Arum Rae, Ben Rabb opens at Club Passim
It could be the plot for a character-driven seventies film. Bouncing between states, “indie soul” singer and songwriter Arum Rae went from performing on any stage possible—including dive bars, mental hospitals, and organic produce markets—to landing a high-profile placement on ABC’s Nashville, touring with the likes of Gary Clark, Jr. and B.B. King, and independently releasing her 2014 Warranted Queen EP acclaimed by Noisey, Spin, Paste, and more. On that road, she came face-to-face with addiction, loss, heartbreak, and everything in between. Her inspiration derives from a diverse musical palette including Nina Simone, Bob Dylan, Outkast, Bill Withers and ultimately creating a multi-faceted musical experience for the listener. On the heels of her recent Loners EP and forthcoming unplugged collection entitled Sub Rosa, Arum's story comes into focus on her debut full-length album, slated for release in fall 2017.
“It’s a spiritual thing for me,” she says. “I’m not a religious person, but I begged the Universe and God to give me a purpose in life. I started writing music. Once I did, I felt encouraged. Different doors began to open for me.”
Truth is, Arum (“Water Lily” in Latin) began subconsciously working towards this path as a child. Born into an “extremely Christian” household, she recalls, “There was never any music playing in the car. We weren’t even able to listen to it until I was seven.”
Growing up in Colorado Springs, she found herself enrolled in school music programs at a young age. Kicked out of her first high school and quickly leaving the second, a music teacher at the third school recognized her gift. He eventually helped the budding songstress receive a scholarship to Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music. Upon graduating, she cut her teeth on the road and penned what would become 2005’s Arum Rae inside a tiny Virginia cabin. She quietly honed her craft and toured under the name White Dress alongside Clark and The Civil Wars in addition to gracing bills with Willie Nelson, Dan Auerbach, and more. During a break in 2012, she received a serendipitous call.
“I was waitressing at a diner in Austin, a little bummed out because that was my first job and now here I was again,” she goes on. “I got a call from Disney that they wanted to use ‘If I Didn’t Know Better’—which I wrote years before with John Paul White [The Civil Wars]—on Nashville. It was enough money that I could quit and move to New York City.”
Relocating to Brooklyn, her writing success continued, with her music being featured on shows ranging from Vampire Diaries and Pretty Little Liars to Girlfriends Guide to Divorce and American Idol. Notably, her song “Something’s Happening to Me” soundtracked a Microsoft campaign for the Surface Pro 3, which debuted during the GRAMMY Awards, while “Waving Wild” appeared prominently on ABC’s The Catch. However, tragedy struck her family with the overdose of her brother Haven.
“I was broken,” she sighs. “I took a year off to go back to Virginia. I was so close to him, and he couldn’t stop even though he knew it was killing him.”
She draws upon that experience in “Wasn’t My Time,” the standout single from Loners. Tempering a Southern-inspired blues strut and sweeping strings with her robust jazzy delivery, the track remains gorgeously haunting. Produced by Ken Lewis [Kanye West, Alicia Keys, Kendrick Lamar], it opens up the world of Loners.
“I was actually in a relationship with somebody who survived his addiction,” she continues. “We were having a conversation, and he told me if he used one more time, he would die. The song’s message is, ‘I made it out. I actually overcame that.’ Not everyone makes it through. It doesn’t happen to everybody. Addiction’s always been close to me. I can’t say I’m an angel, but it’s not my struggle.”
Arum produced the rest of the EP in addition to performing most of the instruments. It’s distinctly her vision. “Heaven” trumpets a gospel-size chant over delicate pluck and airy hum dedicated to her brother. Spurred on by her obsession with Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, “War” paints a portrait of unrest amidst the natural yearning for love written over the course of seven years.
“When we went to war in Iraq, I remember thinking, ‘Humans all just want to be loved,’” she comments. “The ego thing comes in. I compare it to two hearts. Two sets of people want to kill each other because they’re so attached to their beliefs. I was in a serious relationship with someone who fought in Iraq and lost his eye. You think about it and feel dead and alive at the same time.”
Then, there’s the stirring title track, which takes flight on a nylon string guitar and her impressive delivery. “Loners have a slight insecurity, but also a lot of pride,” she smiles. “I’m a very independent person. I’m writing about that sense of detachment that creates comfort.”
Now, Arum’s stories have the power to resound with listeners worldwide on Loners. “I hope when people hear my music they can find a sense of themselves in it,” she leaves off. “Maybe they can relate to it, and it might move them.”
"Living in New York City is like tug of war. I'm constantly going back and forth deciding if I like it here," says indie-folk songwriter Ben Rabb, whose first EP, Until It's Gone, was written after an influential move to NYC. "These songs are about me trying to make sense of my experiences here. New York is a place with a lot of people, a lot of noise, a lot of ups and downs… which makes it a great muse."
From "Inside Llewyn Davis" to the cover of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, folk music and New York City have enjoyed a long, entwined history. Rabb is the newest member of that story, a modern folksinger steeped in the fingerpicked sounds of the greats — James Taylor, Eric Andersen, Joni Mitchell — but more closely aligned with modern, indie-minded songwriters like David Gray. There's a gentle lilt to his voice and a swoon to his guitar work. Boosted by lightly layered arrangements courtesy of producer Mike Davidson (known for his engineering work on albums by Regina Spektor, St. Vincent and Jose Gonzalez), Until It's Gone sounds like the sort of easy-going album you'd play while drinking your coffee on Sunday morning. Just don't be surprised if you find yourself playing these six songs throughout the rest of the week, too.
Everything started in the Midwest, where Rabb spent his first 10 years. He grew up listening to folk music, learning about the older stuff from his parents and getting a more up-to-date education from his older sister, who passed along many of her own albums. After the family moved to Connecticut, Rabb picked up the guitar and began strumming his first chords as a teenager. By college, he was writing songs. A job offer took him to St. Louis after graduation. By the time he finally moved to New York in his mid-20s, Rabb had already spent a decade jumping from city to city, steadily collecting the stories that would eventually fill his own music.
"When I moved to New York," he remembers, "I started going to a songwriter's circle. I just got swallowed up in listening to a lot of new songwriters I really liked and respected. These people were making a contemporary sound by building on a traditional side of folk music. It was super Americana, but it also had this indie sound. It was a bit of an eye-opener for me."
Rabb quickly became a member of the local folk community. He hit the city's concert circuit, too, playing regular gigs at venues like the Living Room and Rockwood Music Hall. When it came time to record Until It's Gone, though, he headed north to Mike Davidson's studio in Boston, MA. There, Rabb recorded six songs about life and love, decorating the songs with piano, bass, acoustic guitar and brushed percussion.
Like many good writers, he looks to the outside world for influence on several songs. The most poignant of the bunch, "Take My Hand," was written after Rabb watched a breaking news update about the Syrian civil war. Until It's Gone is mostly a personal affair, though, performed with understated grace by a storyteller who brings us into his own world for 23 minutes.