Memory is the common thread running throughout the Columbus folk-punk band’s fourth album, Pillar of Na, available now via ANTI-Records. Following 2015's critically lauded Such Things, the new album’s name is rooted in remembrance, referencing the Genesis story of Lot’s wife who looks back at a burning Sodom after God instructs her not to. She looks back, and God turns her into a pillar of salt. “Na,” meanwhile, is the chemical symbol for sodium. "Nah"is a passive refusal and the universal song word. It means nothing and stands for nothing. It is "as it is."
"I wanted to interrogate memory," Little says. "The collective and personal, to find what is true. How closely does the ghost conjured resemble the person who once lived?"
But back to the story for a moment: Didn’t Lot's wife have ample warning not to look back? Little, who specializes in moody, complex songwriting that consistently experiments with obscure instruments like the bouzouki and the Bulbul Tarang, feels sympathy for the Salt Woman. “The story has a certain kind of foreboding nature to it,” Little says. “It’s trying to look back at where you come from and make sense of it. I think I would have looked back.”
Like Lot's wife, Little cannot help but revisit where—and how—he grew up. Raised in church in southeastern Appalachian Ohio, he took up preaching when he was still a teenager, sometimes in small country settings and other times to congregations of thousands. But these days he's more interested in listening. And questioning.
"I'm on a mystical journey, struggling to figure out what the point is," he says. "Dogma is like naming a mountain—you can stab all the flags you want into the dirt, but it doesn't make it any more yours. Truth belongs to no one, and I'd rather climb.
"Truth is precisely what he attempts to explore on Pillar of Na. Produced by Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes, Rilo Kiley), Pillar of Na took much longer to finish than Little initially envisioned. After completing what he thought would be the finished album, Little instead pushed himself further. “I wrote three records worth of material," he says. "Initially, I think I was a little afraid to finish some of these songs. They felt close and important to me. I really wanted to get it right, and finally it felt like it was time—the baby had to get born.”
Songs like the epic, flute-accented title track have been in the works for 11 years.
And then, in the sometimes-frustrating heat of trying to find the songs, other tracks poured out of him, like the springy “Ladder To The Sun,” which Little says he didn’t see coming at all. “That was catharsis,” he says. "I was feeling frustrated, lost, and burnt out by the whole process, wondering where I was in my life at that moment. Writing 'Ladder To The Sun' felt like a productive cry.”
The words "Who says you’re right?" present a challenge to authority. “No one remembers the day they are born, you gotta take someone else’s word for it," Little says. "Everyone trusts someone."