In 2008, singer-songwriter Rachel Ries (pronounced "reese") had most everything she thought she'd ever want. She had recorded two successful records, cut a new one, Country E.P., with Anaïs Mitchell, and was bringing more fans under the spell of her articulate, jazz-inflected folk. Which does little to explain why she walked away. Now, after three years of silence, Ries, 33, who at least temporarily has found a home in Vermont, has returned to her musical career with a sparkling new record, Ghost of a Gardener, and a new outlook on the career she once abandoned.
The child of Mennonite missionaries, Ries spent her early years in Zaire, then moved with her family to a Mennonite settlement in South Dakota, which she describes as "a very well-educated community of farmers and musicians and thespians and a very odd farming town."
In both places, music surrounded her. Following along in hymnbooks, she learned to read music before she could read English. At age 5, she petitioned her parents for a violin and spent the early years of high school playing violin and piano and building her vocal dexterity in choral groups.
The first fracture in Ries' musical life came in her mid-teens, when she decided that classical forms didn't satisfy her need for personal expression. She picked up a guitar and started writing songs. After a brief stint at college ("It was apparent they weren't going to teach me what I needed to learn," she says), Ries plunged into international rambling as she tried to figure out her next steps. She knew she wanted to be a professional musician but had no idea how to realize her dream.
During a sojourn in the Southwest, Ries dropped in on the legendary Kerrville Folk Festival, something she describes as a revelation.
"I realized that there are people like me who are obsessed with ... this humble art that matters," Ries says, sipping a cup of tea on the sofa of her Montpelier apartment. "And they were doing it on this small, manageable real-life scale."
In 2003, Ries headed to Chicago, where she took the leap into the open-mic scene and began to pursue her dream in earnest. She toured on her own and with Mitchell, whom she had met at Kerrville.
"We played the weirdest, most amazing, tiny, out-of-the-way places, country stores, house concerts, church basements, for tips and wine and hopefully a guest room or a couch," Mitchell recalls in an email.
Ries cut her first record, For You Only (Waterbug Records) in 2005, followed by a self-produced album, Without a Bird, in 2007.
Yet as Ries' career blossomed, so did her doubts. Simply put, the life of a rising star was beating the hell out of her.
"It all began to feel smaller, colder and hungrier than I wanted," she says. "I felt like I wasn't being a good person. I was stressed, and my immune system was shot."
But Ries' health wasn't the only reason she walked away from music.
"I also fell in love," she says. "I had been so in love with the music, and I didn't love it anymore. So I decided to love a person instead."
For three years, Ries didn't do a show or even write a song.
"I worked in coffee shops," she says. "I looked after kids. I cried a lot."
And eventually, she came to the conclusion that life without music just wasn't tenable. So she sat down and wrote a song.
The tune that ended the dry spell was "Words." The second track on her new recording, it fittingly describes the devastating absence of her voice and the exhilaration of its sudden return.
"unholy the days when I stood
in their wake
loneliest of hours
but joyful and mad
when they made it back
to alight on my loosened tongue"
Recorded in Chicago at Pieholden Suite Sound in the winter of 2012, Ghost of a Gardener brings together a number of longtime Ries collaborators. (Full disclosure: Ariel Bolles, sister of Seven Days music editor Dan Bolles, plays bass.) It was Ries' first adventure in a big studio — the one founded by the late Jay Bennett of Wilco — and the first time she had fully taken charge of implementing her musical vision.
"I had the bravery and the balls to do what I wanted," she says. "Before, I didn't think I could do that ... call the shots and trust myself to make the right call."
The result is a record that's lush, expansive and thrillingly changeable. Ries' fluent vocal modulations form a center around which the instrumentation shifts like the weather, from the rising hope of the piano intro on the record's opener to a hurricane of angsty guitar and synth on "I See It Coming." As Mitchell points out, the record showcases not only Ries' "exquisite" voice but another strength that often gets overlooked: her considerable compositional chops.
"People might not realize what a visionary arranger and producer she is," Mitchell says. "Her songs are each a little journey, you don't know where they're gonna go. There are always these bridges, these outros, these changes that are unexpected and feel exactly right."
Lyrically, the record is remarkable for the interplay of loss and frustration, hope and redemption, death and rebirth. But for Ries, the central theme is determination.
"Yeah, I quit," she confesses. "Maybe I messed up. But there is a lot of willfulness to reclaim my life, messy as that might be."
Outside the record, Ries feels that her exile from music, although painful, was necessary.
"I think sometimes you have to rip something out of yourself to see if it really needed to be there," she continues. "[Music was] all I ever wanted to do. I didn't know what my identity was without music. That can be pretty fragile ground."
For now, Ries is heading out on a four-month tour, including a stop at Signal Kitchen in Burlington on Friday, February 28. And this time, she'll be looking at her career with a new attitude.
"I am a complete and beautiful human without music," she says. "It is now what I choose to do. I feel like it is right for me, like I have something to give."