An Interview with Rani Arbo: Music and Message

Nov 14, 2015 by

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Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Rani, first of all, tell us about yourself and how you got started in music.

I started out as a preschooler listening intensely to records in my family’s New York City apartment — usually from the comfort of a blanket fort built around my parents’ record player. Pete Seeger, Scott Joplin, Flat & Scruggs, Peter Paul & Mary, reggae, opera, whatever we had. I played the cello from age 8 through high school, in orchestra and chamber groups. But most importantly, as an 8-year-old, I began as a chorister in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. It was an intense training that lasted through age 13 and served me well, both musically and spiritually. It’s how I continue to experience music as a musician and a performer — as a powerful tent under which we can gather to reflect, celebrate, grieve, pray, dance, laugh, love.

2) Now, tell us about your band, and how you came up with the name- daisy mayhem.

This band came together in 2000, mostly through mutual musical connections. It coalesced on the heels of another band I’d been in for a decade, which ended with difficulty — so I went looking for a name that spelled fun, and lightness; one that made a nod to our roots in country music and our mix of old and new musical styles. My friend Sonja’s all-girl punk band — named daisy mayhem — had just broken up, so I got permission to use the name, and adopted it. 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!

3) Your music talks about the stress, grief, and problems that we all seem to face and encounter – cancer, death, and troubles – is this intentional ?

It has been intentional, but also organically cumulative over the years. Our roots are in older music, much of which, when it’s not talking about love, addresses trouble and grief (they do hand in hand, after all; you wouldn’t have one without the other). I am drawn to songs that have weight and heft, and to songs I need, as well as to songs I can just enjoy and dance to. We started playing (and writing) many of these songs over the years because they spoke to us personally. I am a cancer survivor of 11 years. I’m a parent, and a partner.

And I am much better at singing about these things than talking about them — and when you sing about things that you feel deeply, the music comes out sounding like love, even when it is addressing struggle. That is, truly, the magic and healing power of music. In recent years, we’ve been making a lot of music about love — our last album, Violets Are Blue, is a collection of songs about partnership — the whole kaleidoscope of that experience, which we are all deeply in at this point in our lives.

4) Your music also seems to integrate some past musical forms- bluegrass, country, folk, and ( gasp! ) zydeco. Tell us about how this integration came about and if it is intentional.

Our sound weaves together the experience and interest of all four musicians in the band. We do at this point have a distinctive sound, I think…I’d say some of it comes from our style of vocal delivery (more folky, occasionally bending to blues/bluegrass/country). When we step aside from shuffles and two steps and waltzes, our rhythm is strongly influenced by New Orleans (our drummer was in a Zydeco band for a decade, and has played a lot of West African music as well). We love the four-part, wall-of-sound harmony style that is typical of bluegrass, and we tend to put that on top of whatever songs can handle it. We don’t combine these things particularly intentionally — we just bring our skills and musical sensibilities to the table when we are arranging a song and see where it takes us. Sometimes it takes some jiggering to get it right.

5) You have some fantastic back up musicians- or colleagues- tell us about them.

Andrew Kinsey (bass, banjo, uke, vocals) has been my musical compadre for more than 25 years now — he started with me in our first band, Salamander Crossing, in 1992. Anand Nayak (electric and acoustic guitar, vocals) blends a lot of styles, from folk to jazz and is also a songwriter, producer and engineer. Scott Kessel, our percussionist, plays a recycled drum set — tin cans, cardboard and wooden boxes, a vinyl suitcase — it looks great, sounds amazing when it’s amplified, and is easy to travel with. It also keeps our stage sound low, so we can behave more like an acoustic band even though we have a percussionist.

6) Tell us about some of your C.D.’s and where one can find them.

We have five all-ages CDs and one kids/family CD, Ranky Tanky are all on our web site, with samples, in the “music” page: http://www.raniarbo.com/music/
Click on a CD and it will take you to a page with a song list, lyrics, notes, and some samples.

7) How would you describe your musical style?

Our music is a braid of American roots styles, some of which I’ve already mentioned….but most importantly, we are a song-based band. We’re interested in lyrics, and in supporting good lyrics with arrangements that our collective musical brain — which has spent time in church choirs, zydeco bands, fiddle-and-banjo bands, jazz bands, and more — can dream up. We’re not a jam band, or a virtuoso band. We are very subtle, very in tune, very connected to the music and each other — and the result is, I think, that our music, and our live performance in particular, can be very moving and powerful. And wicked fun.

8) Your band even performs a Bruce Springsteen song. Has the Boss heard it, and what seems to be the audience reaction?

I have no idea if he’s heard it! The song is Reason to Believe, and it’s usually an audience favorite — it’s one of the ones we rock out a little more, with a stripped-down a cappella section in the middle.

9) Next gig and what have I neglected to ask?

Next gig is at the historic Reg Lenna theater in Jamestown, NY on Saturday November 21! After that we have a trio of December shows in New England, for which we’ll be debuting a short stack of new holiday/winter songs. It’s getting cold here in New England — just the right weather for that kind of music!

Thanks for the interview!
Rani

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