Sister Tree

When Kerri Joy was growing up in Kalispell in northwestern Montana, her father would sometimes show up to excuse her from school. He was a photographer, and particularly after impressive rain showers, he thought she should join him chasing rainbows along river streams.

“Much of it was just driving around our beautiful valley waiting for that magic moment where the light, sky and scenery collided. We would go hiking and huckleberry picking,” Joy says. “We even knew a woman who rehabilitated injured wildlife.”

Dee Brust had her own special brand of inspiration. While in high school, she met her future husband in the Irish Cottage at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival, where his younger sisters and other kids peeled potatoes for communal afternoon meals and cooked on the hearth, accompanied by folk melodies. “It was the nexus of my dreams!” Brust says.

As a teenager in Minneapolis, Brust would sometimes paint the insides of pistachio shells with toothpicks and leave them, face down, in random locations. She would never know if someone found them, but she liked knowing that if they did get noticed, it might be a bright moment in someone’s day.

In a nutshell (pun!), these stories capture the essence of Sister Tree, the Twin Cities-based duo of Joy and Brust, who perform original and traditional tunes and folk ballads for strings and voices.

As their website says: “Exploring with an independent spirit, roving over the wild and storied landscapes of life, collecting, tinkering, and translating our heritage, we envibe with the rhythms of sugarplums dropped in the forest.”

Kindred spirits

Although the two are almost a generation apart – Brust is an English Language Learners teacher and a mother; Joy is in her mid-20s with a gypsy-like desire to explore the world of music – they connected as kindred spirits in a recording session two years ago.

Since then, they have performed together with a timeless Celtic/Americana groove. Brust named them Sister Tree, representing their intertwined intent to stretch deeply, and beyond, with their music – and to honor their roots.

Brust is the percussive guitar and mandolin player who loves the soulful storytelling and playful wordsmithing of song. She has a pocket-sized leather book full of lyrics that informs some of Sister Tree’s repertoire.

Her dreams of a big family were seeded at the Renaissance Festival. Now she relishes reading Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” to her four children every season. (This year there will be a fifth; she’s due in October.)

Joy, a fiddler, was newly arrived in Minnesota – after musical explorations in Austin, Texas, and New York City – when she met Brust. Her vocal range is extensive and impressive, and includes jazz, soul, musical theater, classical and bluegrass.

Together, the two have performed “folk noir” at the Irish Fair of Minnesota, resorts, schools, holiday events, a fur trade camp re-enactment, an indigenous farming reclamation project and even a steampunk event, as well as at Irish pubs all over the state.

Social change

A new shoot for the duo is to perform songs of healing and power about women, the Earth and the immigrant experience – which speaks to passions rooted in childhood memories about tribal cultures for both women.

Yet social change work can be exhausting. As Brust says, “We want to sing light into the situation, something that provides joy and relief … brings it out of the head and into the body.”

At a Woman’s Club of Minneapolis event in February – featuring a panel of Winona LaDuke, Eve Ensler, Louise Erdrich and Patina Park – Sister Tree sang a rousing rendition of the evocative “My Mother’s Savage Daughter.”

The event drew attention to the rape of the land and women in North Dakota, where sex trafficking is rampant near the oil fields. “It was a mind-opening and very inspiring event,” Joy says.