During the years leading up to her solo debut, The Days When Peonies Prayed for the Ants, songwriter Ellen Starski explored both her homeland and herself, traveling from the coal country of rural Pennsylvania to the roots-music hotbed of Nashville, Tennessee. Set for release May 11, 2018, The Days When Peonies Prayed for the Ants acts as the soundtrack to that period of self-discovery. It’s an autobiographical album, rooted in a lush mix of indie-folk, orchestral Americana, and organic pop. Starski wrote the songs during a span of a dozen years, tracing her trek from Reynoldsville, Pennsylvania — where she began playing guitar at 19 years old, before cutting her teeth as the singer of a bluesy bar band — to Knoxville, where she kicked off her solo career with pub gigs and open mic performances. The journey then wound its way to Nashville, Starski’s adopted hometown since 2008. It was there, alongside producer Anne McCue and a handful of the town’s top sidemen, that she recorded The Days When Peonies Prayed for the Ants.
It’s a record that’s as dynamic and driven as its creator. Sonically influenced by Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan’s Desire, and the Alison Krauss/Robert Plant collaboration Raising Sand, The Days When Peonies Prayed for the Ants offers up a combination of sweeping string arrangements, stripped-down piano ballads, finger-plucked folk songs, and everything in between, all held together by a voice that’s both emotional and elastic. Starski’s lyrics shine a light on the triumphs, missteps, and stories she’s picked up along the way.
The album’s title nods to the symbiotic relationship between peony flowers and ants, who rely on one another for growth. Peonies produce nectar outside of their buds, encouraging ants to climb up the flowers’ stalks in search of food. In doing so, the plants’ dense flowers are opened. At the end of the process, the plant fully blooms and the ants walk away with full stomachs. Starski’s writing explores similar themes of give-and-take and cause-and-effect.
Today Glide is offering an exclusive early listen of The Days When Peonies Prayed for the Ants. The album encapsulates Starski’s talent as both a songwriter and a singer, beginning with the haunting opener “Ode to Nanny and Cookie” featuring with her lilting vocals over an orchestral, almost spaghetti western soundtrack. From there the album gets into a more rustic, folkier sound with Starski going for a more subtle instrumental approach with lush yet quiet textures that allow her voice to really shine. Mostly quiet yet powerfully striking, the album is an impressive solo debut from an artist with much to offer.
Reflecting on the meaning and process behind the album, Starski has this to say:
Releasing this album has invited every skeleton back into the light of day, and I must say I’m happy to see them again. The songs on this record were written over a 12-year period with many other songs set aside. Self-doubt was vanquished when we brought our daughter into the world, and within that peaceful place I found the courage to bring this part of myself into the light. Many a night was spent with guitar in hand, finger-picking melodies that awaited her arrival. This entire album is for her, and for every soul that taught me to love more beautifully by compassion and pure intention.
Recording the Peony album was a detailed process. The album was recorded at Joe McMahan’s Wow & Flutter studio with Ms. Anne McCue guiding the project as producer. We recorded the foundation of the record in two days, which was slightly grueling, but made complete sense for the album’s fluidity. Anne guided the project from beginning to end, composing and playing multiple instruments to complete the project… and adding the true understanding of musical compositions.
The first sense of reassurance I felt after our studio time arrived when Anne sent the first mix for the album’s opening track “Ode to Nanny and Cookie.” This is a deeply personal song I wrote for my grandmothers, who both passed on due to complications from Alzheimer’s Disease. As I listened to the melody fall into my ears, my eyes filled from intense emotion. This was the one song in the studio I was most afraid of recording, and the one song that has brought me sincere gratification.
Ellen Starski releases The Days When Peonies Prayed for the Ants on May 11. For more info visit ellenstarski.com.
Photo credit: Amelia Booth