Anna & Elizabeth—the duo of Anna Roberts-Gevalt and Elizabeth LaPrelle—got their start as a folk-focused duo that offered clear-eyed, thoughtful interpretations of traditional ballads and old-time tunes. Their efforts were pleasantly straightforward, as on their 2015 self-titled LP. But to make The Invisible Comes to Us, which Smithsonian Folkways released at the end of March, Anna & Elizabeth dove headfirst into the challenge of making something bigger and braver, adding percussion, drones, and gentle horns to their mix. The result is one of the year's most immersive and inventive records yet.
When it came time to start working on a follow-up album to Anna & Elizabeth, Roberts-Gevalt realized that she wanted to explore music that was more closely connected to her home region of New England; previously, most of her and LaPrelle's work had Southern origins. (LaPrelle, a celebrated ballad singer with deep roots in traditional music, hails from Virginia.) So she spent the better part of a month exploring the Helen Hartness Flanders Ballad Collection at Vermont's Middlebury College, which contains some four thousand field recordings of New Englanders singing their traditional tunes for Flanders.
After the discovery process, Roberts-Gevalt and LaPrelle benefited from back-to-back artist residencies at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts near Lynchburg, Virginia, and at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire. The women had armed themselves with a boatload of archival material, and the residencies gave them the time and space to dig as deep as they wanted with their newest inspirations.
"We came to the residency with all of these scanned documents, a lot of sound files, a lot of photos of ballad singers. We made giant maps on the walls of our studio, one of Virginia and one of New England, and just started putting up the songs," Roberts-Gevalt says.
The two also drew images from the ballads and put on their own "weird pageants" about them, according to Roberts-Gevalt. Most musicians don't have such a multimedia approach, but for LaPrelle and Roberts-Gevalt, those extra creative explorations help them to better collaborate within and inhabit their craft.
"In our Venn diagram, a lot of the things that we share have to do with visuals and theater backgrounds and being kind of English-major nerds about the texts and stories," Roberts-Gevalt says. "Being able to talk in lots of different languages together about the songs is, in a way, trying to embed the songs into us."
With their songs sorted out, the duo's next feat was padding out their guitar- and fiddle-based music with broader arrangements, helping to draw out each song's emotional power. They learned how to use the studio as an instrument—editing the sounds of a stroll through a dry forest into "Woman Is Walking" and making a chopped-up, nonlinear story about a woman who sings her way out of a kidnapping in "By the Shore."
"I feel like the first records in some way are our desire to execute the things that we had admired and loved," says Roberts-Gevalt, adding that she and LaPrelle wanted to prioritize drawing listeners into the stories over all else on their new record. "Laurie Anderson, to me, is a storyteller the way that a ballad singer is—someone who puts story ahead of anything else, and you go different sonic directions depending on what the story tells you to do. Like, this song is about the ocean, what sounds feel right to convey that?"
To achieve those ends, LaPrelle and Roberts-Gevalt turned not to other folk musicians but to those whose talents could help them tell stories, regardless of background. That included people like Jim White, a drummer who's worked with Cat Power, PJ Harvey, and Bill Callahan, and co-leads his own duo, Xylouris White. It also included Susan Alcorn, the Baltimore-based pedal steel player who makes otherworldly appearances on "Farewell to Erin," "Virginia Rambler," and "By the Shore."
"She was really important to me as someone who introduced me to various forms of experimental music and improvisation," says Roberts-Gevalt. "She has a background in playing honky-tonk music in Houston and then kind of found experimental music, but she has both in her abilities and her interests."
The Invisible Comes to Us is distinct not only in its arrangements, but also in its organization. Despite their varying origins, many of the songs share themes of heartbreak and seafaring. Strung together, they lightly sketch out a singular story about lost love. Indeed, Roberts-Gevalt says that LaPrelle floated the idea that the songs work together like characters in a novel. The record opens with the stirring "Jeano" and ends with a field recording of a woman named Margaret Shipman singing part of the song; the haunting refrain of "Woman Is Walking" reappears in "By the Shore." For Roberts-Gevalt, these echoes also allow her to savor the time she gets to spend with these songs.
"Connecting songs to another is kind of a way of extending the length of a ballad, imagining them each as episodes in a larger story," she says.
As far as the Anna & Elizabeth story goes, The Invisible Comes to Us makes for a thrilling entry, one that upends ideas of tradition and the limitations of "folk" music. The pair's ability to connect the past and the present spells a fascinating future for them.