When Sage Fisher began developing new material for Dolphin Midwives, her idea was to make clean, straightforward music. Her previous album, Orchid Milk, was, in contrast, tangled and cracked, watery and thoughtfully unbalanced. But as she became immersed in the work of Alice Coltrane and Dorothy Ashby—two artists who also made music with the harp, Fisher’s chosen instrument—and spent time in Hawaii, where her parents live, she says she hoped to “paint this picture of this jungly, tropical feeling. A little bit of a jazzy, fluttery heart thing.”
Then the 2017 eclipse happened, and even though Fisher didn’t witness the totality, the experience had a vertiginous impact on her body. Soon after, a toxic personality re-entered her life briefly, leaving her rattled as she dealt with the reverberating echoes of past trauma. Liminal Garden—Fisher’s newest record as Dolphin Midwives—is a reflection of her dizzy, unsettled state of mind.
“It’s representative of how I think, and mirrors what happens to a brain during trauma,” she explains. “You just kind of stop and things can go blank for a second, or you re-remember at a different time. Things get pieced together and chopped up.”
Some elements of her original thesis are present (like “Satya Yuga,” a luxurious, sun-drenched nap on a bed of colorful flowers), but the rest of the album loses the gentle thrum of the harp in a thicket of electronic effects. “Junglespell” meanders pleasantly enough for two minutes until pulsating echoes and flashes of noise overtake the melody. “Labyrinth I” sounds as if those same harp tunes were interpreted by an overheating IBM 704 supercomputer.
Something about the rattled tone of Liminal Garden also feels reflective of the chaos of Fisher’s creative world. A decade ago, she was making avant-folk music under the name Nadine Moody, and her experimental sounds and ritualistic performances caught fire within the Portland underground scene; during an 18-month stretch starting in 2017, she was playing upwards of three local shows a week. It was a fulfilling period, but also one that forced Fisher to reckon with her lifelong battle with mental health issues.
“It’s quite an interesting choice that I made for myself, as a person who knows I have intense social anxiety,” she says. “I’m also severely empathetic so I’m always picking up on everybody’s thoughts and feelings. Also, I’m incredibly self-critical, and then I’m deciding to regularly get up on stage and share this very vulnerable stuff with people.”
Fisher attacks her work with purpose, building waves of sound from her harp, her voice, singing bowls, and a small array of effects pedals. It isn’t often easy to determine what she is vocalizing or the inspiration behind her work, but the raw emotion—positive or negative—comes out clearly.
As she looks forward to the release of Liminal Garden, Fisher is also looking beyond it. She’s already fleshing out new material, most of which is entirely made up of vocals, and which she says feels more personal than anything she has written before.
“It feels like me stepping into this power that is healing,” she says. “They feel more relational. A lot of times, the really abstract instrumental music can be hard for people to connect with. It feels good to certain people, but the voice feels more universal somehow.”