Grooving in the Grove
Grooving in the Grove
A Q&A with Erin Zindle
Of the Ragbirds
By Geoff Gehman
Erin Zindle had to make a pile of decisions she really, really didn’t want to make. Forced to pay the pied piper of procrastination, she locked herself away and wrote a song, one of her duties as the composing, singing violinist in the Ragbirds. Riffing off references on a calendar, she imagined herself among fruit trees, playing a purple fiddle without a stitch of clothes and with a juicy, major-key spirit. In the process she confirmed her calling as a creative, communal musician. In the process she made lemonade from lemonades in a lemon grove.
Zindle’s song, “Lemon Grove,” is a scampering, tangy gift to herself and the listening world. It opens the latest album, “The Threshold & the Hearth” (Rock Ridge Records), from the Ragbirds, a Michigan quintet that includes percussionist Randall Moore, Zindle’s co-founding husband, and her guitarist brother T.J. Produced by Jamie Candiloro (R.E.M., Ryan Adams). the CD contains a gallery of engaging, embracing portraits of a couple whose relationship evolves over 20 years, roughly the same amount of time that Zindle has been touring in bands. She and her fellow Ragbirds have played their zesty blend of bluegrass lullaby, Mediterranean tango and Arabian gypsy jazz in 47 states and Japan, where Zindle’s “Book of Matches” topped a pop chart in Osaka.
The Ragbirds will perform Aug. 9 at the Mauch Chunk Opera House. Jim Thorpe spectators will be treated to a quicksilver, watercolor show with Zindle singing sweetly, fiddling lyrically and twirling in a flouncy dress like a rodeo ballerina. Below, in a conversation from the Interlochen Center for the Arts, where she teaches teens to write tunes, she discusses a pivotal exercise from a violin teacher, a pivotal lesson from a studio producer and a pivotal tattoo.
Q: Can you remember the first song you couldn’t forget, the one that wormed its way into your ears, heart and soul?
A: The first song that really hit my soul and really shook me deeply, that made me experience a deeper truth, was “Release” by Pearl Jam. I was probably 16 and at the age when you have your first heartbreak, when sadness becomes really deep and real. “Release” moved me so much because it perfectly expressed all the angst of my teenage experience. It moved me even more when I heard Pearl Jam play it in a concert in Rochester [N.Y.] that I attended with my older brother Eddie; it was my first concert and it was just the two of us without parental chaperone. It was even more powerful watching how people connected to it, seeing people sing along, whether they could sing or not. It was like church in a strange way.
Q: Who was your first musical mentor and what was the best lesson she or he imparted to you, a piece of advice you not only use but pass along to younger musicians?
A: My violin teacher Frances Kaye, who performed with the Buffalo Philharmonic, had such a beautiful influence on me in many ways. One thing I find myself passing along to my students, one thing that changed me in an overall way, not just playing violin but playing in general, was to use imagery to get into the character of the music. For example, she told me to pretend I was Itzhak Perlman, to role play, to think I could play perfectly because, of course, he’s going to play perfectly. If I just played it being me, it sounded like me. But if I played it back to back with the mindset of “I am Itzhak Perlman,” it sounded so much more beautiful–and it was still me. I use that mindset whether I’m teaching piano or violin or songwriting. It’s very effective; it makes a big difference.
Q: How do you teach your young songwriters to get around dead ends, to break through brick walls?
A: Gosh, there are so many things I’ve covered the last three weeks with these phenomenal musicians from all over the world. First of all, I remind them that I can’t teach them how to write a song but I can teach them to see everything around them as a metaphor that they’ve experienced and to write that into their own unique story. Many of these young kids struggle with depression and they write songs as therapy. Everybody wants to show off and with all this competition there is a lot of self-doubt and other psychological issues. I try to remind them that even though there are a million songs out there, and the world doesn’t need another collection of songs, they should be willing to be honest, to be vulnerable, to tell personal truths.
Q: You’ve said that for “The Threshold & the Hearth,” the Ragbirds’ latest album, producer Jamie Candiloro significantly improved your recording process, convincing you that it would be better to be better prepared coming into the studio instead of scrambling around to make 11th-hour changes. Can you pick out a tune that he improved significantly?
A: I’ll tell you about “Strange Weather,” which is very barren in the production. When we first started working on it for the record, I wanted to add the whole band, to make it a Ragbirds song. I think part of my thinking was my own security. I’ve had very little experience playing piano and singing and making more of a solo track; it’s very vulnerable for me to do that. We were building up many layers [on “Strange Weather”] when Jamie had the idea of me doing it completely solo. And that’s the way it ended up on the album. Even the band elements are really subtle: a little bass here; a little bit of a string line here and there.
Since then I’ve been performing solo much more often. That one breakthrough helped me find another part of my voice. It gave me confidence that I’ve applied forward.
Q: “Lemon Grove” really stands out on “The Threshold & the Hearth.” It has some mysteriously poetic lines—“I was born in a minor key”–and a scampering groove and a tropical tang that makes me think of Paul Simon’s South African and Brazilian adventures. Does it have a specific source of inspiration or did it come from the ether?
A: This was a very specific song. First of all, I was in this place in my life where all the decisions I was procrastinating on making were coming to a head. I was caught in that one door closes/another door opens situation, and I didn’t know which door to open. So I went into my room with the intention of: I’m going to lock myself in until I come out with an answer. I figured I needed to write for a little bit and see what came out.
I was looking at a calendar and on it were two different venues [for Ragbirds concerts] on the same weekend: the Lemon Grove in Erie, Pa., and the Purple Fiddle in Thomas, W. Va. The new moon was also on the calendar that week. I was just weeding my way around these overwhelming thoughts when I thought of “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade”–that cliché phrase we all know. And then I thought: But what if you’re born into a place where lemons are all you get? I was just trying to find some sweetness.
Although the language [in “Lemon Grove”] is light and whimsical, I was kind of claiming: This is who I am and this is why I make music. I have sung my songs for ages: I am made to make music; this is why I’m here. I was born with a purple fiddle;
Q: And what’s the story behind writing “The Show Is Over”? Your words make it sound like a country waltz: “’Cause the show is over and what do we have to show? We’re still living on four wheels with nowhere to go” But the arrangement is more lyrical, more balletic.
A: Actually, we had just played a show and I was writing the lyrics as all those things [in the song] were happening, packing up the microphones and the bartender saying, “Oh, yeah, I heard you made $24.” We were not a young band and I was thinking: How is it possible to end up with $24–and that doesn’t even cover our gas to get here. I was in that mental groove I was in when I wrote “Lemon Grove,” that recurring theme of why I was put here to do what I do.
I’ve been touring with bands for 20 years. It’s extremely difficult. to make a living in this business. At times when I’ve had bad perspectives, when I’ve felt hopeless, I’ve been able to turn those negative feelings around in positive songs. Songs keep coming to me; they seem to have a plan for me; they don’t give up on me.
Q: A touring band is a complex family. A touring band with married members who have a youngster is even more complicated. How do you and Randall stay sane on the road? Teresa Williams and Larry Campbell told me that they stay in separate rooms to limit the distractions and keep the peace.
A: Every relationship is complex and everyone has to do their own thing to make it work out. We’ve been married for 11 years and we’re in a certain season of our lives. Now that we have a little one [daughter Aviva, or Vivi], we’re not traveling as far and as wide as when we were playing 180 shows a year. Lately Randall has not been touring so much with the band. He’s been playing percussion to my music for a very long time and now he wants to try playing with different people; he wants some reflective space.
People ask me: How do you guys get along when you see each other 24 hours a day? I say I don’t see Randall all day long. We have different jobs, different.roles, in the band. He’s setting up the sound stuff and I’m writing the set list. He’s bopping around at the back of the stage and I’m bopping around out front. Even in the van he’ll be driving and I’m in the back writing songs, in my own world. At the end of the night we end up in the same bed together, talking about the show, after a day of being in the same spaces but occupying different corners.
Q: How in the world did your song “Book of Matches” top the charts in Osaka, Japan?
A: Trust me, we didn’t set out to have a hit record in Japan. We were selling records through the Homegrown Music Network and they were getting special orders for the  album “Wanderlove,” which has “Book of Matches.” The Homegrown people were saying that they could hardly keep up with the demands [in 2008] and I asked: Where are all these CD orders going? and they said they were going to Japan. Shortly afterward we were contacted by a record label in Japan and they brought us over for a tour. We got to play the Greenroom Festival in Yokohama for about 10,000 people and people in the front row were singing along to my lyrics. I was dumbfounded. Actually, dumbfounded is not the right word; let’s say I was shocked and honored and totally just dazzled.
We got back from Japan and found out that ”Book of Matches” was at the top of overall Top 100 chart–between [songs from] Lady Gaga and the Black Eyed Peas. And we were: What?! All right! Unfortunately, we didn’t return to Japan after our record was on the charts. I know it doesn’t make any sense; trust me, it doesn’t make any sense to me either, Our record label lost a whole lot of money on a tour that totally bombed and they didn’t have enough money to bring us across the ocean.
Yes, we had a little fling with Japan. I always joke that Japan swept me off my feet and then broke my heart.
Q: I’m always fascinated by the afterlife of songs, how they zag when you expect them to zig after you release them to the world. Is there a song of yours with an unexpected afterlife, one that ended up in weddings, funerals and maybe even a Quinceanera [Sweet 15] party?
A: The only one that comes to mind is “Book of Matches.” Of all the songs I could have imagined that made it to the top pop 100 in any country I would have not chosen “Book of Matches.”
I’ll tell you about another surprise involving my songs. My husband and I had been living in our house for a couple of years and we were chatting with our new next-door neighbors. They asked us “What do you do?” and we said “We play in a band called the Ragbirds.” And they said: “Oh my god, we played your songs at our wedding!” That couple ended up becoming some of our very best friends. We weren’t there at their wedding physically but we were there in spirit.
Q: So, Erin, what tops your Bucket List?
A: To play “Austin City Limits.” When I do visualizing exercises, when I want to move into that optimistic mindset, I iust picture being on that stage. Yeah, that’s my top goal, that’s my love.
Q: And what tops your Fuck It List?
A: Oh, I don’t think that way; I really try to not write off anything entirely. I have seen so many examples of things I thought were hopeless and useless completely transformed and redeemed. I can’t draw clear lines, even though clear lines are easier and bring funny stories
Q: You have a very distinctive look—a little ’60s model, a little gypsy, a little rodeo ballerina. What aesthetic message are you shooting for and who are your fashion heroes?
A: Oh my god, I really try to do my own thing. I use a lot of feathers; I love feathers, I also love tulle, the way it really poofs and twirls. My style has definitely changed over the years. I used to be baby-doll cutesy before I had a baby. Now I have more sharp edges, more black and white, with just a puff of color. There’s not a specific [designer] who influences me. I sort of dress the way I make music: I take a lot of influences and mash them together.
Q: And what’s the nature and source of that tattoo on your right bicep?
A: It’s a bird with a crown singing up towards the sun. The inscription says “Imago Dei (Image of God).” As with most tattoos there’s the simple, quick answer as to what it is and what it means, and then there’s the longer story. I got it shortly after I got divorced, to remind myself that, yes, I am created in God’s image, too, and that image is not exclusive for the male of our species.
Erin Zindle: The Scoop
She and her fellow Ragbirds tour in a Ford E-350 van that runs on waste vegetable oil and is named Cecilia, after music’s patron saint
She and Randall Moore, her Ragbirds co-founder, married to music played on a sitar and a kora, a 21-string lute/harp.
In a YouTube video for Patreon, a subscription membership platform for patrons of creators, she asks Ragbirds fans to form a financial and psychological net, to “raise up your hands and catch us.”
She wears a flouncy white dress with a black musical staff in a promotional photograph for the Ragbirds’ latest album, “The Threshold & the Hearth.”
The cover of “The Threshold & the Hearth” has her painting of a woman and a man lying on their backs in a backyard, staring at a night sky, which she made on a recycled kitchen shelf.
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He’s a big fan of women wearing tulle. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.