Folk musician Kris Delmhorst has lived a storied life, jumping headfirst into each random adventure.
A Brooklyn native who studied classical cello, Delmhorst left the bustling city and went to college. After graduating, she apprenticed on a small farm and, later, worked on a schooner off the coast of Maine. She taught herself to play fiddle and guitar while stuck in a rural cabin with a sprained ankle. Shortly thereafter, she began writing songs.
Now an accomplished and sought-after artist, Delmhorst has appeared on numerous records by musicians like Anais Mitchell, Lori McKenna, Peter Wolf, Mary Gauthier, and Chris Smither. Her eighth record, “The Wild,” is a richly structured folk album about growing older and the constant struggle to stay inspired.
The new album came out earlier this month. Delmhorst said releasing a personal record in the midst of so much national turmoil was a struggle.
“I have had to keep reminding myself that music doesn’t have to refer specifically to what’s going on in the moment in the world. Its role can be to remind people of their own humanity and to help them to feel whatever they need to feel to navigate whatever they’re going through,” she said. “The total mind-numbing horror of that Vegas thing was almost too much to take in, and then the Petty thing made us listen to Petty songs all day, and that was the only thing that cracked me open enough to let all the emotions of the day in and really feel it. … We need music, we need art, we need it to help us process and to help us be in the world, no matter how crazy things get.”
Delmhorst will be at The Word Barn in Exeter on Friday, Oct. 27, sharing the stage with her husband, Jeffrey Foucault. In advance of the show, she talked about how her career began, her songwriting process, and the fear of performing live for the first time.
You lived in Maine for a while. What part?
I lived in mid-coast Maine, probably like ’92 to ’95. I worked on a schooner out of Rockland.
What did you do on the schooner?
I was a cook. I cooked three meals a day for 50 people on a woodstove.
Did you like that?
I loved it. It was really great. I grew up in New York City and I was only a couple years out of college at that point. To me it was like the craziest thing ever. I loved living on a boat. We just sailed around the Maine coast for six months. It was pretty awesome. I was also technically the fourth mate. So I would have to, in my apron, go and climb up the mast and stuff and take the topsail down. It was a total adventure.
From New York City to Rockland — that’s gotta be a big change.
From Brooklyn I went to college and then I ended up on this farm. I was apprenticing on a little subsistence-level family farm. I was living in a little cabin with no electricity. It was awesome. It really turned my whole world upside down, which was exactly what I was looking for.
So you felt the need to get away from the city?
I loved growing up in the city so much. I was a kid who was really into music and really into art and I just loved it, and I was positive I never wanted to live anywhere else. So I decided that college was my chance to go live in a small town and just experience something else so I could be a better-rounded person (laughs). And then I just never went back.
I read you had a broken ankle and were living without electricity. What happened there?
I sprained my ankle just goofing around in the snow. I was living in this little cabin in the winter. We had about 4 feet of snow on the ground. Music was my thing in high school and I had studied classical cello real seriously. I started playing the instruments that were there, in the farmhouse of the people I was working for. I started playing upright bass and I started playing fiddle and I started playing guitar. All of those things were basically just to pass the time while I was totally housebound in this dead of winter.
How did you end up writing songs?
I certainly had never written songs, although I had always been obsessed with songs and was a huge radio listener and record buyer. I was always someone who was super focused on songs and lyrics. But it never occurred to me to write them until two years later … I was living on Cape Cod, and I just started writing them and going to open mics, just for kicks.
How did your first performance go?
It was in Provincetown. I don’t even know why I did it, because I‘m not someone who craves the center of attention. But, for some reason, which is still mysterious to me, I really wanted to go play this song in front of people. I had to go by myself. The place was called the Mews in Provincetown. I just went up there and it was literally one of the most terrifying things I have ever done in my entire life. I was just so freakin’ scared. But I did it. It was live on the radio. I survived. And then I wanted to just keep doing it.
What did you sing?
I think it was “You’re the One Lee,” by Miracle Legion.
Is there a particular theme to “The Wild”?
It’s about the motion that happens over the course of everybody’s life that’s almost like a tide going in and out, where you lose your bearings and find them again. So it’s about a lot of different sides of that process, the moments of feeling in the weeds or disoriented, and then the process of trying to find your way back to whatever new version of your past is.
Why did you record the latest album with your husband (folk and country musician Jeffrey Foucault)?
It’s an idea we’d been tossing around for years. When we first got together, it was super important for both of us to keep our musical entities pretty separate. The idea of blending them seemed sort of claustrophobic. As we have gone along, it just started to seem like a natural idea to try it sometime. It seemed like our strengths would combine pretty well.
On “All the Way Around,” you sing, “I burned my eyes on the moon last night.” Can you talk about that line?
I should say that when I write, I tend to write, not everything, but large parts of the songs are going to come up from the depths. My songwriting process is sort of like fishing in very deep, dark water where you can’t see what’s down there. And I take some little piece of bait, which is a line of song or a chord change or an idea or a little piece of melody or whatever, just kind of put it on the hook and throw it down there and see what comes up. I’m not necessarily a very literal songwriter. That line, “I burned my eyes on the moon / I was looking for a reason to shine,” it’s kind of about seeking inspiration. I guess that’s the shortest way I could say that.
What does “Tracks in the Snow” mean?
It’s like finding your way back home. That comes up in “Magnolia,” it comes up in “All the Way Around,” a few of them. I wrote it in the winter and I was thinking about tracks and how they leave a little history of our day. I come out in the morning in my yard, in the snow, and I can see my dog’s tracks, my cat’s tracks, my chickens’ tracks, my kid’s tracks, and my tracks. The fox that went through the yard or whatever. It’s like a written language. So I was thinking about somebody’s tracks telling the story of them drifting away from home and then returning.