Noe Venable’s seven-year sojourn away from making music, then back again, began with the clatter of a stag’s hooves on a deserted Oakland street late one night.
“I was on my way home after a show, packing my guitar into the back seat of my car, and I looked up and I was face to face with this enormous deer, with antlers as wide as I could spread my arms,” says the singer-songwriter, who appears in Berkeley this week. “It was very powerful to see this buck there, in the gutter, bathed in the glow of this street lamp. It made me feel my own relationship to the natural world in a whole new way.”
Venable couldn’t stop thinking about the majestic animal, how well he adapted to his urban surroundings, and the almost human intelligence in his eyes. Gradually, the deer became a much larger ecological metaphor that prompted her move to Brooklyn, N.Y., and into comparative religion courses at Hunter College, then to classes at Harvard Divinity School. Along the way, she stopped performing, got married, had a child and started teaching.
Now she has assembled an album’s worth of new material reflecting her studies, “Cascadia,” from which she’ll play at a CD release party at the Freight & Salvage.
It might sound crazy, walking away from a popular career after five well-received albums, from the 1996 debut “You Talking to Me?” to 2007’s “The Summer Storm Journals.” She had momentum going.
“For a long time, I’d been a singer-songwriter, living the touring life. But I needed a place to do some searching, and going back to school was a great way to spend time reading and thinking and exploring what more I can do in this world to be of service,” she says.
Venable, 38, calls herself a spiritual activist – someone who uses art to enlighten a self-serving society that has quite possibly doomed itself to extinction. And she has hope.
“When I taught high school English, I found a way of weaving in the study of comparative religion,” she says, proudly. With a toddler underfoot, these days she continues to teach. Her home-school classes include singing, songwriting, literature and college courses “Spirit in Nature” and “Indigenous Religious Traditions.”
Gorgeous acoustic ballads on “Cascadia,” such as “Goldenrod,” “Sorrow’s Ending” and “Lights and Fences” – are variations on a zen-like theme. Some are inspired by Sufi-ism, some by the Old Testament. And some, like “Antlers,” by nature.
“These songs are about trying to uncover our belonging, as humans, to the great beauty that we are a part of,” Venable says. “And the deer was an emissary of that larger beauty.”
IF YOU GO
Where: Freight and Salvage, 2020 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Tickets: $17 to $19
Contact: (510) 644-2020, www.thefreight.org