Coming from the coastal hills of Northern California, Ismay represents the work of singer, guitarist, and songwriter Avery Hellman, who draws inspiration from the natural landscape of the American West. At a young age, she was introduced to the musical world through a bluegrass festival that her banjo-playing grandfather, Warren Hellman, created, shaping her love of the old-time aesthetic and field recordings of early American folk music. She learned to write, sing, and play by listening to the songs of Emmylou Harris, Hazel Dickens, Mississippi John Hurt, and Leonard Cohen, as well as Alan Lomax’s field recordings. As Ismay grew older, artists such as Cat Power, Lee Hazlewood, Phosphorescent, Captain Beefheart, and Angel Olsen further influenced her work. It is the combination of these distinct forms of music that gave rise to her intricate, unique, and deep-rooted songwriting, ethereal vocals, and dynamic fingerpicking on the guitar.
At its heart, Ismay’s inspiration comes from her travels and studies of the American West on horseback, and her work on her family’s ranch in Petaluma, California. The stories she finds from books and journeys spark a songwriting style that weaves complex natural symbolism into the characters and places she sings about. Nearly every aspect of Ismay can be followed into a deeper meaning, including the name itself. It came from a non-fiction book entitled Bad Land, which details the history of the unforgiving landscape of eastern Montana, including the story of a small town named Ismay.
Ismay began in 2015, and performs as both a solo artist and with an accompanying band, combining her electric fingerpicking guitar with drums, bass, and violin. Ismay has appeared throughout the West Coast at music festivals such as Hardly Strictly Bluegrass and Strawberry Music Festival; at renowned venues such as the Great American Music Hall, Slim’s, the Golden State Theater, and the Mystic Theater, and as an opening act for acclaimed artists including Justin Townes Earle, Robert Earl Keen, Chuck Prophet and the Mission Express, The Mother Hips and the Brothers Comatose.
For her largest horseback journey, Ismay traveled to the Klamath River in an effort to explore the connections between humans, nature, environmental justice, songwriting and creativity. She named this project Songs of the Klamath, expressing her experience along the river with a short film, audio storytelling, and songwriting. Through these works she tells the story of how wild horses stole her mule, and what those who live along the Klamath River see in a place unlike any other.
It was these experiences traveling along the Klamath River and performing around the country that drove Ismay to create her first EP, Songs from a River. Recorded along the Klamath onto an old cassette tape machine, and at Studios in Stinson Beach CA, San Francisco CA and Nashville TN, her recording debut features rich arrangements and experimental recording methods. The studio tracks were produced by Tim Bluhm (Sarah Lee Guthrie, Johnny Irion, Nicki Bluhm) at Panoramic Studios and engineered by Robert Cheek (Band of Horses, Chelsea Wolfe), with string arrangements recorded in Nashville by Brad Jones at Alex the Great Recording (Justin Townes Earle, Nancy Griffith, Yo La Tengo). The field recordings were produced by Eric Drew Feldman (Polyphonic Spree, PJ Harvey) in San Francisco.
Weaving natural symbolism into this coming-of-age story, Songs from a River explores the way in which a connection to place shapes and parallels songwriting and recording.
The first single River of Light (Through the Inland Empire) will be available on Spotify on December 1st, and the full EP will be released on February 9th.