Playful and profound music: Chatting with Rani Arbo
by Kathy Sands-Boehmer
The Boston Globe once called the music of Rani Arbo & daisy mayhem “playful and profound.” I can’t think of two better adjectives to describe this amazing band. They play some of the most soul-lifting songs you’ll hear in your life as well as some of the most awe-inspiring collaborations ever. Rani Arbo (fiddle, guitar) and her husband, Scott Kessel (percussion), hold down the fort in Middletown, CT, and are ably supported by Anand Nayak (electric and acoustic guitar) and Andrew Kinsey (bass, banjo, ukulele). The whole is so much greater than the already great parts. Pure magic happens when these four musicians play together. Outstanding harmonies and fanciful and exuberant instrumentation are key factors that make this band so much fun to experience live.
Rani Arbo was kind enough to answer some of my questions.
Noise: If you had to describe your music in three words or less, what would they be?
Rani: Eclectic, fun, deep.
Noise: Let’s take a trip aboard the wayback machine. What is your earliest recollection of music?
Rani: I remember building great blanket-and-chair forts around my parents’ cabinet-style record player (turntable, record storage, and speakers, all in one big box). I was a preschooler. I’d stay in there for hours, listening to my parents’ music — Pete Seeger, Scott Joplin, Flat & Scruggs, Peter, Paul & Mary, others. My mother would serve me snacks in there, in the dark. This was a very intense listening experience that I craved, and that I could keep up for hours at a time. Also, as an 8-year-old, I started as a chorister in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, which entailed 30 hours a week of rehearsal and services — a very intense training that has served me well, not only musically but also spiritually. I think that experience is the root of how I continue to experience music as a musician and a performer. I’m not a churchgoer now, but I believe strongly that music is a tent under which we can gather to reflect, celebrate, grieve, pray, dance, laugh, love. There is nothing like it.
Noise: Did you learn violin at an early age?
Rani: No! I studied classical cello from age 8 to the end of high school; at the peak of my activity (and ability) I was playing in High School orchestra (which, believe it or not, Gil Shaham was also in) and playing in a string ensemble and in quartets on Saturdays in Queens, under the direction of Enrico DiCecco, a New York Philharmonic violinist. I loved that music, but had had enough of the intensity of trying to keep up with the Juilliard kids who were really dedicated. I let it all go at the end of high school, but I came back to discover the violin/fiddle, and remember my folk music roots in college (see story below).
Noise: Were you aware that there was a whole world of string music outside of the traditional classical training that most young people learn?
Rani: I was somewhat aware of a wider world of string music, in part from those early recordings my parents had — and also from experiences I had watching Eugene Friesen play cello with the Paul Winter Consort, which was in residence at the Cathedral where I was a chorister. I didn’t really fall for bluegrass/folk until college, but then I immersed in tapes (remember those?) and live shows. I saw a performance of the touring show “Masters of the Folk Violin” in 1988, featuring Alison Krauss (then a teenager), Claude Williams (who played with Duke Ellington), Kenny Baker (who played with Bill Monroe, Michael Doucet (cajun fiddle maven) and the winners of the Scottish and Irish fiddle competitions that year. Six fiddlers, six styles, no band in sight. I was mesmerized. I fell in love with the idea of being able to play harmony — the part of music that moves me the most — on a stringed instrument that was capable of so many different moods. Certainly you can play double-stops on the cello (and I had just gotten to using them in Bach Suites when I left the cello), but with the fiddles I hear something very different, more nimble and exciting. Of course the nimble part has been a learning curve for me ever since, but I’ve never turned back.
Noise: Do you remember consciously making a decision that music would be your career? Tell us about Salamander Crossing. How would you describe that band?
Rani: When I started fiddling, and then helped start the band Salamander Crossing in 1991, there was no “career” in mind whatsoever. That band began as a weekly jam session in the back of the Fretted Instrument Workshop in Amherst, MA, an institution that is still, amazingly, thriving. We played and sang in the back room — and I had just been playing fiddle for a few years, so this was a challenge. The singing, for me, was easy and glorious. All those riveting modal and four-part harmonies were just what I’d been singing all my life, but now they had fiddle, banjo, bass, and so much energy and groove. It was a revelation to me how much fun that was. We played for about a year, and then requests started trickling in for house concerts, local fairs. I think our first show was the opening of a dentist’s office. Our current bassist, Andrew Kinsey, was in Salamander Crossing, so we have played together now for almost 25 years; and in short order after 1992-93, we were traveling all across the U.S. playing gigs and festivals. Salamander Crossing blended folk and bluegrass in a way that, back then, was something new. I remember going to a bluegrass conference showcase, and collecting the audience feedback slips afterward. One of them said, “This band needs to make up its mind whether it’s a folk band or a bluegrass band.” And we all thought, “Ha! We did it!” I think we made some folk fans from bluegrass fans, and vice versa. We were in the middle, a little hard to describe, and happy to be there.
Noise: How long did that group play and what led to the beginnings of fronting daisy mayhem?
Rani: Salamander Crossing played for almost 10 years. We ended for a host of reasons, the biggest of which had a lot to do with differing visions about how seriously we wanted to take our “career,” and what it means to take something seriously. I wanted to play, enjoy it, and make as much of a living as we could, but not at the expense of the generous energy of the music and the health of band relationships, some of which had started to unravel. So we let it go, which was not easy on anyone. Andrew and I started Rani Arbo & daisy mayhem in 2000 with the release of Cocktail Swing. You could call that our rebound record — it was full of ukuleles, swing tunes, goofy energy, smiles. It did anything but take things seriously. Of course, as bands last, they become more intimate, and as that happens, people and ambitions, hopes, logistics, and life get more and more complex and interconnected. I think Rani Arbo & daisy mayhem, which has been together 15 years now, has weathered that process pretty well. We do take ourselves and our music very seriously—but still keep the lightness and fun in it as best we can. So far we are succeeding. This may be the chemistry of this particular band, but it also may be that we started RAdm in our 30s, not in our 20s, and so had that much more wisdom and experience to bring to bear on how to make a band work over time.
Noise: What’s the story behind the name “daisy mayhem?”
Rani: It was a chance discovery. In 1999, when the band coalesced, we went looking for a name that spelled fun, and one that made a nod to our sometimes chaotic mix of old and new musical styles. As we looked around, I got a call from my friend Sonja in Minneapolis, whose all-girl punk band — named daisy mayhem — had just broken up. I asked if we could use the name, and she said yes. Later on, we found out that Daisy Mayhem was a character from a Hanna-Barbera cartoon. Even later on, we learned it was the name of a bright pink recumbent bicycle manufactured in Rockford, IL. And that’s all the daisy mayhem trivia that’s fit to print!
Noise: As you said above, your music is very eclectic. Do you plot out each album so that you’ve got an array of various kinds of songs—traditional, contemporary, old-timey, etc.
Rani: Not much plotting — more looking at what songs we’ve been playing the last few years and picking what is really satisfying and exciting for us and our live audiences. Our recent album, Violets Are Blue (March 31, 2015), has no traditional material on it —instead, it’s more than half originals. We used to have a clear trad/ contemporary/ original mix, about 30 percent of each on most of our albums. But that shifted with this recent CD. The new original songs have been feeling very juicy to us, to write and to play, so that’s where we went. And yes, Violets Are Blue was plotted a little, in that it coalesced around a core of about partnership. These seemed to attract others like it, and before long we found ourselves recording albums with a theme. The last album, Some Bright Morning, evolved similarly; it coalesced around a core of songs that were pretty spiritual — loosely defined — and that core attracted others like it. In fact, last year we created and toured a performing arts program called American Spiritual, based on Some Bright Morning and including a selection of other gospel, folk, and blues songs that sustain and uplift the human spirit. That was extremely satisfying to work on, and has continued to be a big theme in all our shows.
Noise: Are you a disciplined songwriter? Do you carve out a time in your weekly schedule to play music and tinker with new songs, or are you a victim of working to meet deadlines?
Rani: Neither! I’m an opportunistic song-catcher, and extremely slow at producing new original material (last few years have been particularly productive, though). Almost always, I wait for something to move me—an event, an image, an emotion, a realization, something I need to articulate for myself or someone else, then grab a nugget of truth from it — maybe a few lines, or a chorus. Only then will I sit down and hack away at finishing a song. Call it lazy, but I have to feel like I’m starting with something that has weight. I can’t bear the blank page. I have always wondered what would happen if I embraced the discipline of regular songwriting, but so far I haven’t had the willpower to do it.
Noise: You’ve been playing music for kids for quite some time. How would you describe that music scene? Do you feel that kids’ music has changed a lot since you were a kid?
Rani: The kids’ music world is great — it’s more of a community, partly because it is smaller than the currently huge folk/ roots/ Americana scene, and it is a supportive one. There is lots of cross-pollination of musicians, recordings, collaborations among kids’ musicians, at least in the Northeast where we live. Our guitarist, Anand Nayak, has worked with Alastair Moock, Lui Collins, and Stevesongs, for starters, as guitarist and producer. Kids are a fantastic and discerning audience. They want to laugh and dance, they are mesmerized by watching someone play an instrument and by how musicians interact. They’re inspiring to watch from the stage. The market for kids’ music, too, is easier to navigate — there are fewer reviewers, fewer outlets, and an audience that is always turning over. Americana fads may come and go, but will never run out of children to play for! I do think the genre has grown and changed over the years, as the market has developed for it — but at the core it’s not that different. Good music for kids comes in so many packages. I grew up on Free to Be You and Me, on Pete Seeger’s kids’ records. And on The Beatles — that is great music for kids. You can opt for the kid-specific bands who sing about kid-specific topics, and they are numerous and great, or you can just put on Doc Watson and it’s just as great. In making our CD Ranky Tanky, we did put a lot of animal songs on there, but also Nat King Cole, Tom Petty, Cat Stevens — we aimed to make a kids’ record that we, as musicians and parents, thought we could enjoy on repeated spins.
Noise: Do you prefer live appearances over the recording experience?
Rani: They are so different, and they call on different energies and skills. Live performance is simpler to love, because it’s so ephemeral. You give everything you have, without thinking about it, for an hour and a half, and you enter into an energizing exchange with the audience that has the potential to truly fill you both up.
Recording can be equally thrilling, but it isn’t ephemeral, and it can take weeks or years to complete. It asks us for more reflection and editing, and so it’s more intellectual and occasionally frustrating. That said, our goal in the studio is to capture our live performance — that spontaneous, ephemeral energy — as best we can. And after we do that, then the painstaking process of listening back, adjusting sounds and adding textures (which we sometimes, but not always, do) can be very rewarding.
To add another thought here — being listened to changes how one plays. It makes playing into a conversation, rather than a soliloquy. The treasure of a live performance is our relationship with the audience, and the way that compels us to give immediately of our energy and music. After 10 years and hundreds of shows together, we can take that live-performance memory into the studio and conjure it up; over the years, we have gotten better and better at doing so. Also, we’re lucky to be a band of four people who can play for each other, applaud each other, laugh, get silly, and be frustrated together. So, even when we’re in the studio, we still have a chemistry to work with. In turn, the reflective studio time often informs choices that we make on stage — arrangement choices, lyric adjustments, and so forth. In our experience, live and in-studio work really complement each other.
Noise: How do each of you go about presenting your songs to each other? Do they end up being altered after they’re introduced to the band?
Rani: Usually quite shyly, and often at sound check. No matter how long we’ve known each other or how well we get along, presenting new songs and ideas takes a moment of courage. We don’t use every song or idea; some work well for the band, and others less so. Given a little time, we can usually pronounce a unanimous decision on what works. Most songs do end up altered after they’ve been introduced — we almost always add harmony ideas, and the arrangements can fall together quickly or take a long time. Sometimes a song can take weeks, or years, before it finds its musical “home” with us.
Noise: What do you see as the biggest challenges facing independent musicians these days?
Rani: In our band, I think one of our biggest challenges is balancing touring and having a family, because of the logistics and the finances that result from being an independent musician. Speaking for myself (and my husband, Scott, who is also in the band), we have an 11-year-old old son, Quinn, who has come with us on tour (on and off!) since he was 5 weeks old. Now, he often chooses to stay home with his grandmother so he can stay in school and be with his friends instead of taking long plane trips around the U.S. It’s hard to leave him at home, and it takes extra energy to bring him on tour, though we’re always glad to have him when he comes. Traveling together has been an amazing experience for us as a family.
Independent musicians (among many other “content” creators now) are grappling with a media-drenched world where offerings are so plentiful that we all are exhausted by the task of finding new music, new ideas, new thoughts, new friends to inspire us. There are so many choices, tidbits, bait held out to us every day that it becomes harder to face the smorgasbord and actually want to eat. So, it takes a lot of energy to compete to be seen and heard, but you just do your best, as much as you have energy for, and let it be enough. This is why I feel so strongly committed to the live show — who even listens to more than a few iPod tracks of a band at once? Sitting through two sets of a live show, focusing, laughing, crying, with other people, under that “tent” of music — this kind of experience is becoming profoundly rare in our society. And ever more valuable because of it.
Noise: Do you have any musical bucket lists? Songs you’d like to record, people you’d like to collaborate with, places you’d like to tour?
Rani: Tour: We’d love to go across the pond to play in Europe or Asia some day, but I’m not sure that finances or family will ever allow it. We can keep dreaming though
Collaborations: Someone asked us this very question at a radio show recently. Anand said Daniel Lanois (songwriter/guitarist/producer extraordinaire); I said Richie Stearns (banjo player for The Horse Flies); Andrew said Mavis Staples (one of our most treasured elder singers); Scott said Oliver Mutukudzi (Zimbabwean bandleader and singer). We can put all those together only in our dreams, but what a band! Part of what makes this band strong is our crazy diversity of obsessions, and how they percolate into what we do in interesting and unpredictable ways.
Songs: We really don’t know what’s on our bucket list until we hear it, though we do have a short list we’re hoping to tinker with. And we just finished an album, so now is the time when we start listening broadly again, trying to catch our own original song ideas as they go whistling by our lives, going to shows (Anais Mitchell is a big inspiration for me) and hearing songwriters. It’s a fine wave of inspiration and creation — there’s a time to be absorbing possibilities, and then a time to make choices and build a song, or an album, or a new program. I’m excited to be back in the realm of possibility in the upcoming year.
Noise: Rani Arbo & daisy mayhem play at Me & Thee Coffeehouse in Marblehead on May 8.