Behind the Beat: American Idyll

The last few years have proven transformative for husband-and-wife duo Red Heart the Ticker. In addition to playing shows nationwide and recording their sophomore album, Tyler Gibbons and Robin MacArthur have managed to have their first child, hang out with Garrison Keillor on A Prairie Home Companion, and build a house—with their own hands—on the MacArthur family farm in Marlboro.

"Yes, we've done all the work ourselves," says MacArthur, "from laying the foundation blocks to digging our septic system with a borrowed backhoe to digging a trench for our electric line. Not to mention the normal stuff: walls, windows, plaster, floors, trim, which just goes on and on and on."

The couple formed a band out of necessity: living in the woods of Vermont without running water during the long, dark winter of 2005, they started playing music together "to keep from going batty with cabin fever." Red Heart the Ticker—red heart for warmth, ticker for rhythm—was born.

Last year, the family farm served as makeshift studio for the recording of their second full-length, Oh My! Mountains Below. "We recorded the album in my grandparents' farmhouse up the hill from the cabin where we live," MacArthur says. "We had our musician friends come for a week: Chris and Daisy Vatalaro from London on drums and cello, and our guitarist, Thad DeBrock, from New York. It happened to be some crazy weather—snow storms and ice storms pretty much every day. Our friends Chris and Daisy had to crawl one night on their hands and knees from our house to the farm house because the ice was so bad they couldn't walk—not an exaggeration. The next morning we found out that Chris' hands had started bleeding they were so scraped up. But the fact that we were snowed in for a week made for a very intense and intimate recording experience for all of us."

"Everyone slept in the drafty upstairs rooms of the house," adds Gibbons. "And we drank a lot of whiskey and cider stonewalls to stay warm. Every day it snowed. It was an ethereal experience."

MacArthur addresses the dichotomy of an old farmhouse filled with modern gadgetry: "The house is filled with antique furniture and the walls are covered with old instruments; the music is literally in and on the walls of that house. For the past 12 months the living room has been filled with our mics and mic stands and computers and speakers and amplifiers. Fiddles, banjoes and dulcimers rattled while we were recording. Sometimes it feels like blasphemy, all this modern equipment in such an old house; and at other times it feels like a house needs to continue to be a living and breathing thing. It also kind of matches what we're trying to do with our music—mix the old and the new."

Just days into the recording process, the couple found out MacArthur was pregnant with their first child, a development which altered the tenor of an album that began as a rumination on death and darkness. "We threw out a handful of songs and changed the lyrics of quite a few," explains MacArthur. "Some of the real dark songs became more joyful, and we actually wrote some straight-up love songs, which is rare for us. So this album, in its final form, became not just a death album, but an album about rebirth and transcendence and the transformative nature of life, as well."

Red Heart the Ticker's music is a blend of Americana and folk that has drawn favorable comparisons to the likes of Iron and Wine, Will Oldham and Gillian Welch. They endeavor to tell stories and create "a lyrical sense of place," a quality MacArthur says she inherited from her grandmother, Margaret MacArthur, a singer and folklorist who recorded her first album for Folkways in 1962 in the very same farmhouse.

The band likes to layer in all sorts of instrumentation, from banjo to accordion to glockenspiel. The tunes are rife with harmonies, hand-claps and homespun goodness, and reflect the band's pastoral surroundings as well as their individual tastes and influences: MacArthur's love of old-timey country and folk coupled with Gibbons' penchant for jazz fusion and "esoteric '60s rock," like Mahavishnu Orchestra.

"Our sound is born out of necessity, not some musical aesthetic," MacArthur says. "We don't always agree on what we like musically, but where we overlap is where Red Heart the Ticker lies."

One of the duo's recent highlights was an appearance on beloved radio institution A Prairie Home Companion, an award for placing third in a duet competition after submitting their version of the Buck Owen's tune "Above and Beyond."

"The whole show was a good time," says MacArthur. "It's more than a little frightening to play to some-odd four million people, but we survived it without any serious fuck-ups. People keep asking if we're famous now, and I say, 'Yes, in our town of 800.' Which is just about true."

According to MacArthur, the day's enjoyment was enhanced by the opportunity to spend a little quality time with the show's creator and host, Garrison Keillor. "Garrison is a sweet and reserved and odd man, who we came to like very much. After the show he invited all the musicians to his apartment, so we got in a stretch limo and rode uptown to his place, where we drank wine and beer and sat around singing Carter Family songs and country songs."

Red Heart the Ticker has lined up a five-night, five-city tour to celebrate the release of Oh My! Mountains Below, due out May 26 on Philadelphia's Auger Down Records. The party kicks off at The Loft in Brattleboro on May 29, with special guests Old Goats and Ruth Garbus. For details, head to the band's website, http://www.rrtt.net.

Author: Matthew Dube

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