McAloon’s Debut Paints Nature in Chords and Complex Harmony

Octavia McAloon plays Arch Street Tavern (Credit: Patrick McManaman)


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Singer-songwriter Octavia McAloon paints sweeping scenes of natural phenomena — think mountain skylines, rocky stream beds, starlit nighttime skies.

“If the aurora borealis could get in not only through your eyes, but through your ears, what would it sound like?” she asks.

“Two triads, that kind of go with each other, but that fade in and out against each other, which I think has the aurora’s effect of lights appearing and disappearing,” she answers, in chords.

On her debut album, “With Breath of Wind,” set to drop Friday, McAloon supplies her own personal choir for lead vocals — some songs seven lines of harmony.

To the West, Octavia McAloon

Except for the contributions of violinist Alex Guy, all the instrumentals are McAloon as well.

A native of Seattle, McAloon recorded With Breath of Wind in New Haven, CT while a graduate student in choral conducting at The Yale Institute of Sacred Music.

McAloon says she usually begins composing on the guitar. She likes to aim for more unusual chord choices.

“I try something out on guitar and follow where that goes. And then I just try to sing over it. Sometimes words come out automatically. Other times, I spend a lot of time with the thesaurus and rhyming dictionaries.” 

In her single, “To the West,” her Pacific Northwest roots show up, singing “River flow and the mountain snow/ call from the west… back to where you started from.”

“Dusk,” the last track on the album, came about driving to choir rehearsal through a radiant sunset. With only a few lines of text, the song is a wash of harmonic vocals that McAloon describes as her attempt to “put noise to a sunset.”

The album tracks were recorded by Sachin Ramabhadran in his home studio. Ramabhadran provides multimedia support at The Institute of Sacred Music.

Over several months in 2019, Ramabhadran recorded McAloon’s guitar tracks, then lead vocals over multiple microphones, and a vast array of backing tracks. A lush musical northern rainforest vibe was built track by track — one performer and one recording engineer.

A self-professed “choir nerd,” McAloon grew up singing in a number of groups, both in church and school.

“My mother said I was humming in the womb.”

Her musical lineage includes a paternal grandmother who was a harpsichord prodigy and a mother who plays piano by ear. More or less self-taught both on piano and guitar, McAloon fell for folk music around age thirteen by way of indie-folk groups The Decembrists and Iron and Wine.

As her style evolved, indie-folk phenom Jose Gonzalez, an Argentinian-Swedish singer-songwriter known for his intricate guitar picking and spare poetics on human nature, became a major influence. Other influences include singer Fionn Regan, whose 2006 debut album The End of History made subtle seismic waves in indie-folk circles and Laura Marling, who couples a more jangly guitar sound with layered vocals.

McAloon’s time at the Institute of Sacred Music was spent in the choral conducting program, and she also sang in many church settings in and around New Haven. In her second year, she was appointed the musical director for Yale’s Battell Chapel on the Green, along with fellow conducting student Joseph Kemper. The choir was “a well-oiled machine” said McAloon, adding that it was a thrill to direct the seasoned and gifted group of singers, who were also peers and friends.

McAloon, who currently directs a United Church of Christ church choir, said that this Easter was infinitely strange for choir folk. “When most of what you do is singing with people, this quarantine is hard. It’s hard financially, but it’s also hard emotionally. To have this thing that you love to do, that you rehearse at least two times a week, to not have it at all. I miss real-life harmony.”

McAloon is already dreaming and working on the next big project, a full-length folk opera. Think “old Nordic village… that has a curse on it.”

“With Breath of Wind” is available through McAloon’s website, as well as Spotify, CDBaby, iTunes, Amazon and all major music streaming sites.

Clare Byrne is a dancer-and-choreographer-turned-songwriter who has performed and taught in New York City and environs, Burlington, VT, and around the world. In addition to songwriting via guitar, harmonica and piano, her multi-art projects have included Weekly Rites, an improvisational dance blog, and The Poor Sister Clare’s Traveling Dancing Monk Show, an experiment in gospel dance and gardening in Vermont.