The poet Li-Young Lee says that the exhale, the outgoing breath, is dying breath. It is also the breath of speech. When we inhale, we are full of ourselves and of silence. When we speak to another, we let go—both in breath and words; we give ourselves away.
Kalispell's Westbound feels like a long-awaited exhale. Rooted in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, Kalispell is the project of Shane Leonard, accompanied live and on recording by Ben Lester (AA Bondy, S. Carey), Kevin Rowe (The Barley Jacks), and others. Westbound, the first full-length album, has been six years in the making. In that time, Shane has traveled as a musician and a teacher, from Massachusetts to Wisconsin, partnered and single, rarely static, and so the songs too have changed and deepened with the retelling.
The result is a unique mix of clawhammer banjo and pedal steel guitar, of old-timey Appalachian traditions as in "Methodist Lift" and the ethereal, ambient music of songs like "Sepia Ghost." And in each is the poet’s exhale, Shane giving himself away.
It's like when good friends gather, perhaps around a fire in someone's backyard as the night settles or on the front stoop of your house, cigarette in hand—the setting doesn't matter. It's about the moment after the laughter quiets and the tone shifts, when you venture to say what's been heavy on the mind, so near the tongue, so hard to admit:
How you've grown impatient with the "state of summer's same."
How you feel alone with the person who should know you best.
How "there was no devotion / in our frozen poses."
How you said yes when you meant no.
These are the small confessions that Shane offers in each song, moments of too-familiar discontent and a longing for something deeper, truer. In the intimacy of sharing is much hope. The piercing lyrics of "Lucky a Hundred Times" are matched by startling gratitude ("sighing at the cold bedside / 'mother, won't you tell me when it feels likes flying?'") and the heartache of watching helplessly as a loved one struggles alone in "Marion, MT" is lifted with "swallow the stream you can't swim."
The lyrics and combination of old and contemporary sounds speak also to holding life loosely. There's a cycle of inhaling and exhaling in our bodies, of silence and speaking in our lives. Six years changes a song, changes a person. You don't know where you will go next or who you will be in the going. For now, Shane closes the album with the title song, "My heart is where I started / I am westbound."
Shane Leonard is a multi-instrumentalist and composer living in Eau Claire, WI. In addition to Kalispell, you can find him performing with Field Report, The Stray Birds, Kristin Andreassen, JE Sunde and others.