Arbo heads the group with her famous fiddling and strong vocals. She describes the group’s performing and producing as “genre bending string acoustic music.” Many groups like Rani Arbo & daisy mayhem have struggled to perform and to do something they love and their hard work and dedication to producing new, fascinating music in spite of these obstacles is quite admirable.
Arbo was exposed to music at a very early age, when she began singing in a church choir in New York City. “I’ve been doing music since I was six or seven and I can’t remember a time when there wasn’t music in my life,” she said.
Arbo’s singing and her cello-playing experience laid the musical groundwork for her fiddle-playing and singing career that would blossom in her later years. Arbo has been recognized within the music industry for having exceptional fiddling ability and for her strong, rhythmic voice.
“I had a pact with my parents that I would play [the cello] until the end of high school, [but] I stopped while I was at Amherst,” said Arbo.
Instead, she took up the fiddle; her musical experience provided the necessary background for this new instrument. Her first exposure to the fiddle was “at a show that came through Amherst in the fall of ,” Arbo said. “It was about six musicians, no guitarists; they just played their traditional music. After seeing the show, I went to the music department and they loaned me a fiddle.”
Arbo was determined and committed to this new instrument. “I spent most of my junior year buried in my room, practicing everyday,” she said. “It’s an amazing instrument. One of the major differences between fiddle music and classical violin is that it’s so rooted in dance forms; it’s a lot about rhythm,” she said.
An English and geology double major with a penchant for the fiddle, Arbo has one regret. “I didn’t take one music lesson,” she said. “I would never in a million years have been able to foresee what I am doing now. I am a follow-my-nose kind of person.”
Arbo’s first exposure to non-classical performing occurred while at Amherst. “It’s so great to have a place to come out of your shell,” she said. “Amherst was a particularly great environment.”
Arbo admitted that she has never been very intentional about her career choices, but she felt that her time at Amherst gave her the confidence to be so unintentional. “I think the strongest skill Amherst gave me was a general sense of being capable,” she said. This confidence has helped her when making more risky career moves throughout her life.
“At Amherst, you’re around lots of incredible people,” she said. “The teaching was so inspiring. My professors were all very poised. They stopped to listen to us and we were made to feel like adults. That shot of confidence was really important.”
Let the mayhem begin
A year after graduating from Amherst, Arbo became involved in a band called Salamander Crossing, with which she performed for almost 10 years. “I was still not that experienced,” said Arbo. “I started performing the fiddle before I felt that I was really ready to.”
Before long, Salamander Crossing’s members had gone their separate ways, but Arbo and another member of Salamander Crossing stayed together to form their current musical ensemble, Rani Arbo & daisy mayhem. “[When I was in] Salamander Crossing, I really wanted to be more in control of what we played and how we controlled our musical lives,” she said. Now, Arbo has achieved some of that control with daisy mayhem.
When asked how to describe the music the band plays, Arbo had difficulty pin-pointing one word, due to the eclectic nature of their style. “It’s traditionally-based string band music with a lot of original tunes and twists,” she said. “It’s song-based, as opposed to other bands that are all groove and very little melody. [It has] a lot more percussion and rhythmic variety [than Salamander Crossing’s music]. It has richer harmony and vocals and a slightly more eclectic repertoire that lends towards swing, gospel and country blues.”
One aspect of daisy mayhem that makes the experience so pleasant for Arbo is her appreciation for the other members of the band. “I’m so happy with the members of the band … they’re fantastic musicians, extremely proactive and all separately on their own learning curves, which is really inspiring for me,” Arbo said. “We all really inspire each other.”
Although they perform together as a single group, everyone involved strives to highlight each other’s differences. “My philosophy as a band leader is, ‘How do we take advantage of the best of what everyone has to offer?'” said Arbo. “It’s more about how to use everyone’s talents and make everyone feel invested. Everyone performs better in that case, people are more likely to be inventive.”
According to Arbo, daisy mayhem’s strongest selling point is its vocals. “We have really strong lead singing,” she said. But the most unusual aspect of daisy mayhem is their drum set.
“[It was] created out of a cardboard box, cat food tins, a Danish cookie tin and a vinyl suitcase. Kids freak out when they see it,” she said. “It’s actually a lot easier to transport than your average drum set.”
Perhaps Arbo’s biggest complaint comes out of the group’s full name, Rani Arbo & daisy mayhem. Arbo has had trouble having the band under her name. “Feeling completely responsible for the success or failure of the band was hard to deal with,” she said.
Tour de notes
One of the most interesting aspects of life as a musician is going on tour. Different musicians feel differently about touring, but Arbo did not seem troubled by it. “I’m a total gypsy at heart. I have always been a traveler. I have no trouble being on the road. My least favorite part is unpacking, home is really never that liberating for me,” she said. “One of [the] nice things about touring is that my single responsibility is being on tour.”
Recently, Arbo has been in charge of booking all of daisy mayhem’s gigs. Despite the added responsibility, Arbo likes the extra opportunities that her new task has afforded her. “I go to the places where I really want to be,” she said. “I steer us towards the Oregon coast and the Sierras … all these places that are so beautiful to visit.” Daisy mayhem has toured much of the country including California, the Midwest and New England, but they have never toured in the South.
While on tour, daisy mayhem has had the opportunity to attend many festivals, which they enjoy thoroughly, because they see musicians that they would never be able to see otherwise. Going to the festivals and seeing other bands perform is also motivating for Arbo and the band. “The inspiration is seeing how far we have to go-that’s really exciting,” she said. “It’s a lot of work to tour, but once you’re on, you kind of get into a zone.”
“In the rock world, as opposed to the folk music business, the financial potential is much greater,” she said. “In the folk world, there is a community of promoters and musicians that are a lot closer and less backbiting. It’s much more of a rat race in the rock world and the environment we are in is much more comfortable. We have a listening audience instead of a partying audience.”
Arbo’s largest challenge as a musician has been overcoming her insecurity as a fiddler player. “[Overcoming this insecurity] is particularly important in the performing arts because any insecurity or fear that you have really gets in the way,” said Arbo. “It’s not stage fright, it’s more about learning to take up a lot of space, attaining a presence. I had spent most of my life as a choir member, where you’re not supposed to have presence. It’s been a learning experience to take up more space.”
Nonetheless, Arbo has been able to identify some improvement in her abilities. Some of the most rewarding aspects of being a musician for her were “watching my own growth, sometimes against my own will, seeing these glacial changes in my self, my confidence and my abilities,” she said.
Blooming to a new beat
In spite of the hard work and time that Arbo puts into daisy mayhem, she keeps herself busy with other activities as well. Arbo has been a writer since she graduated from college and, since 1996, she has been a freelance writer and editor. She writes regularly for Family Fun, a Disney-owned magazine based in Northampton, Acoustic Guitar Magazine and Strings Magazine. Arbo feels lucky to work for these magazines and her work for them has helped financially support her primary music-producing interest. “The acoustic music world is a very slow ride,” she said. “You really feel like a post-graduate for a long time. Amherst helped me with my confidence in writing and writing has sustained me since I’ve been with both bands.”
Aside from writing and editing, Arbo has also been taking music lessons from a jazz and blues specialist in New York City. “[I] hit a wall with my technique,” she said. “I could hear things that I wanted to play that I could not pull off. My teacher has really been the right person for me in that sense and she is very challenging.”
Now that daisy mayhem has made its mark in the folk music industry, Arbo said that the biggest challenge facing them is the return to the recording studio. “The next record is really going to have a big impact on how we do in the music business,” she said. “I’m trying to not let that intimidate me.”
Arbo also hopes to do a European tour and a tour in Alaska. The group’s first album, “Cocktail Swing,” has received considerable acclaim. Arbo previously released “Henry Street” and “Bottleneck Dreams” with Salamander Crossing.
Rani Arbo and daisy mayhem will be performing at the Iron Horse in Northampton on Friday, March 8th.