Red Heart the Ticker is Robin MacArthur and Tyler Gibbons. As a duo, they have released two previous albums: 2009’s Oh My! Mountains Below and 2005’s For The Wicked. For their new album, Your Name In Secret I Would Write, Red Heart The Ticker have crafted an inspiring and remarkable collection that spans generations, and, as you will read, it also has a great story.
In the 1940's Robin’s grandmother Margaret MacArthur, originally from the Ozarks, relocated to an abandoned farmhouse, which was originally built in 1803 in southern Vermont. She spent years collecting and singing folk songs of the region. In 1962, Moses Asch, the director of Folkways Records, heard her sing and requested she send him a recording of some of her music. Surprised and flattered, Margaret sat down at her kitchen table and recorded fifteen songs, never imagining anything would come of it. Six months later she received a letter from Moses and a record of the music she had recorded there at the kitchen table. Folksongs of Vermont was the first record of what became for her a nine record career.
In 2006, the year Margaret MacArthur would ultimately pass away, and as her health was failing and her memory was fading, Margaret often sang the songs that meant so much to her during her life. Robin has described the experience this way: "On her deathbed she was sick with morphine, most of her memory gone, but she could still remember the lyrics to any ballad we asked her to sing. This music had etched itself into her soul; song and landscape and self had twined into a fabric that was lasting, resounding, and full of grace. I knew right then these songs would make their way back into my life as well".
Following her grandmother’s death, Robin and Ty moved to Vermont the following year, and in 2010 received a Creation Grant from the Vermont Arts Council and National Endowment for the Arts to record an album of neo-renditions of a few of the songs Margaret collected and loved. They immediately set up a laptop and microphones in Margaret’s study—the room in which she died—and started recording Your Name In Secret I Would Write. The result is as much of a rare glimpse into the past as it is a lasting testament to the power of timeless, and songwriting.
I have been so intrigued by the story behind the album, as well as becoming a fan of the band since getting into the new record, that I was very excited to have the opportunity to interview Robin and Ty.
I'd like to start first with your own musical history, beginning with your earliest experiences, moving through your previous records, and then moving into your new album.
Let's start from the beginning. When did you begin playing music? What was your first instrument?
Robin: I took piano lessons when I was young (paid for by my grandmother Margaret), but I never took it too seriously. In Junior High I started teaching myself to play the guitar on my dad’s ’53 dread-knot Martin. He was a good guitar player, so I could ask him how to play any chord I wanted, but I resisted lessons of any kind. The first song I learned to play was Hendrix’ ‘Hey Joe’; the second song I learned was Nina Simone’s version of ‘House of the Rising Sun’.
In high school I wrote a lot of dark, sad Joni Mitchell influenced ballads on the piano, trying to harness all of that feverish, adolescent emotion. I had whole notebooks full of songs, though I only played them to a couple of close friends. I was a closet songwriter for a long, long time. Half my family were folksingers; that was the last thing on earth, at that age, that I wanted to be.
Ty: I played violin from age 3 until I was in junior high and discovered that I found lower tones much more engaging. I switched to electric bass (to be in a rock’n’roll cover band, of course. And yes, we were named Tragic Magic), and upright bass, through which I fell in love with jazz.
Can you describe your earliest influences that inspired you to begin writing your own music?
Robin: My dad, uncle, and aunt recorded records and performed regularly with my grandmother at folk festivals and such, so hearing people play live music was in my bones from the day I was born. My brother and I used to drive around with them to festivals in my grandmother’s blue and white touring van, sleeping in the my aunt Megan’s upright bass case (which was actually an old, hand-made sleeping bag) at the edges of stages while they played. So traditional American folk music was in me, and in me deep.
In about fourth grade I discovered my aunt’s collection of Emmylou Harris records and fell in love with country. At tag sales throughout high school I picked up more: Buck Owens, Tammy Wynette, Hank Williams, Patsy Cline & Loretta Lynn. It was so brazenly emotive, compared to the restrained New England folk music I’d heard so much of. I loved that shameless emotion. I was crazy for country back in high school when that was the last thing the other kids in my honors classes were listening to.
“Country” was like a dirty word back then. I also found a pile of Dave Van Ronk records which were a huge influence on me. I learned every one of them on the guitar, and wrote down the lyrics in my little black notebooks. I think it was his singing that inspired me most. The raw, emotive qualities. I found Townes Van Zandt through the Cowboy Junkies, and he became a big influence, too. These people were writing songs that weren’t quite country and weren’t quite singer-songwriter (what my grandmother disparagingly called “Me me, my my music”), and they weren’t quite blues. Freshman year of college I discovered Lucinda Williams and Gillian Welch, both of which blew my mind. For the first time I was like, “Here it is! My music! My people!”
Ty: John Coltrane and Miles Davis taught me that music was serious; that it should be serious. The jazz-fusion movement that came out of the be bop and cool jazz tradition was serious and goofy at the same time, which is pretty much how I felt as a teenager. I loved Mahavishnu Orchestra, Miles’s electric period, Weather Report with Jaco’s other-worldly bass playing, an astonishingly beautiful and dark Pat Metheny album called Bright Size Life. I learned that sad music made me really profoundly happy. Leonard Cohen crashed into my life the way a piano, swinging from a large crane, might enter your bedroom window. There will never, I fear, be another artist like that for me; one who catches you in the midst of figuring out who you are, and grabs you by the neck and shakes, saying, “this is who you are.”
How did you and Tyler meet? Can you discuss how you connected musically?
Robin: We met in an art class in high school. We actually didn’t completely connect musically, which was a hurdle for both of us. Of course we both loved Dylan, but other than that, we had different tastes. Ty didn’t love country music, or the blues, and I wasn’t crazy about Mahavisnu Orchestra or Radiohead the way he was. I respected his songwriting heroes--Nick Drake & Leonard Cohen—but found them a little too soft and intellectual. I wanted dirt and grits and raw emotion.
But then at some point in college we discovered Lucinda Williams’ cover of Nick Drake’s “Which Will.” Nick Drake was one of Ty’s favorite songwriters, and Lucinda was mine. We found, in that cover, a blueprint for how we could make our styles fit. My emotional, country-tinged taste combined with his more intellectual, obscure taste. It was a big moment for us, that song. It was more than just a blueprint for how to make music together; it was like, Hey, maybe this relationship will work after all.
When and how did you decide to form Red Heart The Ticker and begin making music together?
Robin: After college we moved to New York together. Ty was struggling to find work as a freelance musician and set up a tiny recording studio in our dingy, Crown Heights apartment. I was still a closet musician—writing country songs in the bathroom when he was at work—but when he needed someone to sing backup on a recording project he was working on, I stepped in. The last thing I wanted to be was my boyfriend’s backup singer. But after recording those backup vocals, and doing a few shows in New York, we realized we had something going on that we couldn’t really let go of. We worked on a few songs together, and discovered the ways we complemented each other’s strengths. Again, it was that Lucinda Williams and Nick Drake blueprint—my emotional, almost-maudlin singing and American aesthetics (landscapes, cars, drinking) over his tender chord changes and intellectual obfuscations.
Ty: I was rather depressed living in New York, even though it was largely my idea to be there. I was a musician, and I figured it was either New York, Nashville, or LA. I had some freelance touring work, but my previous band had split apart, and I was drifting, recording odd little demos and handing them off to major labels. I was around people who were making money with more commercial music, and I felt discouraged by what I saw.
People often ask where the name Red Heart the Ticker comes from, and I’m remembering now that it was a deliberate attempt to engage in a new kind of energy with music. I wanted it to be our own, sad, joyful, eerie, lonely, buzzing sound. I wanted to do what we loved, not what I perceived other people would love. It was like kicking myself in the pants, that name, like, “come on, you numb-nuts, this is all up to you.”
For fans new to your work, I'd like to quickly discuss your previous efforts.
Can you describe the inspiration, writing, and recording process for your first album, For The Wicked (2005)?
Robin: We wrote most of the songs on For the Wicked while living in New York. We were broke the whole time we were there, and pining to get back to Vermont where I had a 14x14 foot cabin that I’d built on my parents’ land. All of the yearning on that record comes from missing that cabin (and Vermont) and trying to capture that landscape its embedded memories through song. The record is steeped in almost mythical renderings of place: steel-toe drinking, great wide fields, Trans Ams.
The record is the most electric of all of ours, testament to the borderland we were in at the time: trying to decide whether we should live in the city or the woods (Brooklyn or Vermont); whether we should be writing and playing indie-rock or country-folk. After a few years in New York we moved back home (to our tiny cabin, which we added on to and winterized, though there was still no running water), and recorded “For the Wicked” in a neighbors extremely cold and drafty barn.
Oh My! Mountains Below came out in 2009. Can you discuss your experiences in between For The Wicked, and leading up to the next record?
Robin: After we released For the Wicked we moved to Philadelphia for a few years. We played out a whole lot and discovered which songs worked and which ones didn’t, which ones we liked playing and which ones not. We found, in other words, our groove. We also found an amazing group of musicians and friends who inspired us on a daily basis (Dr. Dog, The Buried Beds, Birdie Busch, Soltero). It was a magical, social, and hugely absorptive time for us, and the songs were flowing.
But it was a hard time, too--the spring of 2006 my grandmother, who lived up the road from my cabin in Vermont and was one of my dearest friends, got sick suddenly and died. I spent the last few weeks of her life by her bedside in her two-hundred year old farmhouse, listening to her tell stories and sing songs. After she died we moved back to Philly, but the tenor of the songs we were writing changed. My grandmother had been a ballad singer, and we found ourselves writing ballads—slower songs, quieter songs, songs based on true stories, more acoustic. The allure of our cabin, and our Vermont landscape was calling, too. The next spring we moved back to Vermont for good.
We started building an (yet another) addition onto our tiny cabin, and put in electric and plumbing and all that good stuff. We also set up our recording gear in my grandparents’ farmhouse and started recording our new songs. Building a house (yourself) and recording a record (yourself) at the same time probably isn’t a wise idea, but it seems to be our style. Mid-recording we discovered I was pregnant, which added more juice to the fire. The songs morphed during that year. There were ones about death and more hopeful ones, too. The record was a more mature and seamless blend of our tastes and styles. Again it was about the landscape, but a gentler one: the Oh My! landscape is populated with birds and snow and winter air and attic rooms. The record became about the transformation from death to re-birth, darkness to light.
For readers new to your grandmother, Margaret MacArthur's work and the Folksongs of Vermont collection, can you briefly describe that project?
Robin: My grandmother grew up in the Ozarks, mountains of northern Arizona, hills of Kentucky, valleys of Southern California, and swamps of South Carolina. At twenty she and my grandfather moved to an 1803 abandoned farmhouse in Southern Vermont where he had a teaching job. My grandmother wasn’t at all excited to move to the New England. She told me, “I was so depressed at the idea. You know, the east coast girls I had met were so…well…you know…nothing like me.” And once here, sure enough, she was homesick for her people, but also for a musical culture she could connect to.
The only music she could find was church music, which was nothing like the rich musical cultures she’s grown up around (fiddle-tunes in the Ozarks, cowboy songs in Arizona, Mexican songs in California, Appalachian ballads in the south), so she began seeking, collecting and singing the old folk songs that resided, mostly hidden, in these Vermont hills. She bought herself a Wollensak reel-to-reel tape recorder, and began trekking around the back roads and hillsides of this part of Vermont, recording old people singing mostly-forgotten songs. She did all of this as a mother of five, living in a house without electricity or running water. In the early 60s she began performing some of those songs in public.
In 1962, Moses Asch, then director of Folkways Records, heard of her singing and requested she send him a recording of some of her music. Surprised and flattered, Margaret put some batteries into her Wollensak, sat down at the kitchen table after her five children were asleep, and recorded fifteen songs, never imagining anything would come of it. Six months later she received a letter from Moses and a record of the music she had recorded there at the kitchen table. Folksongs Of Vermont was the first record of what became for her a nine record career.
Can you discuss your relationship with your grandmother, and in addition, particularly her influence on you musically and creatively?
Robin: As I said earlier, I spent a lot of time as a kid in my grandmother’s van, touring around with her. She was feisty and wild and fun: always jumping out of the van and stripping down to her underwear to swim in a creek or a pond or a river; drinking too much wine any chance she got; laughing uproariously at dirty jokes. She genuinely loved singing, and playing music, and loved hearing others sing, including me.
Even though I was a closet singer she would always ask to hear the songs I was writing, and a few times we sat in her house playing music together. I also saw, from her, the hard aspects of being a musician; the fear of rejection, the economics, one’s heart-on-a-string susceptibility to trends. Which is one of the many reasons I said I’d never be a musician when I grew up. Alas.
When/ how did the idea/ conception for Your Name In Secret I Would Write come together?
Robin: While my grandmother was dying she had lost her ability to remember most things, but she still remembered the lyrics to pretty much any song we asked her to sing. Her voice was still strong, emotive, sure of itself. The songs she sang were from and about the landscape she had settled and, through years of gardening and researching and traveling through, had made her own. I could see, there in that room of her beloved old house, how learning and knowing these songs had enriched her life in an invaluable way. They had taught her to see the landscape three-dimensionally—not just as pretty fields and barns and wooded hills—but reverberant with past lives and voices and stories and songs.
I knew then that I would need to find a way to find a similar touchstone for myself; a way to both honor my grandmother’s life and work as well as deepen my relationship and enhance my ability to see the landscape that I, too, had chosen as my own. I didn’t yet know what form it would take, but it was inside me, brewing. Once our daughter was born I realized I wanted to breath new life into these old songs so that they could be alive, vibrant things for her (as songs are meant to be). I wanted to honor my grandmother the way she would have wanted me to: by singing the songs she had worked so hard to save.
How did you then proceed to take on and complete the project?
Robin: We applied for a Creation Grant from the Vermont Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts in the summer of 2010, and received a generous chunk of money from them that fall. The cash ensured we’d have enough to print the record, do artwork, etc., but more than that it gave us a deadline (a miraculous thing when you’re two working artists with a baby and no childcare). So we set up our recording equipment (a laptop, microphones, a tube pre-amp) in my grandmother’s study in her farmhouse (the same room in which she died), and got to work.
The room hasn’t been touched since she died; it still has her books and instruments and all her American knick-knacks hanging on the peeling plaster walls. I began by listening through all my grandmother’s records, without distraction, in chronological order. Of course I’d heard them all before, but listening to them that closely enabled me to hear her vulnerability, her process, the subtlety of her arrangements, and how she evolved as a singer.
Recording in the room where she’d worked all those years brought the songs (and her singing, and her) to life in a deeply surreal way. I was in her house…in her room…listening to her sing. I cried a hell of a lot. And when the crying was done I began to imagine how we might, with extreme tenderness, take these songs into our own hands. We discovered it was much easier to write a grant application than it was to actually record.
I had moments of doubt. Her voice was strong, deep, unwavering; mine is so soft and wavering and translucent. How could I feign to sing these songs as well as she had? But I thought back to the times she’d asked me to sing, and about how, while my grandmother was dying she kept a boom box next to her bed and played our first record, For The Wicked, nonstop. She liked my singing. She loved our music, even the most strange and electric and esoteric songs. One of the lines from our songs, “You are a racing stripe in winter” had become a mantra of hers while she was dying. So I knew she was supporting us in that room, and would be up for whatever we decided to do. I felt her giving us permission to make these songs out own. So we did.
Can you describe the recording and arranging process of the material for the album?
Robin: I chose the songs by listening closely to Margaret’s records and trying to imagine what I could bring, with my voice and our Red Heart sensibilities, to each song. I tried to pick ones that we could make purely our own; ones whose emotional tenors we could step into and embody.
We’d start by recording a base track of vocal and organ, or vocal and guitar, or just vocals, trying to nail the tempos and vibe. We had all of our instruments crammed into that room (electric basses, guitars, drums, acoustic guitars, organs, ukuleles, sleigh bells and tin cans) as well as my grandmothers’ (the ’59 Martin my grandfather bought her when she found out she was pregnant with number five; her slew of dulcimers and harps; the wooden, fretless banjo my grandfather built in the early ‘70s; the banjo my grandfather accompanied her with when they played together back in the ‘40s & ‘50s), and they kept tempting us with their possibilities. So we would keep adding tracks, trying to “find” the song through layers, and then ultimately decide we had lost the song under all that noise, and begin a long and arduous process of stripping away, until we found the near-perfect song in its near-naked state.
Ty: Yeah, I know I wasn’t thinking correctly about that. I was thinking, (with the greatest respect, mind you,) “let’s take these and fuck them up.” I had the thought “post-folk” in my head, which obviously, in hind site, is ridiculous and embarrassing. The more we tried to screw with the songs, the more we realized how good the songs were. This is not to say that we’re traditionalists, or that traditionalists will even like this record. But we (mostly lead by Robin) did learn to treat them tenderly. They are amazing stories and melodies, and, for the most part, don’t need trash-can-lid-banging to augment them.
Robin: During the recording process I also visited The Vermont Folklife Center where my grandmother’s field recordings and papers are all housed. In the evenings we would sit around listening to the raw and vivid voices of the folks she’d recorded, and we were so transfixed by the textures and aliveness and presence of their singing that we decided to bring a few of them along for the ride. We wanted the record to sound reverberant with history and the voices of the dead, all the folks who sang these songs around their New England (and old world) fires for the past one or two or three hundred years.
How do you see your new record alongside Folksongs of Vermont? Do you see them as compliments, variations on a theme, or as singular works? I am curious to hear how you connect these.
Robin: My grandmother recorded Folksongs of Vermont in 1961 when she was thirty-three years old; her daughter Megan was two. We recorded Your Name In Secret I Would Write in 2011 when I was thirty-three; our daughter Avah is two. I hadn’t even realized this until the album was done, but I certainly feel it now: the parallel is almost frightening, but enchanting too.
My grandmother sounds so young on her Folksongs of Vermont record, which is a lovely and reassuring template for an artist my age do discover. Our careers don’t have to end when we hit our thirties or have children. Rather we might be just at the beginning of finding what it is we want to say and of discovering the right tenors and depths of our voices for saying it.
As for how the records complement each other…I think of them as variations on a theme. Folksongs aren’t alive unless they’re changing; they’re meant to tweak and adapt; they’re meant to be made relevant to the audiences of the day. My grandmother took the manuscripts she found and the field recordings she collected and made the songs her own; we’re doing the same. In the process we hope that our audiences will hear the ghosts we felt in the room and that they’ll go out and find the old songs and reverberations from their own pieces of well-trodden earth as well.
Who are some of your biggest musical influences?
Robin: Leonard Cohen, Lucinda Williams, Gillian Welch, Bonnie Prince Billy, Dave Van Ronk, John Coltrane, Neil Young, Townes Van Zandt, Miles Davis, Loretta Lynn, Radiohead, Mahavisnu Orchestra, John Prine, Otis Redding …It’s wonderful as artists to reach a point where your heroes become a little vague. There were times when I was trying to write a Townes Van Zandt song or a Lucinda Williams song or a Neil Young song. I feel we’ve now hit a point where we’ve absorbed all that music so deeply that when we sit down to write or sing we’re writing Red Heart the Ticker songs…and hearing our voices singing them as opposed to someone else’s. It just the beginning…but if we live this life well, I guess we’ll always consider ourselves beginners.
Robin: We’ve been listening to our hometown pal Sam Amidon a lot of late, who is doing a somewhat similar thing to what we’ve done here. Also David & Gillian’s new record. And TuneYards (also a pal from our neck of the Vermont woods.) But the majority of our free time is spent listening to our daughter Avah, who is as avid a singer as my grandmother was. She’s teaching us a whole lot about the joy of song.
Ty: We’re also listening to mixes of our half-recorded next record of original songs. We just finished recording a bowed-saw choir for one tune, “Cold Lunettes.” What a great instrument to arrange for, the saw. The saw can be precise and wobbly at the same time, which is how I feel day today.
Will you be touring for the new album?
Robin: We’ll be touring with this record around New England and New York, and hope to make some short trips to the cities where we have friends we want to see. That’s our new version of touring: subsidized traveling…kiddo in tow. We love house parties. If anyone wants to host one they should drop us a line.