Dead Horses will bring an expanded ensemble to Eau Claire this week, but in all their configurations one facet of their music can be heard loud and clear: empathy.
That emphasis is made clear in a quote from lead singer-songwriter Sarah Vos on the bio page of the Milwaukee-based folk-Americana duo: “An essential part of any Dead Horses song or show is that sense of compassion for strangers.”
Vos elaborated on that point in a recent phone interview.
“I think that the ability to put oneself in another person’s shoes or to feel compassion for someone or empathy — I kind feel like that’s the root of all healing and all solutions for the things that we see around us on a large scale and small scale,” she said. “I think that’s the first step in solving those issues.”
For their concert Saturday in Pablo Center at the Confluence’s Jamf Theatre, Vos and singer-double bassist Daniel Wolff’s folk-Americana duo will add four musicians: brothers Ernie and Viktor Brusubardis on violin and cello, respectively; Ryan Ogburn on mandolin; and James Gallagher on percussion.
Dead Horses have released three albums, most recently “My Mother the Moon” in 2018, and this year they’ve already released a single titled “Family Tapes.”
Dead Horses’ music has earned praise from national media outlets such as Rolling Stone, which compared them to Americana stars Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, and NPR Music, which touted them as a band to see at the 2018 South by Southwest music festival. The latter praised the songs’ “evocative, empathetic storytelling.”
A lot in a name
Even the band name highlights the empathy that goes into the music. They chose Dead Horses, Vos said, in memory of a friend who passed away from a heroin overdose a number of years ago.
“We used to be pretty shy about talking about that because it it’s so heavy,” Vos said. “But as time has passed and the opioid epidemic has become more and more significant, affecting more and more people, I’ve found it important to talk about it more. And so we have.”
As Vos pointed out, most people know someone who’s been profoundly affected by the epidemic, something they hear about directly.
“(A)s we’ve talked about this at all the shows, almost every show someone comes up afterward and says, ‘Thank you for bringing that up because my cousin or my whoever it is has struggled with that,’” she said. “And it does feel like such a stigmatized thing, and it feels so much better to hear someone talk about it, and writing songs about hope and compassion.”
Vos sometimes turns her attention to subjects that touch on politics or social issues, but on a song such as “American Poor” the feeling that registers the strongest is, well, empathy rather than outrage. That’s intentional on her part.
“My goal kind of (is), how can I point out some wrongs or injustices I see without causing separation,” she said. “I guess I’m more interested and attracted to bringing people together rather than divide them.”
Vos herself is no stranger to the kind of personal circumstances for which empathy is a welcome comfort. The Bio section of their website tells of Vos’ upbringing in a fundamentalist home and the shattering experience in which her father was expelled as the longtime pastor of a rural Wisconsin church because her brothers suffered from mental illness.
But that section goes on to show how the folk-oriented music she was attracted to helped her heal and find her calling.
“And when I look back on my upbringing and a lot of the values that were taught to me were perhaps even detrimental to who I am, the value of love and compassion really makes up for all of that because that was very central to what I was taught,” she said. (She also pointed out in the bio that the singing of hymns in church helped instill a love of music.)
While the music and lyrics of songs such as “Swinger in the Trees” (inspired in part by the Robert Frost poem “Birches”) and “Darling Dear” shine with feelings of tenderness and understanding, Vos said the very act of performing does a lot to convey a feeling of unity.
“(W)e say that we’re going to the show ‘listening to music,’ but I think just as important as the music is actually the gathering together of everybody,” she said. “And for our shows, they are pretty emotional and hopefully thought evoking as well. But to do that together in a room with people while the music is being made and performed live I think can be a pretty intense experience to do that together with others.”
That is to say, music continues to be an anchor of strength for Vos.
“Maybe the highest thing it has done for me is help me deal with struggles that I’ve gone through and find different ways to think about and cope with reality and what my life is like and has been like,” she said.
Vos was talking a few days after the band returned from a tour she described as “a blast,” and she had had a chance to lay low, play a lot of guitar and relax. She said she’s looking forward to presenting the sound of the six-piece ensemble on this leg of the tour.
They have performed live with a number of configurations, Vos said, including with a four-piece that includes percussionist Gallagher and Ogburn on mandolin and bouzouki. They’ve done two or three shows so far with the Brusubardis. To make the most of their talents, Vos said, Wolff “kind of wrote out” parts for them.
“For me watching it looked like a cool challenge for him,” she said. It also will allow them to bring back some of their earlier material.
Since the release of “My Mother the Moon,” Dead Horses have chosen to put out singles rather than hold onto new material until they’re ready for their next full-length album.
“Our whole kind of recording and releasing thing is really open-ended right now,” Vos said. Saying that they have “a really great recording setup” at The Refuge, a studio and former monastery in Appleton, where they head when they have some free time and work on a song or two.
“It’s kind of a testament to the way the music industry kind of works right now for band like us that are, I guess I would call it, blue collar,” she said. “We’re really busting our tails working as hard as we can to build a project that’s going to continue to support us. So we don’t feel like we can do a full album and the campaign that would need to go behind it.”
Besides “Family Tapes,” they’ve recorded but haven’t released two more songs, with plans to return to the studio again.
“It may turn into an EP or I guess possibly could turn into a record,” Vos said. “It’s kind of cool to have it open-ended; it feels fresh.”