia as legendary avant-rock recluse Jandek's bassist – it was his first-ever tour, after decades of self-released albums emerging out of total anonymity and obscurity. She's also played with free jazz legend Peter Brötzmann, Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, Wolf Eyes' John Olson, and many, many more. As a visual artist, she served as graphic designer for legendary composer Pauline Oliveros's foundation in Houston, and has created artwork for numerous album covers.

Her primary instrument is the pedal steel guitar. With no formal training, she can make it sound like anything from wind through telephone wires to a crying baby to the world being immolated in nuclear fire. Since 2002, she's released a string of limited run CD-Rs, LPs and cassettes on various tiny labels, including Volcanic Tongue and her own Wish Image imprint. Her latest release, though, is a major leap forward in every way. It's called I Abused Animal, it's out now on Sunn O))) guitarist Stephen O'Malley's Ideologic Organ label, and it doesn't sound like anything she's done before.

On I Abused Animal, Murray (as Heather Leigh) sings primitivist, folk-based songs with nothing but the pedal steel as backdrop – and sometimes not even that; the opening title track is a stark a cappella lament, full of anguish straight from the West Virginia hills. At the other end of the spectrum is the apocalyptic "All That Heaven Allows," on which the pedal steel becomes a distorted, amp-frying roar. But throughout it all, she embraces song form like never before.

In the middle of a hurricane-strength rainstorm, she spoke to Noisey from Glasgow about I Abused Animal, Jandek, and what her grandma thinks about her music.

Noisey: What initially drew you to the pedal steel guitar? Who did you learn from?
Heather Leigh: Well, prior to playing the pedal steel guitar, I had a few different projects…I played a lot of different instruments—bells, synths, a bit of guitar, singing, that sort of thing. I had some handmade instruments like a bowed psaltery and a hammered dulcimer and a regular dulcimer, but I wasn't really attached to any one instrument. Then when I started playing with Charalambides, and with Scorces, my duo with Christina Carter, I started playing regular guitar but using a slide. And Christina and I were playing a concert as Scorces at a place in Houston, and Susan Alcorn was in the audience. I don't know if you're familiar with her work, but she's a really incredible pedal steel player and after the concert she said, "You know, you should really try pedal steel guitar, because what you're doing on the regular guitar with the slide is something that you could really take further on the pedal steel." And she was so into what I did at the performance that she was just like, "I want to give you a pedal steel." So she did! I developed my own tuning with it, and my approach has always been very untutored. I fell in love with it right away, and it's an instrument that I feel, for me, is a real extension of myself. You can really go into such vast regions of sound – extreme highs and lows, harmonics, textures, it has a vocal quality so when I sing with it I can really sort of meld with the instrument – and it is a constant source of discovery for me as well. You can never master it. I wouldn't want to. The possibilities are so endless.

What kind of amplifiers, pedals, and other effects do you use?
My setup is kind of basic, actually. I use a volume pedal, I use an analog delay pedal, I use a fuzz, and a Boss Blues Driver that really helps add a tactile quality to the fuzz and delay. Occasionally I'll use a wah-wah, but I would say the setup I've had for quite a while is those pedals. I usually play through a Fender Twin or a Fender Deluxe, and I really like the Wem Dominator amp as well. It has a really sleazy sound. I toured New Zealand a few years ago, and I have to say the pedal steel through the variety of boutique, homemade, strange amps that are only in New Zealand…I would like to import one of those one day, if I could. They're amazing.

The album is out now on Ideologic Organ—how long have you known Stephen O'Malley, and how did that release come together?
I didn't have a specific label in mind when I went in to record it, but when I finished it, I thought Stephen just seemed like the obvious person to ask. Mego and Ideologic Organ – I knew they would present it well, and I knew Stephen would just inherently understand it. So I wrote him and I said, Listen, I've just Dropboxed you this album that I just finished recording, and literally within a few hours he wrote me back, saying, "I've listened to it like 50 times, I love it, let me just check in with Peter [Rehberg, Mego owner] and send it to him; I'll get back in touch soon." And then a few hours after that, he was like, "Okay, Peter's heard it, he loves it, here's your catalog number." It happened in less than 10 hours; they both got behind it really strongly, really quickly. And that's an honor. I have an absolute respect for those guys – for the label, for the aesthetic, for the work they put in, and for their complete dedication to what they do. For them to be so into the record, and for it to be such an easy process, is a real pleasure, and I'm really happy to be on the label and working with them.

You have quite a few releases, but it seems like this one is getting more attention. Do you think it serves as a good introduction to your work?
I would say yes; in fact, this is the work I would say I want people to hear first. I've always played with a very freely improvised approach, but one that I'd call spontaneous composition. Song forms always emerge, and are there, and I go with them. The difference with I Abused Animal was, this was a big change in my work and my practice of actually working on writing songs. I really took a few years to teach myself how to write song. I played these songs live for a few years as well, to let them sort of come alive and change and morph…I really worked hard to become a songwriter, essentially, and to somehow meld that with my spontaneous approach in a way where I would feel like I wasn't betraying spontaneity, and wasn't locking myself into a form. I really tried to allow the songs to breathe and be alive. When I play them live, of course, they're never the same twice, but I really try to allow that space for them to go wherever they go, while still keeping the strong song form there.

You're originally from the American South, but now you live in Scotland; to what degree do you think your music comes out of Appalachian folk, and how do you combine that with the folk traditions of the British Isles?
I'm from West Virginia originally. Born in West Virginia, but grew up in Texas, and spent a lot of my summers in West Virginia. It's quite funny, because every year I go to see my family in Houston, and we were having a bit of a Christmas party that my family has every year, and this was the same year that, earlier in the year, I had played with Jandek for the first time in Glasgow in 2005. And he came to this Christmas party, and he had the DVD there of the concert, and said to my family, "I have this DVD," and they put it on at the party. And I was just amazed, thinking, This is too surreal, we're sitting here watching me performing with Jandek at this Christmas party. But I'll always remember that my grandmother from West Virginia was really into it. And she said to me, "Oh, you know where you get that?" My great-great-grandmother was Cherokee, so I have a lot of Native American blood in my family. And my grandmother said two things, she said, "That's your Native American and your Appalachian [sides] right there." And so it was really interesting to me; she's not a musician or anything herself, but is someone who grew up in West Virginia, that's really steeped in the culture there. She heard her homeland in the music.

You've performed quite a bit with Jandek— he usually uses one-off backing bands, but you actually toured with him in Northern Ireland and in Australia, so how did the music evolve over the course of a string of shows? What kind of creative partner is he—communicative, or intuitive?
Well, Jandek and I first played together in 2005, and that was a group with me on pedal steel and vocals, Alan Licht on guitar, and Sterling [Smith, aka Jandek] on drums. His directions for me then were, he wanted the guitar and he wanted me to do what he termed vocalese, you know, wordless vocals, essentially, which is something I have done a lot of. So that was great, and we kept in touch, and I saw him in Texas quite a bit, and we started playing in a trio with David Keenan on drums and me on bass and Sterling on guitar and vocal, and sometimes just guitar. I liked that he asked me to play bass, 'cause I don't play bass, but rhythm is very important to me in my playing. It was also a friendship, so there was a lot of discussion outside of the music that then went into the music – it was a strong friendship and a strong musical partnership. So I would say in Northern Ireland, it was a strange kind of non-music, in a way. And then we toured Australia, and we did very full-on, extended concerts in Australia, really quite intense and full-on rock, and really locked into each other. I really considered that a group, a band, and we never consciously referenced—of course it's Jandek, we're all aware of that—but we never referenced his work prior to us playing together. We definitely had a sound, and an understanding, in that group, I would say.

One last question: A lot of musicians lately have been having problems with airlines damaging their instruments. Is it difficult to travel with the pedal steel?
I had a flight case specially made for my pedal steel in Texas, so I can travel safely with it. I do need to have something new built, though, because now my case and steel all together weigh more than the allowed 32 kilo limit. It's always a struggle traveling with it, it's so big and bulky, but it keeps me strong!

Phil Freeman is improvising on Twitter.