“I’ve been having these interactions with strangers. I think people can tell when you’re working on yourself.”
We’re 30 minutes outside of Nashville shooting the music video for “Good Death,” the opening track of Rachel Gore’s debut EP. The concept is simple, but specific: Gore, standing somberly in front of several primitive Baptist churches, intercut with shots of nature. The term “A24 vibes” is thrown around as a continuity guide. A few days prior, we perused the list of Tennessee churches on the National Register of Historic Places to create an itinerary. We ranked our favorites, factoring in distance and condition.
Currently, Gore is laying down at the base of a tree outside New Bethel Cumberland Presbyterian Church. She’s wearing a white Victorian nightgown that she bought from a plant shop, holding daisies picked from the edge of the parking lot. Ants crawl around her head. Cinematographer Corbin Eaton stands over her, adjusting the shot. I’m just out of frame, manning the windshield shade that serves as our light diffuser. She’s been talking about this specific shot for several days, but what she doesn't know now is that it won't even end up in the final cut of the video.
We’re seconds from wrapping when a mid-2000s Jeep Cherokee pulls up to the front of the church. This is what our trio has been dreading all day, the moment we’re all indicted for trespassing on sacred grounds and chased out of the unincorporated community by pitchfork wielding locals. The quiet towns have been good to us thus far. The only person we've even spoken to was a church neighbor, who assumed we were stranded with a broken down car. Surely our luck with kind strangers was bound to run out.
From the Cherokee, the pastor of New Bethel steps out and waves to us. He’s wearing a button up shirt tucked into blue jeans, with a complicated pattern on his tie that I don’t get close enough to to identify with a confident level of accuracy. His wife steps out of the passenger side door, and accompanies her mother from the backseat. Our collective guilt sets in. How naive of us to think we could get away with desecrating this property for the sake of self-interest without repercussions. Before we have a chance to flee the scene, the pastor invites us inside. He remarks that they don’t start for another hour, and people typically show up late. As the only member of our group who didn’t grow up in church, I restrain myself from asking what event they are holding on a Sunday evening. I’m still unsure of the answer to my unvoiced question, but I know it would’ve been the wrong thing to say.
An important element to note here, and the one thing saving us from eternity in hell, is Gore’s unwavering authenticity. The concept, while it deals with her questioning of her own faith, is in no way ironic or farcical. It’s not her using churches as a symbolic prop to show herself leaving to then find true spirituality in nature. It’s about forging connections between the opposing forces that she feels drawn to, rather than choosing just one path to follow. The song, and the EP as a whole, are about seeing the commonalities between what we love and fear the most. For Rachel Gore, that love is music. And that fear is death.
I don’t feel the need to sit down with her for a formal interview for the same reason that I don’t feel a need to conceal my bias toward her: she’s my girlfriend of four years. I’ve witnessed every step of her process for developing this concept. I’ve observed her in the throws of existential dread. I’ve seen her pinpoint those feelings, and listened as she articulated them through music.
Forgotten Woman of Folk is a metamodernist concept album that seeks to disprove its own core hypothesis. The title track spells it out in a niche history lesson for mid-century folk enthusiasts. Gore tells the respective stories of Connie Converse and Judee Sill, two singer-songwriters who died (presumably, in the case of Converse) before their work garnered significant recognition. Both of these women embody a duality that Gore feels deeply: a desire to create something meaningful before you die, and a fear of perceived failure. Converse and Sill were largely unsuccessful in their careers, but are regarded today as pioneers of the singer-songwriter genre. A story that begs the question: is it too much to ask to live long enough to taste the fruits of your labor?
Gore wrestles with this in the song’s lyrical refrain. “If I’m destined to become a forgotten woman of folk/then I’ll be in good company/how sad, how lovely.” She circumvents failure by redefining the very idea of success. It seems that losing isn’t even possible if the people you look up to never won.
Her death anxiety is less superficial than that, though. She isn’t kept up at night by thoughts of how she will be remembered when she’s gone. She doesn’t ruminate on what will be said at her funeral. Instead, she fears the unknown. This fear, she believes, stems from the way society “pushed the very normal fact of death away; handing our loved ones off to professionals once they pass.” She sought out to quell this anxiety through some mild exposure therapy. She started researching practices that celebrated death as a natural part of life. Through her exploration, she discovered natural burial.
Natural burial is an eco-friendly alternative to conventional burial options. No embalming fluid or other inhibitors of decomposition are used in the process. Bodies may be placed in biodegradable caskets, wrapped in quilts, or laid down in flower beds before being buried. The objective is twofold: to preserve land and reframe the way people connect with their loved ones that have passed.
Looking for a more tactile experience, Gore and I voyaged to Larkspur Conservation, Tennessee’s first natural burial preserve. Located at Taylor Hollow in Middle Tennessee, Larkspur Conservation is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the environmental and spiritual values that Gore felt undoubtedly called to. We hiked around the property. We saw deer, rabbits, and turtles. We read the memorial stones and visitor journal to ourselves, taking in the serenity of the silence.
“Good Death” illustrates the tranquility that one finds at Taylor Hollow. Gore imagines her own sendoff to the afterlife, complete with a flower bed and post-burial celebration. She embraces the duality of existentialism and the closing chapter of a life well-lived, giving the listener an idea of how she hopes to be remembered.
Ironically, the fear of death before creating something meaningful prompted Gore to push her songwriting abilities further than ever before. Her first fully formed effort at being a singer-songwriter is a portrait of a future in which she never made it as one. She’s coming to terms with what’s important to her. Her happiness isn’t dependent upon her success, it relies on whether or not she gave it her all.
It’s precisely this kind of genuineness that has sharpened her sense of introspection. She gives herself grace to live in the in-between spaces. She can have a strong faith, and still have a lot of questions about it. She can recognize the missteps of her spiritual path without abandoning it altogether. Living with her during this time gave me a unique insight into the creative process of an artist. My life suddenly became a vérité behind-the-music film, barring any jump cuts or closed doors.
I remember the moment Gore hit her breaking point. When the perception of a wasted life became too much to bear. Her dreams were on the back burner while everything else around her heated up. I watched her as she watched her contemporaries find success, like Phil Collins watching a guy watch someone drown. It all came to a head when we sat down to watch Judd Apatow’s 2017 Avett Brothers documentary. We were halfway through when she broke down in tears. She couldn’t stand the fact that she hadn’t been doing what she was put on Earth to do. She was selling herself short, romanticizing a plan B that felt more attainable. It’s easy to do in a city like Nashville, where everything feels competitive and working in the music industry is a safe alternative for daydreaming musicians. This can be a viable career move for many, but for Gore, it meant an instability in an even more important aspect of her life.
The switch flipped almost immediately. Within days, she began writing again. She wrote with brutal honesty about the things that she found interesting and scary. Death. Legacy. Spirituality. Over the course of a year, she poured her soul and her paychecks into the four songs that would ultimately become Forgotten Woman of Folk.
Via Facebook, she connected with Sarah Peacock, a Nashville-based Americana artist and producer. Gore had posted a cry for help in a local musician's group, asking how she could step up her production value without breaking the bank. She knew her home set up that she'd been using for years wouldn't quite cut it for these songs; they were worthy of investment.
Sarah Peacock's studio is remarkably antithetical to the image that one's mind conjures when imagining a young musician's dream scenario of transitioning from DIY to professional recording. It is not encircled by high-rises. There is no permanently established vocal booth with symmetrical soundproof panels. Far from Music Row, the space is more closely aligned with Gore's aesthetic. It's the loft of a cabin in a neighborhood with hardly any cell phone reception. Though it can't be seen in the music, it has the same charm that she seeks out in every other aspect of her life. It's cozy and inviting, not polished and cold.
The same can be said about the atmosphere that Peacock fosters in her studio. The two have long talks between takes, discussing each other's prospects both in and outside of music. When the duo reach a stopping point in their all-day sessions, Peacock prepares home-cooked meals that eventually become staple recipes in our own household.
Back at the church, Gore is making small talk with the pastor’s wife. She marvels at the personality of the humble building. The spaces between the light conversation stick firmly in the air, as if being buoyed by the thick Tennessee humidity. The pastor’s wife hints that Gore could put on an impromptu performance, but the only guitar in the room has some type of unidentified damage. "That's broken," the pastor says. We get two quick shots of her in the church and our crew bids farewell to New Bethel.
Where most would see common Southern hospitality, Gore sees something more abstract. It's almost like her own form of namaste. She says that people can recognize when you’re being genuine, when you’re trying. She believes in the idea of reciprocal sincerity, where people will meet you at the level of honesty that you give to them. She’s making music, but not for some temporary indicator of success. She’s making it because she needs to before she dies, to provide that same kind of honesty to herself.
Rachel Gore's debut EP, Forgotten Woman of Folk, is available on all streaming platforms on October 6th. Photos by Daniel Sheehan.