Talking Feminist Folk From the Pioneer Valley
By Mya Byrne, Staff Writer
Ruby Mack is lighting up the Americana scene with their glorious modern string band and group harmony sounds. Named for the McIntosh apple variety that’s grown in the Pioneer Valley in Western Massachusetts, the foursome of Abs Kahler on fiddle, Zoe Young and Emma Ayres on guitar, and Abbie Duquette on bass are one of the first of the new crop (pun intended) of artists to emerge from this fertile musical area as openly queer and/or gender nonconforming right out of the box.
Their debut album, Devil Told Me, is one of the best records I’ve heard this year. It’s a CQ staff favorite, and is already getting airplay nationwide. In any other year, they’d already be headlining major folk festivals, especially on the Northeast bluegrass and folk circuit.
Forged as friends through college and familial ties, their album, recorded in a converted church in Western Massachusetts, speaks of joy, temptation, struggle, acceptance, and beauty. With upfront violin weaving through a vocal stack warmer than fresh pancakes, fretless uke bass, two acoustic guitars, and some of the best lyric writing I’ve heard in the last decade, their sound is full and fresh, yet at once familiar, soothing, and singular.
It was lovely to get into deep discussion with Abs, Abbie, and Emma (Zoe could not make it), to experience the genuine joy they very clearly have for each other, and to witness their bond.
Let’s start with what I think is the most important statement you’re making. This is a concept album, meant to be heard start to finish; all the songs are cohesive and relate to each other, sonically and thematically. I can see it becoming a stage piece down the line, like Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown. Can you talk about the thought process behind assembling the album and how you went about choosing the songs?
Emma: As a lyric writer and as a songwriter, I come from the discipline of theater and storytelling. It’s the through line for the reason why the folk music format really captivates me. In terms of how we selected the songs, it wasn’t a profoundly challenging process. I think the songs selected us, truthfully. We have been playing in this arrangement as this band for about two years.
And so what was recorded for the most part was what we’ve been playing our hearts out on live. It’s a music that we’ve been crawling inside of and getting to know over those two years. So yeah, as a new baby band, this is our introduction to the world.
I have to confess, I share your love of pop vocals, which you’re obviously influenced by. Your vocal stacks give me chills, especially the phrase “Losing my mind” and the last glissando in “Little Bird”—they just floored me. That’s a great, great song. How did you learn to sing with each other?
Abs: We have a pretty unique story when it comes to that. Emma and Zoe were basically raised side by side. Their moms are each other’s godmothers, so they have always done everything together basically since birth, and during college, I was lucky enough to meet Emma through the folk music scene out in the Valley. And she introduced me to Zoe, which is how we all started singing together. And it’s always been really special to sing with them. I think Zoe and I have a similar timbre. I think that gives us a unique, good blend. Emma, Zoe, and I have sung in three-part for a while now, multiple years. And then when Abbie joined we realized we could expand that even further to four-part harmonies. And that has been a frickin’ thrill.
Abbie: We also all have strong backgrounds of singing harmony. So before even singing with them, that was primarily how I produced music—through pretty aggressive, sometimes eight-part harmony with primarily female voices. And so bringing that together was familiar for us. It’s a communication and it’s a very intimate process. Learning to sing with new folks takes some time, but then when you’re able to communicate that way and anticipate each other’s movements and phrasing—well, that comes with practice and also with intention and listening. I think that we do prioritize that in the group; hearing each other and making sure we’re all heard—and not necessarily just heard singing-wise, but heard in every way.
I know that Emma, Abs, and Zoe came together at UMass Amherst. Abbie, how did you come to join the band?
Abbie: Fabulous question. No one else has heard this answer, at least publicly! So I went to Smith College and that’s how I got into the scene. Emma and I actually met because we shared an ex-girlfriend. [All laugh.]
And so that’s a very classic story. So we met and we realized, “Oh my gosh, wow. We dated the same person!” And it was very obvious… I don’t know, Emma, if you remember this, but I would see you around and we’d both make eye contact and would be like, “Hey.”
Abbie: Then, through a mutual friend we had lunch and then we decided, “Cool, let’s be friends.” And then one day: “Want to join this band?” And I said, “Hell, yeah!” and now we’re all together.
I think you’re representing the sound of Western Massachusetts very well, especially in the folk/Americana scene. I’m going to officially dub it “The Pioneer Valley Sound”. You’ve got people like Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer, bands like Loone. And you’re pushing the band like a rock band in so many places. You’re not really doing the bluegrass thing in terms of, you know, they’re all going [imitates fast guitar], and then somebody sings a predictable harmony.
So for shaping the band sounds, who were some of your influences, and were you specifically looking at your peers?
Emma: It’s really interesting that you immediately nodded to Anaïs Mitchell. I am so drawn to her storytelling and emphasis on lyrics; how Mitchell uses the vehicle of a song to tell stories and how rich that sort of poetic experience is. The queer ethos of the Western Mass music scene is something that I also took a lot of comfort in. I didn’t really come out in a really big way until this year. I appreciated how people were so open and honest about their identity, and how that intersected with our music. I found a lot of comfort in that. There’s a wonderful folk musician named Carrie Ferguson based out here, and she kind of took me under her wing when I was a teenager and first getting my start. I would really look to her if we’re talking about Western Mass-based personal icons. I know that we all have our own influences, but I do think this Western Mass scene very much speaks to the heart and soul of what makes this group special.
Abs: Like Emma was saying, Western Mass was very instrumental in shaping our sound and also who we are, which then influences our storytelling, because there are so many queer folk artists here; some of my favorite artists to this day. Just seeing them live out their lives so authentically, being their queer selves really was super important for my journey, even if I didn’t quite know at the time. Looking back, for instance, at seeing Izy Coffey play for the first time and just crying at their show—and actually Abbie Duquette was also there! Which we didn’t realize until years later. They’re incredible. And there’s so many other people like that out there.
Speaking of gender and queerness, you’ve got this thread of the shedding of assigned identity and actualization of self that runs through your songs. “Milktooth” is a fantastic statement of gender fluidity, with lines like “Since the devil told me I was born a girl”, but it doesn’t hit you over the head, which is lovely.
I think it’s the most upfront of your songs, but to me, this theme is present everywhere. In “For Icarus”, for instance, you sing, “Once you’ve tasted flight, the ground won’t feel the same.” As a dyke and a trans person, I latched onto that very quickly. What other of your songs do you feel represent that aspect?
Emma: Definitely “Jane.” I wrote it after the Pulse shooting.
And I was not out yet, but I was in a closeted relationship. And it was a really painful experience for me for many reasons, but it was so emotional for me to see my community suffer in such a great way, and to feel very alone in how I was connecting with it because I wasn’t out to my family. Obviously, close friends have always known that I was queer; it wasn’t a huge shocker, but I think I wasn’t really forthright with every aspect of my community. Therefore, l was always kind of tiptoeing around and code switching, which is really exhausting. So that song is very much like an ode to all closeted gays of the world who are hurting and are trapped in lives that don’t feel authentic to them, and who may not feel like there’s a way out and may feel very alone. It can be so isolating. And specifically on days where we culturally celebrate the visibility of the LGBTQIA+ community, like Pride, like June. June was historically so hard for me. ‘Cause I was like, “Why the fuck can I not get my…” excuse me, am I allowed to swear?
Emma: I thought, “Why fuck the can I not get my shit together? And bravely make the statement about myself across the board?” And so, in those months I felt extreme soul pain and anguish. So that song is truly an ode to my inner self that was hurting a lot during that time. But also just an ode to anyone out there who doesn’t feel safe to authentically share themselves with the world, and an acknowledgement that it is hard, regardless of how welcoming or accepting your community is. If you can’t accept yourself, that’s just really hard.
Abbie: I just want to say that often we, as a band, use “gay” and “queer” interchangeably and we want to make sure that people know that we’re not trying to exclude people, but yes in shorthand, we often will say “gay”. But we mean all folks of the LGBTQIA+ world.
I’m sure some of our readers will dig the clarification.
Abs: Mya, I think it’s so awesome that you had noted “For Icarus” as a queer tune, because I actually just texted Emma the other day and said, “Hey, when you wrote this, were you trying to make it gay?” Because I have always interpreted that song as being really queer. I don’t think I even consciously realized that until very recently. There is a lot of imagery that reminds me of the way that society views queerness, lines like, “I’m the tar and feathers paraded through the street / Oh, it’s felonious to fly, so I’m tried for treachery.” And I think the answer is no, that song wasn’t written about that at all, but I just think Emma is such a beautiful writer and there are so many meanings that can be attached for different people’s experiences, not only for that tune, but for everything.
Emma: After that text, I was reflecting on my lyrics and the songs that I’ve written. This is slightly cheesy and potentially predictable, but after I had my first queer relationship, I wrote the quintessential “love song”. And I realized, “Oh yeah, this is what it means to feel like I’m finally feeling certain feelings that I’ve never really known what they were before.”
Music was a way of coding my experience in a way that I could share with people I wasn’t able to be open with. So when I go back to songs that I’ve written previously, I use a lot of metaphor. I use a lot of comparison to mythology. I hide myself in layers of imagery and poetry. And when you said that, I asked myself, “Wait, why did I even write that?” And then I was like, “Oh my God, what?”
And I think that speaks to the fact that songs are never done, and they’re always teaching us about ourselves. And when you write from a place that is profoundly personal—for me it’s like a page from a diary—I think it’s a way of bringing your inner thoughts outward. So then you can look at them more objectively, and objectively know yourself better—you end up having a better sense of self when you have that sort of objective reflection. And I know for a fact that when I listen to songs and recordings of things that I wrote when I was 18, 19, 20—I’m still learning from them. Our songs can be our greatest teachers. Does that make sense?
Aside from lockdown, how is it being an openly queer/gnc-inclusive feminist band in an arena that until relatively recently, outside of niche markets, didn’t really even have room for people like us? I mean, I still know people who are wonderful, excellent folk musicians who are gay as fuck, but are afraid to come out, even now.
Abbie: I’m sure we’ll all have differing answers. I come from a more industry-based side of things, and so that’s where my head goes to. I’ve always been a very, very private person and keep my cards really close; I only show people what they need to see. But I know Abs specifically lives life loud and proud and I love that about them! It’s just not what I gravitate towards. And so when we decided, “Okay, we’re going to be openly queer,” I was a little nervous. It’s not that nobody knows—everyone who knows me knows that I’m queer; it’s not a secret.
But though it is a little nerve-wracking, I was so pleasantly surprised when people were still responding to us, even though in sentence number one, it’s “Queer!” And I realized, “Oh, cool, cool. We’re still in this game.” People are not seeing that and passing [over us], which I feel like even like a couple of years ago, people were doing [to queer artists]. Queer people tend to get pigeonholed, as in, “Only other people will like this music because no one else can relate to it,” because people tend to do that. And by people, I mean, white cis men, who have historically run the music world.
But I feel like what we’ve witnessed over these past couple of months, releasing this album on this very queer platform, is how much it has changed—and how actually incredible and grateful we are to the artists that came before us that paved that road who are not getting the recognition that they deserve for their beautiful queer music—and just beautiful music! I don’t mean to qualify, but it is kind of weird that we’re claiming it and still playing, if that makes sense.
Abs: I definitely have been an open book when it comes to how I live. But it’s been interesting coming out and labeling ourselves as a queer and feminist folk band, because we are coming out to so many more people than just those in our personal life. I think I came out as queer in 2016, 2017, somewhere around there. But much more recently, for the past two years or so, I have been on my own journey with gender.
And at this point in time, I identify as gender fluid; one of the more recent bios that came out talks about how in our lyrics and our tunes, we question gender roles and what it means to be a woman, and then says, “And in the case of Kahler, move in and out of that label with ease.” And my reaction was,“Oh, shit!” It was so vulnerable to see that out on a page on the Internet, because I feel like it’s still something that I’m navigating, like how to come out daily, sharing my pronouns with people, and having to explain what that means.
And there was another interview question recently that basically asked me like what gender fluidity meant. And I said, “Wow, that’s a really big question.” It’s definitely not something that I take lightly. And I want to make sure that people know that one trans person’s experience is not every trans person’s experience. It’s so individual and unique and personal in every case, but I’m happy to talk about it.
Though I am very much an open book and my M.O. is just freedom and I refuse to be boxed in by anything, it’s still a very scary and vulnerable thing to constantly be coming out, to so many people. But I’m really fucking proud that we’re doing that. And I’m so glad to do it alongside these wonderful people.
It’s really hard to be the standard bearer, and I’ve been in that position as an out trans artist in folk/Americana music many times. And I think that’s true for a lot of us who wind up being “the first,” but it’s also true that for a lot of people, we might be the first people they’re exposed to. And it’s that weight of responsibility that is hard, but the way you’ve described is in my opinion how it’s supposed to be—for instance, in every single interview I’ve given, when people start asking me about trans stuff, I also say, “Yes, but this is my experience, and it’s not everybody.” People don’t realize they’re putting that pressure on an artist.
Abbie: Speaking to the original question of “How is it in the world?” It has been…really amazing. One thing that I was really nervous about was pronouns and having to correct people constantly, but it’s actually like been super well received, considering. For instance, if someone misgenders Abs, we’ll say, “Oh, actually, they use they/them pronouns.” And I think sometimes I don’t give people the benefit of the doubt, but I’m expecting a fight—and then people will say, “Oh, I’m so sorry. Thank you for telling me.” And then everyone will check in on each other’s pronouns and I’m like, “Oh my God, look at the world learning!”
Emma: I think that it’s important to recognize the power and the privilege of having a platform where people are listening to you. And with that privilege, you have so much responsibility. For me, I feel my responsibility is to be forthcoming about my identity and how that has shaped the music that I create and the artist that I am, because my other hat in this world is being an arts educator. And there are so many young artists out there that are searching for social mirrors in the media around them. And I know for me, when I was a kid, I latched onto Tegan and Sara, the Indigo Girls, anything I could find.
But I think now that there is a greater wealth of queer artists who are coming forward with their experiences on identity, and using their platforms to speak out to the LGBTQIA+ community, and speak out in celebration of identity and expression. I want to join that canon of voices. And I want to speak to all the young artists out there, across the levels of comfort and expression, and tell them, “Hey, hey, little art maker, I know that you’re hurting, but you’re going to be okay. You’re not alone out there.” All ships rise, and we need to do it together. And while I have the privilege of having a family that accepts me and I have the privilege of having a community that accepts me, where I can safely be myself, I don’t take that privilege lightly.
Abs: And an important point to make: Having the privilege of also being white, and also being viewed in certain situations as “passing” is a big privilege. And I want to be able to use that privilege, and educate people, and support our community that may not have those privileges.
Let’s go back to music, because I do want to talk some more about the music. This is directed towards all of you, but mostly for Abs. Your arrangements are extraordinarily violin-heavy in a wonderful way. Not in a shred-your-face-off way—though you are one hell of a fiddler!—but you’re using the violin as almost another voice. And the violin seems to be having a conversation with you. Would you talk about that for a moment?
Abs: Absolutely. I’m really glad that it comes across to you—and maybe to other listeners—as a voice, because that is very much my relationship with the fiddle. I’ve been playing since I was a wee one. It really just feels like it comes out of me very organically, as if I was singing. My fingers are kind of an extension of my voice. And touching on what Abbie was saying earlier about how listening to and hearing each other in and outside of music is so important to us, I think that that translates in the way that I play. It really is a conversation, and I like being able to use the strings in that way.
The air in your work is so much a part of the sound of this record, both your own breathing, and the room that you give. And like I said before, it’s unlike a lot of modern string bands who are just like, “Play, play, play, play, play, SOLO! Big chorus! Play, play, play, play, play, SOLO!”
There’s so much room. So how much of this was recorded live in the studio? It sounds like you’re all in one room playing together with no trickery.
Abbie: Well, you heard it right! We made an intentional decision to record nine out of ten songs live. And the only song that is not recorded live is “Milktooth”. And that’s because it wasn’t really the finished piece that it became until we got into the studio. And why we decided on the live aspect—it is because so much of our energy and spirit in the songs come through with us playing together; we feed off of each other and we’ll give our all when we’re watching, listening…so much of how we play is communicating with each other non-verbally in that way through music.
I know that you recorded in an old converted church, Ghost Hit Recording. Were you using multiple mics? Were you recording around one mic? What was the setup?
Abs: We did record with multiple mics; pickup microphones for the instruments and separate vocal mics. But we recorded in a circle, so we could still have that open communication with each other. Abbie kind of hit the nail on the head. We really just wanted to kind of get across our energy and the magic that we experienced live. Because it’s just so different, we didn’t want to chop it up and serve it to you in pieces. We wanted you to have the same experience that we have when we played together in person. And the church…I think that we didn’t even think about that, or I didn’t at least before going in to record, but that ended up becoming such an integral part of the process, because I think the space and then the silence and the echoes that church room and the high ceilings provided really lent itself to the holiness and sanctity that we have when we play together. It was really meaningful.
As I’m a music engineer as well as a writer and performer, I was listening to this in a critical way. I was astounded at how wonderful Devil Told Me sounded. Not that I wasn’t expecting it to sound good, but I was honestly taken aback.
Back to the songs. You cover “Red Rocking Chair”, which is a traditional song that predates recorded music, and which has been a staple of string bands and recorded music since Dock Boggs first set it to wax back in the 78 era, almost 100 years ago. Your version is fast, loud, and by setting it in a major key you make it a joyful and defiant statement. Most versions are almost creepy and macabre. How did you come to this song, or how did it come to you, and how did the arrangement come about?
Emma: I actually brought the song to the band. I love the way that you describe it, because I actually had been playing it solo for a little while as sort of that gloomy, dark, macabre vibe. And then I said, “Hey, we should cover this.” So Zoe created this incredible arrangement in this key, and what you hear is Zoe singing.
We have a very organic process of bringing a song to life, which is different depending on whatever is on the table. And we came up with the harmonies, and I think that that sound really gained its life and its vivaciousness through being played live and being played live in many contexts. Let’s say you’re playing a show that has god-awful sound and you have to step away from the mic. That’s a song that you can find vengeance in when you step away from the mic and play it live. That’s happened so many times on tour. And I think there’s a reclaiming of power that happens when all voices are sung in harmony, and the way the fiddle rips through during the solo section and the voices all speak together, including the voice of the violin. But I really have to say I’m so struck by your description and interpretation of the recording. I’ve never heard anyone describe it that way. And I love it. Thank you.
Abbie: We were also inspired by the Gawler Sisters from Maine.
I was going to ask you about that. The Gawler Sisters have a great version of that song.
Abbie: I have vivid memories of sitting with Zoe, listening to that on repeat. And I specifically had inspiration for the bassline from them, because I really love their version. They use cello, I believe, but I really liked the movement. They do a lot of legato bowing and we don’t do that. But it was a combination of all our different inspirations that really brought that together. And one thing that’s really unique about our “Red Rocking Chair” is specifically Abs and I. It is the one time in our set on this album where we have to be completely locked in with each other. And I don’t think there are any other times where Abs and I are making eye contact, where we are syncopating off of each other. Which is tricky.
Abbie, can you tell me about your uke bass?
Abbie: It is longer than a lot of other uke basses, which often look like you’re actually playing a ukulele and then sound super low. This definitely has a longer neck. It’s also fretless. I mean, there’s not a very large community of us, but fifty percent are like, “Yeah, Fretless!” And then the other is like, “No! Frets!”
And what’s interesting to me about you using a fretless uke bass is, as you know, most uke basses tend to give you an upright tone. But when I was listening to the bass specifically, my reaction was, “Oh wow. This really sounds an upright!” Fantastic.
Abbie: That was definitely the goal, because I idolize upright bass players. That is the sound that I want to mimic. And when I was playing electric bass, I feel like it didn’t quite snap in. I call her Freddie. I feel like Freddie really is a member of Ruby, man.
Abs: I’m so happy that you do have the uke bass, because I also am such a huge fan of how upright bass sounds and having uke bass allows us to really be able to travel easily, to pack up and go wherever we want to. We would need have a much larger vehicle if we had an upright.
There are a lot of songs on this record I love, but “Odysseus” is the one that I kept repeating. It just gave me chills. I can hear it becoming a campfire staple. I really hate making Indigo Girls comparisons with any artists that have women in the band, because most reviewers tend to say “Indigo Girls! Joni Mitchell! Jewel!” They put us all in the same boxes. But this time I think it’s merited, because you’ve captured the mythical quality of the story, and it is present in the way the song hits, because it’s framed as an ode. I can hear this being some great, lost Amy and Emily song. And like Woody Guthrie’s “Tom Joad”, you basically consolidated an epic into a relatively short pop-folk song. There’s a lot there to unpack! Care to talk about it?
Emma: I wrote that song when I was coming out of a really toxic relationship. Like earlier, when I was speaking to like a song being a teacher, it’s as if sometimes you also sing to yourself to get yourself out of situations, or you sing to yourself to keep yourself company, or sometimes you sing to yourself to deliver a message to yourself more objectively. And for me, the chorus was something that was a through line for me many years ago. “Oh, you can do better than this. Don’t heed the sirens whispering. Oh, find your way back home, Odysseus.”
In other words, you can do so much better than your current circumstances. Don’t heed all the lies you’re told about yourself. “Oh, find your way back home”—Find your way back to yourself. “I’ve planted a kiss in the ground… it will grow in the spring again”—You can regenerate, you can heal, you can grow, you can reclaim yourself even in the aftermath of something that was really destructive. For me, the song is a mission statement. It’s a hymn of true self.
And again, we’re rewriting and kind of reassigning or reclaiming certain genders in mythology. I think taking that story of Odysseus, this great journeyman, and saying, “It doesn’t matter how you identify; we all have these epic journeys that we’re on of self.” As long as we can return back to the self after we go away for many years from the self, whether it’s metaphorical, or literally like you’re waiting at home for yourself. I know that’s really metaphorical, but for me, I keep coming back to that song like there’s always a thread; you’re always there at the end of the tunnel. No matter how hard it is, you’re always there. And that’s what that song is.
Abs: I love that. Honestly, one of my favorite pieces of imagery in Emma’s lyrics is the siren, because I think that just perfectly encapsulates how so often in life we’re drawn to the beautiful or the shiny thing, and that beautiful, shiny thing might not actually be what’s good for you. The whole point of a siren is it draws you in and then literally drowns you. So I think it’s so important to ask yourself what it is that you actually want, and what it is that you actually need, and follow that, follow the real voice—don’t follow the siren. And I always love singing that because I feel like we really do become #TheaterGays—we want it to be so whispery and airy, like there’s a siren pulling you in.
Fantastic. All right, last question: what is your goal in the release of this album?
Abs: It’s our coming out album! It is a bridge from what we have been to who we’re becoming. And I think that we’re all so excited for these baby songs to finally be born into the world and to have folks hear them so that we can start digging into where we are now and writing new material.
Abbie: And also, to make our entrance into the industry with a statement: “Hey, we’re here to play and we mean serious business, and we’re gonna keep doing this.”
Emma: Yeah! Amen. We’re here, we’re queer, and we’re not going to back down, and we’re not going to apologize for who we are, and we have a lot to say and lots to sing about! And yeah, there are pages and pages and folders of recordings and voice memos, and there’s so much more to share. And I’d like to give a nod to just being so grateful for everyone who has supported us along the way and all the incredible feedback we’ve gotten on this release. And I think just like riding that wave of momentum and acknowledging the preciousness of life, it all happens in a blink of an eye—and I want this blink to be made of music, baby!
Ruby Mack’s new album, Devil Told Me, is available on all streaming platforms.