Staying silent during a politically charged state strums many artists as difficult, especially when they view surrounding actions of their government and peers as immoral. After the pipeline crisis in Standing Rock and spending time on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Chicago-based folk singer Ryan Herrick saw an opportunity in his art; to use his music as a catalyst for change. On Earth Day 2017, Herrick buckled down for a day at Kingsize Sound Labs with engineer John Abbey to record his third album Sagitta, out for release on Friday, September 15 with a show at Edgewater’s Uncommon Ground.
Named after the Latin word for “arrow”, Herrick views the songs making up Sagitta as arrows; arrows of thought to be directed at people in power or people under the illusion that they are in power. Herrick explains that these songs, or arrows, can also be a light on into the world, a moment of intention.
In Herrick’s mind, the compilation is broken into two parts. The first collection of songs react to various situations taking place in Native American communities. The album’s first single “Whiteclay”, originally written by Herrick’s friend Carl Hakansson, was inspired by Whiteclay, Nebraska. According to The Wounds of Whiteclay, a project from the Univerity of Nebraska-Lincoln, the border town’s alcohol sales fuel alcoholism, domestic violence and birth defects within nearby reservations with nearly 3.5 million cans of beer sold each year.
“I spent some time out in Indian country. I drove through Nebraska and it was really intense to see the price of colonialism in the 21st century,” says Herrick. “For the Lakota people out on this reservation, the vibe of colonialism and genocide is still really close to home.”
Another track from the new record, “Black Snake” creates a spiritual perception of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests that took place from April 2016 to February 2017 at Standing Rock Indian Reservation; the nation’s fifth largest reservation and home to the Hunkpapa Lakota, Sihasapa Lakota and Yanktonai Dakota people.
Herrick wrote “Black Snake” after attending the Folk Alliance International in Kansas City. “The theme last year [at Folk Alliance International] was forbidden folk. The energy of writing activism songs or activist energy in music was really intense for me,” says Herrick. “I was starting to get influenced there and went back to my room and started writing a riff to “Black Snake” on my banjo. I didn’t know where it was going until my drive back. The lyrics started coming out and I was like, ‘Oh, this is a pipeline song.'”
The final two songs on the album explore a more personal side of Herrick, built on his spiritual beliefs. In “Change”, Herrick sings of spiritual, personal and emotional metamorphosis, how it can hurt and be ugly, but how it’s important to trust that the change will be for the better. The album closes with “Masterpiece”, which Herrick describes as a describes as a two-fold song. It begins with an exploration of symbols in our culture where the divine feminine is attacked by the unbalanced masculine.
The album closes with “Masterpiece”, which Herrick describes as a two-fold song. It begins with an exploration of symbols in our culture where the divine feminine is attacked by the unbalanced masculine.
“Unbalanced masculine, I would say, is war or any kind of expression that is active, causing damage or extreme amounts of change, wanted or unwanted,” says Herrick. “In the face of all this destruction of the earth and these environmental issues and what we face as a community of humans occupying the world, it feels like there is an unbalance between masculine and feminine. ‘Masterpiece’ came out from that awareness.”
For Herrick, writing songs to spark conversations wasn’t enough, so he set up a pre-order campaign via Indiegogo to raise money for Conscious Alliance, a Colorado-based non-profit focused on hunger relief and youth empowerment in underprivileged Native American communities. Herrick has also arranged for the September 15 show to host a non-perishable food drive for the Greater Chicago Food Depository.
“Chicago and the greater Chicago community is already going to be at the show, so to have a food drive there for our own localized geography makes perfect sense,” says Herrick.
The idea of community is something Herrick seems to truly cherish. He describes the folk scene in Chicago as diverse and put emphasis on the importance of friendships and relationships amongst fellow artists. It’s the connections that build creativity, but also keep it grounded.
“I think in terms of when I run into people or play a show with someone, [their level of seriousness] always hits me first,” says Herrick. “I think playing alongside people and seeing through their eyes why they’re [artists] is really informative to me to know ultimately why I’ve doing it and it brings me to this more universal place.”
Ryan Herrick’s next show will be Friday, September 15 at Uncommon Ground (Edgewater) at 8:00 p.m. The night will also include performances by Wes John Cichosz and Liz Coyles.