Arborea: Escaping From The Man-Eating Hyphenated Genre

ArboreaIn 2011 I began to test my own fractured Americana and roots music definition and biases with a series of articles originally published at the No Depression website. Exploring artists who pushed against the bounderies to create remarkable collaborations, it began with Boston-based Marissa Nadler and then to Buck and Shanti Curran, who are profiled here. It took me down a road I’m still traveling on. 

Hyphenated genres are there for the sake of hilarity when writing press releases, not for seriously describing music.
Kim Ruehl, Twitter (Editor of NoDepression.Com)

April 2011

Around the time that our site manager Kim posted this thought of hers, I was in the midst of spending several weeks exploring the music of a number of East Coast contemporary folk artists from Maine to Pennsylvania, and pondering what the hell to call it and how I should describe it. What began with Boston’s Marissa Nadler, led me to Philadelphia’s Espers, Meg Baird’s solo work, and up to a town near the Northern tip of the Appalchain Trail where Arborea live and work.

As I read and researched each of these artists, I found myself knee deep in hyphenation-ville, because there are so many elements and influences that are pulled into their music, there seems simply to be no other way to describe it. Indie-folk, goth-folk, acid-folk, psych-folk, freak-folk, neo-folk, prog-folk, metal-folk, electric-folk, techno-folk, space-folk…you get the idea…it’s just all folk-ed up. And Kim just about killed it for me with her Tweet.

So I took a break to ponder.

A week or two later, while watching a television show on the Smithsonian Channel about Folkways Records, it was founder Moses Asch who put it all in context for me. I shall para-phrase his actual quote, but it goes something like this: “I consider folk music to be sounds made by folks.”

The “a-ha moment” had arrived which allowed me to go back into the woods and share this story.

Buck and Shanti Curran live with their family in Maine, and have been making music together since 2004 under the name Arborea, with four group albums currently out, and a few anthologies that they’ve either compiled or just contribute to. (They do a real nice “This Little Light of Mine” on an Odetta tribute I just found this afternoon; merely stumbled on) Acoustic Guitar magazine noted that their Robbie Basho tribute album We Are All One, In The Sun was one of 2010’s best. And it was a top editors pick in the December issue of Guitar Players Magazine 4 stars from Mojo, and has received great reviews from The Wire and Pitchfork.

This month, they’ve released Red Planet and have been traveling and performing all over the US, UK and Europe. (As I write this, they just landed in Ireland.) Before leaving the States, Buck and I spent a few weeks writing back and forth to talk mostly about music, and a little about life.

It’s tough sometimes for bands and artists to understand that I’m not someone who often reviews stuff, but I do love to shine a spotlight on those who dwell in the shadows. And while Arborea are not even close to being shadow dwellers, they live in the world of the hyphenated genre which prompts me to share a few words. Actually, I think I’ll share a song.

A little bio and press-type stuff I’ll steal from someplace else…it’s saves me time:

“Husband and wife team, Buck and Shanti Curran, construct a fragile, resonant world with a lingering Americana after-taste, shimmering with the same wide-open spaces Ry Cooder’s captured so well on Paris, Texas. Sounding like frayed, half-remembered, hand-me-down tunes, shaped and altered with each retelling, the fluidity and the sparse application of instruments wherein Eastern and Western modes gently mingle is the secret of this album’s startling beauty”.


“Arborea’s brand of folk music is ethereal, bone-chilling and beautiful all at once”

Performing Songwriter Magazine

“Maine folk duo Arborea creates timeless music, haunted by deep shadows. Their songs are bathed in shimmering harmonics, spectral slide, and positively spooky banjo. The songs also evoke a kind of mysterious quality, in which you are never quite sure what the songs are about, but they seem to touch a place in your soul that instinctively understands.”

Dirty Linen Magazine

Buck is an interesting guy, especially in the world of acoustic guitar playing. Let me have him share his story with you.

“My passion for acoustic guitars can be traced back to the 1970’s when I first heard and fell in love with my mother’s record of John Williams playing Bach’s Gavotte en Rondeau. I started playing guitar and taking lessons in 1981 after my father gave me his Yamaha classical guitar. In the early 80’s I was fortunate to discover the record ‘Routes to Django’, which featured the young gypsy guitarist Bireli Lagrene. Another milestone in my musical education was listening to the record ‘Passion, Grace, and Fire’ which introduced me to the breathtaking Flamenco guitar playing of Paco Delucia. These two acoustic guitar based recordings, really showed me that there was an entire world of ‘hot’ guitar playing outside the realm of amplified players Jimi Hendrix and Edward Van Halen.”

In addition to developing a very distinctive fingerstyle-type of playing, Buck also took an interest in hand built guitars were working at Ramblin’ Conrads, a premier folklore center and store in Tidewater, Virginia. And he took that extra step of learning how to design and build his own guitars.

Performing as Arborea, Shanti Curran provides lead vocals, banjo, Banjimer (a type of banjo dulcimer made by Tennessee luthier Mike Clemmer), harmonium, ukulele, sawing fiddle, and hammered dulcimer. Buck does vocals, guitar, slide guitar and sawing fiddle. And they both share songwriting duties, arrangements, and production.

Over a period of a few weeks as I became lost in their music, I started to wonder if No Depression was the place for them. After all, it’s not exactly twang or alt or what we normally think of as Americana and even roots music might be a stretch. Buck turned me around.

“We use the elements of pre-war folk and archaic blues as a starting point. Our recordings definitely have a dreamscape feel to them…but that is quite a natural product of how Shanti and I sound together and the open minor tunings we use with our banjo, guitars, and dulcimers. Our recording are quite stripped down, but they have an undeniable mood and atmosphere to them. It’s not like listening to a Pink Floyd record where you have dreamy synthesizers, electric guitar, drums etc….but mostly just Shanti signing and playing banjo and me on slide guitar. These ethereal elements are certainly present in the music of Skip James and banjo players like Hobart Smith…elements that can definitely be attributed to the resonance and ring of their instruments and the tunings they used.”

“Our album also features traditional songs like Black is the Colour….Careless Love which is not a trad song, but an anonymous poem that many traditional artist cover. The Tim Buckley song Phantasmagoria in Two. As well, our music is influenced by the rugged and beautiful Landscape of Maine. Shanti and I live close to the Appalachian trail…which terminates in Maine. A lot of people don’t instantly think of Maine as part of the Appalachian trail. Often we like to say, we are creating a Northern Appalachian sound.”

In one of our last email exchanges, I thanked Buck…as he had pretty much written the story for me.

It goes like this:

Buck and Shanti make folk music together. It’s exceptional work from highly talented people. It requires no hyphenation. End of story.

Some of the videos I featured here are from the March 2011 Sun Room Sessions featuring Helena Espvall from The Espers (currently on a never-ending hiatus) on cello, and Jesse Sparhaw on harp. Video by Derek Moench. They will be released on an EP in June, 2015 to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the duo. And this last video was from 2014 and obviously not from the original article. But it’s a great example of the enduring work these two continue to produce.