BRATTLEBORO—“I consider myself an underground musician,” says Ruth Garbus, a Brattleboro guitarist, singer, and songwriter.
What does that mean?
“It leaves room for weirdness,” Garbus explains. She defines “underground” as “not trying to appeal to the majority,” adding “it means being happy to be undiscovered by most people."
Garbus thinks it’s wonderful when people find her music on their own, and like it, but she says: “I have no desire to cultivate an audience."
The current descriptor “fake-pop” used for Brattleboro’s contemporary underground music scene fits Garbus’s aesthetic well. Her songs follow fairly unfettered arrangements without too many layers of instrumentation, and most have the catchy, melodic hooks of pop music without the lowest-common-denominator banality.
Garbus’s lyrics reflect a satisfied appreciation for small, everyday experiences, with just enough near-psychedelic chiaroscuro to keep things interesting. With her clear, engaging vocals, spanning a few octaves, combine a pleasing softness with an up-front delivery, it’s obvious Garbus is unafraid of the microphone, but her approach isn’t aggressive.
Some of her catalogue reminds a listener of the Beat Happening, but sans the obsession with the teenage love experience.
Garbus declares herself “the most underproductive musician,” but she has some things to look forward to this year.
She is re-releasing some 2010 recordings that were originally on a CD from Autumn Records, Greg Davis’s Burlington-based label.
Feeding Tube, Ted Lee’s Florence, Mass., label, is putting out an LP called “Rendezvous With Rama.” Garbus says the title is taken from Arthur C. Clarke’s science fiction novel.
Garbus is also working on a batch of recordings for a future album, and says “there are a couple of labels possible for its release,” but she has not yet signed any contracts.
On March 19, at the 13th Floor Music Lounge, in Florence, Mass., Garbus shares a bill with Janna Hunter of Lower Dens, and Bill Nace, the experimental guitarist who plays in Body/Head with Kim Gordon.
Later in the year, Garbus plans to tour Europe with Abby Banks, who “will do movies and projections while I play,” Garbus says.
Garbus’s EP “Joule,” released last March, resulted from her early-2014 West Coast tour with Julia Tadlock, with whom Garbus performed.
Garbus says she put together the self-released, homemade CD-R because she wanted something to sell at her performances.
“It wasn’t planned out,” she said, adding, “I just thought, ’Oh shit, I have this, and it could generate some money!’” for the independent musician, who must cover all of her traveling expenses.
Raised in Connecticut, Garbus — who declares “I am a high-school drop-out” — attended the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), but left after her first year. She came to Brattleboro to visit her sister, Merrill Garbus (who currently records under the name tUnE-yArDs), before traveling through Mexico. After her return to this country in 2001, she moved to Brattleboro.
It was an easy decision for Garbus.
“I was definitely attracted to how open everybody was to different ways of being an artist,” Garbus says. “At RISD, everything was on lock-down: you could either be an architect, a graphic designer, a painter, etc. and your training in school was all about” following that very specific path, she says, noting the difficulty of knowing what one “wanted to be” at such a young age.
“When I saw what people were doing in Brattleboro, I felt like I could explore different aspects of artistic expression here,” she says, and her experiences have supported that belief.
“The people I met here formed me,” Garbus says, adding that moving to Brattleboro “provided me with opportunities I might not have had elsewhere. The first day I arrived, Merrill told me Kyle [Thomas] was looking for a roommate. She said, ‘Live with him!’”
Thomas, who now leads King Tuff, has had a big influence on Ruth’s life.
“I don’t know where I’d be without Kyle Thomas. As a result of knowing him, I met so people, I got in Feathers, I met Chris [Weisman], my partner/boyfriend of eight years."
From 2003 to 2006, Garbus was part of Feathers, the Brattleboro octet she calls “the brainchild of Kyle and Kurt [Weisman],” Chris’s brother.
“Being in Feathers is one of the earliest musical experiences I had outside of taking music lessons as a kid,” says Garbus. “I was so green, I had no idea what was going on."
“Feathers turned into this weird phenomenon,” Garbus says, explaining the band was “carried along in this ’freak-folk’ trend, as it was called. People saw us as having this extra legitimacy because we were from Vermont, from ‘the woods.’ We had this cred of living in a commune together, but we weren’t."
Although Garbus has no doubts that southern Vermont is “a unique and special place,” she bristles when “people say we’re in the middle of nowhere, because we’re not."
Still, she describes her time in Feathers as “fun” and “a lark.”
“We had many great opportunities,” she says, mentioning a West Coast tour, and another with Drag City recording artist Smog; a nod from Devendra Banhart in a Pitchfork magazine article; and an appearance on David Garland’s WNYC radio program “Spinning On Air.”
The latter experience provided an unexpected mention in the national news.
While the group was waiting for their turn to perform on the program, Garbus and bandmate Asa Irons were sitting outside the studio.
“This guy, I didn’t recognize him, he came up and just started talking to us,” Garbus says. “He ended up being a reporter from The New York Times, but he didn’t make that clear at first. He put us at ease. He was just conversing with us. Then this article about us came out...” she reminisced.
That article, “Summer of Love Redux,” by Will Hermes, appeared in the June 18, 2006 edition of the Times, and introduced the “freak-folk” scene to mainstream readers.
Shortly after, “Feathers just degenerated on its own,” Garbus says. “It was time for it to be over."
“Feathers was a great band. They really worked well together. They were very dedicated,” reports Ron Schneiderman, Brattleboro musician and owner of the Blueberry Honey record label, adding, “they were really into the Incredible String Band."
From 2008 to 2010, Garbus played in Happy Birthday with Thomas and Chris Wiesman, but “since around 2004,” she has recorded music under her own name, while living what she calls a “small life.”
“I work at the [Brattleboro Food] co-op,” Garbus explains. “I’ve had a few noteworthy experiences, but mostly, it’s right here. I’ve got to make do with what I’ve got. What this place and my life has to offer is just as rich as any grand tour of the world can be. There’s just so much richness and depth in the everyday."