Martha Scanlan’s third record, “The Shape Of Things Gone Missing, The Shape Of Things To Come,” was released last April after her relative hiatus from the road; for five years, Scanlan lived on a 120-year-old cattle ranch in a remote corner of Montana. The new album evokes lonesome Western landscapes as vividly as her previous two, featuring producer and longtime collaborator Jon Neufeld, as well as collaborations with members of Black Prairie, The Decemberists, Dolorean and Amy Helm.
Scanlan was previously featured with the Reeltime Travelers on the soundtrack for the film “Cold Mountain,” produced by T-Bone Burnett. She has also worked and shared the stage with musicians such as Alison Krauss and Emmylou Harris.
DGO spoke with Scanlan about the challenges of recording music out in nature, and how the songs you write can change over time. She will play at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Henry Strater Theatre.
Why did you take a break from music and recording to go spend time on the ranch?
I seem to stumble into a lot of really amazing things in my life, accidentally. It was this opportunity to learn from an old cowboy who grew up there, and work with horses and cattle in a beautiful landscape. I was playing shows off and on during that time, but for the most part I just wanted to focus on being there.
You worked with Black Prairie, the Decemberists and Amy Helm on this album. What was the collaborative process like?
Jon Neufeld (who produced the record) and I wanted it to be improvisational and spontaneous. Some of the songs we hadn’t finished yet. We scheduled it so we only had four days in the studio and four days to mix. That made it a very immediate process. We had to make quick decisions. The musicians were all great in that regard, open and wonderful to play with, and in the moment. We tried to do one rehearsal beforehand, but the only person who was able to come was the bass player!
Crowdfunding is a big thing now. You raised funds for this album via Kickstarter. Is that a tough process?
It’s easy to put together if you’re a social media-oriented person, which I am really not. But people were so gracious. It was like having all of these hermit-helpers.
When you write a song, what comes first, lyrics or melody?
Sometimes there’s a seed of an idea. Or the title of the record, “The Shape of Things Gone Missing, the Shape of Things to Come;” that’s something I came home with one day from being on tour. And I wrote that down on a piece of paper and carried it around in my bag for a couple years. I knew it was important, but I didn’t know why yet. But usually, the music will come first, or there will be some sort of pulse or groove.
I’ve always been curious about whether it’s frustrating for singer-songwriters to sing old songs on tour, that they’d maybe written years ago, if they no longer relate to the specific feelings that song evokes. Is that a hard discrepancy?
I’ve always found that the songs change. Sometimes they become about something completely different. Like I’m in an unfolding riddle or mystery. All of a sudden I’ll say, “Oh, that’s what this song is about!” It sounds esoteric, but I believe that songs interact with the world. They go out into the world and are shaped by other peoples’ experiences with them. They always feel fresh to me.
Is there a recording space at the cattle ranch?
Most of the songs we recorded were outside. I wanted to record songs in the places I’d written them. So there’s a couple that are recorded way up in a meadow. One was on my porch, and another in my cabin. We filmed those recording sessions; the videos are on my website and Youtube.
Isn’t it hard to get the acoustics right outside of a recording studio?
It’s so quiet out there, it’s not really even in a flight path. So we’re playing in a situation that people pay millions of dollars trying to duplicate in a studio. It’s quite easy, unless there’s wind, which there was a couple of times. There’s one song where you can hear the shushing of the Cottonwood trees and the crickets.