Ruth Garbus
Joshua Steele Photography/Courtesy photo
Ruth Garbus

Taking a creative leap

Ruth Garbus and her band celebrate the release of her new full-length live album, ‘Alive People,’ with a performance at the Stone Church

BRATTLEBORO — Back in town after playing three shows in California recently, singer-songwriter Ruth Garbus, 42, recalls a story from her band's West Coast visit, where they "had a magical time in Santa Cruz staying at a friend's place."

Garbus describes "a giant tortoise that roams freely around the property, along with other animals, including Coral," a terrier who was "constantly running and jumping and getting into mischief."

"But when we played our set, she lay on the grass and stared at us, mesmerized," Garbus says. "It was perhaps our greatest achievement out West, to have calmed Coral."

Garbus and her band take the stage at the Stone Church on Saturday, Oct. 14 for an album release party for Alive People, her third full-length album.

The album, released this year by Chicago-based Orindal Records, was recorded in front of a sold-out audience of 100 at 10 Forward, an arts venue and bar in Greenfield, Massachusetts on Sept. 16, 2022.

At the Stone Church show, Garbus will be on vocals and will be joined by elie mcafee-hahn on keyboards, Nick Bisceglia on guitar, Julia Tadlock on vocals, and Julie Bodian on guitar.

Coincidently, Bisceglia was the recording engineer for the album, but he didn't play on it, although Garbus often performs with him and mcafee-hahn.

Jumping off the cliff

When asked about how the new album came about, Garbus recalls, "I wrote many of the songs on Alive People before the pandemic and was intending to record them in March 2020."

She made "some attempts to do that myself over the next two years, but it was a struggle to motivate myself to do the necessary work on my own, and to feel deeply engaged with the music after so long."

Garbus finally took decisive action.

"So, I decided to basically do the equivalent of bungee jumping off a cliff, and do it live," she says. "I needed that thrill and that challenge, and I love performing in front of an audience."

She says that the finished album is unusual, in that it was mixed and mastered in such a way that it sounds like it was recorded in a studio.

"Nick [Bisceglia] recorded it so well - we had such a clean base to work from - that we were able to do that, and Justin Pizzoferrato [of Sonelab, a recording studio in Easthampton, Massachusetts] did brilliant work on the mix," she says.

She expresses gratitude to her bandmates and is "so pleased with the album artwork and design," with a cover painting by Audrey Helen Weber, an artist and children's book illustrator from Greenfield, Massachusetts.

A house full of music

Garbus, who grew up in New Canaan, Connecticut, says her house was filled with music.

"My mom is a classically trained pianist and has taught piano for years," she says. "She also plays harpsichord and accordion. My dad plays fiddle and banjo and is teaching himself the mandolin."

Garbus started on violin when she was 7 or 8 years old and then switched to clarinet at age 9, which she played all through high school.

Garbus moved to Brattleboro in 2001 after dropping out of high school and design school, to follow her sister Merrill, who is the founder of Tune-Yards, an Oakland, California–based music project.

"When I came to Brattleboro, I taught myself how to play the guitar and started singing, and it's just been a journey from there," she says.

For two decades, Garbus has been writing, performing, and recording music. In a recent online review, the reviewer called her genre "rock."

Garbus bursts out laughing.

"I'm not sure I would call it rock," she says. "They probably had to categorize it that way for some reason, but people more often describe my music as avant-folk, or folk rock. To me, it's a combination of three things: folk, jazz, and some of it is almost like Renaissance-era art songs."

She is also a member of the experimental quintet Gloyd as well as the trio Earth Flower with Sam Gendel and Phil Melanson.

Inspired by Brattleboro

While in California, Garbus appeared on Tim Heidecker's podcast Office Hours Live, where she performed "Mono No Aware," a song from the new album. The multidisciplinary performing artist, writer, and comedian even joined her on background vocals.

"He is a supportive music fan, so that was very special," Garbus recalls.

Pitchfork has called the song a "meditative, idiosyncratic set about the impermanence of all things." The Japanese concept of mono no aware is roughly translated as "the pathos of things."

Garbus points to other songs on the album.

"The song 'Reenchantment of the World' is partly inspired by experiences I've had here in Brattleboro, and so is the song 'Whisper in Steel.' People who live around Brattleboro might recognize our community in the lyrics."

"I'm often inspired by stuff that is ignored," Garbus says. "One thing I get to do as a musician and artist is to remind myself that the entire world is alive - not just the trees and the flowers and the animals, but also the plastic and the lifted pickup trucks and the municipal buildings."

Garbus says she's grateful for her "deep relationship" with the town, "to experience being a part of this community, to be inspired by this life, and also have the opportunity to express myself to a wider audience."

'Like fertilizer to me'

Garbus met Brattleboro's Kyle Thomas (King Tuff) in the early 2000s, when she first moved to the area.

"Kyle is basically my brother," she says. "My sister Merrill lived here and was working at Mocha Joe's and knew Kyle needed a roommate. We met for the first time, and he was like, 'You're going to live with me!'"

The two were in a band, Feathers, with Kurt Weisman, the brother of her partner, Chris Weisman, who has also played with them sometimes. "It was a strange eight-person folk band inspired by The Incredible String Band," Garbus says.

"Kyle, Chris, and I were also in a band called Happy Birthday for a few years," she added. "We've continued to stay really close and make things together."

Asking how Thomas influenced her music, Garbus says, "I've never really thought about that before. I think he has been like fertilizer for me. He brought me into the underground music culture," she adds with a laugh.

"He has helped me grow; as a fellow musician, as an artist and creative person," she says. "He's connected me with a lot of people."

When not making music, Garbus works 30 hours per week at the Brattleboro Food Co-op as the content and community outreach coordinator, where she enjoys her work writing features about local producers.

"It's so incredible to get to do that," she says. "I also do social media stuff, and put together the staff newsletter."

Garbus says she started working in the kitchen 12 years ago.

"The job has changed and grown with me, and vice versa," she says.

Echoes of a counterculture

When asked about why she thinks southern Vermont has such a thriving music scene, Garbus says, "It probably has to do with people from the counterculture coming here in the '50s, '60s and '70s."

"There have been these sorts of pockets of youth culture, punk culture, and underground culture moving through here for a long time," she observes.

"Health insurance and rent, historically, has been cheap so people like me have had the time and freedom to develop into their weird selves at their own pace," she says of those eras. "Plus, there's that giant crystal people talk about."

Giant crystal?

"There's some idea that there is a quartz deposit under Brattleboro, and so people who are inclined to think in these ways feel like the crystal might attract interesting weird people here!" Garbus says.

Also, the proximity to western Massachusetts has been important, she adds. "There is a really incredible community of experimental musicians there."

"The music I really want to call out, though, is right here in Brattleboro," she says.

Her partner, Weisman, and her bandmates, mcafee-hahn and Bodian, have a band, Blue Dish, and a label they run with a friend, The People's Coalition of Tandy ("PCO Tandy," for short). "Nick's solo music is amazing," she says.

During the last four years, "lots of musicians have moved to the area during the pandemic," she says, including mcafee-hahn and Bodian.

"A whole world has opened up," says Garbus of the friends and collaborators who have "changed [her] life."

"And part of what drew them here was the music that had already been arising out of this area that I've been a part of," she says. "It's pretty cool."

* * *

Ruth Garbus and her band play an album release party for Alive People at The Stone Church, 210 Main St., Brattleboro on Saturday, Oct. 14 at 8 p.m. For tickets and more information, visit and

This The Arts item by Victoria Chertok was written for The Commons.

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