With her latest album North, Chicago songwriter Heather Styka is headed in the right direction. Styka dances where others fear to tread, cutting to the truth with gutsy vulnerability. She combines the lyrical intricacy of folk with a catchy melodic pop sensibility and the grit of classic country in songs that are smart and disarming. Call it folk, call it Americana, call it alt-country, but Styka’s heartfelt croon draws as much inspiration from classic warblers such as Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald as it does from Gillian Welch.
When longtime collaborators Beehive Productions approached Styka about making a new album, they suggested a plan she couldn’t turn down: the Adirondacks-based recording studio would bring all their gear to Styka’s family lake house in northern Wisconsin. And they would bring Danish backing band The Sentimentals, who have made a name for themselves accompanying Americana artists including Jonathan Byrd, Anna Egge, and Slaid Cleeves, both in the studio and on the stage.
In a matter of days, sequestered in a small log cabin on a lake, surrounded by maple and pine trees, Heather Styka and the Sentimentals recorded the entirety of North, tracking most of the album live as a full band. “So many artists are pushing back against that cookie cutter, auto-tuned, sterile studio approach,” says Styka. “When you work with the right people in the right space, the magic just unfolds. It’s a such pleasure to capture that organically.” While there’s nothing undeveloped about the clean, lush sound of North, the performances are evocative, immediate, and colored by the unconventional approach of an impromptu northwoods studio.
Topically, North travels through some familiar roots/Americana territory — love and loss, wanderlust and whiskey — but often, the heartbreak depicted is more civic than personal, with lines such as “Some folks wanna build a wall, some folks are gunning men down,” and “I went down to Coney Island, trying to chase down Woody Guthrie, ask if this land’s still my land, too.” Much of the album was written in the months following the 2016 election, and songs like “Correlation,” “O’Hare,” and “Love Harder” explore the question of how to respond to an increasingly divisive world. “My generation has a hard time with super direct political songs, but we still want to talk about issues,” says Styka. “We want honesty, we want to retain some cynicism, and we want to find the good in it all.”
Styka also continues to explore themes of place and direction on North. “Either way, I’m headed back to the cities of the north,” the first track intones. Styka recently returned to her home city of Chicago after a few years in Portland, Maine, followed by a couple years of heavy touring. “So many of my songwriter friends live in Austin, Nashville,” says Styka. “And I love those places. When I visit, I feel like I live there. But there’s something about cold cities like Chicago, it’s the shape of home.”
After growing up in the Chicago suburbs, Styka moved to the city to studying creative writing, meanwhile honing her song craft among Chicago’s long-standing folk community. “Chicago has such a rich musical history, especially with places like the Old Town School of Folk Music,” Styka explains. “I was definitely steeped in that tradition.” Her 2011 release Lifeboats for Atlantis brought her to national attention, hitting #3 on the FOLK-DJ charts. Styka’s honest, image-heavy songs have garnered her a number of awards, including being a New Folk Finalist at the Kerrville Folk Festival (2015, 2017) and official showcases at Folk Alliance International, NERFA, SWRFA, and FARM.
While living in Portland, Maine, Heather Styka released While This Planet Spins Beneath Our Feet. Recorded with Beehive Productions and printed by Styka on a 1901 letterpress in Maine, this 2014 release charted for four months on FOLK-DJ. Styka’s next album, The Bittersweet Tapes (2016), was recorded in Tulsa, Oklahoma on an old four track recorder with sparse, ethereal production by John Calvin Abney (John Moreland, Samantha Crain). These gut-punch pretty songs nod to traditional folk, classic country, and even garage rock, carried by Styka’s emotive vocals.
Live, Heather Styka comes off as something like Leonard Cohen crossed with Patsy Cline. Armed with a guileless, unvarnished delivery, she’s equal parts wordsmith and entertainer. Styka’s energetic shows feel as intimate and candid as late night conversation, peppered with a quirky sense of humor and confessional storytelling.
With the addition of The Sentimentals, North is something of a departure from Styka’s earlier intimate, haunting folk albums, but the direct and narrative poetry of her lyricism remains intact. “It’s still a bunch of unadulterated feelings. I tell stories about feelings. It’s like we’re on the same folky bummer road trip, but now we’re driving a convertible with friends in the back seat,” laughs Styka. “It’s fun, and it’s real. We need that now.”