I’m almost on the brink of being
On the verge of being
Very nearly close
To bordering on the edge
Of doing what I really wanna do.
T@b, from “On the Verge,” Thugs at Bay
The first time I heard Andy and Ariana, then known as T@B (Thugs at Bay), was at a live performance at a Sister Fair in Bridgetown, Nova Scotia, in 2008. Their stage presence alone hit me like a surprise party: Here was the boy-girl duo ingeniously recreated, the musical drug they delivered so delightful, so reassuring, and so intelligent as to restore one’s faith in the union of heart and mind.
There was the serenely self-assured Ariana Nasr in her Olive Oyl stockings, singing in that pure, pitch-perfect voice, marathons of brilliant lyrics tripping lightly off her tongue, switching effortlessly between soprano sax and fiddle.
Beside her stood jester Andy Flinn, simultaneously singing backup, playing guitar, and drumming backwards, his feet working the pedals of a bass drum as his body swayed in a funky, weaving two-step.
If you listen hard you’ll hear how minimalist the accompaniment really is, but even with just two or three instruments and two voices, each song is busy with tantalizing sounds. Calling their music polymetric folk-jazz, as unwieldy as that sounds, is still the tip of the berg; try polymetric-folk-jazz-gypsy-klezmer-torch-lounge-noir-cabaret— but I’m probably leaving something out . . .
Their personalities are indispensable to the fun of the package. Ariana plays “straight man” to Andy’s continual lighthearted mockery of all things stiff and dull, urging us all to stop taking life so seriously. (I remember him once telling a backstage guitarist who was busily tuning up: “Tuning is overrated!”)
I remember seeing them performing at a feminist event when Ariana’s violin string broke. As she apologised, skipping offstage to change the string, one couldn’t help feeling mortified for poor Andy, left alone to carry on the singular task of engaging the attention of a hall full of women without offending anyone. After glancing nervously back and forth between the backstage exit and the audience, he said, “Um I have a confession to make: I’ve always wanted to be a woman.”
We couldn’t have been more engaged.
As if it weren’t enough to manifest their own creative genius, Ariana Nasr and Andy Flinn are at the vanguard of a global and local movement to transform the music industry from a castle fortress to a sprawling, thriving, peasant village. (Their contagious excitement about this movement is fully justified; just check out AMP Festival, Night Kitchen, and Tab Music to see for yourself.)
Their latest endeavors include a couple of solo initiatives, including La Vie en Rose, Ariana’s brilliant interpretations of Edith Piaf’s songs (her “Non, Je ne Regrette Rien,” will make you tear up) and Andy’s new CD, Heartbeat, in which he serves up the most incredible worldview, rich with sensitive reflections and his own enlightening personal philosophy (be sure to give “Positivity” a good listen).
Why should other creative artists listen to Andy and Ariana? Because their music is substantial and radically playful, simple and ripe with associations, intellectual and unpretentious, deep and light. Such music can help the poet get over the false sense of the weightiness of life while kindling her own creativity.
A few years ago Andy Flinn took the time to answer my questions about the couple’s musical journey.
I had a recording studio in Toronto, and I was doing a recording project with some former bandmates. I asked Ariana to play saxophone on it. Right after that we started a project called Tic-Tac, which was like T@b’s music, only instrumental.
We toured with that all across the country, in bookstores like Chapters and Indigo. Customers would be peeping out from behind the bookshelves going, “What in the h— is that?”
We were very slow learners in playing music that people might like. We’re still learning. Good music doesn’t necessarily mean popular music or music you can live off of but we’ve come a long way since playing polymetric instrumental music in 13/4 and 7/4 time— at the same time— for unsuspecting library and bookstore dwellers.
I Write the Songs
I’m sort of the primary writer, and for our songs to make it out of our house Ariana has to say, “Yeah, I might sing that,” so there’s an automatic review. I’ve tried making her sing stuff that she didn’t like to sing and it’s never worked.
She can sing anything, but the message in the song has to be worth her while. For the most part we think: “If it ain’t good don’t say it.”
We are constantly negotiating what we’re going to play. It’s the consensus-building thing; the larger the group, the more difficult it is to build consensus. Two is the easiest number within which to reach consensus, other than with yourself.
How Did I Get Here?
I played garage rock first. I was forced to take piano lessons for half a year; that didn’t pan out because I’d come back and play the piece pretending to read the music, but I was playing in the wrong key and it became obvious to the teacher.
My piano teacher ended up taking me to all these old cathedrals around where I grew up. We would go play the church organs and stick our fingers in the pipes and see if we could make them do overtones. That teacher was probably one of my bigger musical influences. He played baroque music, and that kind of polyphonic and multi-threaded music. That’s partly where my polymetric obsession comes from.
Ariana comes from an altogether musical family. Her sisters, Sara and Kamila, are a folk duo. Their mom’s a music teacher. Ariana had lessons on the violin and a few lessons on clarinet and saxophone, but she obviously ran away screaming and did her own thing.
Classic Early Shoe-Gaze
For both of us, performing has not come easily. We were the classic shoe-gazers; we would play a really complicated song and stare up from our shoes only to mumble something incomprehensible to the shoes in the audience then return our eyes to our own shoe tips and continue with our show.
I remember once we were driving with Ariana’s mom. We had just finished a show with Sara and Kamila in Toronto and were heading for Montreal. We asked, “Why did they sell eight CDs and we only sell one? Why do they love them more than they love us?” We got a lecture, of course.
What Do You Need to Be Creative?
We probably need some space. And each other.
We need Wolfville. I think there is no higher density of artists per capita than here in Nova Scotia. What we like about Wolfville is the community thing. We feel pretty damn stimulated by this town in terms of gender, society, alternative economy, alternative growing. Most of our friends are second generation hippies.
I don’t think we’ve ever flourished artistically as much as we have here in the last three years. Wolfville is certainly more stimulating than Toronto was. In Nova Scotia you can’t piss somebody off or burn your bridges because there’s plenty of others out there who can pull the same stunts on you.
The urban environment is very forgiving of social dysfunction; in Toronto we could have gone on and on with our shoe-gazing, but here we basically have to get along with everybody, and it’s cool. We discovered stuff here that we didn’t know we needed.
The Thunderings and Rumblings of a New Music Economy
We’ve talked to artists who came, say, from Montreal, to play at festivals here and they’ve said, “Yeah, we were paid two thousand dollars to get here and we spent seventeen hundred on the flight. Then there were other expenses.”
So the military-industrial complex ended up with 80 per cent of the grant money for the festival and the artist only got 5 per cent.
So right now we’re working on the AMP (Acoustic Music Producers) Festival. Basically it’s a Night Kitchen on steroids. It has the same pay scheme as Night Kitchen except all performers are recorded on a digital 8-track, shot with multiple cameras. Like Night Kitchen, no one gets a set larger than three songs.
We favour local artists in that we don’t pay for travel. Your own community is the most stable network in your life. If somebody is in that phase of their lives when they wander and happen to pass by, then you’re likely to be very welcoming, but you probably won’t accept the financial burden of Air Canada shipping them from there to here.
At the AMP Festival everyone has to play original music, because that’s not legally encumbered, and all performers sign a release form to allow all the professional photographers to use the pictures any way they want.
Also, the photographers sign a release allowing the performers to use their photos for CD covers, etc., without paying. And the performers don’t have to pay a sound engineer to record them. It’s basically a barter framework of artistic services.
It’s like creative commons, only event-bound. It’s only one event, but unions form: a photographers union, a musicians union, an entertainment-staff-and-door-people union, and they all sign up for an AMP accord. With this you can now upload stuff to YouTube that is 100 per cent legally publishable.
The website doesn’t look as subversive as the concept is.
The Care and Grooming of an Insurgent Songwriter
I really despised war, but I was raised a soldier. I was drafted into the Swiss army when I was 18 or 19. And soldiers are people too, right? It takes decades to get over that kind of thing.
Ariana came from a Quaker background. They’re a bunch of pacifists. At the time that I met her, this was the only organized religious group that had never offended her, that didn’t have a sour taste for her. And none of us is really a Quaker, because Quakers don’t evangelize. Ariana and I are potluck Quakers at best, but we love those guys and we go to their weekends. We do music with the kids while the adults do their business meetings.
Our biggest fans are toddlers, interestingly enough. Toddlers, I think, are more open-minded. A lot of our friends have kids and they’re always being exposed to our music, at farmers’ markets and at Night Kitchen. There’s never a Night Kitchen where you don’t hear a baby howling.
An Act of Love
We’re still working on our performances, to tell you the truth. We even took an acting improv class. There are so many details; it has to do with the clothing you wear, etc., making an effort. All of these things matter because we’re asking people to be quiet while we play and to give us money, and when they come to a show they actually want the show to be good.
I think one of your responsibilities is to give them what they hope for. Some people may think that this sounds commercial, but it is in a sense an act of love.