Painted upon the wild and surreal backdrop of the Rockies in winter, Up From The Bitterroot is a startling document of personal reflection and transformation.
Embroiled in an unraveling marriage and a crisis of direction, Skye Steele fled New York City to spend a January writing in a cabin deep in the woods of Montana’s Bitterroot Valley. “I was either hiding out or clearing my head, depending on who you ask.”
Steele set about a monk-like daily ritual that included collecting dream-journals at dawn, writing a song each morning, studying Bach’s sonatas for solo violin in the afternoon, and taking nightly runs by flashlight up the icy mountain road.
Returning home to New York in mid-winter and facing the bewilderment of moving on, Steele gathered an idiosyncratic band whose membership was dictated by deep personal trust rather than conventional concerns of instrumentation.
The quartet of multi-instrumentalist-improvisers spent the spring and summer refining the raw materials from the woods, finally entering the studio in early fall and recording basic tracks for an entire album live in two days. Throughout Up From The Bitterroot the band functions like a chamber ensemble, with instruments swirling around each other in improvised counterpoint, switching roles to shape the emotional arc of each song, and four unique voices coloring the fabric they collectively weave.
“Working on this record really became my anchor through a year and a half of bewilderment, loss, and a ton of change, so it was a little hard to let it go and call it done.” Steele explains. “But I see putting the album out as a way to give meaning and value to all that pain.”
A record this unusual should come as no surprise from a musician whose path has been anything but conventional. The son of an army officer and a classical violinist, Steele’s upbringing included years living on military installations, but also home-schooling and months-long cross-country trips in a Volkswagen camper—not to mention violin lessons from age three. Arriving in New York at seventeen to pursue a creative writing degree, Steele soon took to playing his fiddle in the subways for grocery money. His repertoire then ranged from Fritz Kreisler to Thelonious Monk, and before long he had fallen in with a crowd of jazz musicians who encouraged his hunger for improvisation, leading him to enroll in The New School’s jazz program.
From there the fiddler’s winding path twined on, opening myriad sound-worlds to an eager ear. A Belly Dance band played vintage Arabic pop at underground parties. A 20’s-style big band recorded with Rufus Wainwright for a Scorsese soundtrack. A Brazilian roots band wound it’s way from the mangroves of Recife all the way to the stage of Farm Aid where Willie Nelson sat in for a few numbers. A chance meeting with Vanessa Carlton at the Bitter End lead to an ongoing seven-year collaboration. Avant-garde legends Anthony Braxton and Butch Morris as well as Queens of the old Downtown like Joey Arias and Mx. Justin Vivian Bond tapped him for concerts. Gigs in 2014 added Deer Tick, Jolie Holland, and jazz legends Lee Konitz and Henry Butler to Skye’s resume. “I’ve gone from playing in the subways to playing at Carnegie Hall—and loved them both.”
Through a decade of paying dues, a restless spirit was gleaning grist for its mill, and on Up From The Bitterroot he steps forward with an unmistakable voice as singer, poet, and fiddler. Skye Steele’s tale of wrenching heartache, loss, and moving on, burns bright thanks to the broad palette of a well-traveled artist, and the afterimage will hang haunting before your eyes long after you turn away.