interview by Michael McCarthy
Today we are pleased to exclusively premiere Ismay’s delightful and ethereal musings about very rare, glow in the dark stones that a friend once showed them. As they discuss in our interview below, they were a new type of stone, unlike anything they’d ever seen before. Suffice to say, they made such a strong impression on them that they wrote a song about the experience.
Before I say anything further, I should probably point out that Ismay is more like a band name. That band consists of Avery Hellman and friends. The friends sometimes change, Avery the only constant, but Avery doesn’t go by Ismay when referring to themselves alone. Thus, “The Stones” is a song by Ismay, but singer/songwriter and bandleader Avery Hellman is who we’ve interviewed. And if any of this sounds a bit confusing, it’s because we’re using them/they as pronouns to refer to Avery as they are non-binary, which they explain below.
“The Stones” is from Ismay’s forthcoming debut LP, Songs of Sonoma Mountain, which we are very much looking forward to next year, taken as we are by their blend of country, folk, and Americana. The mountain is one that Avery has lived by for most of their life and it has inspired them to write several songs, just as their recent EP, Songs from a River, was inspired by the Klamath River.
Rather than spend any more time telling you about Avery and Ismay, I thought we’d get to the interview and let Avery do the talking…
MM: Ismay is the name you chose for yourself, which you picked because it’s the name of a town of 19 in the Northern Great Plains that you’re fond of. What specifically about the town made you want to name yourself after it?
AH: When I was looking for a name for my band, I decided to look at some books for inspiration. At that time, I was reading about the town of Ismay in a book called Bad Land: An American Romance by Jonathan Raban. This book represented so much of what I found fascinating about the American West—the ways in which Americans imposed our notions of possibility onto a landscape we barely knew, and the suffering that resulted. The book had me hooked, and as soon as I read the word Ismay on its pages, I knew that was the name I wanted for my band.
MM: I understand you’ve spent the past five years working on the family ranch. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from doing so?
AH: I’ve learned that agriculture and land are so much more complex, fascinating, and unknowable than people realize. As a person who didn’t grow up on a farm, I had many questions whose answers were somewhat obvious, but couldn’t be known until lived. For example, do chickens need corn and feed to survive, or can they just live on pasture? (Answer to that is that they do need feed often corn/soy/peas to survive unlike cows goats or sheep) Another thing I didn’t know was that there are birds that fly around at night, and not owls that you’re used to seeing, but little birds flitting as if the sun were out. When you live in an urban area, you just don’t get to see these kinds of things.
MM: How big is your family’s ranch? How many horses do you have?
AH: The ranch is 250 acres, and I own 1 horse and two mules. The ranch though has 2 more horses.
MM: The stones your song “The Stones” refer to “looked like galaxies of stars” when their owner, Rex, turned on a special light, which you sing is a black light in the song. Did he let you take a photo of these stones? If so, can we post it with the premiere of the song?
AH: I wish he did! I’m not in touch with him really. In some ways I kind of like keeping the rocks something secret. There are other rocks that glow in this way, and you’ll know it when you see it.
MM: What kind of stones were they? Did Rex believe them to have supernatural properties?
AH: He had a special scientific name for them which I can’t remember now. Something like Klamathite or Salmonite. They were a type of rock that he claimed to have discovered. He said that he sent a sample to a geologist at a university who said yes indeed, these were unique stones that hadn’t been documented before. He may have thought they had supernatural properties, though I don’t remember him speaking specifically to that. I think that their supernatural properties were unspoken, implicit in showing us them was a sense of otherworldliness.
MM: The image accompanying the Soundcloud widget for “ The Stones” looks like someone riding a Jello mold. Where did that idea come from?
AH: When I’m working on album artwork, I love to do collages. I had a concept in mind for a collage, but after working through about 25 different concepts, I ended up loving the idea of a little kid riding the jello mold like it was a cow or sheep (something in a rodeo that’s called Mutton Busting). To me it’s poking fun at the synthetic nature of modern agriculture and American food. We take these beautiful natural phenomenon—plants, animals, soil, water—and process them until they become an almost plastic/petroleum product like Jello.
MM: I understand you’re releasing an album called Songs of Sonoma Mountain early next year. Do you have a release date yet? Were any of the songs on the album field recordings made by or on the mountain?
AH: The album will be release in February next year, not sure of the exact date. All of the songs were recorded on the mountain at the ranch in the old barn. There’s a few songs with sounds of birds, frogs, crickets, and all of those are from field recordings I made on the mountain. One song, The 100 Mile View from Virginia City is filled with field recordings I made in Virginia City, NV.
MM: Is Sonoma Mountain a place that you’ve explored thoroughly like the Klamath River? Are they connected?
AH: I think they’re connected in me at least, as places bound by natural forms that have really captured my imagination. The Klamath I became fascinated with through reading stories, and eventually traveling there. Sonoma mountain because I’ve lived here for so long. I think I’ve really explored the two differently. The Klamath was as an outsider, an adventurer, and a younger person with more to prove. Sonoma Mountain has been more as an inhabitant, a land manager, and a slightly older person with a lot to learn.
MM: Can you describe Sonoma Mountain for us?
AH: Sonoma Mountain is funny because thousands of people see it every day, and don’t even realize it. This mountain doesn’t have a romantic craggy peak rising above, but is more rounded and gradual. It’s right between Sonoma and Petaluma CA and is grassland and oak woodland. There are a great many stories written about it, the most recent of which are Sonoma Mountain Stories by Greg Harris and Where the World Begins by Arthur Dawson. I’ve got a joke with some friends that we should make a bumper sticker saying “I Hiked Sonoma Mountain, and I Barely Noticed”
MM: One of the songs from the new album is called “In the Hospital Room.” What can you tell us about the inspiration for this song?
AH: One of my mentors here on Sonoma Mountain was a man named Patrick Houck. He was an incredible landscape architect, and a poet, and he supported my art and love of the land over the years. He wrote a beautiful book of poetry called Unearthly Love which I still keep to this day. Sonoma Mountain was the last place he was really conscious, as he suffered a stroke here a few years ago and passed away several weeks later. I visited him in the hospital after the stroke, and it was so strange to see that he had lost most of his brain function, but looked at me the same way he always would look at people. His eyes were so kind and searching, and it was unsettling yet comforting to see. It seemed like he was about to say something, but the words couldn’t come out.
MM: I read that you identify as non-binary. My understanding is that this means that one has attributes of both males and females. Is that correct or wrong? Explain what being non-binary means to you.
AH: I think non-binary means something different depending on who you’re speaking with, but for me it came from a deep sense of not being what the world saw me as—a girl/woman. I was something else, and it didn’t really fit to be a man either. When I heard the term non-binary/genderqueer, I really felt that there was some group I could belong to. To me it’s an in-between, and it’s a fluidity. It’s just something that exists outside “man” or “woman”.
MM: Non-binary is a relatively new term when it comes to describing one’s gender. Before people started using it, did you feel pressured to say you were either be one sex or the other? How would you explain your identity to people before there was a name for it?
AH: I spent a lot of time avoiding and hiding before I felt comfortable with sharing that I am non-binary. I would rarely say “as a woman” or “I’m a woman” but would allow myself to be categorized by others in that way, because I saw no alternative. That’s what the song When I Was Younger, I Cried is about to me, is that hiding.
MM: Did you have a feeling of never quite belonging before the term non-binary was coined? Do you still feel that way at times?
AH: Yes certainly that is true. I think people like me deal with a lot of loneliness. In the hiding, while you can protect your identity, you often lack a sense of vulnerability and intimacy with others. If those close to you are constantly calling you a gender you don’t feel connected with, there’s a wall between you, a wall the sits on top of the unspoken truth. It particularly feels lonely when people are talking about having “women’s groups” or “mens groups” as a progressive means of connecting with others. Not to say those aren’t good, but they leave people out (I believe unintentionally). I think people who aren’t trans/genderqueer sometimes struggle to conceive of not being the gender you were assigned at birth, but I really think that’s changing. The openness of some of my friends and family has been surprising and life-affirming.
MM: When writing the introduction for this interview, what pronoun(s) would you like me to use in referring to you?
AH: I like they/them pronouns, and thank you for asking that!
MM: When reading the descriptions for your videos on Youtube, I noticed that you refer to yourself both as Ismay and Avery Hellman but you never state that you’re both so it would read to people like you’re two different people if they weren’t familiar with you. Is that what you want people to think? If so, what’s the reasoning behind that?
AH: Great question! I want people to think of Ismay as a sort of entity unto itself, which I and many other people contribute to. While I’m the only individual that’s always part of Ismay, what truly makes it what it is, are the artistic collaborations between people.
I also wanted to create an entity that was outside of my individual identity, so I would feel more free to shape Ismay as I saw fit.
MM: Your debut EP was largely inspired by the Klamath River, which you spent some time traveling along. When you initially went out with your horse called Odessa, a mule called Fern and another horse, you soon found yourself growing more and more anxious, thinking about all the things that could go wrong, and then some things actually did go wrong. Did anybody try to warn you about the potential for danger before you embarked on the trip? If so, why didn’t you heed their advice? What did you learn from that experience?
AH: I learned so much from that trip, and probably the two biggest lessons were 1. to not go alone in the future 2. To accept what I initially considered a failure as just another genuine experience, neither good nor band, neither right nor wrong, just strange and unexpected as all the greatest things in life.
Most people were supportive, and I think trying to stay out of my way. I was so grateful to all of the people who made that trip a possibility, and most grateful to those that accepted me without judgement when it didn’t go the way I expected.
MM: How old were you when you embarked on your trips around the Klamath?
AH: I was probably 23 when I first fell in love with the Klamath and starting researching and traveling to it in my car. I was 24 or 25 when I did my horseback trip.
MM: I understand you met with many different people connected to the river. Could you tell us about a few of them or what the cultural landscape around the river is like?
AH: I met Amy and Nawel first when I was doing research on my route. They lived at a failed subdivision along the Klamath, near the town of Hornbook. They were kind of modern hippies, Nawel was French, and they came there from Portland OR. They were welcoming, and funny, telling me stories of the strange people who had stayed with them. Some of their guests were interested in finding “Lumarians”—people who had descended from a group of giants who had hibernated in Mount Shasta for thousands of years, and recently emerged.
There were so many types of people around the river—hippies, ranchers, vacationers, fisherpeople.
MM: When you traveled along the Klamath you were documenting it via film, photography and audio recordings. At the time you did this, were you planning to do anything with these things or just doing it for yourself?
AH: I’ve thought for a while about making an audio documentary about my river trip, but I’d like to finish my audio documentaries about Sonoma Mountain first. I’m releasing the first season of a narrative podcast called Where the World Begins when I release my record, so there are stories about Sonoma Mountain to accompany the record.
MM: I really enjoyed your short film, Songs of the Klamath, and couldn’t help but realize that your story could make for an interesting full-length film or novel. Have you thought about writing a screenplay or novel, or even a memoir, based on your experiences there? Or making a feature documentary about the river?
AH: That’s a great question. In my most hidden of dreams one day I’d love to work on a sort of modern-western film, maybe not as the writer since that’s not my specialty. I just love the landscapes of the west, and I also love looking for ways to bust-up stereotypes and cliche western stories.
MM: Will you be releasing a short film about Sonoma Mountain?
AH: I won’t, but there will be an audio doc. For now, that’s the storytelling format I’m working with.
MM: Do you have any plans or aspirations to release a book of your Klamath photos at some point?
AH: That would be really fun to do! I’ve thought about a future project, of releasing a photo book of Cowbirls—queer people living in the rural American West.
MM: I saw a lot of your Klamath photos on Instagram, but did you post those on social media at the time when you took them during the trip or did you post them later? If you posted them while on the trip, how did you charge your phone while you were out in the wild?
AH: I posted most of those later, but a few while on the trip. Many were film so it took a few weeks to develop them
MM: One of your songs from the EP, “Song for Odessa,” was written from the perspective of an inmate in a Sacramento correctional facility who trained the horse. Did you, or have you since, met this inmate? Have they heard your song?
AH: I haven’t met any inmates who did that program, but I think it would be really interesting to interview them and hear what the horses meant to them. I’d be a bit afraid to share the song, as I’m not sure that I accurately represented their experience, only what I assumed it was. Essentially in the song I was trying to write about how strange it was that this horse, and this person both found themselves imprisoned in the American judicial system, for reasons that were beyond their control. For the person, because they had substance use disorder as a result of being born into a family system that left them traumatized. For the horse, because they were out born into a herd of animals that didn’t really belong there.
MM: “River of Light (Through the Inland Empire)” was partially inspired when you were flying into Los Angeles at night and observed that the cars on the highway resembled rivers in addition to being about toxic love affairs. What parallels between the two did you draw?
AH: The glowing fire in the River of Light is one that draws you in because of its aesthetic magnetism. Similarly, relationships with people can draw you in with the life that they represent, the way in which they fit into ones story so perfectly it’s hard to let them go. In that way, they’re both synthetic and somewhat forced. The river of light from cars doesn’t follow the natural pathway that a wild river does. And for me a bad relationship followed a pathway forced by expectations and willful ignorance of the true nature of your relationship.
MM: Your grandfather, Warren Hellman, created the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. Is it an annual event? What time of year does it take place, if so? Was your grandfather a musician himself?
AH: Hardly Strictly Bluegrass has been going on for 19 years in San Francisco, and it’s a free festival. It’s generally the first weekend of October, and has been probably the biggest contributor to my decision/ability to play music.
My grandfather started playing banjo when he was in his 20s, while he was working as an investment banker. He became obsessed with the instrument, and his love of Bluegrass is what drove him to create the festival. Eventually, he played the festival with his band The Wronglers and played banjo almost until his last day. They also released a record with Jimmie Dale Gilmore and toured around the country. Warren’s professional musical life happened mostly after he was 65 years old.
MM: It was at your grandfather’s memorial that you first paid tribute to him and it was also your first time performing in public, if I understand correctly. What realization came over you in regards to that performance that prompted you to decide to pursue music?
AH: I remember after he passed and I was rehearsing with his band for the memorial, I stepped into the rehearsal space and just felt a sense of magic and purpose come over me. For the first time in my life, I really felt that I was in the right place, without question. This concert led to many other concerts, and gave me a chance to build up my skills until I was ready to start my project Ismay.
MM: I saw that you’re a big fan of Hazel Dickens, who’s played the festival, on your Instagram posts. What can you tell us about her and her music to entice our readers to check it out? Tell us how you discovered Hazel Dickens and a story that you’ve learned about her since.
AH: Hazel was a good friend of my Grandfather’s, and that’s how I became familiar with her work initially as a kid. When I was learning to play music through Bluegrass as a teenager, I discovered her work when looking for songs to play. But what kept me coming back to her, was the ways in which she spoke uncomfortable truths, in a genre that historically has left many women, people of color, and queer people in the margins. I suppose that as a non-binary person, I needed to find someone in bluegrass to look up to whose work wouldn’t make me feel shame or that I needed to erase my identity. Hazel performed to integrated audiences in the south as part of a progressive musical tour, she wrote songs about the unjust treatment of women in bluegrass (listen to Don’t Put Her Down, You Helped Put Her There), and she helped at union protests back in her home state of West Virginia. I just get the feeling that if I could talk to her today, she would accept my gender identity without protest, I’m not so sure I would feel the same about other artists in the genre.
Back when Hazel and my grandfather Warren were friends, he told her a story about growing up with a family estate, where there were peacocks walking around. She said, “That makes me wanna throw up!” and I’m sure Warren laughed at that. I’m not sure if it was her, but Warren also ended up supporting unions in San Francisco which was somewhat surprising for a 21st century investment banker, and I think Hazel may have had a hand in that.
I recommend that people listen to her song Black Lung which was all about the lung disease that many coal miners have died from, and how companies often denied these people health care even though they sacrificed their bodies to the mines.
Much thanks to Avery for taking the time to do this interview! Special thanks also to Kip Kouri of Tell All Your Friends PR for facilitating it!