Avery Hellman, stage name Ismay, makes their return to the Sonoma County live music scene on Saturday, May 6 with a gig opening for Misner and Smith at Santa Rosa’s The Lost Church.
Yet their journey really started about a decade ago after the passing of their grandfather, Warren Hellman, patriarch of San Francisco’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass music festival.
While Ismay attended most if not all of the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass weekends, they never really thought about making a career out of music until later.
“I grew up going to the festival, and I was about eight years old when it began,” explains Ismay via phone from their family ranch in Petaluma. “I was around it, and I played music kind of casually, but when he passed away [in 2011], it kind of opened a new door for me and my family, and we started playing music in his bands, kind of in his place in a way.” It was in preparation for Warren Hellman’s memorial service, where Ismay was singing and playing with Jimmie Dale Gilmore and his band The Wronglers, when they realized the musical path was possibly meant for them.
“We were at a studio in San Francisco, and they were having me rehearse a song with them, and there was a moment where I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is what I want to do!’” says Ismay. Funnily enough, they continue, “You know, [it] just never really occurred to me that I could [make a living being] a musician.”
While indeed it’s a bit melancholy their grandfather never got to see them pursue their nascent musical career, Ismay says, “It is kind of sad that because of him passing away, this door opened, but a good thing is that sometimes when someone passes away, new opportunities come about because there’s a way to celebrate that person through your own actions, even though they aren’t around.”
If Ismay seems familiar, it may be because you saw them on Apple TV+’s music competition series, My Kind of Country. The show features a new spin on both the reality music competition, as well as the “norms” surrounding country music makers.
According to the website for the show, My Kind of Country sought to provide “an extraordinary opportunity to diverse and innovative artists from around the world.” The show, which is executive produced by country star Kacey Musgraves, as well as Reese Witherspoon and others, features professional musician “scouts” Orville Peck, Mickey Guyton and Jimmie Allen, who offer feedback as performers square off against one another for a chance for musical stardom.
When asked how their involvement with the Apple TV+ show came to be, Ismay says, “They approached me a few years ago, kind of in the beginning of the pandemic,” concluding, “I think they found me online.”
Asked what engaged them about appearing on the show, they said, “I was just really intrigued by the idea of them not wanting the typical people you might think of when you think of country music; they wanted more musical outsiders.” What impressed and motivated Ismay was that the show “took people from across the world, from different backgrounds. I always think some of the best new material comes when you have diverse cultures or people from different backgrounds coming together and combining new things.”
Ismay’s performance of the classic Cranberries song “Linger” provided a spotlight for them on the show and has since been released as a single featuring video shot for the show. Asked how they decided on “Linger,” Ismay says it was a collaboration between them and the show’s producers. “I would suggest a song, then they would suggest a song and we finally landed on that one,” they said. “I was so excited about it because I really love The Cranberries and I love that song, so I tried to make it a little bit country as much as I can with the guitar playing and whatnot.”
Although Ismay’s guitar playing style is based around bluegrass music’s flat-picking style, the sound they produce feels unique and almost like piano chords or notes plucked on a large harpsichord. One can hear it clearly on their 2020 album, Songs of Sonoma Mountain, which, as one may have guessed, was recorded with the local landscape in mind. For recording in a 100-year-old sheep barn on the family’s farm, Ismay brought in sound engineer Robert Cheek, who had engineered albums for Band of Horses and Chelsea Wolfe as co-producer.
The album dropped right as the COVID lockdown began, which actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Ismay. “When the lockdown started, I was in the middle of planning a tour, and I was really disorganized at the time,” they laugh. “So when I couldn’t do it, I was like, ‘Thank God, now I don’t have to do this tour that I was planning really badly.’”
Listening to Songs of Sonoma Mountain, one gets the sense of poetry set to music with Ismay’s evocative, vivid and present lyrics interplaying perfectly with their aforementioned guitar style. The songs also feature beautiful field recordings of wildlife they encountered on the mountain, which gives the songs a kind of gentle multimedia feeling. Yet for their new album, Ismay wanted to change things up and go for a more rhythmic sound.
They enlisted the help of folk/Americana multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and producer Andrew Marlin of Watchhouse (formerly Mandolin Orange) and recorded at Echo Mountain Recording Studios in Asheville, North Carolina.
At first, there was a bit of trepidation, as Ismay explains, “Really, at first…I was just really curious and didn’t know how it was gonna go.” Pausing for a moment, they continue, “Like, how is it going to go for someone who’s done records in the past that are mostly finger picking, not as much rhythmic, [combining] with someone [like Marlin, who has] really more of a bluegrass, mandolin rhythmic style of playing.”
Ultimately Ismay feels the partnership paid off, as Marlin and Watchhouse started as bluegrass but are now much more indie, whereas Ismay feels they started as indie and now sounds more bluegrass. “It kind of felt like two roads in opposite directions crossing in the middle,” they say.
As Ismay gears up for their Lost Church performance, they echo the sentiments of pretty much everyone who really loves what Lost Church is doing for the music scene. “I always love playing there; it’s such a well run, thoughtfully managed venue that it’s really cool to be able to collaborate with them,” says Ismay. “They really get what it’s all about.”
Ismay can be found on the web at IsmayMusic.com. The first single, titled “Stranger in the Barn,” from a possible new album, drops May 2.