PUTNEY—Most weekdays, you will find Rani Arbo at Wesleyan University’s Center for the Arts, where she serves as campus and community engagement manager. But on Saturday, April 15, you will find her fronting a concert with daisy mayhem, her acclaimed folk/roots quartet.
Originally from New York City, Arbo, 55, shares her Middletown, Connecticut home with her bandmate and husband, percussionist Scott Kessel. Their son, Quinn, 19, who shared a touring life with his parents, is now off at college.
The band — which The Boston Globe calls “playful and profound” — includes Arbo on fiddle and guitar; Andrew Kinsey on bass, banjo, and ukulele; Anand Nayak on electric and acoustic guitars; and Kessel on percussion. All four musicians sing and they are well known for their stunning four-part harmonies as well as their unique instrumental stylings and repertoire.
When reached by phone at her home studio recently, Arbo says “during the pandemic, we were a warm weather band and rehearsed on Anand’s porch in Massachusetts. We moved from wearing sweaters to T-shirts and then back to sweaters and then took a break during winter.”
She says the band is excited to return to Next Stage.
“We love that venue,” Arbo says. “There are certain venues that have their own personalities — like they absorb the character of all the performers who have been there before and the passion and vision of the folks who created them.”
Playing there, she says, “feels like a duet with the building — with the stage — in a great way.” She calls it “a return to a very beloved place.”
In an email to The Commons, Barry Stockwell, production director and one of the five founders of Next Stage Arts Project, notes, “Regulars on the Twilight Music artist roster for the past 20 years, first at Hooker-Dunham Theater & Gallery and now at Next Stage, Rani Arbo & daisy mayhem consistently stands out as a highlight of our programming. The stylistic range of music that they can cover so well is astounding — uplifting and wildly entertaining.”
The Commons spoke to Arbo recently about her band’s name, cathedral choirs, and what makes Putney and Brattleboro audiences so special. Here is an excerpt of the conversation.
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Victoria Chertok: How did you come up with your band’s name?
Rani Arbo: My friend was in an all-women’s punk band in Minneapolis called “Daisy Mayhem,” which was named for a Hanna-Barbera cartoon character from the Scooby-Doo TV show. When they broke up I thought to myself, “That is a great band name, and I wonder if I could use it.”
V.C.: Do you write all of your own songs? Any covers?
R.A.: We have a bunch of songwriters in the band, so we play everyone’s original songs and also covers from familiar and less-well-known artists. We also love the sound and soul of traditional music from the public domain. So we weave from all three of those threads.
One of the things that we’ve enjoyed playing with is blending some of the sounds you have found in traditional music that’s been around for hundreds of years, particularly the fiddle, banjo, and vocal stylings of Appalachian music, as well as a bit of bluegrass, blues, and swing. Those sounds thread into our original music as well.
We aim to play old music in such a way that it doesn’t sound old, and new music that sounds a bit timeless.
V.C.: I hear you have a special guest joining you at your Next Stage show.
R.A.: Yes! Anna Patton is an incredible clarinet player, songwriter, and arranger. She directs the Soubrette Jazz Choir in Brattleboro. It’s such a treat to have her on stage with us. She’s guested with us a couple of times and will join us for several songs.
V.C.: You mentioned that the Putney and Brattleboro audiences are special. What makes them so?
R.A.: For one thing, we have lots of old friends in the audience, since we have returned to the area many times. It’s a very special community, in part because Brattleboro is home to an incredible community of musicians and artists. There are lots of local choirs: the Hallowell Singers hospice choir and local church choirs led by Peter and Mary Alice Amidon and Mary Cay Brass, and local arts organizations that lift up jazz, circus arts, visual arts, and more. It’s a really special place.
Another special Brattleboro–Putney memory hinges on a song I wrote, decades ago. “Crossing the Bar” is an elegy poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson that I set to music. Hallowell and other hospice choirs have been singing it at bedsides and in other hospice settings.
It is a huge honor for me to have a song leave me and be able to travel and do good in the world through other people, who make it their own. Some years ago, we had a chance to partner with Hallowell to sing it together.
There’s something about songs and singing that knits people together, and our Putney–Brattleboro audiences are always full of singers!
V.C.: I heard you say that you think about music as kind of “good medicine.” What does that mean to you?
R.A.: Yes, I think our music is good medicine. It certainly is for me, and for all of us in the band.
One of the things we hear often from audience members on their way out is, “I really had a hard day, and I’m feeling so much better after this show.” It’s one of the amazing things that remind me as a musician that I can make a difference, even if it’s just in how someone’s day feels.
That’s why we’re here. That is the way we approach all of our shows — to have fun with each other, listen to each other, be present with each other — because we are old friends, and there is something about that which translates into an audience experience that feels really welcoming and gentle and inviting.
Healing and lifting spirits...we endeavor to have a band where we can do that for each other, and I hope that is contagious. Come sing with us!
V.C.: Who were some of your early music influences growing up in New York City?
R.A.: Oh, what a great question. I sang in a cathedral choir, so musically the experience of being one in a sea of voices in a big community space was really formative. I spent a lot of time at it — close to 25 hours per week from age 7–14. That was an incredible experience for me.
In high school and college, the usual rainbow of singer/songwriters from that time: Bonnie Raitt, June Tabor, Patty Griffin, and Shawn Colvin. Some of those were at the top of their young careers when I was thinking about being a singer.
That is something that happened really slowly for me when I was transitioning from being a choir member to a lead singer. It happened by accident.
My first band, Salamander Crossing, evolved out of a jam session. It got fun, and we got better at it, and people started asking us to play shows. All of a sudden I was singing leads.
V.C.: When did you know that you wanted to be a singer?
R.A.: I was working in Northampton, Mass. at FamilyFun magazine. I didn’t plan on music being a career when I was working at the magazine; I left in 1996 thinking, “Oh, I’m not going to want to tour when I’m 40, so I might was well do it now.” I freelanced for a few magazines while we toured coffeehouses, performing arts centers and festivals in North America and Canada.
Salamander Crossing turned into daisy mayhem in 2000, and my partner Scott Kessel joined the new band. We had a son, Quinn, in 2004, and took him on the road with us. All of a sudden I was past 40 and still touring and having a great time.
I took a steadier job in 2017 when Quinn was 13; we still toured, but were flying less, in part in consideration of environmental concerns and working around everyone’s family commitments. We are really happy to be rooted in New England.
V.C.: What was it like to play cello first and then switch to fiddle?
R.A.: I played classical cello for nine years, through the end of high school. I needed a break from the pressure of the classical world that I was in and took up fiddle while I studied at Amherst College.
Being in the Pioneer Valley meant I was exposed to fiddle music, Cajun, Québécois, and contradance music. I really loved those sounds, the way the fiddle can harmonize with itself and the way it can dance.
I am a harmony person... that is all I want in my life!
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Rani Arbo & daisy mayhem (raniarbo.com) will perform at Next Stage Arts Project, 15 Kimball Hill, Putney on Saturday, April 15 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $25 at the door. To purchase advance tickets ($22), visit bit.ly/710-rani.