For a good idea how steeped in the traditions of old-timey music Dori Freeman is, start with the relatively recent phenomenon known as YouTube, which is home to all sorts of videos featuring the Appalachian singer-songwriter performing Americana classics with her dad and granddad. The singer is just out of her teens in the clips, which range from a stripped-to-basics rendition of the folk standard “Hard Times Come Again No More” to the cowboy classic “I Ride an Old Paint”, but what stands out is the way that she sounds like an old soul.
“Those are from 2011, so I would have been about 20,” Freeman says, on the line from her countryside home in Galax, Virginia. “I’d performed a bit with my dad when I was a teenager—in high school I’d go to shows that he was playing and come up for maybe one or two songs. Then, later on, I started playing at this little series that my dad and my grandfather did at this little framing shop and art gallery that my family owns. It was one of the first places that I really performed.”
Fastforward eight years and Freeman has blossomed into one of the most buzzed-about singers in contemporary Americana. Last year’s critically lauded sophomore outing, Letters Never Read, showcased the singer as an artist who hasn’t forgotten her love of a sepia-toned time when gingham dresses were a thing and every parlour had a Philco 90 cathedral radio. But, smartly, Freeman also isn’t afraid to branch out on Letters Never Read’s 10 tracks, dabbling in easygoing twee pop for “Just Say It Now” and adding lounge-revival vibraphone to the Sunday-afternoon folk of “Turtle Dove”.
Freeman was raised on Americana and folk on the stereo around the house, and at jam sessions held by her dad and grandfather. As is often the case, she pulled away from the music she was raised on in her teens, becoming a Warped Tour kid obsessed with the likes of Motion City Soundtrack, Hawthorne Heights, and Fallout Boy.
“Then, when I was 15, I kind of took an interest in playing the guitar,” she says. “My dad had wanted me to do that for a while, and that’s when I started coming back around to traditional music. I fell back in love with country music and really got into exploring it more.”
Letters Never Read covers of Jim Reeves’s “Yonder Comes a Sucker” and Linda and Richard Thompson’s “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight” suggest Rufus Wainwright and Peggy Lee aren’t the only artists Freeman has an undying love for. Originals like “Lovers on the Run” and “Cold Waves”, meanwhile, suggest that life hasn’t been all honeysuckle and sunshine for the singer, the former exploring the many flavours of hell that are relationships, the latter coming at the issue of depression in a movingly languid fashion. At her best, she still sounds like an old soul. And if she’s found out anything since her 20s, it’s that she’s not alone.
“I hate this word and using it, but it’s the only one I can think of using right now,” she says. “So I’ll say that it’s very cathartic to write songs, and to write about things you’ve experienced that were hard to work through, or traumatizing even. For me, it’s a way of cleansing myself of those emotions and feelings. Also I know how much songwriting from other people has helped me through hard times. So I hope, by being honest, that what I’m writing might help somebody else.”