Mary Sutton, aka Saloli

Mary Sutton, aka Saloli, takes on our quick-fire question machine

photo: adam torres

Hello Mary, where are you right now and what can you see?

“I am sitting wrapped in a pregnancy pillow called a Cocozy, it is exactly what it sounds like – a cosy cocoon! I can see my border collie, Santo, who has one blue eye and one brown eye, he’s very cute. I’m a cat person, I have three cats, but I’ve inherited two dogs through my partner so we have five pets and a baby on the way!”

Saloli is the Cherokee word for squirrel – is it a nickname, or do you just like squirrels?

“I do like squirrels, but not as much as my cats and dogs do! Saloli has been my name since birth, though it’s not my government name. My dad named me Saloli – I once asked why, and he said it was one of the words he could remember from Cherokee language classes.”

You are a member of the Cherokee Nation, – how important is your heritage to you?

“It’s important to me in that it is very local and present – my parents have a house in Tahlequa, the capital of the Cherokee Nation, and I have visited Tahlequa since as long as I can remember.”

What does being Cherokee mean to you?

“It’s all I’ve ever known, but it has taken me a while to understand that it is not just family lore, but I am legitimately a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. Anyone who can prove they are descended from someone on the original tribal registry, called the Dawes Roll, or if their ancestor was enslaved by a person on the original registry, can apply for citizenship. Applying for citizenship was a big deal for me. I felt an incredible connection not just to the Cherokee Nation, but to what it meant to be affiliated with a tribe.”

You’re an accomplished pianist, your dad is an artist and flute maker. Why did you pick piano and not flute?

“It’s not that I chose piano over flute. I’ve taken my flute out and messed about on it since I was little. My dad would wake me up every morning playing the flute and it drove me crazy. Now I think back on it and it’s really sweet. He is an incredible and intuitive flautist, he taught himself to play and it sounds gorgeous. I think hearing my dad must have really seeped into my ear and I see it reflected in my melody construction at times.”

Your debut album for Kranky, ‘The Deep End’, was the first time you’d composed for synth?

“In Portland, where I live, a lot of friends play synth so it’s in the air. I had played one in a band before, but I got asked to play a solo gig at a clothing-optional sauna, and so I had to sit down and come up with something I could play as a stand-alone set.”

A performance in a clothing-optional sauna? That sounds like quite an unusual evening?

“Yes and no… we have clothing-optional beaches and I had been going to this clothing-optional sauna for years, so I knew what to expect.”

Do your synth tracks tend to be composed or improvised?

“All composed. I write everything down using traditional classical notation. I like picking my favourite notes and keeping them as a drawing, seeing the shapes of the melodies on the page. It’s very satisfying.”

Both of your LPs on Kranky have been composed and performed on a Sequential Circuits MultiTrak – a very specific choice

“I was a tenant in an artists’ warehouse where my neighbour had a synth collection, and he let me borrow his Sequential Circuits MultiTrak. It’s touch-sensitive, so like a piano in that the velocity of your finger on the key affects the volume. I have tried other synths, but haven‘t connected with them yet. I can’t exactly tell you why, but I would be open to having another synth.”

The new album, ‘Canyon’, evokes a day in the life of a bear

“My dad had this incredible painting of a bear, which I loved. I had already composed all the music for the album, but I saw it and thought that something about the bear painting would make an incredible album cover.”

So each track channels a different episode in the bear’s daily explorations?

“It didn’t all come to me at once with any sort of coherent concept. I would play a show and write a new song for that show. There was a rave in the forest, which became ‘Yona’. Then there was a jazz improvisation concert – ‘Full Moon’. I played a show at a skating rink and then the next day I composed ‘Waterfall’. So in a way I am the bear, just going through my life, writing these songs as the moment arises.”

The track ‘Yona’ – “bear” in Cherokee – is exactly how you’d imagine a bear sounds!

“Thank you! It was composed way before the bear concept, but that helped me tie everything together. Then one day, I was listening to it, and it was clear to me that was ‘Yona’!”

Are there wild bears near where you’re based in Portland, Oregon?

“Apparently there are bears living in Forest Park, which is a seven-mile stretch of forest on the west side of the city. I have only seen a bear once or twice in my life, when I was in Northern California. I felt quite cautious and distanced myself pretty quickly!”

What’s next for you? A follow-up that looks at a day in the life of a squirrel?

“That would be nuts.”

Saloli’s ‘Canyon’ is out on Kranky

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Synthmeister Benge is all set for the inquisition provided as usual by our quick-fire question machine