With her new album North, Chicago songwriter Heather Styka combines folk and pop sensibilities while tackling relatable themes of inclusion, belonging and civic responsibility. North is out today, and is available everywhere.
The Bluegrass Situation premiered the album, which cuts deep into the issues, combining the lyrical intricacy of folk, melodic pop sensibility and the grit of classic country on songs that are both equally smart and disarming. North was recorded at Styka’s family lake house in northern Wisconsin with Danish backing band The Sentimentals, who have made a name for themselves accompanying Americana artists including Jonathan Byrd, Anna Egge, and Slaid Cleaves. In a matter of days, sequestered in a small log cabin on a lake, Styka and the Sentimentals recorded the entirety of North, tracking most of the album live as a full band.
Topically, North travels through some familiar roots and Americana territory — love and loss, wanderlust and whiskey — but often, the heartbreak depicted is more civic than personal. The album offers Styka’s take on navigating complex, complicated issues in an often confusing modern world.
PopMatters noted that she “paints a picture of momentary peace, finding familiarity and warmth in even the smallest things from back home,” on “O’Hare.” The song describes a late-night drive past the airport, and finding comfort in little moments like a plane’s blinking lights in the night sky. Things take a lighter turn with songs like “Chelsea Motor Inn” — as the anti-ghosting public service announcement has hints of a rockabilly tune. No Depression noted how she “applies her gorgeous voice to a dozen folk-rooted, pop-and country-flavored originals on a lyrically rich album that makes you feel as if you’re peeking into her diary,” when listening to tracks like the idiosyncratic love song, “Michigan or Minnesota.” Album closer “Love Harder” explores the question of how to respond to an increasingly divisive world, a reminder that togetherness is a good first step to healing. Glide Magazine remarked that she “preaches what we all need to hear” with the song. The outlet also mentioned how “Styka puts her vocal prowess on full display alongside her talent for telling stories and connecting emotionally. But besides that, the song feels strangely patriotic as Styka confesses her own love for her country while begging us all to examine what makes it such a loving, nurturing place underneath the turmoil.”
After growing up in the Chicago suburbs, Styka moved to the city to study creative writing. Her 2011 release Lifeboats for Atlantis brought her to national attention, and while living in Portland, Maine, she released While This Planet Spins Beneath Our Feet. The album was recorded with Beehive Productions and Styka printed it herself on a 1901 letterpress. The Bittersweet Tapes (2016) was recorded in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on a four-track recorder with production by John Calvin Abney (John Moreland, Samantha Crain).
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. As intimate and candid as late night conversation, her live shows are peppered with a quirky sense of humor and confessional storytelling.
Call her sound 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. And with North, it’s headed in the right direction.