By Matt Wickstrom
Since 2005 Ann Arbor, Michigan’s The Ragbirds have been spreading their signature blend of gypsy folk pop, much of the time travelling in an eco-friendly tour van running on vegetable oil. The group has racked up significant mileage in recent months, touring in support of their new record “The Threshold & The Hearth”, out March 25. The tour included a stop in Berea, Kentucky, last month for the third annual Moonshiner’s Ball.
The Ragbirds are led by front-woman Erin Zindle, a multi-instrumentalist with a wealth of musical talent, which she demonstrates with her mastery of the violin, mandolin, accordion, and banjo, along with being the group’s primary songwriter. Her skill on a myriad of instruments is reminiscent of Tara Nevins, an extremely talented multi-instrumentalist with rootsy americana veterans Donna the Buffalo, and overall The Ragbirds are similar to their counterparts from upstate New York, with a slightly more poppy flare to their sound. Over the years Zindle has worked extensively on her vocals, admitting early on that she was very reluctant to sing.
“When I started The Ragbirds, the brand new thing for me was to sing my own songs”, said Zindle. “In fact when I started the band I put an ad out for a lead vocalist because I didn’t think I could sing my own songs.”
When nobody responded to the ad Zindle began to train and hone her voice. In the decade The Ragbirds have been performing Zindle has blossomed from being a shy, quiet personality on stage to being exuberant and full of joy. The Ragbirds have also become somewhat of a family affair, with Zindle’s husband Randall Moore playing percussion and brother T.J. shredding the guitar — only adding to the group’s chemistry and musicianship. They’re also joined by Dan Jones on bass and percussion and Jon Brown on drums and percussion.
According to Zindle, “The Threshold & The Hearth” is the first album she’s been a part of with a central, recurring theme. The latest chapter for The Ragbirds follows the life of two young lovers over the span of 20 years as they grow older together and deal with trials and tribulations along with all the good that love has to offer.
For the record the Michiganders teamed up with Grammy-nominated producer Jamie Candiloro, who’s previously worked with the likes of Ryan Adams, R.E.M., Willie Nelson, and Courtney Love, among others. The esteemed producer also lent his musical talents to several songs on the record by way of the piano and organ, according to Zindle, who added that the combination led to “the best Ragbirds album we’ve ever made.”
“(Jamie) has so much experience and it was his advice to us that we play as much as we can and test all the songs out live”, said Zindle. “He performed with us for a few shows leading up to the recording session. We threw as many as we could do live into the sets we played with him leading up to the recording.”
The Ragbirds have a busy summer tour ahead, with shows ranging from the southeast to the midwest and far north, with a bevy of dates in their home state of Michigan. To purchase “The Threshold & The Hearth” and to view a full tour schedule visit theragbirds.com.
“I started off as a very timid person, but also fearful and self-deprecating and a worrier”, said Zindle. “I feel music has helped me in every way to grow out of that, to become more confident, to see that I can be stronger that I ever thought I could be and to be bold, connect with people, to be more extroverted — it’s really stretched me and forced me to face my fears and to just jump in, and I’m so grateful for that because it’s been my vehicle for enormous personal change.”
The Ragbirds recently released their first-ever music video for the song “The Breakdown”. Check it out below.
Read below for full interview materials from Big Blue Tunes sit-down with Erin Zindle of The Ragbirds.
Big Blue Tunes: I know you all got started out as a band by busking. How has that experience influenced the band’s sound and how you perform live?
Erin Zindle: It’s interesting because when I tell that story about Randall (Moore) and I starting off together busking on the streets, it was just — I would play the celtic fiddle and all different styles mixed together, but it was just fiddle, and (Randall) would play all sorts of cool percussion instruments. It was really good for me. I’m a very timid person. I’ve come a very long way deciding to be a professional musician. Performing on the streets is one of the most bold things you can do as a musician. You’re just in it with everybody and interacting with people. It was a great bonding experience for us early on in our relationship, and very practical for practicing and interacting with your audience in a really personal face-to-face kind of way, but I wasn’t singing at all, I was just playing the fiddle, which was my comfort zone. When I started The Ragbirds, the brand new thing for me was to sing my own songs — be the lead singer. In fact when I started the band I actually put an ad out for a lead vocalist because I didn’t think I could sing my own songs — I didn’t have a lot of confidence or faith in my own vocal abilities. When nobody responded to my ad and I wanted to move forward and play I started to really train my voice, and in the last 10 years we’ve been doing this, so that’s the place I’ve feel like we’ve come the furthest, me personally at least.
BBT: I know back on March 25 you released a new album — “The Threshold & The Hearth”. From what I understand it’s somewhat of a concept album about two young lovers growing older together. Can you tell me a little about that?
Erin: It’s the first time I’ve written an album that tells a story, and the summary of the story is that they meet when they’re young, and the summary is it spans 20 years of their life and their relationship together through all sorts of trials and struggles. There’s also some beautiful and hopeful moments too.
BBT: Were you performing any of the songs off the new record before it’s release, or was the new material kept under wraps until the album’s release?
Erin: We tested a lot of them out — almost all of them in fact. We spent a lot of time with this record being our fifth studio record. We spent a lot of time in pre-production, and our producer, who was just amazing to work with — his name is Jamie Candiloro, and he’s worked with some big names in terms of artists like Ryan Adams and R.E.M. and Willie Nelson and others, so he has so much experience and it was his advice to us that we just play as much as we can and test all the songs out live, and so he performed with us for a few shows leading up to the recording session, and we had been setting the tunes in pre-production for a while with him, and then we performed — we threw as many as we could do live into the sets we played with him leading up to the recording.
BBT: Are there any particular songs on the record where you think Candiloro’s influence really shines through on?
Erin: It was such a cool experience working with Jamie. It’s exactly what you’d hope a producer would do, which is to influence every song in positive ways. He performed a lot of the piano and organ parts — I only play piano on two of the songs. You can hear his sound and hear his influence, but he also didn’t shift the direction or style in any way that it didn’t feel — you know what I mean, it’s not like all of this stuff and it sounds like a Jamie Candiloro record, it sounds like the best Ragbirds record we’ve ever made, and he helped us to accomplish that. That was our big hope going into this and I felt like that was the biggest success, was that he challenged us to do what we hoped we could do — to be our very best. He was able to bring the best out of ourselves.
BBT: Changing up topics a bit, what’s it like for you to not only be in a band with your husband Randall, but also your brother T.J., who plays guitar?
Erin: It’s such a beautiful experience. Of course it has it’s own challenges too, but my husband and I from the beginning have always shared music, and that’s such an extra special bond to have with somebody you’re in love with and putting your life together and your family, and that we can share that vision in common and that love of music. And then with my brother in a very different way it’s also special because he and I have made music together our whole lives in one way or another, and we have a hard time — we’re so, so different as people — our characters are very different, our outlooks on life are very different, and the one way we can really communicate is on stage with music — we just have this connection that feels like mind-reading, like we’re totally on the exact same wavelength when we’re on stage, and we don’t have that kind of communication off-stage — not that we have a bad relationship. We just see things differently. It’s an important part of our relationship that we can play together and share that common vision. I know it’s a pretty lucky scenario that I get to play with both my husband and my brother and we tour with our baby.
BBT: It’s an entire family affair! This next question kind of refers back to my first question about busking, but through all your years of playing music, whether it be with The Ragbirds or other projects, what’s one big thing music has taught you about yourself?
Erin: I mentioned earlier that I started off as a very timid person, but also fearful and self-deprecating and a worrier — this is sort of my internal nature as a child, and wherever that came from I feel music has helped me in every way to grow out of that, to become more confident, to see that I can be stronger that I ever thought I could be and to be bold, connect with people, to be more extroverted — it’s really stretched me and forced me to face my fears and to just jump in, and I’m so grateful for that because it’s been my vehicle for enormous personal change.
BBT: Absolutely. It amazing how much music can be used to bridge gaps and help people face their fears to becoming to best version of themselves. That’s all the questions I’ve got Erin. Thanks so much for your time!
Photos below courtesy of Kim Blackburn at The Starving Artist Kentucky.