Smile Politely

Beautiful music that matters

Our music editor Patrick Singer gets all of the credit for introducing me to the Soil & the Sun. A year ago, in March 2012, he promoted their show at Cowboy Monkey in the Overture. Reading that they were an “octet” (now, a septet) immediately intrigued me: “Eight members? I’ll bet there are strings!” And sure enough, there they were in the photo, playing cellos and violins. Then I listened to the mp3 that Patrick so graciously provided. The song was “Raised in Glory,” and I was blown the hell away. I loved the song so much that I goofily wrote to Patrick, thanking him for bringing this band into my life.

What Patrick (and of course the band) had brought into my life is an exuberant, lyrical orchestra with a driving rhythm that pulls you in until you can’t help but join them in whatever type of musical worship they’re engaged in. If you think I’m exaggerating, I give to you “Raised in Glory,” from their first album Wake Up, Child. If it’s possible for an atheist to have a spiritual experience, I have one every time I hear this song.

Yes, the Soil & the Sun is a band that writes and sings music of a decidedly spiritual nature. They’ve labeled their sound as “Experiential Spiritual Folk-Rock/New Mexican Space Music.” Their subject matter is similar to that of mewithouyou and Anathallo:

Sewn in weakness
Raised in power
Sewn in dishonor
Raised in Glory

Raise them up
Oh King of Justice

Child of David
Wash your hands
Son of David
Wash their feet

Their sound brings to mind Sufjan Stevens, Arcade Fire, and, sometimes, Iron & Wine (though Soil & Sun is a bit more majestic than all of these bands). But comparing them to anyone is kind of senseless. Their music is wholly unique. One of my favorite things about their songs is how they will sometimes begin with soft, lyrical melodies and gradually swell into intense, anthemic, choir-like gloriousness.

“Who is He, Anyway?” from What Wonder is this Universe!

[[mp3 who_is_he_anyway]]

As lush and beautiful as the Soil & the Sun’s albums and videos are, you won’t experience their music fully until you see them perform it live. I attended their show at Cowboy Monkey last year, and it was astounding what they can do on stage. Keyboard, guitars, bass, violin, cello, percussion, two drummers. It was spectacular. Alex McGrath (pictured right) seems to disappear into another world when he’s singing. The entire band — all seven of them — works as one, and all of the emotion that the music creates soars out from them straight into the audience. What this band does on stage isn’t a concert; it’s an experience. Do yourself a favor and make it to their show this Friday.


A few weeks ago, I sent some questions to the band while they were still in Austin at SXSW. They’ve been busy touring ever since, and Alex only just got his answers back to me last night.


Smile Politely: Did you enjoy South by Southwest? By all accounts it was a grand success for you.

Alex McGrath: We really enjoyed SXSW. All of the shows were well-attended and full of good vibes. We knew what to expect this time around, so we were more mentally prepared for the chaos…

SP: What brought your band together? Are any of you related? Had any of you played in other bands before forming The Soil & the Sun?

McGrath: Friendship is what brought our band together. A bunch of us went to college together and started playing music at coffee shops and such around that time. Then we all moved up to Michigan and met the rest of the members. We never expected it to take the form that it has taken, but we’re very grateful for it.

SP: Are most (or all) of you from Michigan? Did you grow up in Grand Rapids? Do you plan to stay there?

McGrath: A few of us were in bands in high school, but we won’t mention any of those names here… 🙂

Only Ashley and Michael are originally from the Mitten State. Jacki, Will, and I are from Illinois, Ben is from Virginia, and Joanna is from Missouri. We do indeed love Michigan. I can see us being there for a while, but who can say what the future holds? We’re always up for an adventure.

SP: Who does most of the writing for the band? Is this a collaborative effort, or the inspiration of one or two of you?

McGrath: I usually present the band with a song structure and lyrics, and then we build the rest of the song from there. What happens from that point is different for every song. Sometimes it happens in a couple of practices, sometimes it takes several months to complete a song.

SP: In my opinion, one of the riskiest things a music writer can do is compare one band’s music to another’s and try to guess their influences. So I’ll ask you, who are your influences?

McGrath: We could probably write a whole article on each member’s musical influences, so I’ll keep it under control by just giving you a few of my favorites. The folk music of South America and Asia really inspires me. Some modern artists that I’ve listened to a lot recently are Múm, Bibio, O’brother, and Healing Power.

SP: Can you please explain what you mean by “New Mexican Space” music, because I’ve attempted to educate myself on this genre, and I’m coming up empty.

McGrath: When we dubbed our music as “New Mexican Space Music” it was really just for fun, but it kind of stuck (for whatever reason). It’s possible that people place too much importance on categorizing bands, so why not just invent your own genre?

SP: Your songs are decidedly spiritual in subject matter. Was this a conscious decision on the band’s part? Did you go into music specifically to sing about this topic, which seems very important to you? Or did writing about your beliefs, philosophies, and inspirations simply happen unbidden?

McGrath: Everything is spiritual. I’m realizing more and more that the distinction between what we call spiritual and physical is merely in the terms. I try to write honest songs about things that I think about and care about, so that happens to be things like being raised in Church, seeking truth and love, and reconciling what we want to see in the world with what actually happens.

SP: Which song, among your entire catalog of songs, are you most proud of?

McGrath: It would be so difficult for me to pick a favorite song of ours, because each one is like a little piece of who I am. Lately, our song “You Alone Know” has been really meaningful to me.

SP: Can you talk about playing in Champaign-Urbana in the past? I believe you’ve played here twice before, correct? What do you remember the most about our twin cities (if anything)?

McGrath: We’ve played in Champaign a few times in the past. We love coming through Champaign! We have some good friends in your city, so my best memories are the times we’ve gotten to spend time catching up with them.


the Soil & the Sun perform Friday, April 5, at 8:00 p.m. Opening acts are Kellen and Me and Motes. Tickets are $7. For more information, check out the Facebook event page.

Photo Credit: Andy Carretto.

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