Long before Mary Sutton finished Canyon—her new album under the moniker Saloli—she had the songs, and she had an idea of why they seemed like a family.
“There was nothing tying them together other than the fact that I used a delay pedal, and I thought, ‘Well, that’s really boring,’” she said. “And then I started to explore the idea of a canyon. A lot of the songs had naturalistic titles anyway, and I started to get this vision of a canyon.”
The title of Canyon describes the main relationship between Sutton’s two albums, both of which were released by influential, experimental label Kranky Records. Her 2018 debut, The Deep End, explored her warm, easygoing synth compositions, formed somewhere between her extensive classical training and her consideration of the spare piano works of Erik Satie. Canyon, on the other hand, shimmers and pulses— sometimes wistfully, sometimes menacingly—as Sutton’s synthesizer is processed through the delay pedal. Putting it simply, the songs on the latter sound like cousins of the songs on the former, ricocheting and reverberating through a canyon.
With the songs and the vision in place, Sutton needed only a nudge to stumble upon the concept behind Canyon. It came on a visit home, when she saw a portrait of a bear painted by her father, Cherokee artist and flute-maker Jerry Sutton.
“My dad was just telling me the story of the bear, and how it’s considered the closest to humans among the animals,” Sutton said. “The idea is that bears stand upright and they forage with their hands. They have these humanistic qualities, and they have everything they need in the world around them. That inspired my dad to make the painting.”
In the bear, Sutton saw herself: She had written many of the songs on Canyon out of necessity – to prepare for a concert – or in response to some event in her life. She was resourceful, using the delay pedal to extract new sounds from her Sequential Circuits MultiTrak synthesizer after trying other synths and finding them to be cumbersome. She used what she had around her to meet her needs.
“I realized at some point, like, ‘OK, I am the bear. This is really just like me going about my life,’” she said. “I’m not in a canyon and I’m not a bear, but the basics of our lives aren’t that different.”
That’s true to an extent, but just as Sutton doesn’t hibernate for the winter, no bear has ever created an album of synth tunes intended to evoke a day in the life of a bear in a canyon.
Canyon's opening track “Waterfall” rumbles and churns until it begins building to a sparkling crescendo. “Lily Pad” perfectly replicates a meandering stroll down a slightly crooked, sun-dappled path. The off-kilter melody of “Full Moon” feels mysterious and playful, while “Nighthawk” surrounds a beating-heart rhythm with buoyancy and a sudden, somewhat disorienting key change. And the heavily arpeggiated closer, “Sunrise,” sounds just like a gorgeous sunrise over, say, a canyon wall.
Sutton said she doesn’t mentally transport to a canyon when she’s playing these songs because she’s too busy trying to breathe and focus and play the right notes. But she does hope the album gives listeners an opportunity to exit reality and become their version of the bear, even for just a bit.
“I’m interested in people letting their imaginations go where they go,” she said. “So any kind of seed I can plant that gets people thinking about their connection with nature, that makes me happy.”