Ken Maiuri’s Clubland: Ruth Garbus finds inspiration for her new album in diverse places

  • Ruth Garbus in Brattleboro, Vermont, Aug. 2018 Photo by Annie Flanagan

  • Brattleboro, Vermont singer-songwriter Ruth Garbus appears at The Root Cellar in Greenfield on Sunday, Sept. 1. Photo by Annie Flanagan

Published: 8/28/2019 4:43:31 PM

It’s a portal to another place, somewhere you’ve never been: “Kleinmeister,” the new record by Brattleboro, Vermont singer/songwriter/artist Ruth Garbus. Put on headphones, turn off the screens and lights, close your eyes, be transported.

The nine-song LP is mainly just Garbus’ electric guitar and vocals, but that’s an entire universe. It’s an uncanny, dream-like album, one of my favorites of the year, and to celebrate its release she’ll play a show at The Root Cellar (aka Ten Forward) in Greenfield on Sunday, Sept. 1, at 8 p.m.

I’ve been a fan since seeing Garbus perform circa 2012 and hearing her excellent “Joule” EP a couple years later. But “Kleinmeister” shows how much her voice has evolved, with an all-around richness and a striking falsetto-vibrato that hits Joni Mitchell-esque heights. A couple years ago she studied with opera singer Jim Anderson, and her mezzo soprano range is now front and center and in total control.

On the opening tracks, her flange-saturated electric guitar sounds as if thumped with a thumb, floating into your brain like a druggy underwater autoharp, a pulsing hazy heartbeat. It’s a bewitching setting for lyrics that, on “Strash,” involve sensuality and discarded matter, and on “Pain,” tie together the personal and the political, with good and evil emitting from two different white houses. The latter is a disquieting song of turbulence that Garbus concludes with a calm and honest couplet: “I’m not willing to say that everything’s bad / but I’m sad.”

Garbus’ chord progressions unfold mysteriously, and the interplay between the music and the vocals is often breathtaking (with Garbus joined on a few songs by singer and longtime friend/collaborator Julia Tadlock). “Beauty,” the album’s second single, is a mesmerizing lilt, the rhythm of lazy summer hopscotch, with background vocals that almost feel like a playground taunt. The chorus is one of the record’s catchiest hooks, but also one of its most raw lyrics: “Don’t touch me / don’t love me / the way you want me there makes misery.”

Clubland recently spoke to Garbus via email about the new album, out tomorrow on the Orindal Records label.

Clubland: My uneducated immediate first reaction to the title “Kleinmeister” (before I heard any music) was that it was like a lighthearted nickname from an ‘80s movie or something — “Hey, Kleinmeister!” — which was perfect in its wrongness, because then I pressed play and was entranced by your calmly intense songs. The album truly and immediately took me somewhere else. Later I tried to research “Kleinmeister” and saw it translates as “little master,” sometimes meaning an “average” composer (as opposed to, say, Beethoven). Why did “Kleinmeister” need to be the name of this album?

Garbus: First of all: dude, the 80’s. I mean, I never thought about Kleinmeister being a version of some slapstick teenage character’s nickname from that time, but who knows, maybe that’s why it grabbed me. I am a child of that era, no doubt, and I am being influenced in ways I’m not conscious of by all the stuff I’ve been imbibing from the media for my entire life.

And it’s very, very nice to hear that the music transported you in that way despite the fact that you were pondering Revenge of the Nerds LOL.

Kleinmeister is a term I found in an art history book, referring to engravers in provincial northern European towns who, while excellent at their craft, weren’t household names like Dürer, etc. I live in a small town — Brattleboro, VT — so I felt a magic pulse in sharing a little in common with history in that way. I also just love the word, it zapped me in that art way in the gut.

The “average composer” thing … I like that, too. I guess. I don’t think “greatness” is a prerequisite for making something powerful — I love movies with inexperienced actors (James Taylor in Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop, Jean-Marie Patte in Rossellini’s The Taking of Power by Louis XIV). I like the gibbous moons.

Clubland: What made you want to study voice with Jim Anderson, an opera singer? What did singing mean to you before your time with him, and how did it change through that experience?

Garbus: I always had a very quiet singing voice, and yearned for more power. I felt it in there, and had access to it sometimes, but then on stage I had no way of harnessing it, no technique, I guess you could call it. Before I started lessons, I don’t know what singing meant to me … it wasn’t really clear. My whole relationship to music hasn’t been clear for most of my life. It has felt like something that has happened to me rather than something I’ve moved towards with intention.

Now I feel I have more control and more access to a deeper, more powerful and more confident self when I’m on stage. I have so much more fun when I’m performing now. I frequently have moments on stage when I realize I love doing this so much. I don’t think that used to happen. Plus all those good feelings have led to me feeling much more connected to my voice, and to singing and music in general. Very transformative.

Ruth Garbus will be joined at her album release at The Root Cellar by vocalist Julia Tadlock; starting off the night will be Potted Plant and Eliot Cardinaux. Garbus’ page at the Orindal Records website has information on her other upcoming dates and for ordering the album on CD or LP (also available at her Bandcamp page along with her earlier releases).

Contact Ken Mauiri at clublandcolumn@gmail.com




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