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This artist weaves the natural sounds from a 1,300-mile hike into music

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

When the musician James Bishop hiked a section of the Pacific Crest Trail in 2017, he had to bring the essentials. And for him, that meant a tiny guitar that he could strap on his pack.

JAMES BISHOP: It was important to me even just, like, emotionally to have something to process with and be in my tent and be able to play this at night. There was a lot of nights on the trail where I would get lonely or whatever, and so having an instrument to sort of go back to was really lovely.

CHANG: This guitar was like your Wilson...

BISHOP: Yeah.

CHANG: ...Like from the movie "Cast Away."

BISHOP: Hundred percent, yeah, minus the blood. But yes.

CHANG: (Laughter).

BISHOP: Yeah. Actually, I'm sure I bled on this at some point.

CHANG: (Laughter).

Now, this hike wasn't just some nature walk for Bishop. It was also a chance to record the sounds of nature, a sort of music that has now inspired many of the songs he's released. And we will hear one in just a minute. But this park where we're standing with him right now - it's called Vasquez Rocks. It's just north of Los Angeles. And it's one of the many places Bishop passed through on his five-month trek, a 1,300-mile journey that took him from the U.S.-Mexico border all the way up to Mount Lassen.

Are you wearing sunscreen right now?

BISHOP: I'm not, no.

CHANG: Oh, my gosh. Did you not wear any sunscreen on the Pacific Crest Trail hike?

BISHOP: You know, I did. I did definitely wear sunscreen on the hike and a hat, actually.

CHANG: Well, you thought this was just some NPR interview - easy peasy.

BISHOP: Yeah, exactly.

CHANG: But look. We're about to do some straight-up rock scrambling here.

BISHOP: I know, seriously. I should have brought my gear.

CHANG: Be careful.

This is where I attempt to retrace just a tiny fraction of Bishop's original hiking path along these huge, hulking boulders. And within minutes, we spot the Vasquez Rocks. They're these dramatic sandstone slabs that jut straight out of the desert.

Oh, my God. Look at this vista.

BISHOP: Yeah. This is beautiful. It looks kind of like "The Lion King."

CHANG: Oh, it totally does.

BISHOP: You know, Pride Rock.

CHANG: As Bishop hiked through places like this, he captured hundreds of nature sounds using his iPhone. And in the years since, he has digitally manipulated and layered those recordings into songs like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BONES (SINGLE VERSION)")

BISHOP: (Singing) Come and know. We come to know. From dust we come. To dust we go. The end, the share and every bone becomes the earth and ocean.

CHANG: This track is called "Bones." And if you peel back the layers in this song, what you can hear is a discarded water jug digitally transformed into a kick drum.

(SOUNDBITE OF JUG RATTLING)

CHANG: Now bring in the rumble of a thunderstorm...

(SOUNDBITE OF THUNDER RUMBLING)

CHANG: ...The screech of a squeaky gate.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL CREAKING)

CHANG: Add layers of Bishop's vocals.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GHOSTS")

BISHOP: (Singing) My eyes so young - to death they go.

CHANG: And it all transforms into music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GHOSTS")

BISHOP: (Singing) From love I came. To life I go. And I go. I go, and I go.

CHANG: As we hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, I want Bishop to take me through this process, to show me how he hears the landscape as he's moving through it and senses his potential musicality in a single object.

BISHOP: I see something right now that's kind of piquing my curiosity.

CHANG: Oh, you are? OK.

And it doesn't take long for something to catch his attention.

BISHOP: So I'll try and experiment right now.

CHANG: He's crouching over a dried yucca branch. Be careful. Yucca - they can be really sharp.

BISHOP: Yeah, I guess they can be. But, you know, you do it for the art.

(LAUGHTER)

CHANG: Bishop begins experimenting with this branch, snapping it in half, tapping it against the dirt, rustling its thorny leaves.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEAVES RUSTLING)

CHANG: And then he spots a stick and starts beating the yucca with it.

(SOUNDBITE OF YUCCA THUNKING)

BISHOP: Oh, there's a cool - like, that's very, like, pitch.

(SOUNDBITE OF YUCCA THUNKING)

BISHOP: So that's something that you could actually take and turn into, like, a keyboard or something. So you could take that pitch, isolate it, map it across a keyboard and then play it almost like a piano.

CHANG: Oh, you mean you can manipulate the pitch later electronically...

BISHOP: Yeah.

CHANG: ...So it becomes 88 notes.

BISHOP: Yeah, exactly.

(SOUNDBITE OF YUCCA THUNKING)

CHANG: And the experimentation doesn't stop there. This guy drums on the dirt...

(SOUNDBITE OF DIRT SHUFFLING)

CHANG: ...Rattles rocks...

(SOUNDBITE OF ROCKS CRUNCHING)

CHANG: ...And even tears apart some dried horse poop.

(SOUNDBITE OF FECES CRACKLING)

BISHOP: That's...

(SOUNDBITE OF FECES CRACKLING)

CHANG: Oh, my God. You're touching it with your bare hands, James.

BISHOP: I know.

CHANG: You're flipping it.

BISHOP: Don't shake my hand after this.

CHANG: I'm glad we got our greetings out of the way. OK.

Now, there was nothing super-musical in this piece of poop, but his point is there is music in almost anything if you stop to play around a little.

BISHOP: And this all seems very weird and, like, avant-garde when you're doing it. I felt really funny on the trail kind of just - I'd be, like, off to the side, like - I don't know - hugging a tree and, like, you know, hitting it with my fist or whatever. And I think people would walk by me and think I was maybe a little weird.

CHANG: Did anyone approach you on the trail and were like, what are you - like, some performance artist? Like, what are you doing?

BISHOP: I don't think many people really approached me. I think maybe there was something...

CHANG: They're like, who is that weirdo?

BISHOP: Maybe there's maybe something inherently unapproachable about...

CHANG: A guy beating sticks by himself.

BISHOP: Yeah. You're like, I'm going to stay away from him, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOUNTAIN :: GARDEN")

BISHOP: (Singing) ...Let me speak and to meet a chance they came to meet me (ph).

CHANG: But I do have a question. Like, after you electronically manipulate natural sounds so much that they're almost unrecognizable...

BISHOP: Right.

CHANG: ...In their original form, is it really sounds from nature anymore? - because there's been so much electronic stuff happening to the sound since.

BISHOP: That's kind of the fun dichotomy for me. It's like, you know, even doing something like hiking the PCT with my phone and recording my experience of the natural world is very mitigated by this medium that is technology. And that's sort of the fun thing for me - is it's not like going out and playing my acoustic guitar around a campfire in this very wistful and romantic way. It's, like, very much - there's, like, the tension of being like, wow. I feel simultaneously connected, but also alienated from the things around me because of this.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAMES BISHOP SONG, "MOUNTAIN :: GARDEN")

CHANG: Did you feel like your relationship with nature changed?

BISHOP: Yeah. I think - and maybe this would be sort of opposite of what you would expect. But I think my personal relationship with nature became a lot less romantic and a lot more sort of matter of fact.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WAKE UP")

BISHOP: (Singing) But we plant bodies like seeds. I give the wolves what they need.

I think before hiking the trail, I had this romanticism about going and spending five months in the woods and, you know, finding myself and whatever. And I think my experience was like, oh, wow. There's so much about this that is repetitive and ongoing. It's like this cycle that I'm just sort of caught in. And my understanding of myself, too, changed from being something that was apart from nature to being something that was of it. The sort of veil between nature and not nature changed, and I just realized everything is nature.

CHANG: Just like your music.

BISHOP: Yeah.

CHANG: It's derived from nature. But after all the electronic things you do to it...

BISHOP: Yeah.

CHANG: ...It becomes a compilation of manmade and natural.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WAKE UP")

BISHOP: (Singing) Got to wake up, wake up.

CHANG: The multi-instrumentalist and nature recorder James Bishop. He's at work on his full-length debut album, but you can stream his singles right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAMES BISHOP SONG, "WAKE UP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.