At fifteen, Dead Horses frontwoman Sarah Vos’ world turned upside down. Raised in a strict, fundamentalist home, Vos lost everything when she and her family were expelled from the rural Wisconsin church where her father had long served as pastor.
“My older brother was diagnosed with schizophrenia and my twin had mental illnesses and cognitive disabilities,” explains Vos. “When the church kicked us out, they basically told my dad, ‘If you can’t lead your family, how can you lead your church?’”
What happened next is the story of Dead Horses’ stunning new album, ‘My Mother the Moon,” a record full of trauma and triumph, despair and hope, pain and resilience. Blending elements of traditional roots with modern indie folk, the songs are both familiar and unexpected, unflinchingly honest in their portrayal of modern American life, yet optimistic in their unshakable faith in brighter days to come. Earthy and organic, Vos’ songs often reveal themselves to be exercises in empathy and outreach; she writes not only to find meaning in the struggles she’s endured, but also to embrace kindred souls on their own personal journeys of self-discovery. As much as the album is a reckoning with the past, it’s also an effort to shape the future, to build a community based around art and love and beauty and acceptance, a community to replace the one she was so brusquely robbed of as a child.
“At the time we were expelled, we lived in the church’s parish house,” explains Vos. “Suddenly, my father was unemployed and my family was homeless. My parents couldn’t afford insurance for the medical care my siblings needed. We were kicked out and completely abandoned.”
However, Vos’ love of music carried on after she left the church.
“Almost half of those services [were] just singing hymns,” she reflected in a recent interview. “I also went to a parochial school, so I had to memorize hymns and Bible verses all day, too. When I really look back, before I had the chance to explore music on my own, that was really central. Even the way I write songs [today] is reminiscent of hymns. That’s maybe why I was so drawn to folk music to begin with: it’s geared towards communities singing it together.”
By the time Vos turned 18, her family had begun to get back on their feet. She headed to Milwaukee for college, and there, came to terms with revelations about her sexuality that her religious upbringing had forced her to repress. The mix of freedom and relief and shame and guilt was overwhelming, and a depressive breakdown ensued.
“I couldn’t take care of myself,” she remembers. “I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t do anything. I stopped going to classes, and then I dropped out altogether and moved back home to Oshkosh. That’s where I met Dan.”
When bassist Daniel Wolff and Vos first started playing music together, it felt as if the clouds had finally parted. Vos introduced songs she’d been writing since high school open mics, Wolff learned a new instrument for the band (the double bass), and within months, they had earned a devoted local following. Regular gigs led to steady residencies led to regional touring and their first recordings. Two of the band’s original members ultimately left the group due to opioid addictions (“I still see the pawn shop sticker every time I look at my guitar tuner,” remembers Vos), but the Dead Horses moniker the pair created as a tribute to a friend who’d over-dosed from heroin stuck even after their departure.
‘My Mother the Moon’ is the band’s third album, and it follows hot on the heels of their acclaimed 2016 release, ‘Cartoon Moon,’ which Wisconsin Public Radio called “equally beautiful and effortless.” That record prompted the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel to declare Dead Horses a Band To Watch and earned them honors for “Best Album,” “Best Americana/Bluegrass Artist,” and “Best Female Vocalist” at the 2017 WAMI Awards. American Songwriter called Vos “a compelling vocalist…who carries every tune with her husky, deeply emotional tone that feels lived in and real,” while No Depression hailed her songwriting as “beautiful and fresh.” With a fleshed out touring lineup, the group logged countless miles, sharing bills along the way with Trampled by Turtles, Mandolin Orange, and Elephant Revival in addition to making festival appearances from Bristol Rhythm and Roots to WinterWonderGrass.
When it came time to record ‘My Mother the Moon,’ Vos and Wolff traded Wisconsin for Nashville to collaborate once again with producer/drummer Ken Coomer (Wilco, Uncle Tupelo). Cut primarily live in the studio over the course of two weeks, the album is raw and understated, drawing its potency from the power intimacy and hushed revelation. With a sound that calls to mind everything from Joni Mitchell to Gillian Welch, Vos draws on a Biblical lexicon in her lyrics, but the gospel of Dead Horses belongs to no particular religion. Instead, these are songs of the people, stories of Vos’ own efforts to come to terms with her turbulent upbringing as well as stories of the men and women she grew up with in a rural America.
“As much as I want to express the narrative of my own life within the songs and the lyrics, this album is also naturally very reflective of what I’m observing every day on the road,” Vos explains. “One of the hardest things in life is watching your family suffer, to be so close but unable to ease their pain. Visiting my siblings in psych wards hurt me in a way that I’m still not sure I’ve made sense of. While I can look back now and say that it maybe wasn’t conducive to me developing in a healthy way as a young person, I can see that it instilled such a sense of empathy in me. As much as that can feel like a weakness sometimes, I think it’s also a great gift. An essential part of any Dead Horses song or show is that sense of compassion for strangers.”
On the gently fingerpicked “Swinger in the Trees,” Vos uses a Robert Frost poem as a jumping off point to explore the ways in which we isolate ourselves, while the waltzing “My Many Days” reckons with how we find fulfillment with our limited time on this Earth, and the tender “Darling Dear” comes to terms with the fact that our closest loved ones will always, in some ways, remain a mystery to us. Even when Vos approaches the political, as she does on “Modern Man” and “American Poor,” she does so on a very personal scale.
“Poverty doesn’t discriminate,” she reflects. “If you’re poor, you’re poor, but there are a lot of ways to be poor. You can be poor in spirit or poor in knowledge. Ignorance is one of the deepest kinds of poverty.”
Perhaps the album’s most arresting moment arrives with closer “Ain’t No Difference,” a heartbreaking, elegantly orchestrated track that swings manically between major and minor keys. Inspired by a vivid memory of a night of bitter conflict in her childhood home, Vos sings, “The house is gone now / It’s an empty lot now / There ain’t no difference.”
Far from obliterating the past, though, ‘My Mother the Moon’ draws strength from it. It’s an album of catharsis and redemption that comes at a time when both are in high demand and short supply. Sarah Vos may have lost the community that raised her, but with Dead Horses, she’s raised an entirely new one, and this time, everyone’s welcome.