If you have lived in San Diego county for very long, you probably know the spot: just off the road that straddles Mount Laguna over 6,000 feet high, there is a vista point, pines and live oak overhead echoing the wind with a muted roar. From here you can see almost forever, past canyons, hills, and desert mountain ranges that reach the blue strip that is the Salton Sea, 50 miles away and beyond. The transcendent feeling you get at such a place — the conjoining with the wind and trees — has a soundtrack, and it is the music of the Tree Ring.
Coming from virtually nowhere to garner substantial local recognition in the last three years, the Tree Ring plays acoustic music, most of it about the great outdoors. Some of the song titles from the band’s two albums include “River Mouths,” “The North Grove,” and, of course, “Salton Sea,” and their lyrics and website have a distinct Walden Pond vibe.
The band’s songwriter and leader is Joel P West, an Oregon native who moved to San Diego in 2002. The other members of the band have varied over the course of the past few years.
“The Tree Ring started after I spent a handful of years performing my music live with a rotating cast of friends,” West says. “When this particular group found themselves together developing the songs to work with string instruments in a more chamber-influenced setting, we knew it was special and decided to start writing songs that focused on the unique elements that the ensemble brought to the table.”
The original core group included West on guitar, keyboards, and vocals, with violinist Kelly Bennett, double bassist Doug Welcome, and drummer Darla Hawn. During the recording of their first album, guest keyboardist Jon Titterington became a part of the core group and after Welcome relocated, Daniel Rhine became the primary bassist. Other musicians to appear prominently on the band’s albums and videos have been cellist Erica Erenyi and violist Travis Maril.
Their independently produced debut album, Generous Shadows, was funded by a Kickstarter campaign. Recorded, appropriately, in mountainous Idyllwild in 2010, the striking batch of unusual, string-dominated songs conveyed pastoral canvases for West’s lyrics. Listeners took notice, and the album won Best Americana Album at the 2011 San Diego Music Awards.
For their next project, the band recorded an album with a chamber music group, Camarada, after being awarded a grant from the San Diego Foundation’s Creative Catalyst Fund.
“It’s a really nice musical conversation to bring in people who are more familiar with the classical side of their instruments, particularly for me as a writer because I don’t come from that background and often work with a restricted understanding of what is possible,” says West.
The new album, Brushbloom, captured same ethereal sound and outdoor themes as its predecessor, and again struck a chord with its audience: it was selected Best Americana Album at the 2013 San Diego Music Awards.
“Awards for music are funny to us, but it means a ton to hear that people enjoy our work and that we are recognized as being a part of the music community here in San Diego. We don’t play live very often, so there is a tendency to wonder whether or not people are listening or connecting with the work, and getting that kind of recognition gives us a boost to feel like we should keep making new music.”
The band has a very unique sound with violins, cellos, and organ mixed with acoustic guitar floating beneath West’s vocals in a rarefied atmosphere that is tough to categorize, or to find other groups with a similar style. Asked about influences, West lists Leonard Cohen, Debussy, Ravel, Elliott Smith, Thom Yorke, Van Dyke Parks, Randy Newman, and many others.
Both albums are available as downloads, but otherwise only on vinyl.
“We love vinyl because it encourages a more engaged listening process, allows for bigger artwork, and has a nice warm sound that works well with our recording process, which is to only record acoustic sounds in a room,” says West. “But as far as releasing on vinyl exclusively, it’s just a matter of economics; it doesn’t make a lot of sense to own a CD anymore and most of our audience would prefer a vinyl if they’re interested in a physical copy at all. We’ve also always included a download of the album with T-shirts, simply because I’d rather take home a T-shirt than a CD as long as I can get the digital copy of an album.”
The overriding theme in much of the band’s music is open air and… trees. Their website has an “Outdoor Guide to San Diego County” that includes detailed information about eight popular open space, hiking, and camping areas (including Torrey Pines, Lake Cuyamaca, and Palomar Mountain) annotated to show that certain songs on the Brushbloom album were inspired by these locales.
“Most of us grew up in the Pacific Northwest and tend to miss the more dramatic landscapes and the rhythm of living in an area where the natural world plays a stronger role in the day-to-day life. The developed areas of Southern California have a landscape that we invented: a dry desert with consistently warm weather, but with enough water trucked in to get to enjoy grass, trees, and flowers around our homes and parks. I find so much clarity when I feel small and dazzled by mountains, trees, and rivers, and I enjoy sharing those experiences with my fellow Southern Californians and others. Part of the goal of Brushbloom was to explore and highlight some of the beautiful natural areas in our backyard and try and help our San Diego community become more aware of them.”
The band has made several videos, posted online, which include outdoor elements; one shows them hiking on Mount Laguna, hauling their equipment, setting it up, and then performing the song “Salton Sea” before a live audience in a meadow, a “hike-in” show. West says these shows are a big part of the band’s mission.
“We’ve probably had the strongest reactions from our hike-in shows, I think because people have wound up having a peaceful and memorable day with friends and family that went far beyond our little performance. It seems that the music has become special to some people because they discovered it first in that context, or in a video that is focused on community and the outdoors. Otherwise I think the most flattering feedback we’ve gotten is from several people who have let us know that our music has been a companion on trips, and that it now provoked memories of those trips.”
As far as other gigs, the Tree Ring’s sound is difficult to translate to a live setting. Though not strictly a studio band, the group is selective in its stage show presentations.
“Most bands our age play in dimly lit venues where you have to stand in a hot crowd that is talking throughout the show, so we try to find places where people can sit down, and to bring in visual elements that are out of the ordinary, so that it’s more of an experience with friends than just a band playing on a stage,” West says. “We also love playing in living rooms where there’s less of a boundary between us and our audience, and where it feels like we are sharing rather than performing.”
West has been keeping very busy with soundtrack work, recently providing the soundtrack for the highly regarded feature film Short Term 12, which includes the excellent Tree Ring song “Brushbloom Glow.” And the rest of the band continues to move forward as well.
“We are planning on writing and recording another album throughout this spring but will not be setting any hard release or performance dates until it is finished; we’ve done that in the past for various reasons but are hoping to let the music breathe and develop naturally this time without a hard clock. Hopefully there will be another hike-in show when the weather gets warm again.”
The Tree Ring and its music seem to be especially organic phenomena, and so far, very satisfying ones. “One of my favorite things about music is how it can preserve memories of special places or times so strongly, so it means a lot to know that our music has done that for other people.”