Some musicians might grow frustrated with a life in which they're embarking upon their third solo release with no label support and, when they're not touring, doing pretty hard labor much of the year. Not Nicole Reynolds.
"I'm pretty content with the way things are right now," she says. Nearby, a sheep bleats out agreement.
After college in Baltimore and some time in Philadelphia, the Bethel Park native's home base is a sprawling, organic sheep farm in Clarion County. Home on the farm, Reynolds might tend the garden, milk the goat, move the sheep to the next pasture and other tasks, interspersed with time to play and write. Other times, she hits the road to tour, or to spend a little time on farms elsewhere.
"A lot of folk musicians -- I don't know if that's what people call me or whatever -- tour non-stop, but I can't do that," she says. "I need a strong balance of being here [on the farm], touring, going to other farms through the WWOOF program."
It was through WWOOF (Willing Workers On Organic Farms) that she ended up at Cheers Acres, a farm in New Bethlehem. What began as a short-term visit in 2006 turned into a permanent situation, and now Reynolds spends most of the year there with owner Georgann Kovacovsky and occasional WWOOF visitors; Reynolds' girlfriend is a recent addition to the farm as well.
Reynolds recently released her third album, Unordinary Mine, and is currently touring to support it before heading to Europe for two months -- to farm, not necessarily to play. "I have a friend who tours in Germany sometimes so I might try to do a few shows, but nothing's really set yet," she says, characteristically casual.
She credits the farming environment with easing her writing process. "Most of the time, I get stuck [while writing a song], and here I can just go do physical labor for a while when that happens," she says. "In the city, I was writing in my apartment, and it was a little more claustrophobic. I could go to a coffee shop or something, but I didn't have work I could be doing that was so different from music."
There's an air of authenticity to what Reynolds writes and records, and perhaps it goes deeper than the fact that she's the rare young folkie who actually bales hay now and then. Growing up in Bethel Park, she didn't go through all the musical taste changes that many now-twentysomethings did.
"Growing up, I was never really exposed to any non-commercial music. I was pretty sheltered," she says. "I grew up with my mom and she was an engineer and she was sort of stressed out a lot, so I was kind of walking on eggshells. I didn't dare play music, really."
She credits a trip to New Orleans at age 16, with a cousin, for turning her onto jazz, and subsequently folk music. Then in college, at Goucher, she took up guitar, quickly parlaying it into more than a hobby. "I was practicing five or six hours a day, and I took a jazz guitar class, then they were nice enough to let me major in it," she says. "Although my jazz guitar and my songs are two completely different things," she quickly adds. "Basically two different worlds."
At a time when neo-folk is the rage in indie circles, Reynolds rides the fence between several music circles and scenes. "There's a folk scene, with a different audience than the lesbian and women's, and even underground, shows that I play," she explains. "It's nice because I seem to fit into both. It's worked out so far. I like playing to whoever."
So long, that is, as she isn't asked to tone things down.
"I think because [of] my looks or demeanor or something, people expect me to be ... innocent or something," says the diminutive Reynolds. "I've been asked not to come back to a few places. It's just that when someone asks me not to say something on stage, I always say it. Then talk about how I wasn't supposed to say that. I'm not sure why I do that. I guess I should work on it."
Musically and otherwise, it's clear she puts a high value on honesty. That high-pitched warble isn't affected; it's her voice, and she owns it. Likewise her lyrics. While most of her material is love songs, she's not afraid to tread the grounds of politics and sexuality.
"I'm just honest on stage," Reynolds says. "I think for people to start opening their minds -- and they're starting to -- it just takes a whole lot of people being honest."
(Watch Nicole Reynolds perform "Fire" at her home farm here.)
Nicole Reynolds. 7 p.m. Thu., Aug. 21. WYEP Community Broadcast Center, 67 Bedford Square, South Side. Free. All ages. 412-381-9131 or www.wyep.org