Artist Interview: Abby Gundersen – Violin and piano player to debut solo album this month

Photo credit: Ben Blood

Abby Gundersen‘s musical identity is rooted in her family. This extremely talented young lady from Centralia, Washington bears the fruit of a considerable blessing of talent and an awful lot of hard work. Her violin and vocal accompaniment of noted musicians such as her brother Noah Gundersen, LeWrens, and Zach Fleury is of the highest quality. Her inspirational new album Time Moves Quickly is a gem.  It comes out on January 28.  (You can preview one track on her bandcamp page, embedded below in this piece.)  The review of that album will come soon, but until then, here’s a little get-to-know-you piece from a conversational interview with Abby.

Abby started playing piano at age eight and violin at age nine. She took formal classical lessons on both until age eighteen. Both, it’s safe to say, are evident in her exceptional performance. She even took three years of “fiddle” which helps her in improvising, part of her signature style in accompanying musicians of new folk music. She mentioned practicing “five hours a day” growing up and as I pushed her on that point of hard work, she explained that she sees it as “fifty fifty” hard work and natural talent. But what intrigued me even more about Abby’s explanation of her roots was that she said, “it’s just something I’ve wanted from the beginning…” That something, of course, was to perform on the violin at a high level. She described a wonderful image of herself as a young girl, starry-eyed looking at violin players on television, envying their craft. She is now one of them; we all now look at her in amazement.

Of course many readers are aware that Noah Gundersen’s new full-length album Ledges is set to release soon. Abby, of course, will accompany her brother as they travel across the country for a series of US shows. I asked Abby if she planned on derailing her work with Noah to pursue her solo career. She said (much to the relief of those of us who love their duet work), “I plan on being with Noah for a very long time…” and she elaborated on a point he made when I interviewed him that the two of them have a strong connection. She added that she intends to work with him “as long as I don’t lose sight of myself.” Abby rightly pointed out that people love their story… the brother-sister music combination really is wonderful. It adds what the poets might call gravitas to an already beautiful work.

So after talking a bit about her background, Abby and I discussed her upcoming EP that, perhaps surprisingly to some readers, is not more folk music. It is, rather, a contemporary classical album written on piano, violin, and cello by Abby herself. She explained that as a young girl melodies would just come to her and that she would “…get something in my head I would just play it out…”, but over the years she lost that ability to write when focusing on performance pieces and her own development as a player. Now she has returned to letting the music rise from within her through creative composition. She felt an imperative to write this album and believed that to not write it would make her miserable. Speaking on behalf of music fans everywhere, we’re glad she did.

Here’s the shocking thing about Time Moves Quickly – there are no vocals. Abby Gundersen, whose sweet vocals help to accent so many of the great Gundersen family recordings, does not sing on her own album. I had to ask about this. Well, it stems a little from a fear of her own lyric writing, but more importantly she said, “I didn’t want to force something disingenuous.” That, too, could be a description of this album. It is fully genuine, fully real, and fully emotional. She added this delightful, witty, and no less profound comment, “It’s good to be part of something that’s honest.” This album is honest without lyrics, letting the instruments and melodies speak for themselves.

So that I leave a little mystery for the coming review of the album, I will just write extensively about one song from the album, a song that preoccupied our conversation. It is, perhaps, the best song on a stellar album, “Farewell Summer.” Abby used the story of separation with a loved one to inspire a song that allowed her (and the listeners), to “escape into a different realm.” One of the truly beautiful elements of contemporary classical music, especially of the Dustin O’Halloran style evident in Abby’s music, is the open-ended emotion that defines it so deeply. Abby’s music, like O’Halloran and Olafur Arnalds, allows for listeners to write his or her own adventure into the song. It likens itself brilliantly to soundtrack work, but also to helping people write, read, study, or create art of their own. The track “Farewell Summer” is one of the best at that, completed with an excerpted poem from Robert Lowell called “The Public Garden” that connects the biblical story of David and Bathsheba to the “end of summer” theme that inspired the song. It’s wonderful and complete.

She believes that music is a “statement of who you are, what you believe, and what you struggle with…” and because of that, “musicians have a lot of power.” This struck me as a profound truth in a seemingly-diluted musical landscape. Gundersen wields her power mercifully, softly, and knowingly. Although her tracks do not have lyrics that direct listeners to specific vivid imagery, her unfolding melodies reveal layers of meaning. As the violin, piano, and cello converse with one another throughout the album, listeners have an opportunity to connect with what Abby believes and who she is, which is a blessing to us all.

Abby is definitely a genuine person and the kind of artist that inspires the rest of us to do what we love in life. She explained that “my passion for this EP is to bring people peace.” From relaxing chords to comforting melody lines, it is a peace-filled album. Spoken with pastoral grace, Gundersen said, “I see it as something to get people to stop and think and be present.”

What a gift. Abby Gundersen is one of the good ones. Support her music and let it bring you peace.

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