Listening to the Ragbirds' latest studio album Finally Almost Ready is a pleasure. Trying to define their musical style is a challenge. Led by petite but strong-voiced singer and violinist Erin Zindle, the Michigan-based ensemble adds more than a few outlandish elements of world music into their groove-based rock.
"We have a hard time describing what we do," says Zindle, speaking last week from a soundcheck in Tampa during their latest tour. "Our little catchphrase is 'infectious global groove,' which gives you the idea but falls short of really defining the big picture. In simple terms, we'll say it's folk-rock with a lot of world music influence. Those are general terms, but helps explain how the Celtic, gypsy, African, and Latin influences come into it."
The Ragbirds recently completed a seven-week "eco-tour" of the West Coast and Midwest in their converted diesel van, which runs on waste vegetable oil. They supported Rusted Root on many of the dates. Their current trip winds through the Southeast.
Zindle says he and her bandmates have a fondness for the Pour House. They performed at the venue twice last year. This week, they open for Charlotte, N.C.'s New Familiars.
"My husband and I actually went on our honeymoon in Charleston," says Zindle. "We stayed on the Isle of Palms, visited the downtown area, and caught Railroad Earth at the Pour House one evening. We even ate at the restaurant next door [El Bohio]. It's such a great memory for us, so it's really fun to return with the Ragbirds for these shows. That place is a sweet spot for us."
Zindle started playing piano at a very young age while growing up in Buffalo, N.Y. She learned the basics before switching to violin at the age of nine. She learned to read sheet music, studied classical composers, and eventually expanded her musical vocabulary with more international styles.
"In high school, I started going through this phase where I wanted to study my family history," she says. "My family is Irish, so I really got into Celtic folk music. I also got into African drumming around the same time. Getting into various types of gypsy violin music, tangos, and more sensual and exotic forms came next. It's taken some time to learn the technique and to dig into the emotional depth to play those kinds of songs."
Zindle started writing poetry at a young age as well. The experience led to her lyrical work and songwriting style with the band. "I actually tend to start with the lyrics," she says. "Sometimes they tell me where the song should go and define the style that the songs should take."
After moving to Ann Arbor, Mich., in 1997, Zindle started performing with a variety of odd combos, including the acoustic world-folk group Madison Greene, the experimental gypsy ensemble the Psalters, and the Ypsilanti-based rock/reggae/bluegrass band Rootstand. The Ragbirds took shape in 2005.
"When we started out, I had ideas for songs and I started recording them right away with whatever musicians could help out," says Zindle. "We actually had them for sale at our first show. I guess that's a backwards way to start a band. Over the years, we've had different musicians in the band, but when my brother, T.J., joined in 2008, he added a lot of ides to what we were doing and things took off from there."
The current Ragbirds lineup features Erin on lead vocals, violin, mandolin, banjo, accordion, and percussion; T.J. on electric and acoustic guitars; Randall Moore on percussion; and a newly installed rhythm section of Brian Krist on bass and Lorin Kranz on drums.
"Everybody is kind of trained up on hand percussion as well," says the lead singer. "We incorporate drums and different rhythms from around the world in every show we do.
Released in 2009, Finally Almost Ready seems to draw a little from everything "worldly" into the mix. Zindle and the band emulate the breezy groove-pop of Edie Brickell on "Anywhere" and the African-infused dance-rock of David Byrne and Paul Simon on "Onyame Kokroko." Accordions, castanets, and Latin rhythms dominate the title track. Zindle singles la-la-las over the waltzy, mandolin-driven "Around the Time." Things get upbeat and almost panicky on the exotic, gypsy-tinged "Book of Matches" (a song that reached the top of the radio charts in Japan last year). Elements of funk and reggae propel the slow-bouncin' "Get In."
"It wasn't so much a design from the beginning to use all these different styles," Zindle says. "It really came together naturally. There are so many styles of music that I've listened to over the years. I was always drawn to music that takes me someplace special — music with exotic sounds from indigenous cultures. The creative fun comes with trying to twist things around and using them in your own music."