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Arts Eclectic turns the spotlight on happenings in the arts and culture scene in and around the Austin area. Through interviews with local musicians, dancers, singers, and artists, Arts Eclectic aims to bring locals to the forefront and highlight community cultural events.Support for Arts Eclectic comes from Broadway Bank.

'It's fun to be a part of that': Austin band Highway Lights releases a soundtrack for the eclipse

Sarah Nelson and Justin Sherburn of Highway Lights

Composer Justin Sherburn and cellist Sara Nelson are the husband-and-wife team behind the band Montopolis, and sometimes they travel a little lighter and record or perform as the two-person band Highway Lights.

“Our first real collaboration in this form was during the pandemic,” Sherburn says. “During the pandemic, I was lucky enough to live with a wonderful musician who's also my wife and so, like most people, we did a pandemic record, called Texas Workforce Commission Hold Music. So really, that is our first project that we did together. And if you're not familiar with that project, it's quite a story. Jeez, KUT is a very big part of that story.”

The short version of that story is that Sherburn and Nelson, like many people across the state around the time of the pandemic lockdown, spent a lot of time on the phone — and on hold — with the Texas Workforce Commission. Unlike most other people, though, they decided to record an album of hold music for the commission so other folks would have something to listen to during those long waits. The whole story can be found here, where my colleague Matt Largey wrote about it three years ago.

Highway Lights isn’t just Montopolis under a different name, Sherburn makes clear; as a two-person group, he and Nelson have a different sound altogether.

“When you hear the music, you'll understand the difference,” he says. “It's much more conducive to meditation, yoga, mindful listening …”

“Naps," Nelson adds.

“Naps. It's excellent nap music,” Sherburn agrees with a laugh. “It's very soothing and minimal. It's mostly defined by kind of swirling synthesizers and solo cello.”

Sherburn and Nelson have been married for about five years, but they’ve known each other for two decades and have worked together many, many times over that period. That makes their working relationship easy and natural, Nelson says.

“I mean, he knows how to write for me,” she says. “He wants to make it as comfortable for me as possible. And basically, I just sit in my office and stick a mic in front of me, and I do like one take and then I'm done. [Then] I'm off having a glass of wine.”

“Yeah,” Sherburn agrees. “We've been working together for so long that it's just [easy] and she's … yeah, she's a machine.”

Performing as a two-person, married band also gives Nelson and Sherburn the luxury of taking what they like to call "tour-cations."

“We basically just pick a place where we want to vacation,” Nelson explains. “We book a couple of gigs and then … that's where we go and then we can write it off. It works out really nicely.”

Whether it’s as Highway Lights or as Montopolis, Sherburn really loves to compose music for and about the natural world around him.

“We've done shows about Big Bend, about the Texas coast, about Enchanted Rock,” he says. And in a natural extension of that past work, he’s now composed a music suite that will serve as a soundtrack to the upcoming April 8 total solar eclipse.

“This was a lovely sort of next step and just presented itself,” Sherburn says, “because it's a big event and people care about it and there's a focus on it and it's fun to be a part of that.”

They’ll perform the new Highway Lights album, A Space of Partial Illumination, live at Bobo’s Snack Bar in Austin during the eclipse, but if you’re not in Austin you can still use the album as a soundtrack for your own eclipse viewing.

“The album will be streaming on all the channels a week before the eclipse and it's set up as an accompaniment,” Sherburn says. “So we'll be performing in Austin but people anywhere can listen to the record while the eclipse is happening. And the first track is called ‘Twenty-five Minutes to Totality.’ So it's designed for you to start that 25 minutes before the totality wherever you are.”

Are Sherburn and Nelson hoping people across the eclipse viewing area will be listening to A Space of Partial Illumination on April 8?

“That would be awfully cool,” Nelson agrees. “It’d be a cool soundtrack.”

“I sure hope so,” Sherburn says. “That would be a lot of fun.”

"Space of Partial Illumination" by Highway Lights will be available to stream on all platforms a week before the eclipse and will be performed live by Justin Sherburn and Sara Nelson at Bobo's Snack Bar on April 8.

Mike is the production director at KUT, where he’s been working since his days as an English major at the University of Texas. He produces and hosts This Is My Thing and Arts Eclectic, and also produces Get Involved and the Sonic ID project. When pressed to do so, he’ll write short paragraphs about himself in the third person, but usually prefers not to.
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