(photo credit: Cat Stevens)
From The Cedar Box
Written by Marissa Nadler
Arborea, featuring the gorgeous ethereal vocals and banjo stylings of Shanti Curran and the experimental guitar work of husband Buck Curran, have been making beautiful music for over a decade. They live in Maine with their two small children but that doesn't hold them back, as they tour quite frequently both stateside and overseas. They homeschool their children, make their own videos, and are DIY every step of the way. Lately, they have been finally garnering the recognition they deserve, with their newest record, Red Planet garnering recognition from Rolling Stone, The Wire, and Mojo.
The music is steeped in tradition, with records often featuring new takes on old Americana standards. Shanti's voice is otherworldly and truly is something that you have to hear.
M: First off, congratulations on "Red Planet" making waves! I think it is a gorgeous record and I am glad more and more people are hearing your beautiful songs. You have had some support from influential tastemakers and your listenership is growing. I know how hard you guys work and have worked consistently for years now. How does this feel?
Shanti - The sense of urgency is gone for me. We always stayed true to the songs and the overall concept of each record. I never make songs for an audience but I still had this sense that I was singing into the wind, pouring my heart out, exhausting myself creatively and that what I had to say was being heard as not much more than a whisper. That created a tension in me that I didn't like at all. With the relative success of Red Planet I feel different for sure. I can take time to stretch out, relax, pause before speaking or not speak at all and still be satisfied that I've created something valid and lasting.
Buck - It does feels satisfying to be acknowledged for the art and music Shanti and I have created together, especially since we've really invested everything we have into our endeavors. I think making the commitment to put all your energy into doing your own thing and learning how to keep organized definitely helps towards insuring success...if not commercial, then definitely on a personal level. I do think it's very important to not take anything in life for granted, and we have always kept our heads down and focused on the creativity and work at hand.
M: Touring is hard enough as it is when not backed by cushy tour support from a big money label. How do you find touring with small children? Does it make it easier not having to leave them behind? Tell me about the tour highlights so far. I believe the answer is yes but has all this hard work paid off in more people stateside coming to the shows?
Shanti - Touring with the family is a challenge of course, but the more we do it the better it gets. The kids are learning so much and their presence colors every experience in a way that is unique to how young people interact to new places and people. They build relationships with other musicians and fans that are independent of me. They bring their own humor and attitude to the scene and that makes every experience so very different. I couldn't leave them behind. I feel so sad when we are overseas and they are home with other family- I find myself wanting to share every discovery with them. That being said, we ALL need some space and alone time and touring constantly can start to wear on you.
Buck - All our exposure and effort has definitely brought more people out to shows, but it can still be erratic from town to town. When you're out there touring all over America without major label support, without advertising dollar and only minimal press coverage, you're only going to reach so many people, unless you tour consistently through an area and build things on a grass roots level. I think it's important to tour back through an area at least once a year if possible. The great advantage with touring is that the people we do reach often develop much stronger connections to the music, than say if someone just peripherally discovered our band in the digital realm. We've performed in smaller towns where people have heard us for the very first time and the reactions end up being such a positive and beautifully emotional thing. When that happens, you really realize that music can be more important than the initial insular process of it's creation...and through performance and connection with your audience, music can be a very cathartic, healing experience. Touring in Europe is always a very special thing, because the organizers responsibly take care of musicians and go to extreme lengths to make sure that shows are properly promoted and attended. They insure success by investing their time and energy. People in Europe also seem to spend less time being entertained by television, and like to go out and be social and see live performances. There's footage from the early 70's of Tim Buckley talking to a room of people about television and how it's the great lobotomizer....and it really is. We got rid of our living room TV about 8 years ago and that's when we really started being creative together.
As for touring with our children...that's been an amazing highlight of touring. We homeschool and make stops in between shows...visiting historical and geographically important places all over America..National Parks, Civil War Battlefields, Redwood Forests, following the path of Lewis and Clark, etc. The other great opportunity is meeting people from all over the country. Just the other day we were all a part of this interactive presentation in Philadelphia that combined elements of technology and music. The art and ideas exchanged at that event was the kind of real life experience that is invaluable, and in turn inspires community and creativity.
M: How do you think your music has evolved from the first records? I certainly see an amazing growth and an opening of space in the music. You really take your time with these songs, and let them live in their own meditative space. Do you find the music meditative? Are you as calm as you sound on record? I know for me I'm nowhere near as calm as in song, and the music is a medicinal.
Shanti - I'm definitely calm and removed from reality when I'm recording. It's a real treat to be able to disconnect and then create a world within a song, to go to some other place that only exists in your mind, or in our case, some place that floats between our two minds and hang out there for awhile. We can't get back there except in song or live performance- it is SO medicinal and valuable to me. I think I need it for my sanity! I never listen to the songs I've made after we complete the mixing and send it away to a record label so sometimes I'll hear it out of context with that world in which I made the music and I don't recognize it for a brief moment. It's like getting a first impression all over again.
Buck - Our music is that meditative place that we create to escape the mad rush of life. Space and dynamics within our music is really a key element...not just with the music but also the way we produce our records. With each new piece of music we create, we define that state of being a little further. Reaching for a state of enigmatic beauty is the path we're on.
M: Have you begun writing for the next record yet? Do you envision any stylistic changes or do you see the next songs becoming a stylistic refinement?
Buck - Thanks so much Marissa, we deeply appreciate your individuality and creativity too. So yeah, we are moving towards the next album. We've already started writing a few new songs, and we're constantly sharing new ideas with each other. A fair amount of any Arborea album consists of instrumentals using first take improvisations and we will continue keeping moments like that on our albums as long as atmosphere and colours exist on the recordings. The next album will also contain more lyrics drawn from our individual poetry, and possibly a song that features my singing.
Shanti - I have started to conceptualize the next record, I think we are going to take it further into outer space in some ways but I want the message in the songs to be clearer and I'd like to tighten up the songwriting and explore instruments I haven't used before. Our daughter has been playing the piano lately and that means I have been too, so there may be some songs featuring piano, and more harmonium!
M: This is often a question I grapple with. Buck, you were a luthier before going full time as a musician. Do you ever see yourself returning to that? As the kids grow older, do you envision touring less and recording more?
Buck - I would love to tour a little less and focus on composing, recording, video making, painting, and building at least one guitar a year. The ideal situation would be to only tour the US two or three times a year, the UK and Europe once a year, and also to play a few nice festivals. The rest of the year would be devoted to creating, recording, and also to taking some time off from music to enjoy other things...like gardening with Shanti and the kids.
Shanti - I'm ready to tour less and spend more time shaping and building a sustainable paradise at home.
M: I know we have both been doing this for a while, and while we have many things we can be proud of to show for it, it's still hard to pay the bills. Do you see yourself content with being underground treasures musically, as opposed to hitting the "big time," (whatever that means)? It's become harder to compete with the virility of the "next big thing" or keep up with the endless hype machine of record labels, even the indie ones, putting a lot of money into every kind of PR you can imagine. In some ways, it's still possible to get charting on the radio without a campaign behind you, but I think it is harder.
Shanti - I think we have to completely abandon the idea of widespread success- it's a faulty concept anyway, it's not sustainable. It's like the idea of infinite expansion on a finite planet. We have to try to build a long-term career that will not only pay the bills but also nurture our creative souls. I don't know what the answer is yet, but I'm asking the question. How can I survive without going mad? Part of the answer is community and friendship, looking out for each other. I'm typing on my laptop in bed in a sunny room in a gorgeous mansion in that my friend spent many years working on with his own two hands using reclaimed materials, my children are playing hide and seek and my friends are downstairs playing harp and cello- the music is swelling and floating up the stairs, in some ways that is all we need to live and be happy.
Buck - Shanti's response is perfect. We do talk about sustaining our career over a long time and liken it to building a temple of sorts, one stone at a time. I think that's the only way you can approach anything in life. The concept of the next big thing is an illusion created by corporations to sell product to Pop markets. Some of the worlds best artists and musicians died far too early because they were destroyed by this illusion. I'm also of the belief that our country should invest more into arts and music and cut back on athletics, which are big business and not necessarily geared towards creating positive sustainable and self sufficient communities. Europe has traditionally put more value in arts and I think that's a value from the Old World we need to adopt.
M: I was recently reading a Tammy Wynette biography, and her rise to fame is something I just can't imagine now. Tammy and her husband would drive around from radio station to radio station and would hand the DJs at the station the single and demand that it be played. And it worked! I just can't imagine waltzing in these days to a station without having security called, especially the top 40 stations. I think its computer programmed at this point what those stations play on the radio. I do think that stations like KEXP, WFMU, KCRW, and countless other well respected indie stations, college stations, and satellite radio stations are very much trendsetters and are consistently willing to give airplay to something new. Thankfully, these outlets exist and are becoming something that sits on equal ground with the top 40s these days.
Still, do you see the inequity getting any better or do you see it getting worse? Do you think there is still "the american dream" when it comes to musicians making it? Do you think you need a lot of money to even "kickstart" a career these days?
Buck - I think you need a lot of energy, focus, and knowledge to Kickstart a career...or pursue the american dream. However, I don't think it's just a complication of our times. If you read the book Blue Melody by Lee Underwood about his life with Tim Buckley, you get a real down to earth portrait of how hard it was to sustain a musical career in the late 60's and early 70's. Most artists throughout history have had to struggle, so I don't think very much has changed really. Van Gogh is another great example of the struggling artist.
Thanks for sharing that story about Tammy Wynette. I would actually love to drive to every radio station in the country (stations not run by computer) and share our latest album and even do on air performances. In a sense we are already doing that every time we go out on these long extended tours across America. We've already done several cross country tours that have lasted up to 3 months each outing. The American Dream is really about the pursuit of fulfilling our individual potentials...but it's just not sustainable unless you are willing to work extremely hard and work for years to develop something. It's also not sustainable or responsible for the environment unless we can collectively work towards making a lot of changes. In that regard, as much as I love records, I'd be willing to go fully digital to help cut down on natural resources. Getting back to the individual pursuit...of course the longer you work at something, the more there is to experience and learn...and inevitably we all mature along the way.
Shanti - YES. NO. YES. Maybe there's a 'big machine' with cranks and wheels that are turning more cranks and wheels and moving pistons and rolling over the earth, reshaping the world to it's own design. I'm not a part of it and never will be. We aren't exploitable, and we're too experienced to be exploited. So it will pass us over. I can't spend too much time thinking about it because I don't want it to be a part of my reality, it just makes me miserable. I honestly think the term 'American Dream' was a concept created to get us all to compete against each other for resources, to keep that wheel moving. Song for Obol, a song I wrote on Red Planet loosely addresses that. I want to be a needle in that wheel- to stop it from turning or at least make it jump the track every once in a while.
M: Newness is something that neither of us can get back. Do you think as you get older it becomes easier or harder to write songs?
Shanti - Harder, for sure. I think we lose that innocence that makes us create without second guessing everything we do. Once you start to build up a body of work you can't help but compete with your past self. You toss songs that the old you would have loved because you are always setting some higher standard for yourself. Not sure if that is a good thing or not. But I will always keep trying.
Buck- I think it's become easier, because we are constantly working at our music and developing those skills...both creatively and physically. I think our biggest challenge is time and not having enough of it to explore all the ideas Shanti and I have between us. If we had the luxury of a couple of years of dedicated time and access to a great studio, we could achieve a lot of great things....albums, soundtracks, and film. The other important thing I believe, is to not let one's self become all consumed by one's creative muse. It's important to stay healthy and to find space away from art and music...to develop other interests and skills. This definitely helps things stay fresh and prevent burn out.
FROM THE CEDAR BOX is a monthly column featuring independent bands/artists as picked by singer/songwriter Marissa Nadler.