Interview: Arborea

 photo:  Jeanne Madic

Will Shenton

Lewiston, Maine’s ethereal, elegiac folk duo Arborea first emerged on the scene in 2005, and they haven’t showed any signs of slowing down since. With uniquely haunting vocals and eclectic, meditative instrumentals, their ability to capture the somber, wistful, and contemplative has placed them among the best of contemporary folk groups. Never have I found myself so gleefully melancholy.

As they approach their ten-year anniversary as a band, the wife-and-husband duo has decided to celebrate the milestone by crowdfunding a new album. I had the chance to sit down with Shanti and Buck last week (on Halloween, of all days) and discuss their plans for the record, Shanti’s dabbling in the occult, and Buck’s secret love of the Bee Gees.

ThrdCoast: I’ve always been curious, what are your respective musical backgrounds?

Shanti Curran: My mom was a singer-songwriter folk musician in Norfolk, Virginia, and before that she was doing it up here in Maine. When I was three or four she had a duo with another woman who played the flute, they were called Time and Space. [Laughs] It was the seventies. So my mom always played music – it was a completely different style than what we do – but I grew up in a household where there were always musicians around and we were always going to gigs. I think I took it for granted, like, oh God, more guitars, more bongos, more saxophone players, so I wasn’t really into music when I was younger. I wanted to focus on photography. But that’s my background, I’ve always been surrounded by music.

Buck Curran: I have a long, sordid past [laughs]. I guess it started with my record collection – well, my parents’ record collection. It was the seventies, so I had all kinds of R&B, funk…

SC: The Bee Gees [laughs].

BC: The Bee Gees. John Williams, classical guitar, Tim Buckley, stuff like that. It led to a fascination with all that music. There was a neighborhood kid who was dating my sister who played acoustic guitar around the community pool, and listening to him all the time really propelled me into picking it up myself. My dad had an old classical guitar that he never played, and I started trying to learn stuff like AC/DC on that. I had a little microphone pickup plugged into an amp just so I could get some distortion on the classical guitar. By the time I was a senior in high school, I dropped out of long-distance running so that I could focus on music and eventually getting a record deal. I joined the service so I could get money to go to guitar school out in California, but by the time I got out I didn’t want to do that anymore – I just wanted to pursue my own muses rather than learning a bunch of rudimentary guitar stuff. So when I got out I stuck around the Virginia Beach area and started playing blues, which was an early love thanks to all of the Hendrix and Cream and stuff. Then I started working at a folklore instrument shop, and we were also a venue for some of the world’s best English folk musicians. It introduced me to a lot of British Isles folk music, people like Sandy Denny, Martin Simpson, June Tabor, you know, legends of British folk music from the sixties and seventies. So that kind of propelled me into the acoustic side of things. And throughout all of that, I’d always been a writer, so songwriting was very important as well. But I waited a long time to actually release a record. When Shanti and I got together, I knew she could sing, but it was kind of a slow development.

SC: I wasn’t interested [laughs].

BC: She was very shy. But in 2004 she made a record of her singing for me for Christmas, which was kind of the first time she broke out of that shyness. I knew she needed an instrument of her own to inspire her to do more than just singing, so that following summer I got her a banjo for her birthday.

SC: Before that, though, I almost bought a kora, an African instrument, and it was between that and a banjo. The only reason I went with the banjo was that I figured the kora would take too long to learn how to tune.

BC: I found her a banjo that was already in an alternate tuning, and we spent that whole summer improvising, having backyard jams, and the music just developed from there.

TC: What can you guys tell me about your songwriting process? Do you work collaboratively, or do you put things together individually and then bring it all together?

SC: All of the above. If we sit down to play music, a song will come just from the two of us playing around together.

BC: Usually instrumentally.

SC: Then I’ll get bored and walk away, like, all right, I’m done [laughs]. We’ll both work on the lyrics and really cut it a lot, making sure that it sounds like what we’re trying to say with the song. Then, other times, one of us will come to the table with a complete song, and the other one will add a little bit to flesh it out, like some different guitar or backing vocals. So it’s really both an individual and shared creative process.

BC: Also, there are usually one or two tracks on our albums that are traditional songs, so we try to find the right song that hasn’t been covered a million times already.

SC: Or we try to cover it in a different way.

BC: We try to develop a unique approach to the song. “When I Was on Horseback” is a good example. It’s a traditional Irish song that I knew from when I was working at the folklore shop years ago, but I wanted to take a different approach than the other bands that I’d heard do it before, like Steel Ice Band or Martin Simpson. We took our kids with us on our North American tour at the time, so there was sort of an educational aspect to the stops, like visiting Civil War battlefields. That gave me the idea to rewrite the lyrics to reflect more of an American feel.

TC: This new album you guys are working on is going to mark ten years as a band. What’s changed over those ten years in terms of your songwriting, style, and inspirations as artists?

SC: I feel like it’s becoming more honed. It feels like it still retains that original quality that we started with, but we seem to be more adept at communicating the feelings we want to convey. The new songs seem, lyrically… there’s a lot of mysticism in it, a lot of the occult, a lot of focus on the cosmos. It’s a little less earth-bound and a little more based in alternate dimensions and stardust, stuff like that. And then with the new record we’re looking to expand the songs in such a way that there will be more drums and varied instrumentation. It’s a much bigger vision than what we started with.

BC: We’ve gotten tighter and more dynamic with our music because we’ve been playing live together for so long. We’ve played so many shows over the years, and you get really honed when you do that.

SC: Except when you stop for a few weeks [laughs]. Also, recently I’ve been studying a lot of Middle Eastern music, because it’s allowed my voice to go places it’s never really gone before. I want to create some songs for the new record that really showcase the highs, lows, and in-betweens that I’ve been exploring vocally.

TC: You mentioned that mysticism and spirituality, and it’s something I see throughout a lot of your music. Is that something you’ve always been interested in, or did it develop alongside the music?

SC: I’ve definitely always been interested in it. I was raised with quite a unique spiritual background coming from my parents, and now I study astrology… I mean I’m interested in everything. Different religions, different ways of looking at the world. I like studying the way that energy works and the powers of our minds. I’ve been known to dabble in those things. Some of the meditation I’ve been doing is based on the new moon and the full moon, and different rituals having to do with that. I’ve actually been doing a live show called Emerge during the new moon. So I think the interest has always been there, but nowadays, with the amount of information available at your fingertips, I’ve been able to study that sort of thing a lot more.

BC: A pretty big inspiration for me, though I’ve never studied it, is Middle Eastern music and classical Indian music. It’s informed certain ways that I approach playing the guitar modally. Also, poetry. A lot of the songs that I’ve demoed for the new record combine poetry and spirituality and romanticism, as well as cosmic, celestial things and some almost fairytale elements… I keep going down to this river that’s very close to where we live, and every time I go there I seem to write something. Something just comes. I think water imagery has become very important to me, as well as celestial things. A lot of nature, obviously, but not so much woods. Mostly water.

SC: Yeah, we’re totally done with trees now [laughs]. No more trees.

TC: I know you guys are heading out on tour to Ireland this week. Are there any other stops planned after that?

BC: After Ireland we’re just going to do regional things in the northeast, then in April we’re heading to Italy on our next big tour. Then we’re going to Germany, and after that the new record will be out and we’ll do more US shows. We’d love to come out to California and the Pacific Northwest as a part of that.

SC: We’re also planning to go to Egypt for some shows in June. But this winter I think we’re going to be spending a lot of our time focusing on recording the new album and doing our side projects with other people, sticking closer to home.

You can support Arborea’s new record by donating to their Indiegogo campaign here. And if you’re in Ireland, be sure to check out one of their upcoming performances!