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Robin Aigner

A Balkan Journey

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In the summer of 2003, Aigner traveled with a group of musicians from the string band Luminescent Orchestrii, a forerunner in New York City’s Balkan music scene, to Romania to study Eastern European music at a local festival. 


One night, in the tiny village of Czavas in Transylvania, they took a horse-drawn carriage up a hillside towards a picnic where music was being played. Once the horses grew tired, they walked the rest of the way. On the hilltop, locals cooked meat and bacon – really, chunks of lard—and Aigner and her friends soaked it all in. 


Word quickly circulated that a group of American musicians was in town so a concert of Old Time American music was thrown together at the village hall. Aigner sang and played ukulele. 


“Robin knew lots of Old Time songs and it was great having her with us,” said Rima Fand, 39, of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, whose resume includes Luminescent Orchetrii, the indo-pop band Church of Betty and the a capella women’s vocal quartet Lîla. 


“The audience spoke no English, so they had someone translating everything we were saying into Hungarian,” Fand said. “I remember we were talking about the song ‘Cluck Ol’ Hen.’ We said that it was a song about thanking the chickens for laying eggs. When it was translated, we saw all the old Hungarian ladies nodding their heads knowingly. It was a great moment.”
 
One night, walking down the hillside, Aigner taught Fand the old gospel tune “Warfare” and together they sang it as a friend played harmonica. Music was everywhere. 


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The song begins with an acoustic guitar, jazzy and hushed, slowly shuffling as a violin weeps and, faintly, someone runs their fingers over the keys of a piano. Then, the listener gets invited in on the secret. 


“I’ve been to the Campbell Apartment/ at the invitation of F.D.R./ I’m the only one who knows where he goes when he parks his car,” Aigner sings, her voice fragile yet flirtatious and sensual. “A house is not a home/ and Winters cannot hold a candle to my throne.” 


This song, which opens Bandito, is “Pearl Polly Adler,” an homage to a New York City Madame whose houses of ill repute served the gangsters of her day, and it’s just the beginning of a record filled with beautiful and illuminating moments.
 
Bandito is the kind of record that is not listened to, but discovered. It alternates between lush arrangements for violin, bass and Rhodes and devastatingly spare acoustic numbers like “Great Molasses Disaster.” It is one of the finest records you will hear this year. 


It is also a record clearly informed by the works of Piñataland, a Brooklyn-based Old World orchestrette with whom Aigner has collaborated. Their full-length debut, the brilliant Songs for the Forgotten Future Vol. 1, set the bar for local musicians attempting to capture the luster of a lost world, an American history somehow running below the surface of things. Aigner cites them as an influence and their fingerprints are all over Bandito, whose history-infused song-stories pack a punch that make the tracks on Volksinger or Royal Pine’s two discs seem like pencil sketches or works-in-progress by comparison. It’s that good. 


The whole record was recorded in two to three weeks at Seaside Lounge, predominantly, and Wombat Studios, both in Brooklyn. The musicians Aigner collaborated with on the record, including the breathtaking violinist Caroline Shaw, worked largely without musical charts. 


“There had been no prior collaboration,” Aigner said. “They all, including the percussionist, just came in and instantly got it. Especially Caroline, she really understood the music on a very deep – and also a surface – level.”
 
The songs, most of them written in 2008 and 2009, achieved a magical kind of glow in the studio, one that would be difficult to reproduce on stage. 


“They never sounded as good prior to making the album as they do now,” Aigner said. “[It’s] kind of a curse because, when I play them solo, I want to hear all that amazing instrumentation that happened in the studio.” 


At the time the record was released, Aigner was enraptured by Rufus Wainwright, listening to the Avett Brothers and Bombadil, and citing John Prine’s Diamonds In The Rough as one of her favorite records. But, she stressed, she does not have a voracious appetite for music. But it’s always there in her head, waiting. 


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Curtis Eller grew up in Detroit and participated in musical theater in Michigan and Chapel Hill, N.C. for the better part of a decade before moving to New York City in 1995.
 
In 1997, Eller, whose father taught him to play bluegrass-style banjo when he was 13, began to perform live around town. Three full-length records and two EPs followed, each of them offering passionate takes on tales from the distant and not so distant past. In his lyrics, John Wilkes Booth and Stephen Foster rubbed elbows with Elvis. 


Eller can’t remember the first time he met Aigner, with whom he has collaborated as a solo musician and with Piñataland. 


“She’s just one of those people that was always there,” said Eller, 40, now of Astoria, Queens. “She was always popping up. She was either in the gig or at the gig of the people I was playing with. It was one of those New York things. You knew you were at the right gig if she was there.” 


But, Eller stresses, neither he nor Aigner are icons of New York’s Old Time scene. Instead, they form a circle with bands like Piñataland and Kill Henry Sugar that make new music about old tales. 


“For some reason, there are several of us that started mining this strange, historical stuff all at the same time and found each other at gigs,” Eller said. “It was a weird shadow that fell on songwriters at once.” 


Eller also had something of a friendly competition with Aigner. 


Both had heard stories about “The Great Molasses Disaster of 1919,” when, according to Aigner, a huge stationary tank of molasses in Boston exploded on an unusually hot day in December, killing people and toppling the El tracks. 


“I had been wanting to write a song about that event for a year or two and had been struggling,” Aigner said. “Then I heard Curtis wanted to write a song about it, so I knew I had to get shaking. It was a showdown!” 


Aigner won; the song, a touching piece set to carefully plucked acoustic guitar, closes Bandito


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Though Aigner’s catalog features its share of historical narratives, there is also, as is often the case with singer-songwriters, a trace of autobiography.
 
“See You Around,” the “relationship song” on Bandito, tells the story, in first-person, of a musician whose lover is not pledging enough of himself to their relationship. In it, her vulnerability can be disarming. 


“I can make a meal for a king/ sing a tune about any damn thing/ You would know all of these things/ if you were around,” she sings, trying to fight off the broken heart. “Sometimes, I can’t even recall your look/ Sometimes, I erase you from the phone book.” 


Aigner said the song, which is pulled from real-life experiences, details the ambiguous nature of a new relationship. She also admits there are traces of her life –  and the lives of her friends and family – in her story-songs. Sometimes, it’s the little details, like her fascination with Mason jars, or those of a friend, like the lyrical reference to a hat from the blind man in Denver. But other feelings loom larger. 


“You know, I think we are all lonely at some point – we are all constantly looking for things,” Aigner said. “So, there is pretty much always a restlessness in the characters in my songs and a loneliness. There is also a lot of mystery, because I like mysteries. My personal life is woven into the songs, almost always.” 


And the intensity with which she throws herself into her craft is starting to get attention.
 
“She has a very strong focus when she’s singing,” said Kuhn, the Brooklyn bartender who was struck by Aigner’s music nearly a decade ago. “She’s in it. She’s completely in it when she’s up there. And you can see it.”

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