Before embarking on a solo career, New Mexico-based singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Heather Trost contributed to a number of musical projects, most notably as one-half of A Hawk and a Hacksaw, her acclaimed folk-rock band with husband Jeremy Barnes. Drawing from Eastern European, Turkish, and Balkan traditions, the duo incorporated a new set of influences with each release, and their experiences living and traveling across Europe went on to inform Trost’s solo work, beginning with 2017’s Agistri, which is named after a Greek island. That record and its follow-up, 2020’s Petrichor, also allowed her to explore new sonic territory, pulling from space pop, psychedelia, samba, and soundtrack music to create a whimsical, labyrinth-like world she continues to inhabit on her latest LP, the enchanting Desert Flowers. Once again recorded with Barnes at their home studio, the album finds her deepening her relationship with nature and the unconscious while tightening her musical approach, offering warm hooks and gorgeous melodies that take you on a strange yet sweetly comforting journey.
We caught up with Heather Trost for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about being inspired by dreams, nature, traveling, and more.
The bio for the album mentions that you drew from “messages from the unconscious during sleep.” What has the relationship between creativity and dreams been like for you?
It’s almost like there’s no division or something. Sometimes it’s just an image that comes to me or a memory, and then a lot of times it’ll be very specific things that happen in my dreams that I then directly write down. I pretty much write my dreams down every morning when I wake up, and I’ve been doing this for like 10 years or more, so I have books and books and books of dreams. It’s just very rich material for lyric writing and creating images with my music.
How do you know which ones feel significant?
I mean, sometimes you have dreams and you’re like, “That makes no sense.” Or it’s sort of an everyday dream – a lot of times you dream about mundane things, which I think is like you’re processing what happens during the day. And then the big dreams, or some people call them archetypal dreams, it’s really drawing from something that’s bigger than us, drawing from the collective unconscious. But I feel like they send messages to you personally.
You said you’ve been writing them down for about 10 years. Are there any earlier dreams that you wish you had a record of?
I said 10 years, and actually, I think about it now and it’s more like 20 years. It’s 18 years, because it was when I moved to Budapest with my partner at the time, who now I’m married to. And I think in 2004 was when I earnestly every morning when I woke up would write down my dreams. But yeah, I had recurring dreams as a child. In a way, it’s almost like my subconscious knew that I wasn’t yet recording my dreams, so it just sent me the dream over and over again so that I would remember. [laughs] I used to dream a lot about being in a kind of labyrinth with lion statues. To me, a lion is this very powerful, archetypal symbol. I don’t remember every aspect of the dream, but I remember very clearly that image of the labyrinth, and then this lion. And then I used to have a recurring dream that my mom would leave me in the car when she went into a store. And I’m the oldest of four kids, so I had to take care of my siblings.
Two very different kinds of dreams. One almost feels ancient and mythical, while the other is very much tied to the real world.
Even when you didn’t write them down, did you feel an urge early on to turn things like dreams into some form of creativity?
I think so. I always respected dreams and felt that they were powerful messages. I guess I didn’t really know exactly what to do with them for a while; I knew that they were important, but it took me time to figure out how to use them in my creative process. But one of my first songs I ever wrote was when I was really little, maybe 10 or something, and I feel like that song was sort of fuelled by dream images. It was called ‘The Secret Garden’.
Sounds like it could be on Desert Flowers. Do you remember that song or other songs you wrote around that time?
Sadly, I don’t remember that song. But I think I think my parents have a tape of it somewhere, so I can probably go find it.
Do you tend to go back to and revisit your earlier work in general?
Oh, definitely. Actually, one of the songs on Desert Flowers, ‘You Always Gave Me Succor’, I actually started writing the lyrics for that song a couple years before I recorded it. And that song has to do with an experience I had when I was 10. I was sleeping at a friend’s house, and we we camped so we were sleeping in tents outside. It was very early in the morning, and I opened the tent and there was a coyote five feet away from my tent. We locked eyes and this electric feeling went through me, and and that image always stayed with me; the image of the coyote kind of became a sort of guide to my subconscious or the underworld. So that song draws from that memory, but I had to think about how to write about that memory for a while before I actually wrote the song.
What were you thinking about?
Sometimes experiences like that, I don’t realize the meaning until later. And I was thinking how there’s a reason that I always come back to this memory, and it dawned on me that the reason is that I take solace in nature. And this image of the coyote became a sort of guide to me; the idea that you can use nature as a means to access your creativity and your subconscious. It’s like our mother, you know.
[Jeremy Barnes walks into the frame] Jeremy Barnes: Hello! I just wanted to interject a little bit very quickly. I heard you talking a little bit about dreams. I just wanted to say one of the more enjoyable parts of early mornings at our house is Heather telling me her dreams from the night before. I don’t always remember my dreams, but when I wake up and I’m kind of in half-sleep, she’ll tell me what’s going on in her head from the night before, the stories, and it’s always really enjoyable.
I love that. Thank you for sharing.
[Jeremy is holding a dog] Heather Trost: This is Miqo’te. Actually, in my dreams, he’s a bird. [laughs]
You said you were 10 when you had that encounter with the coyote. Was that in Albuquerque? Did you grow up there?
I was born in New Mexico in Albuquerque. When I was nine, we moved to Washington, DC for nine months. And then when we moved back, we moved to the mountains outside of Albuquerque, so we lived in kind of a wild place after that.
Do you have any other memories that come to mind when you think about nature in relation to your upbringing?
Yeah, definitely. I often dream about the place where I grew up. There’s a lot of sagebrush and wild plants and a lot of juniper trees. It’s not very foresty, but it’s more high desert. So it’s drier, but there are still a lot of plants and wildflowers. I used to hike out in this field that was in front of our house, and you could just walk for a mile and just see a cow or coyote. And I found an antelope horn. I actually did a school paper on this type of antelope, it was called a pronghorn antelope. And I found out that it was endangered, so I felt very blessed that I had this present from the antelope.
The album is called Desert Flowers, so I’m assuming that connection with nature is something that was on your mind during the pandemic.
Yeah, definitely. I think recently, a lot of artists and people that I know are very concerned about what’s happening with our world, and reconnecting with nature is the first step in appreciating what will be lost. It’s melancholy, but I want to honour the nature that’s around me and the nature that I grew up with. I feel like during the pandemic, I realized how important it is to be present in the place, in the land, and have a connection with the land where you are.
I think the title was also inspired by the work of my friend who did the cover art, her name is Nani Chacon. She’s from here, and she’s very connected with the land and the people here. She actually does huge murals, so the cover is a close-up of a mural that she did that is two miles from where I live, and it’s on a wildlife nature preserve. So I wanted that image of the flowers that she painted so beautifully, and those are all local wildflowers that grow here. I just thought that the title also went with the artwork.
‘Sandcastles’ directly addresses this fragile relationship with nature. Where did your vision for the song come from?
I was trying to figure out how to put into words and music the sorrow that I feel about what’s happening with climate change and our world. But also this feeling that Mother Earth is bigger than we are, and she will still be here when we’re gone, basically. I was trying to figure out how to say that, and actually Jeremy helped me with some of the lyrics. We talked about it, and he was like, “Well, talk about her as a real person.” And I thought that was so great. So it’s kind of like a breakup song, like Mother Nature’s breaking up with us. [laughs] She can’t take any more abuse. She’s just done, you know.
We talked about New Mexico, but I was curious if you’ve also reflected on or were inspired by your travels in a new way during this time of pause.
Definitely, yeah. We’ve been very lucky to go to a lot of places, like Greece and Europe, and we did a tour in Brazil. Our last tour was actually in Japan, and it was a great place to end that travel. I would love to travel again, and I hope we do get to. But at the same time, it’s become more precious, I think. We toured for years and years and years, and I think the whole music industry, especially if you’re not a huge band or a super famous musician, I don’t know that it’s sustainable in the way that we were doing it before in some ways.
Another thing about traveling as a musician is you meet people that you wouldn’t normally meet if you were just a tourist, because it’s this universal language that brings people together. We met some lovely, amazing people on our travels and we developed deep friendships with people that we just don’t see anymore. And that’s hard, it’s bittersweet. And travel and getting to go places definitely inform my songwriting.
There’s obviously a lot of conversation around the sustainability of DIY touring at the moment. One thing I think is often lost is that you’re not just taking your music to places; you also take things from them. Especially with A Hawk and a Hacksaw, you obviously brought a lot of the influences that you absorbed back into the project, which also fed into your solo work.
I can’t imagine releasing our first A Hawk and a Hacksaw record and then the pandemic happening. That would probably crush us. My heart really goes out to young DIY bands that are just starting. Getting a tour canceled when you’re just a young band starting out, that would be so devastating. If the pandemic happened when we first started touring, I don’t even know that I would be a musician still, because that’s how we made a living and we connected with people. It gave us opportunities that were vital to us developing as a band.
As with your previous records, you worked closely with Jeremy during the recording process. I was wondering if you could share one new thing that inspired you about him while making Desert Flowers – this could be related to collaboration or partnership more broadly.
It’s great living with someone and being in a relationship with someone that we’re able to work together, and it just fosters both things, I think. Jeremy has been getting really good at bass guitar, so he played bass on almost every song, except for ‘You Always Gave Me Succor’. I really appreciate Jeremy coming up with some of the bass lines for this record, and also his drumming, of course. I think he was listening to a lot of dub at the time. A lot of his bass lines inspired some of the melodies that I then wrote. And also, his recording skills, I feel like they’re just getting better and better and better. As an engineer and a producer – I mean, I think he was good to begin with, but I can see his skill really getting great.
Is there anything that’s inspiring you creatively right now or any projects that you’d like to talk about?
I’m always writing songs, so I’m starting to think about the next – I don’t know if it’ll be the next record, but I’m always writing songs. I would love to work more with film, writing music for film and TV. I don’t have anything lined up, but we worked with Peter Strickland for his latest film [Flux Gourmet]. It’s been a long-going collaboration with him, so I think we’ll definitely continue to work with him in the future. I want to get better at visual art, too.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.