Interview: Arrah Fisher of Arrah & The Ferns
Arrah And The Ferns are known for their cute, poppy folk. Wurlitzers, teasing girl-boy vocals, and silly lyrics about pre-teen problems abound. But, after taking a break in 2008 (during which they lost the rights to their name) and the band’s subsequent move to Philadelphia, Arrah And The Ferns are working on new material that is darker, more guitar-driven, and less acoustic than their two previous albums. (They plan to release a live recording sometime this summer.) Prior to the band’s show at the Sundrop Arts And Music Festival on Sunday night at The Fire, lead singer Arrah Fisher spoke with The Key about the band’s shift in tone, how religion has influenced their lives and music, and the band members’ debts to their respective grandparents.
The Key: Why did the band take a break in 2008?
Arrah Fisher: In 2008, right at the beginning of the year, we had just finished recording the album we released last year. Our drummer decided to quit, kind of out of the blue. I wanted to move out of Indiana and get out to the East Coast, so I interpreted it as a sign to move away. And Carl [Stovner], my original guitarist, decided to come with me and start a new band. It can be difficult to move to a new place and start a new band at the same time. So we hung out and made new friends and started new lives in Philly. We played as Woodlands for a while because we didn’t have the legal rights to use the name Arrah And The Ferns.
TK: How did you get the rights back to the band name?
AF: We had to terminate ourselves as a band in 2008 and our record label wanted to use their option to pick it up regardless. What we had to do to get out of it was legally break up, and wait two years to use the name again. When we got back together, Carl and I had been doing some traveling in Europe and the West Coast. We decided to do a reunion tour with the old guys, and we had such a great time, we were like, “Hey, we’re sitting on this album that we never released. It’s been two years. We should put it out. Why don’t we get a band together in Philly?” And then we started mixing and mastering the album last summer. We got our new band mates pretty much in the summer last year—the drummer, bassist, and the other guitarist.
TK: How is your hometown different from Philadelphia?
AF: Muncie, Indiana is very different. It’s a small town in the Midwest. But there’s a college there, so that’s kind of what makes it somewhat OK to live there, because there’s an influx of young people coming from all over the state. I started getting into music when I went to college, as far as playing it and getting immersed in the scene….But there’s not really much of a DIY scene in Indiana. There are so many venues in Philly that aren’t actually venues, like houses and warehouses. And I think that was part of the appeal to me when I was thinking about moving here. There’s so many opportunities and people and groups and venues and collectives and that didn’t really exist in my town. In Muncie, it was like, you play at these three bars, or you can play at the record store, or you can play basement shows, and that ‘s pretty much the extent of the scene.
TK: You use banjolin a lot on the first two albums. Where did you get a banjolin and when did you learn to play it?
AF: It was Carl’s grandfather’s. He inherited it and rebuilt it. I don’t really know all of the details, but it wasn’t in playing condition and he spent a lot of money on it and learned how to play it. It’s a 100-year-old instrument. I think it’s beautiful and it has a great story behind it. And it’s great when Carl plays it, because it’s a family heirloom sort of thing. He plays it a lot more in his own music in his side projects. I don’t really know how to play it. As of late, we’ve been getting more electric and we don’t do as many new songs with the banjolin.
TK: When did you first start writing music?
AF: Really writing a song, sitting down and writing words and that sort of thing, I was 15. They were really horrible. I also wrote a lot of poetry—I had notebooks and notebooks, and I’d write three chords and pretty much recite my poetry over it.
TK: What was your poetry about?
AF: Boys, and how I hated my life, and boys, and being sad. It’s pretty depressing, but not, like, real depressing, teenage crap. I was a very emotional teenager. There wasn’t really anything horrible in my life. I just really suffered from being a teenager and having emotions. I thought that I wanted to be this sad, famous poet, so I went to college for creative writing. Now, I don’t even write poetry at all.
TK: So what influences your lyrics now?
AF: Some of it is personal. Some of it is heavy and emotional. Mostly it’s stories of other people that combine with my own. Or I make up shit, too. When I was younger I would write really silly tongue-in-cheek songs where I’m, like, making fun of emo kids. I kind of out-grew that; I don’t really want to be too cheesy like that anymore. Though I try not to keep it too heavy, either… There were a lot of religious things in the first album, and those are still there. I used to be Christian.
TK: “Used to be?”
AF: I don’t want to say I used to be. But I used to be into Christianity, and religious. Jesus was a character in my life. I’m longer affiliated with that, but I still have a lot of spiritual thoughts and I seek truth, so that guides some of my lyrics. But the first album definitely, I was going to church and there was definitely an undertone of Jesus.
TK: So what happened?
AF: Carl is still very much spiritual person and he goes to Circle Of Hope. I kind of never really, I wasn’t ever certain that that was what I believed in. I was very impressionable and I was emotional, so I guess I sort of thought that the purpose of the plan in Christianity. But I never felt fulfilled from it, or that it was completely true to what I believed. I was dating someone for a long time when I was younger. I actually almost got married to him, and I realized that I didn’t really want to get married because he was deeply spiritual and the marriage was going to be a spiritual union and I didn’t really feel that way. I didn’t believe the same things. I realized that it was kind of a lie I was living for myself personally. I don’t really know how I feel about stuff now. I’m sort of agnostic.
TK: Can you cite any bands as obvious influences?
AF: I’m really influenced by Laura Viers. I found out about her from a friend about four years ago who said, “You kind of sound like her.” She’s very poetic with her lyrics. It’s beautiful. I have no idea what she’s writing about sometimes, but it’s great. And she does a lot of the instrumentation herself, she’s an amazing guitar player. Her songs cut right to me. I love the way she performs.
TK: How often do you get Mates Of State comparisons, if at all?
AF: I used to listen to them a lot when I first started the band. On the first album Carl sings with me, and we do a lot of that back-and-forth vocal stuff. Also Architecture in Helsinki. I used to be so into those fun bands, with a lot of keys, and whistles, and gang vocals, very upbeat stuff. And I still enjoy it, but I find that I tend to write more like Neko Case now. A little less dance-y and fun, and more serious and rock driven…I like Neko Case a lot. Her sultry voice and the way she sings. I used to listen to a lot of quieter singers, but now I like women who can just belt it. And I’m trying to be a stronger singer. There’s a big difference between the way I sing on the first and second albums. I didn’t really know how to sing when I started, I never sang in public. I was mortified and embarrassed. I sang really quiet and timid and went for the whole cutesy sound. And now I want to excel with my voice and learn how to sing properly.
TK: Do you like being on stage?
AF: I have so much fun on stage. We have a great raw energy when we’re performing. I have a blast. I love interacting with the crowd. I used to be scared and self-conscious and close my eyes for probably two years. I needed to know that I was by myself and I needed to concentrate. But now I can look out look at anybody make eye contact…. It was a matter of time, and practice and being more comfortable with myself on stage. I always enjoyed performing but I was always really nervous beforehand.
TK: What are your plans for recording?
AF: We’re going to record in July. We aren’t going to the studio or anything. We’re pretty poor. So we’re going to my guitarist’s parents’ house in Haddonfield, over the bridge. We’re going to record six live songs and we have a friend from New York who’s bringing his studio equipment down to this house. We’re going to record an EP demo thing and probably release it on the Internet for free.
TK: How is the new music different?
AF: The instrumentation is a lot different. I don’t play the Wurlitzer much any more, That dominated the first two albums, which were very pop driven. I would say now it’s a lot of guitars. We have a fifth member—there were only three on the first album. Now we have carl on guitar, and Ryan [Belski ] can wail on the guitar, and I can play electric or I play acoustic. So it’s very guitar driven. It’s more alt-country or straight-up rock…It’s almost like we’re a completely different band. Having the name Arrah And The Ferns is both a blessing and a curse. Sometimes I have to explain all these things that my name used to represent or reflect. Now it’s not so much, but I guess that’s sort of life, right?
TK: Why was the band called Arrah And The Ferns originally?
AF: When we started the band, we played one show as Solitaire Champs in 2005. It was a horrible name. I hated it, so I asked if we could change it. And Carl and our drummer at the time said, “Why don’t we use your name? It’s unique and people will remember it.” So they started with Arrah, and then they picked Ferns. They asked what my middle name was, but it’s not Fern; that was my great grandmother’s name, Arrah Fern. So I didn’t even name the band—but it is my name.
Arrah And The Ferns performs with Illinois, US Funk Team, Peasant, and Former Belle at 9 p.m. Sunday, May 29, at The Fire; tickets to the 21+ show are $10. —Kiley Bense