BRATTLEBORO — Ruth Garbus will release her fifth solo album, Kleinmeister, on Aug. 30, on the Chicago label, Orindal Records.
Fans of Garbus' slightly surreal, observational lyrics, spare instrumentation, and sophisticated song structures will find themselves in familiar territory. In his review of Kleinmeister, Chris Cohen, singer-songwriter, producer, and former member of Deerhoof, said Garbus “has the best, weirdest chord changes, [and] the catchiest and most exotic melodies and lyrics.”
A few things have changed since Garbus' last release, Hello Everybody. While still immersed in the aural chiaroscuro Garbus excels at, Kleinmeister has a fuller, richer sound, and her voice has more power behind it.
Recording her new album was “the most professional studio experience I've had in my solo music,” Garbus told The Commons. She recorded Kleinmeister in the winter of 2017 at Dave Snyder's Guilford Sound recording studio on 2-inch tape, with Travis Laplante as producer and mixing by Ryan Power.
The first two tracks, “Strash” and “Pain,” and the final song, “Fetty Wah,” incorporate more elements - production, instruments, and additional vocals by Julia Tadlock - than most of Garbus' catalogue, including the other songs on the album.
Having Laplante and Power “do all this wizardry [...] elevated those songs to a different place,” Garbus said.
Silencing the crowd
The strength of Garbus's voice is all her own, with no need for studio manipulation.
This was evident last May, when she opened for King Tuff - featuring her former Feathers and Happy Birthday bandmate, Kyle Thomas - at The Stone Church in Brattleboro. Before Garbus took the stage, the audience was doing what it typically does before an act starts: ordering drinks, milling about, gathering into clumps to chat with friends.
The house lights dimmed, and Garbus walked out with her guitar, taking her place at the microphone. There was no fanfare. No smoke machines. No colorful flashing lights or disco balls spinning. Garbus wasn't wearing a towering wig or precarious heels - she was dressed in sensible shoes and a simple skirt. She could have arrived from a parent-teacher conference and nobody would have known the difference.
But after the first few notes of Garbus' voice and simple strumming, the audience went silent. Everyone stopped and turned toward her. People sat or kneeled on the ground and just stared, as if in a trance, like they were in church. But, an actual church. Not a deconsecrated church where beer is served.
Her voice was clear and strong, and traveled among various octaves. Garbus has always had range, but in the past, she seemed more shy behind the microphone. This time she sounded more confident, and that assurance was evident at her June 27 show, also at The Stone Church.
Garbus explained what's behind this change. She recently spent two years studying with opera singer Jim Anderson - and fully embraced her mezzo soprano vocal range.
“I saw a very rapid improvement,” Garbus said.
Room to grow
Garbus has been singing since the early 2000s, and she said her singing and speaking voice used to be quiet. “I had a weak power, but I could hit high pitches,” she said, noting that her voice “used to be more controlled by nerves. I had a pinched voice when I was scared."
Working with Anderson, “expanded my ability to sing with more control,” Garbus said. “Jim taught me physical things to affect and control my voice.”
This allowed Garbus to carefully plan how to sing every word of her music, so she could practice singing the way she wanted to sing, “thereby enabling me to do that in front of an audience."
“From taking voice lessons I am so much more confident, and it feels more fun to play,” Garbus said. Between songs at the June show, Garbus smiled broadly, laughed a bit, and told the audience, “I'm having so much fun up here!”
“I want to be clear. I'm not studying opera with an opera teacher,” Garbus told The Commons. “But with Jim, opera was always there."
Astute listeners will hear in Garbus' range and delivery hints of Joni Mitchell, an association Garbus appreciates. There are some similarities in their subject matter, too - “Especially from her releases from her 30s,” Garbus said. “[She's] a grown woman, singing about grown-woman things."
Garbus has also drawn inspiration from Burt Bacharach, noting her love of his “choral pop music,” Dionne Warwick, Sami Stevens of Tredici Bacci, Nina Simone, and Garbus' sister, Merrill, who performs as Tune-Yards.
Other listeners may be reminded of Karen Carpenter in Garbus' ability to convey emotional pain and confusion without melismatic melodrama.
Lyrics and music evolve together in Garbus' songwriting process.
“I start by singing and playing the guitar. The sound and shape of a word will come, and I'll start with that. The words emerge, then I consciously sculpt it, with no preconceived notion of a story to tell,” she said. A few weeks later, “I know what the song is about.”
Welcome to the legal jungle
On Fetty Wah, the last song of “Kleinmeister,” Garbus sampled a few lines from the chorus of Bali Ha'i , written by Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II for their 1949 musical, South Pacific.
This ended up delaying the release of Kleinmeister, while Garbus attempted, for the first time, to navigate song credits.
At about the time the album's master was getting pressed, and the run was about to begin, Garbus had to pause the process. She and her boyfriend, musician Chris Weisman, were listening to Fetty Wah, and Weisman questioned her use of Bali Ha'i.
Garbus reached out to her many contacts in the music business, who told her that if she planned to hardly promote her record at all, she might be safe in using the content without seeking permission from the Rogers and Hammerstein publisher - on the other hand, she might not be.
“There's no way to know what will happen,” she said her contacts told her, but she couldn't have it both ways: “either I play it dumb 100 percent, or I do it right.”
“This is the first time I'm making a big effort in promoting my music, and I feel a big responsibility toward the record label and their effort and investment. I can't undermine that,” Garbus said. She noted, “it was a very sad couple of weeks,” while she figured out what to do.
In talking with her parents about it, Garbus learned she had known someone who could help her all along. Since childhood, in fact. A family friend's older brother was the head of Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical publishing company.
“It meant I actually heard back from them, which doesn't always happen,” when making this type of inquiry, said Garbus. As a result, the two parties came to an agreement, and Garbus was able to use the bit from Bali Ha'i.
“When I found out, it was one of the happiest moments of my life. I was sprinting around my 12 x 12 apartment,” Garbus said. “It meant I didn't have to change this incredibly beautiful recording."
Not lost in translation
The title of the album is self-referential, although Garbus isn't sold on the translation's applying to her.
“I've been waiting to call an album Kleinmeister for, like, five years,” Garbus said. She learned the term from an art history book. It's a German term that means “small master.”
“You have these provincial artists who are really good, but aren't 'famous famous,'” said Garbus. One doesn't have to go to Germany to find that, or to New York City or Los Angeles.
“Living in Brattleboro, seeing all these amazing geniuses here ... it's a weird thing to be living in a small town, making art,” she said. “Statistically, it's really unusual to be my age - I turn 38 in August - and choose to live in a small town. Period. But then to be an artist, too?"
Garbus then paused and retraced her steps. “Not that I'm calling myself a genius...” she said.
Those who have seen her perform or listen to her recordings might disagree.