London – Arc Iris, the new band formed by songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Jocie Adams after her departure from The Low Anthem, presents an escapist vision in a world heading, however reluctantly, towards serial uniformity. Currently operating as a trio, complete with keyboardist Zachary Tenorio-Miller and percussionist Ray Belli joining Adams, the Providence, Rhode Island band straddles musical genres with endearing charm and eccentricity, while creating a contemporary orchestral feel in its blend of modern and traditional instruments. On the eve of the release of Arc Iris’ sophomore album, Moon Saloon, Jocie Adams delivered some intriguing insights into how daily lives collide with dream worlds, in an interview with Best New Bands.
Your second album, Moon Saloon, is out this week. When did you write the songs for it, and how do you broadly approach the songwriting process?
The songs for this album were largely written in the summer of 2014 at a songwriting retreat on an island in New Hampshire. The songs and the lyrics usually come together. If they don’t come together, the lyrics may be pulled from a short story that I would have written prior to constructing the song.
I sense that the finished articles are the result of quite a collaborative process. Once you have the basic idea for the song, at what stage do the other band members contribute to arrangements, etc?
Indeed, the Arc Iris arrangement process is a collaborative one! We get together and flesh out the songs for quite some time. Sometimes the song changes very little in this process, and other times the whole thing is deconstructed and then reconstructed so that it lives beautifully in the sonic world of the current ebbs and flows of Arc Iris.
Your music always seems to be a distillation of a broad raft of styles. Do you all tend to like the same kind of things musically or is there some divergence among the band members?
There is certainly some divergence in our tastes but generally speaking the answer is yes, we tend to enjoy the same music.
Talking of band members, you appear now to be a trio along with Zach and Ray. Is cellist Robin Ryczek still involved with Arc Iris, say for touring or recording?
Robin is a lifelong musical collaborator and friend. She is taking time to work on some other very wonderful things right now – she is going to build a library in Afghanistan and you should interview her about that – but I would be surprised if we don’t reconnect at some point in the future. We will certainly continue to work with her in the studio.
How do you view the progression that the new album represents from your debut 2014 release?
In my opinion, the biggest difference between Moon Saloon and our debut record is that of percussion and its role in the song structures. On Moon Saloon the percussive elements were fundamental to the arrangements, whereas on the debut album, drums were more of a helping hand. The other obvious sonic departures are the strong introductions of electric guitar, synthesizers, and samples. These sonically “modern” elements are all delicately intertwined with acoustic instruments. I think they come together into something like a modern orchestra. The cello isn’t judging the Moog for its lack of “authenticity,” nor is the Moog giggling at the cello for leaving her hipster jeans at home. Instead, the whole family works together and makes something different than any of the elements could do on their own.
Would you describe your new album, Moon Saloon, as a concept album? Is there a thread that hangs the songs together?
I would tread lightly with the words “concept album,” but yes there are a few themes holding the album together. The big one being the tensions of society, nature, silence, and noise in the context of the boundaries around both our day-to-day lives and our dream worlds. The questioning we do about what is right for us, and the ideas that we have about our dream life are not always a good representation of what our true dream life would be. Everyone has the opportunity to filter and compose their own existence from the daily mess that must be waded through. Some are better at distilling their pursuits than others. What’s the deal with the mess? What is that magical skill?
In these days of Spotify playlists and the like, how important is it to hear an album right through in the order intended?
I think that is totally dependent on the album. I believe that there are very few people that listen to albums from cover to cover anymore based on the new popular platforms for music listening. Spotify’s brilliant idea to not allow non-paying customers to listen to albums in order, is a contributor as well. From what I can tell, though I am no expert, very few people even know that they might care about the order of an album because music is presented by the machine as individual pearls, not as a string. There is something to be said for both formats, and I am not here to say that anyone is right or wrong on this front. I much prefer listening to albums for focused listening, but that is just the way my brain works. Everybody is entitled to enjoy music in their own ways. As long as some music can continue to be art and some listeners can continue to want that, we will not see something that has been culturally fundamental for centuries die.
Will prog rock ever make a proper comeback, and could you be part of that? When I last saw you live the rhythms and episodic structures of the newer songs seemed to lean in that direction.
Prog rock still exists and has a very strong culture around it. I would not to any degree compare Arc Iris to modern prog rock, but certainly 60s and 70s prog bands like Yes and Genesis have left some visible fingerprints on Arc Iris. If the 60s and 70s version of prog rock returns, it will have to take on a new label as to remain separate from modern prog.
“Moon Saloon” is also the closing track on the album. It conjures up some interesting imagery. What is the story behind that particular song, and how significant is it as a title that encapsulates the spirit of the whole record?
I see “Moon Saloon” as important because it is a straightforward version of the concepts I mentioned earlier. The tension between the world you live in and the world you could live in can sometimes be crippling. Having to choose a path that will define many years of your life is a difficult thing to do, and ultimately, you may never know if you did the right thing. The choices that life presents to you are endless.
Arc Iris is a striking band visually as well as musically. How important is your choice of stage clothes and accessories – do you adopt a new persona when dressing up for a live show? By the way, is the gold jumpsuit still going strong, Jocie?
Yeah the gold jumpsuit has gone through some alteration, but it’s still around. The live show is both a method for us and the audience to engage in something that is out of the ordinary. If we walked on stage with ripped jeans and flannel shirts, it might be more difficult to find an emotional home for the sounds that are being made on stage. As “Whiskey Man” faded into the background, my prairie dresses found themselves drifting further and further to the back of my closet.
What’s been your favourite live show to date and is there one you’d rather forget?
Certainly one of the most gorgeous shows we have ever played was at Union Chapel [a North London church feted for its glorious acoustics], though I am both happy and proud to say that my favourite shows were all of the last three extremely humble shows in our NYC residency. I am proud of that because it shows that we have grown tremendously. Our show right now is the most exciting it has ever been, and I hope that trend of growth will continue for years to come.
What kinds of music do you most like listening to yourselves? Does any of this impact on or influence your own songwriting?
We listen to some new music, but most of the music we listen to is from the 60s and 70s. In terms of songwriting, I look very strongly towards Joni Mitchell for inspiration. There are many, many others, but she is at the top of the pyramid at the moment. I paid some tribute to her on Moon Saloon, whether it is heard or not.
What are you plans for the rest of 2016, touring and the like?
We are touring from September straight through December and visiting most of America and as much as time allows of the UK and EU. We will have to see what happens after that, but I expect this year to be a heavy touring year for all of the markets we have played before and hopefully some new ones as well.
Moon Saloon is out on 19 August. Arc Iris is on tour in the USA from 4 September. Look out for further live dates, including UK and Europe, on the Arc Iris Facebook page.
Tony’s great passion in life is music and nothing gives him more pleasure than unearthing good, original new music and championing independent musicians. His association with Best New Bands brings great opportunities for this. He also writes for Consequence of Sound and is a judge for Glastonbury Festival’s Emerging Talent Competition.
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