Local folk-rock duo Folkstar—made up of Sue Cag (electric guitar, acoustic guitar, bass, drums, keyboard) and Kim Dicso (vocals, acoustic guitar, piano, trumpet)—released their third album, “Treelines and Skylines,” in late 2015. There’s a clear connection to nature on their latest work. Not only evident in their songwriting, the album art shows an ancient tree and forest on the left contrasts with dull gray skyscrapers on the right. Cag created the painting specifically for the record as an exploration on the dichotomy of nature versus human fabrication.
“We’re living under the illusion of power, and we fill our lives with distraction and discontent,” she explains. “We’ve created a separation between us and ‘nature’ where no such disconnect actually exists.”
Cag and Dicso will perform for the first time together in Wilmington since the release of “Treelines and Skylines” at Fermental on March 12. The duo never had an official album-release party, so this will act as a debut of sorts. They will perform the album in its entirety, starting from the last song to the first.
“We’ll also have copies of the fancy physical CD for sale, as well as 11-inch-by-17-inch art prints of Sue’s original cover painting,” Dicso adds.
encore spoke with the two talents about their journey creating the latest album and its concepts.
encore (e): Where did the nature theme start?
Sue Cag (SC): In our travels we felt completely connected and alive when exploring old forests. When we returned [to Wilmington,] we became even more aware of the destruction of our human ways.
e: Is “Song for Joyce Kilmer” about the writer and poet?
Kim Dicso (KD): Yes, the spark for “Song for Joyce Kilmer” was Kilmer’s famous poem, “Trees,” which many of us learned in grade school. One day a variation of the first line of the poem just popped into my head “You used to think that you’d never see a poem as lovely as me.” As I repeated it aloud, a melody sprung. I thought, Well, that’s interesting. I think I’m writing a song from the perspective of a tree.
As literary buffs (we both have English degrees), it’s not uncommon for a familiar passage or idea from a book to come to mind when writing. In this case it became sort of an homage to the childhood experience of trees being these wonderful majestic beings, only to grow up and find ourselves disregarding them or cutting them down. In that vein, this song is also very reminiscent of “The Giving Tree” by Shel Silverstein.
SC: (Spoiler alert!) In the end the tree is cut down. In our travels we bear witness to huge swaths of clear cuts. We know most of our ancient trees are long gone, especially the huge trees out west. Right here at home (despite lamenting that almost all of our big trees were cut long ago), we still cut any old(ish) trees—as evidenced by the recent cutting of the “Sonic Oak,” another live oak down Kerr Avenue, and the plans to destroy all the oaks at the corner of Market Street and Middle Sound Loop Road. These are trees that got in the way: “My friends all got taken, but I managed to stay, until I got in the way.”
We should be surrounded by huge 100- to 1,000-year-old trees rather than cutting them down or sequestering the very few we decide to leave standing to a “tree museum.” One such place is a small virgin forest dedicated to Joyce Kilmer, which you can find in western NC. It’s the most beautiful forest in the east.
e: Who writes the songs and instrumentals? Is it collaborative?
SC: We’re both prolific songwriters, and we split lyrics evenly between us. We write in various ways, but most of the time we’ll write lyrics independently, then Kim will create the melody (she’s a genius with melodies), and hand it back to me to write the musical accompaniment (guitar, bass, drums, etc). There is one instrumental on “Treelines and Skylines”—“Ancient Forest”—which I created exclusively on guitar.
e: What are a few more songs that stand on this album?
KD: Tree songs aside, “We’ve Got Time” describes the exhilarating and sometimes nerve-racking experience of traveling the country, sleeping on a bed nestled in the back of a mini-van. We stopped to sleep for the night wherever we could, which often included truck stops. Sometimes we would forget where we were and sleep soundly; sometimes we would be kept awake by the rumblings of 18-wheelers and RVs. A few times we’d take one look at a truck stop and just keep driving. No matter what, however, we had each other. With no set itinerary, we went where our intuition led us, and we experienced an incredible adventure together.
SC: A lot of people also talk to us about “Who Am I?” This song is a very personal story about my father, as well as a strong commentary on our medical culture. It’s a result of my time spent in hospitals after my father’s heart surgery caused strokes. I constantly replay the conversation I had with my father about his medical wishes and think about what I would want for myself. I think a lot about how our medical culture keeps people “alive” no matter what, without a clear understanding of what that means.
e: How long has the record been in the making and what was the process producing it?
SC: The album took a year to create. The themes came together organically, inspired by our travels out west and what was happening in our lives. We went into the process with a handful of established songs and wrote the rest during recording. It was a mountain of work creating the recordings exactly how we wanted them. Unlike live performance, recording puts everything under a microscope. This time around we split production decisions, which worked well. I mixed the album in collaboration with Kim and our favorite local engineer, Karen Kane.
KD: We wanted the album to be called “Treelines and Skylines” before the songs were even written. We were on the same page thematically from the beginning. Our experience traveling on and off for the past couple years provided a natural framework.
e: Where does the album fall in terms of personal and professional growth with the band and music?
SC: Everyone who has listened to all three of our albums has said we’ve grown on this album. We released our first album, “Emotional Bootcamp,” quickly and used songs Kim had previously written. I wrote most of the lyrics on our second, “Loud and Clear,” and it was a huge 16-track opus exploring all of our influences, especially rock. This album is a more even representation of both of our work. It shows growth musically and lyrically.
KD: We really hit our stride as a duo and found our voice. I think we found the sweet spot between folk and rock. I’ve always wanted to add a little extra something to my singer/songwriter stuff but wasn’t really successful until now. Before Folkstar I had been doing mostly solo work for years with some collaborations on the side. Personally, this album was a shift. I still play solo shows, but I no longer consider myself a solo artist.
e: What were some lessons learned?
SC: I certainly learned more than I wanted to know about instrument maintenance. I ran into issues, such as intonation problems, which I had to work through to get the recordings right. I also perfected my mixing skills.
KD: I learned there is a fine line between making something polished and making ourselves crazy. Doing the recording ourselves allowed us freedom to pop into the studio as often and for as long as we wanted, but it also meant nobody there to save us from ourselves when we should have just stepped away instead of doing five more takes that sound exactly the same.
e: Are you already thinking about the next project?
KD: We are always thinking about the next project! We are typical artists in the sense that we get twitchy if we aren’t working on something. We’ve both already started writing new songs but are not planning to put out anything new soon. We really want to let this album breathe and grow and be heard by people who are going to relate to it. Right now we are focusing on ways to do that and are planning more performances in the next few months.
SC: We’re also going to release videos in support of the album. Right now I am compiling footage we filmed last fall in the giant Sequoias to make the video for “Into the Trees.” I won’t give too much away, but there is a choreographed dance we perform while dressed as woodland creatures. It’s as strange and hilarious as it sounds. Doing the cover art inspired me to make a series of similarly inspired paintings and I’m working on those now as well.
Aside from playing Fermental, Folkstar has upcoming performances at Unitarian Universalist with Roy Zimmerman on March 31 and the Carolina Pines Music Festival on May 29. Visit www.Folkstar.net.