World-roaming singer/songwriter calls Juneau home

Posted: Thursday, April 03, 2008

When asked where home is, singer and author Dao Strom - whose roaming life began as a tot in Vietnam - tells a parable of a woman who, denied shelter in a village, is grateful for the rejection after finding peace under a full moon in the woods.

Maybe that explains the near anonymity of a folk/roots musician with big stage credentials since moving from Texas to a home far out the road in Juneau last fall. She's focusing on writing her third book and homeschooling her son, Lincoln, 9, for the first time, but will emerge and make her local music debut during the Alaska Folk Festival next week.

The folk festival is often described as everyone's 15 minutes of fame, but for Strom it's something an appearance incognito; she performs at 9 p.m. Thursday as part of an unusual acoustic quartet that's just another listing in the multitude of short sets.

"I just want to have fun and play music and play with some new people," said Strom, who turned the Buddhist parable into the title track of her first album, "Send Me Home," in 2005.

It's a big change from the intimidating South by Southwest Music festival in Austin, where she performed the year before coming to Juneau. She'll sing and play guitar at the folk festival with Bob Banghart on fiddle, Patrick Murphy on cello, and David Hunsaker on cittern, a 15th-century bowl-shaped guitar.

"We just had a few jam sessions and I liked her music, so she asked me to sit in," said Hunsaker, who has known Strom's husband, Kyle, for years. "She's a really exceptionally good songwriter I would say, in the old folky tradition. Her songs, I think, are pretty personal and unique. She's had a really interesting life experience."

Strom is also using the folk festival as a launching point for her second album, "Everything That Blooms Wrecks Me." Additionally, a CD-release party is scheduled for April 30 at the Alaskan Hotel & Bar, although the time is still being determined. In the meantime, eight of the album's 11 tracks - plus songs from "Send Me Home" - can be heard at

Her understated, sometimes husky voice is well-suited to her compositions, which tend to be dark and lonely in character. They draw from her Vietnamese heritage - she escaped from Vietnam with her mother near the end of the war and her father was a political prisoner there for 11 years - and assimilate artistic cultures from across the U.S. Both of her parents were writers and her biography describes acquiring a world-weary accent of roots music growing up in Placerville, Calif., studying film and graduating from the Iowa Writers Workshop, and performing music after moving on to New York, San Francisco and Austin.

"I didn't start playing the guitar until I was 20," she said. "The thing that really got me wanting to sing was that old mountain music, those harmonies."

Strom said she also developed a strong affection for southern gospel because, she says, "it was the first music I felt I could sing." She cites Gillian Welch and Emmylou Harris as primary influences, plus more contemporary favorites such as the experimental alternative Icelandic band Sigur Rós. She became a member of the all-female alt-country band All Night Lincoln in Texas before leading her own band.

The songs, like her books, are wide-ranging and unconventional in theme. Her debut album "begins in (Vietnam's) Perfume River and ends with Jesus riding in a car," according to a review in the Austin Chronicle. Strom's upcoming album, selections of which she'll play with new arrangements at the folk festival, is described on her Website: "From the haunting Appalachian-tinged a capella mythos of 'Traveler's Ode,' to the spare, rhythmic, finger-plucked electric guitar accompanied by cello and delicate piano of the album's title track, these are songs that have their roots soulfully anchored in traditional American folk music, yet also reach uniquely beyond tradition."

As for coming to Alaska, Strom's story is something less than original. She and her husband wanted to see The Last Frontier and, with fond memories of the Pacific Northwest, made a decision to move back west. Her experiences here haven't yet made it into her music or writings, but the next step in the plot is already the stuff of familiarity.

"Originally the plans was just to stay four to six months until April," she said. "Now we're going to stay another year at least."

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