Arborea plays Local 506 with Animal Alphabet on Wednesday, Sept. 7, at 9 p.m. Tickets are $7. The band also performs Thursday as part of the Hopscotch panel “Present the Past: Honoring and Outstripping Influences” from 3–5 p.m. at Raleigh City Museum; admission is free.
The proverbial woods inhabited by Arborea are ancient, and the Maine-based husband-wife duo took some time in finding themdecades, really. The actual woods Arborea inhabits are along a river, though there is another, deeper patch the duo favors, about 45 minutes into the mountains, in a cabin built by Shanti Curran’s grandfather, on a lake with loons and frogs.
Those woods must look a lot like the dark forestscapes evoked in the music that Curran makes there with her husband, Buck. Filled with resonant stringed instruments churning through some ancient math, these songs are given voice by Shanti, who whispers like an equally ancient power.
The Currans have been bringing the trees with them almost nonstop for the past few years, along with a tour van full of guitars, a banjo, harmonium, uke, banjimer and sometimes their two kids. They’ve made several jaunts to Europe. In this country, they’ve played living rooms, coffee houses, tea bazaars, churches, small theaters, the very occasional rock clubanywhere people are willing to sit quietly enough to hear the wind through the branches. And though they acknowledge that not every crowd has been willing to shut up, they’re not terribly bothered.
“We love playing music so much,” Shanti says. “If they don’t want to be quiet or they don’t want to hear it, I just play for Buck, and we have a good time.” It took most of their adult lives for Shanti and Buck to find these woods, and it means a lot to them. So, shut up and listen.
“This is the part where I get to talk shit about guitarists,” laughs Shanti, explaining their path to Arborea. “My mom is a musician. She was a guitar player and a singer, to the point where I did not like it. During my teens and my 20s, I really didn’t want anything to do with music. I knew I was a creative person. I took photographs and had a darkroom. And, lo and behold, I married a guitar player.”
Not just a guitar player, but a guitar builder. After serving in the Navy, Buck Curran settled in Norfolk, Va., in the early 1990s. He’d planned to go to school to study guitar, but instead he got a job at Ramblin’ Conrad’s, an instrument shop and folklore center that became a mid-Atlantic stop on the underground folk circuit. Buck dug through the shop’s LP bins, immersed himself in his instrument and mixed sound for performances by British mainstays Martin Simpson and Pentangle’s Bert Jansch, American legend Mike Seeger and many others. He played semiprofessionally, mostly blues, and learned the luthier trade. It was at Conrad’s that he first met Shanti, still very much not a guitar player. She’d come in with her mother. Shanti and Buck married in 1998 and eventually moved to Shanti’s native Maine. Despite the lush new surroundings, it was still another half-decade until the songs started coming from the woods.
For Christmas in 2004, Shanti’s parents bought them a copy of Sony’s Vegas Video software. As a surprise for Buck, Shanti used the audio setup to record three songs, her father giving tutorials over the phone while Buck was out of the house. One was an a cappella rendition of Van Morrison’s “Moondance.” For another, she turned around the chorus of Tom Waits’ “Gun Street Girl.” And then there was “an experimental thing with our son, Liam. We did all this chanting and I layered them, and dropped them down fifths and thirds,” she said.
“Wow,” Buck told her. “I’ve always wanted you to do this.” He volunteered to find her an instrument (just not a guitar). In the spring, he brought home a banjo. “That whole summer, we just jammed,” Buck said. “It was tuned to a minor tuning. It would just ring on its own. She had this knack for coming up with really interesting rhythms that I’d never heard before. We had all these backyard jams, and all this music started developing.”
From those first sessions, the couple began to build a whole new vocabulary for themselves, stretching far beyond their initial configuration. The two worked up a range of sounds, which they’ve expanded over three albums (including this year’s Red Planet) and a half-dozen other instruments. Their music spans from whispering backyard invocations to far-from-quiet Six Organs of Admittance-style drone jams, with Shanti on harmonium and Buck on cosmic electric slide guitar. Ensconced in arboreal Maine, Arborea was briefly tagged as “freak folk” (Internet slang for “appeared on compilations with Devendra Banhart”), but their music was hardly freaky, at least not intentionally. The two didn’t merely download a few Karen Dalton albums and decide to sing ethereally; rather they grew instinctually and without cynicism from Buck’s half-decade of hard study at Ramblin Conrad’s, and from a relationship built on the even exchange of music.
That doesn’t mean they don’t know how to use the Internet. And why not network? One upshot of the pair’s relentless connectivity was the discovery of the circuit formed from the anchor of places like Ramblin’ Conrad’s, which closed in 1995. “You just learn as you go along how to make it work best and just be aware,” Shanti says of their booking methods. “If somebody’s going to take the time and energy to come out to the show, we need to do our homework and figure out if it’s where we need to be and that it’s the best possible way to play our music.”
Their son, who is 13, and daughter, 8, have come along for a few tours, the tour van becoming a mobile classroom for the homeschooled kids. “We stop at Civil War battlegrounds,” Buck said. “Manassas, Bull Runwe went to Shiloh. We played shows and followed the Lewis and Clark trail all the way to Oregon.”
Though they have a booking agent, many of the shows the Currans handle themselves. For the past year, the band has been so busy that Buck has had to take a pause in his guitar-building work. The last guitar he completed, in fact, was intended for Jack Rose, a model he’d designed after a conversation with the Philadelphia guitarist, who died suddenly in December 2009. Buck has also produced two compilations, including the Robbie Basho tribute We Are All One, in the Sun, issued last year by Important.
A few times each summer, they go to the cabin on Shanti’s grandfather’s farm. They recorded Red Planet there with Helena Espvall of Espers on cello. “It was really nice to take turns making the music, and some of us would go out on the canoe and hear the loons and frogs and things and then record,” Shanti says. “And if we got frustrated, I’d say, ‘C’mon, let’s go for a ride in the canoe, and watch the sun go down.’”