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.
A video showing the very soulful side of Rani Arbo and daisy mayhem is their rendition of “Bright Morning Star.” And here’s a song that highlights each of the musicians in the group, “Hear Jerusalem Moan.”
Rani Arbo was kind enough to answer some of my questions.
- If you had to describe your music in three words or less, what would they be?
- Eclectic, fun, deep
- Let’s take a trip aboard the wayback machine. What is your earliest recollection of music?
- 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.
- Did you learn violin at an early age?
- 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 Julliard 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).
- Were you aware that there was a whole world of string music outside of the traditional classical training that most young people learn?
- 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.
- Do you remember consciously making a decision that music would be your career?
- 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 afterwards. 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.
- How long did that group play and what led to the beginnings of fronting daisy mayhem?
- 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.
- What’s the story behind the name “daisy mayhem?”
- 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!
- 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.
- 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% of each on most of our albums. But that shifted with this recent CD. The new original songs have been feeing 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 album with a theme. The last album, Some Bright Moring, 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- Do you prefer live appearances over the recording experience?
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- What do you see as the biggest challenges facing independent musicians these days?
- 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.
- 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?
- 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 Horseflies); 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 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.
Suzie Brown is a singer-songwriter who is intimately familiar with all things having to do with broken hearts. She’s a cardiologist. Yes, you read that correctly. Suzie has been playing gigs on the east coast for several years and has showcased at NERFA (North East Regional Folk Alliance) and has won or been nominated for many awards. This year her newest record, Almost There, was nominated for the Independent Music Award Best Folk / Singer-Songwriter album of 2014.
Suzie Brown is one of 24 Emerging Artists chosen for this year’s Falcon Ridge Folk Festival. The Emerging Artist showcase is always one of the highlights of the festival. The musicians are chosen by a three-member jury and are given the opportunity to perform two songs (not to exceed ten minutes). The audience votes for their favorites and three or four acts are asked to return to the main stage the following year.
To learn more about Suzie, visit her website. Check out Suzie’s official video for “Almost There.” Here’s a glimpse of Suzie singing live!
- This has been a big year for you — moving to Nashville, starting a new job, and having a baby! If you had to describe the past year in a word or two, what would you say?
- Whoa Nelly!
- In addition to all of the above, your CD, Almost There, was nominated for the Best Folk / Singer-Songwriter album of the year by the Independent Music Awards! That must have been pretty exciting! As a songwriter, what does it mean to you to be recognized by your peers and by music critics alike?
- It feels great! In general I’d say it’s dangerous ground to depend on external validation for happiness as a songwriter, but it sure feels good when you get it :).
- How would you compare your two CDs? Did you approach the recording in different ways?
- Heartstrings was recorded in the more traditional way — drums, guitar, and bass were recorded first followed by overdubs of lots of other instruments and vocals. It sounds more polished and clean. I really wanted Almost There to have a raw, live, almost imperfect feel. I realized that’s what I love about my favorite albums — Wood Brothers, Patty Griffin, old Bonnie Raitt, not to mention old soul and country albums. Those imperfections make you feel things. So we cut the whole album live as a band — including my vocals. We finished all 11 songs in 7 days. I’m really proud of that.
- What was it like working with Oliver Wood on Almost There?
- I can’t say enough good things about working with Oliver. He is the consummate professional. He is creative, kind, focused, humble, light-hearted, and open-minded. We had a blast.
- Many people are surprised to find out that you are a cardiologist as well as a singer-songwriter? Were you into songwriter before medical school?
- I’ve always loved to sing, and bought a guitar after college/before medical school. I taught myself a bunch of covers and played in my apartment as much as I could given my crazy schedule, and ventured out to a few open mikes around town. I didn’t start writing songs until years later, when I was finishing my cardiology training.
- Do you find that actual work of writing songs is an outlet for you to unwind after a day of working in a fast-paced medical center?
- For me it’s my space to feel vulnerable and honest and emotional. It’s so easy to get really far away from your feelings the chaos of day-to-day life. Music is the way I reconnect with myself.
- Your husband, Scot Sax, is a Grammy winner for his songwriting. Do you ever work together or is he not allowed to listen until you’re happy with each song?
- At first we really kept our musical worlds separate — I was too nervous to write with him. He was so accomplished and I was such a (relative) novice. He’s a fast and instinctive writer and I tend to be slower and more pensive. He is more of a pop writer, and I’m more folky. I definitely didn’t play him any of my songs until they were completely finished. But over the years we’ve collaborated more and more, and I’ve loved it. We co-wrote 3 songs on Almost There and have written at least a dozen more since then.
- Has motherhood given you a whole new range of topics to write and sing about?
- So far I’m still too sleep deprived!
- Do you have a dream gig that you would like to happen one of these days?
- Newport Folk Festival. That’s the dream.
Laney Jones is one spunky bluegrass musician. You’ve gotta love it. She’s got the chops. She’s got the tunes. She’s tearing up the bluegrass circuit with her band, The Lively Spirits. A DJ once referred to her voice as “mixture of lemon, molasses, gin and gun powder.” After listening to her songs, I totally understand that comparison.
Laney Jones and The Lively Spirits are one of 24 Emerging Artists chosen for this year’s Falcon Ridge Folk Festival. The Emerging Artist showcase is always one of the highlights of the festival. The musicians are chosen by a three-member jury and are given the opportunity to perform two songs (not to exceed ten minutes). The audience votes for their favorites and three or four acts are asked to return to the main stage the following year.
For more information about Laney Jones and The Lively Spirits, visit their website. Check out this video of Laney and the Lively Spirits performing their song “Colorado and Washington.” Be prepared. You won’t be able to control your foot. It’s going to start tappin’ and pretty soon you may need to get up and starting moving and then before you know it. . . . you may be sashaying around the room.
- So what’s this about you growing up on an exotic animal farm in rural Florida? What on earth was that like?
- About a year before I was born, my parents got into raising swamp wallabies they got from Connecticut and the farm grew from there. We always had a weird assortment of animals at our place; goats, foxes, dogs, and kangaroos would run around the house together. I was born into the quirkiness so it was normal to me. Instead of a dog insert a kangaroo and that was my childhood! I moved to Florida from Maryland when I was 6 and grew up exploring outside in the orange groves and marshy areas surrounding my house. I think that influenced my leaning towards older, more down-to-earth sounds in music.
- When did you start making music? Did you come from a musical family?
- I actually didn’t start making music until I was 18 and going to college for International Business at a small school in Florida. I had been singing a long time because I was in plays growing up and had few piano lessons but it was never something I took seriously. But after going to college for a few months, I started toying around on a friend’s guitar. Then I wrote a song one night and that was it. My addiction for writing escalated quickly.
- And when did the banjo come into the picture?
- A friend had a banjo and let me borrow it for a night. I felt an instant connection to it and traded the mandolin I got for my birthday in for a banjo. I especially loved the sound of clawhammer banjo and completely lucked out that Mark Johnson lived only an hour away from me in Florida. He’s been an inspiration to me and wonderful mentor on the instrument.
- What’s your favorite banjo joke?
- Okay this one is a little morbid. . . . “How do you get two banjoists to play in tune? Shoot one.”
- Was it culture shock to come north to live in a busy city like Boston?
- A little bit. I live on 10 acres in Florida and to be reduced to sharing a 350 sq foot apartment was a change. Mostly because I love going outside and writing/practicing in the sun. Not as much space to do that in Boston unfortunately but at the same time it’s an amazing opportunity to be in a city like this with so many talented people and lots of great music.
- What’s it been like studying at Berklee? Are you in for the long haul or are you getting too busy with gigging to be able to stay enrolled in classes?
- I love Berklee. I’ve been there for a year now and it’s totally exceeded all the expectations I had. Not only are the faculty and students world-class but Berklee has even given me a lot of opportunities and gigs. They sent me to the Kennedy Center my first semester! I was not expecting that at all! It’s tough because I have been touring a lot this summer and would love to continue on into the Fall, but for now I am really grateful to be where I’m at.
- Last summer you were part of the Grey Fox Emerging Artists showcase. What was that like? Was that your first festival appearance?
- Pure awesome. I had played festivals in Florida and Shakori Hills in North Carolina but never something on the scale of Grey Fox. I got to meet some of my heroes like Del McCorry, and even played in a songwriter’s circle with Celia Woodsmith from Della Mae! I love music festivals as both a fan and a performer. You get to connect with the true music lovers, the people who are really dedicated to it because they love it. It was an absolute honor to be a part of Grey Fox and I can’t wait for Falcon Ridge!
- Tell us about the Lively Spirits. How is this band different than previous bands you’ve worked with in the past? How would you describe your sound?
- I actually have been using the Lively Spirits name for a few different groups of musicians and we have had kind of a revolving door lineup for the past few years. When I’m in New England we have a solid lineup that augments my banjo and harmonica sound with fiddle, guitar and bass. I really love to work with other multi-instrumentalists so we love to switch off on different twangy instruments like mandolin and dobro, as well as more surprising textures of clarinet and melodica. I would say we are a string band with a progressive twist.
- You were chosen to take a vocal master session with Alison Krauss last fall. What did that entail?
- I got to play two songs for Alison and Dr. Thomas Cleveland in front of an audience at the Kennedy Center. I was originally only supposed to play a cover but because there were only three singers instead of four in the session I got to do an original song as well. They both were super nice and reassuring. I love that I get to say “Alison Krauss likes this song” whenever I play my song “Broken Hearts.” I also got notified that my performance will be aired on PBS in a documentary about the event sometime this year!
- How did you get hooked up to play upcoming shows with Lady Antebellum, Brad Paisley, Rascal Flatts and Keith Urban?
- I totally lucked out again and got a sort of sponsorship from the southern department store Belk. They held a competition called Southern Musician Showcase where they chose six artists/bands from different genres. The Lively Spirits and I got it for Bluegrass. As part of the prize for winning we get to play in the Belk Lounge at these big concerts, be in a commercial, and get some free new clothes. My band has never looked better!