Ann Arbor, Michigan acoustic string band the Ragbirds may be based in the American Midwest, but from there they explore a myriad of sounds from around the world. Drawing influence from gypsy, Celtic and African musics, the Ragbirds have shown themselves to be consummate artistic travelers. However, the great thing about this group is how they’ve always been able to meld these sounds into something unique and all their own. The band’s new record releasing later this month, The Threshold & The Hearth, continues in that tradition, but grounds the music firmly in their definition of home.
“I’ve been traveling with bands since I was a teenager,” says Erin Zindle, the Ragbirds’ chief songwriter and frontwoman. She adds, “there’s still a worldly feel, but there’s also the sense that The Threshold & The Hearth is the sound we’ve been searching for. I feel like we’re the alchemist who traveled so far, only to discover that what he was seeking was always at home.”
Erin Zindle of the Ragbirds takes PopMatters through the creation of “Breakdown”: “This song started with the fiddle riff. I got to a really dark emotional place and stayed there long enough to get angry. That was the mood I was in when I picked up my fiddle and the riff came to me. I was stomping while I played it so the first lyric came easily then the rest of the lyrics unfolded from there. I was heading for a breakdown and realized that what I really needed was a release. I realized that I didn’t need to figure it all out—I simply needed to let it all go. So the songwriting process was very cathartic for me. I was working through my emotions, and as I wrote down the lyrics they were speaking the truth I needed to hear. I know a song like this is a gift because it was as if the lyrics were being sung to me and I was just recording the message. It felt like a word from God.
I knew that I wanted to capture a raw tribal feel for this song because that is how the moment felt. Our producer Jamie Candiloro understood right away that we needed to go deep with this one and get creative to get the sounds that we needed. Our drummers Jon and Randy worked out the poly-rhythmic foundation and some African-inspired unison figures. We recorded the band playing the song live then dreamed up the missing pieces, overdubbing more percussion (shekere, vibraphone, big African bass drums, hand claps, and lots more). Out of nowhere Jamie said, ‘everyone take off your shoes’ as he was setting up microphones around a large piece of wood he found somewhere. I thought he was going to have us do some barefoot dancing or something but instead he had us all sit around the piece of wood with our shoes on our hands and “stomp” along with the song in unison.
My brother TJ and I got crazy with layering vocals—chanting, punctuated breaths, atonal harmonies—we were so fired up in the studio, tag-teaming each other as we took turns in the recording booth. The energy was really electric and I feel like you can hear the heat of that in the recording. I was moving so much as I recorded the fiddle track—trying not to get too far from the mic—stomping and dancing to the music in between my fiddle parts. The song really captures the powerful feeling of release and I hope that listeners will be inspired to let go of whatever is holding them back and dance with reckless abandon. We have been playing this song at the very end of our live set lately and it evokes a big response. We’ve even extended the fiddle and drum section at the end when we play it live because it’s an energy we want to hold on to for longer.”