One year ago, Claire Hitchins took a leap of faith. While volunteering on the West Coast, Hitchins sat in her room and recorded her music for the first time, with the help of an old laptop and GarageBand. Within a few months, the award-winning podcast “On Being” featured Hitchins and her music, and her SoundCloud listenership grew into the thousands.
“Strangers heard my music and I got such amazing feedback,” Hitchins says. “To put something out into the world and have all this energy come back, it got me thinking, ‘Well, maybe there’s something to this.’”
After a five-hour jam session with her producer and current bassist, Alex Bingham, Hitchins entertained an idea she once thought impossible. She came back to the East Coast, raised more than $13,000 through Kickstarter, ditched GarageBand and made her first professional album, These Bodies.
Before the surreal experience of producing her album in the same studio as Lucinda Williams and the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Hitchins had stepped into a formal studio only once. She could count on one hand how many times she performed her music in front of an audience. Though she grew up in Roanoke playing cello, participating in musicals and strumming the guitar and banjo, Hitchins is still getting used to calling herself a folk musician, instrumentalist and singer-songwriter.
“I remember feeling like I was never going to use the word ‘y’all,’” Hitchins says. “It wasn’t until I left Roanoke that I fully embraced the y’all.”
When she was younger, Hitchins spent many Friday nights at what she calls “the place to be”—a country store’s weekly jamboree in nearby Floyd. She remembers bands playing bluegrass and gospel music, while spectators slapped and stomped their feet.
“That was the first place I think I really experienced that richness of culture that is so distinctively Appalachian,” Hitchins says. “Neither of my parents are from the South. …My sense of belonging to this place of Appalachia didn’t feel like a birthright.”
Music and the mountains helped Hitchins come to terms with the complex history of rural Appalachia and the inheritance of a legacy that she found difficult to comprehend. Amid guitar and banjo chords that bounce from variation to variation, the deep pluck of a bass or electric guitar and the soft crescendo of a trombone accompanying Hitchins’ powerful voice, she envelops listeners in her vision of an Appalachia that is peaceful, harmonic and bold all at once.
Nature writers such as Mary Oliver also helped form Hitchins’ “inner landscape.” While studying at UVA, Hitchins initially thought she would be an environmental science major. But, after enrolling in her first course, she realized she would rather be in the outdoors than studying it.
Hitchins grew up steeped not only in the sounds and surroundings of Appalachia, but the language of sacred stories found in Judeo-Christian narratives, as well. Never seeking to exclude, impose or write liturgical music, Hitchins picks themes that resonate with a variety of listeners and that people can relate to regardless of their religious language. “Oh Moses, well he never saw the promised land / And Martin only saw it in his dream / But when I hear the thunder on the mountain / then I can almost hear that mighty stream,” Hitchins sings in “When It Rains,” inviting her listeners to what she refers to as a “holy space of being present.”
“There’s something about music that feels inherently sacred to me,” Hitchins says. “There is a certain reverence that I bring to my music that is informed by my faith.”
Hitchins also finds herself informed by artists like Mavis Staples and other musicians she identifies as courageous voices for justice during social movements like the fight for civil rights.
“Powerful women that have sung truth to power in different ways keep me going at times when it feels frivolous to be making music, especially when there are all these pressing needs,” Hitchins says. “These Bodies is not specifically political or topical, but I hope that there is a kernel of my desire for a more just and peaceful world.”
In addition to kicking off a tour in six states to promote These Bodies, Hitchins has been advocating across the country for that idea. Inspired by the Sioux Nation’s “sacred relationship with the natural world,” Hitchins traveled to Standing Rock Indian Reservation to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline. She also attended the inauguration of President Donald Trump and sang with a protest group all day—even as police dragged them away.
As she wades into new waters, Hitchins finds sustenance in Charlottesville’s supportive music and arts community. The first time she shared her music publicly was at The Garage during her final year at UVA, just as she was about to leave Charlottesville. She says she didn’t anticipate another show, then last fall Hitchins celebrated her new album with a release show at The Haven and started a New City Arts Initiative residency.
Now, she’s preparing for another homecoming. Next Wednesday, February 15, at 7pm, Hitchins and bandmates Bingham and Evan Ringle will perform at C’ville Coffee, with Erin Lunsford opening.
“People have been so generous of their time and willing to share what they’ve learned and give good advice,” Hitchins says. “It feels like I’m in the right place.”