Originally published in PopMatters May 14, 2010
Freddy’s Bar, a neighbourhood fixture at the corner of 6th and Dean in Prospect Parks, Brooklyn, a bar with mismatched pictures and collectibles on the walls, has been serving up drinks and entertainment for the better part of a century. A speak-easy during Prohibition, it grew into a favorite haunt for cops and Daily News reporters, both of whom worked across the street. In its current incarnation, under owner Frank Yost, it has become a magnet for an eclectic clientele: hipsters and bohemians, blue- and white-collar types, black and white, straight and gay.
Matt Kuhn had been working at Freddy’s as a bartender for about two years when, in 2001, he took over the responsibility of hosting an open-mic night in the bar’s back room, a small space with a stage and tables that accommodate 70. One night, Robin Aigner, an aspiring singer-songwriter who split her days between freelance copy-editing and waiting tables, saw an ad for the open-mic night on a utility pole and decided to try it out. She stepped onto the stage with her great uncle’s acoustic guitar. Kuhn instantly was transfixed.
“I just fell in love with her music right away,” said Kuhn, 38, of Park Slope, Brooklyn, who sat at a middle table in the crowd during the performance.
“Her voice was already there,” he said. “Her voice struck me as very pure, very unaffected. I described her voice, one night at open mic, and I think it still holds, as a nice, cozy blanket your grandmother knit, that you wrap yourself in. You could wrap yourself in her voice.”
After about five open-mic performances, Aigner got her own gig at the club, with proper billing.
“I was raised musically there,” said Aigner, now a freelance editor and writer living in a co-op in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. “That place gave me a lot of love and a lot of opportunity to be a less-experienced musician and have a place to play.”
Aigner would later flirt with New York City’s Old Time and anti-folk scenes, collaborate with many musicians near and far, release a few records and tour the countryside. She opened for Emmylou Harris in Nashville, helping to kick off the inaugural WMSN’s Music City Roots: Live from Loveless Cafe, a weekly concert series, and played festivals before thousands in Europe and Canada with the Crooked Jades. Back in her native New York, she played the likes of the Sidewalk Café, Banjo Jim’s, The Living Room, Jalopy and Pete’s Candy Store. She found herself near the center of a circle of musicians fascinated with recreating obscure bits of history through contemporary strains of music. Her star was slowly and, sometimes not so slowly, rising.
“When I started playing, I felt as if I had found my best friend. It was truly a renaissance,” Aigner told me. “I can surely go a day without listening to music. But, there is never a day when music is not running through my head. In fact, most of the time I’m dreaming with music in the background, so I almost always wake up with a song in my head.”
On Jan. 28, Aigner self-released the brilliant Bandito, her second solo record, a collection of engaging and emotive history-vignettes that blends Old Time folk, mid-century country-and-western and Eastern European music with the strains of the contemporary singer-songwriter. It also reveals a songwriter and performer at the top of her game. If there is any justice left in the American underground, music like this won’t be self-released for very long.
Robin Aigner—now 5-foot-3, slender, with naturally curly, light brown hair, a winning grin and sparkly hazel eyes—was born at the Columbia Hospital for Women in Washington, D.C. at 2:05 p.m. on a Tuesday in April, an induced birth that lasted much longer than expected. Named for her grandmother, Rose, and her great-grandfather, Isaac, she was the younger of two children born to John and Sheila Aigner, parents and entrepreneurs who held various jobs and, at one point, ran a small café for a year in Provincetown, Mass. Her background, genetically speaking, is Russian and Hungarian and some of her family emigrated from the Old World to the U.S. during World War II.
Aigner moved frequently as a child, spending her first year in Falls Church, Va., her days as a toddler in Mount Vernon, N.Y., and her early elementary school years in Yonkers, N.Y.
“My earliest memory is the day my mom told me not to ride my tricycle on the grass, because it had rained and the grass was slippery,” Aigner recalled. “So I rode the bike on the grass. The next part of the story is told by my mom: My sister walked into the house carrying me; there was blood everywhere. My mom couldn’t figure out which one of us was bleeding. Turned out I had fallen off the bike, gotten a head wound, my first scar. It’s still there, above my eyebrow, reminding me that I don’t really listen to instructions—or that I’m independent.”
Her early musical diet consisted of music typical of the 1960s and 1970s: The Beatles, Chicago, The Eagles’ Hotel California. As a child, she memorized all the words to songs from her father’s collection of records – Harry Chapin, Jim Croce. But it wasn’t until much later that she would find a deep connection with music.
At 8, her parents divorced and, later, Aigner moved in with her mother in Hastings-On-Hudson, N.Y., a tree-lined suburb roughly 40 miles north of Manhattan.
She befriended a girl with an obscure interest in British rock. At 15, the two of them trekked to Europe, all goth outfits and new wave dance moves, and caught the Higsons playing in Brixton, England. Through another friend, she became inoculated with a taste for Jamaican music. Her palette, even at a young age, was diversified. But she was no songwriter.
Aigner went on to study analytical literature at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. but found the musical scene there lacking. Instead, she immersed herself in books – taking a class on James Joyce’s Ulysses, later dabbling in Ayn Rand – but found that no favorite authors floated to the surface.
“I think that, more than a particular story or book, I’m more intrigued by language,” she said.
A couple years after graduation, after traveling and working, briefly, at a bar in Nice, France, she found herself in New York City.
In February 1992, Aigner was hired as an editorial assistant and coordinator of special projects for Turner Publishing. She spent exactly two years there, helping to run the office and review potential manuscripts and artwork, before landing a job as a promotional copywriter for Parade magazine. But it just didn’t fit.
“I cautiously approached the idea of completely changing the direction of my life,” Aigner said. “It took 3 or 4 months of pure misery to make the decision. But, once I had made the decision, I couldn’t get out of there fast enough …. I quit with no job prospect and felt totally free.”
She took a job waiting tables at a high-end Mexican restaurant – Mi Cocina – that sat a few blocks away from her West Village apartment. She worked to make her rent, then just $795 a month. She started writing and editing on a freelance basis for an eclectic mix of publications – Rolling Stone, Newsweek, Playboy, Psychology Today. Aigner did what she needed to do to survive.
She also threw herself into acting, studying at a West Village establishment dubbed HB Studios.
“I studied acting for a few years and finally came to the conclusion that in order to do it for a living, you had to love it, really love it, otherwise it would always be a battle for your self-esteem,” she said. “So I tapered off the acting, moved to Park Slope and these songs just kept popping into my head.”
She came to music late. While waiting tables at an expensive Italian restaurant in Brooklyn, she was overpowered with the inspiration to write a song. So, between taking orders and moving dishes, she’d jot down a lyric here, a lyric there. It took one night to write. The song became “Stone Cold Mamacita,” a stand-out on her debut record, Volksinger, and something of a minor hit in some Brooklyn circles.
“I’m a stone cold mamacita with an ex-pat hippie papa/ We gotta lot of terra cotta. We’re a long way from home,” it begins. “We live on wit and vino rojo in our orange El Camino/ Our perro’s name is Pedro and he’s a long way from home.”
Around this time, Aigner learned classical guitar and sight-reading, as well as took voice lessons. It was a brief foray into formal training. Shortly thereafter, she was writing full-fledged songs –“Black Star Cowboy,” “Elvis Impersonator” – and performances soon followed.
In 2002, with an expanding repertoire of songs in her catalog and a growing number of performances under her belt, Aigner self-released Volksinger, a 15-track set of acoustic odes and historical ballads that owes as much to Gillian Welch and Leonard Cohen as it does to Joni Mitchell. It’s a beautiful introduction to a musician searching for her voice.
Within two years came Royal Pine, her duo with Brook Martinez, and two records steeped in Americana: 2004’s Chantytown and 2007’s ultra-limited Huasteca, which was recorded over the span of 10 hours. Both records flirted with Old Time music but also somehow hovered above it, challenging the form.
“Singing songs of Winnebagos and the 1977 blackout, Royal Pine is what would happen if The Mamas and The Papas merged with Loretta Lynn and picked up the ukulele,” one writer observed.
As Royal Pine toured the Southeast in 2005, they found themselves a spot performing live on the Knoxville, Tenn. station WDVX, which had drawn appearances from Elvis Perkins and Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. Matt Morelock worked the dials on future performances.
“ [Aigner] was a great, very intelligent talent,” said Morelock, 30, a Knoxville, Tenn. native who recently gave up radio broadcasting to open his own music shop. “She did not follow the same vocabulary of singer-songwriters I had on the show. She had her own vocabulary.”
She was also, Morelock stressed, a product of her environment.
“She’s one of the most New York City songwriters I’ve ever heard here, in the best way,” he said. “Because it’s such an international town [and] I guess I could call her a perfect exponent of New York City folk-writing.”
Jill Andrews, a singer-songwriter who played guitar and sang in the Everybodyfields and now fronts a band bearing her name, met Aigner about five years ago when Royal Pine was playing a dancehall. Despite her inclination to stay away from performers after their sets, she struck up a conversation.
The two soon became friends and collaborators, with Andrews singing harmony with Aigner and Royal Pine. Andrew’s hometown of Johnson City, Tenn. and “a wrong turn” toward a North Carolina music festival later surfaced in Aigner’s lyrics.
Andrews calls Aigner’s music mysterious.
“It’s kind of like reading a detective novel,” said Andrews, 29, of Knoxville, Tenn. “She takes a character and paints a really vivid picture of their life. That’s what she does best, I think.”
“I just love Robin’s songs, they’re so different than anybody else’s songs,” she added. “The way she describes the characters in her stories is just really quirky. It’s just different. She really has a way with words.”
Aigner also was winning over some members of the press.
“Robin Aigner is one of New York’s finest singer-songwriters,” the blog Good Music New York wrote at the time Royal Pine formed. “Armed only with her wry wit, poetic lyrics and melancholy guitar, [she can] captivate a crowd of rowdy frat kids and quiet them down to listen to her sing.”
In 2006, the website Treble named Aigner one of the top, overlooked female artists in the country.
In the summer of 2003, Aigner traveled with a group of musicians from the string band Luminescent Orchestrii, a forerunner in New York City’s Balkan music scene, to Romania to study Eastern European music at a local festival.
One night, in the tiny village of Czavas in Transylvania, they took a horse-drawn carriage up a hillside towards a picnic where music was being played. Once the horses grew tired, they walked the rest of the way. On the hilltop, locals cooked meat and bacon – really, chunks of lard—and Aigner and her friends soaked it all in.
Word quickly circulated that a group of American musicians was in town so a concert of Old Time American music was thrown together at the village hall. Aigner sang and played ukulele.
“Robin knew lots of Old Time songs and it was great having her with us,” said Rima Fand, 39, of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, whose resume includes Luminescent Orchetrii, the indo-pop band Church of Betty and the a capella women’s vocal quartet Lîla.
“The audience spoke no English, so they had someone translating everything we were saying into Hungarian,” Fand said. “I remember we were talking about the song ‘Cluck Ol’ Hen.’ We said that it was a song about thanking the chickens for laying eggs. When it was translated, we saw all the old Hungarian ladies nodding their heads knowingly. It was a great moment.”
One night, walking down the hillside, Aigner taught Fand the old gospel tune “Warfare” and together they sang it as a friend played harmonica. Music was everywhere.
The song begins with an acoustic guitar, jazzy and hushed, slowly shuffling as a violin weeps and, faintly, someone runs their fingers over the keys of a piano. Then, the listener gets invited in on the secret.
“I’ve been to the Campbell Apartment/ at the invitation of F.D.R./ I’m the only one who knows where he goes when he parks his car,” Aigner sings, her voice fragile yet flirtatious and sensual. “A house is not a home/ and Winters cannot hold a candle to my throne.”
This song, which opens Bandito, is “Pearl Polly Adler,” an homage to a New York City Madame whose houses of ill repute served the gangsters of her day, and it’s just the beginning of a record filled with beautiful and illuminating moments.
Bandito is the kind of record that is not listened to, but discovered. It alternates between lush arrangements for violin, bass and Rhodes and devastatingly spare acoustic numbers like “Great Molasses Disaster.” It is one of the finest records you will hear this year.
It is also a record clearly informed by the works of Piñataland, a Brooklyn-based Old World orchestrette with whom Aigner has collaborated. Their full-length debut, the brilliant Songs for the Forgotten Future Vol. 1, set the bar for local musicians attempting to capture the luster of a lost world, an American history somehow running below the surface of things. Aigner cites them as an influence and their fingerprints are all over Bandito, whose history-infused song-stories pack a punch that make the tracks on Volksinger or Royal Pine’s two discs seem like pencil sketches or works-in-progress by comparison. It’s that good.
The whole record was recorded in two to three weeks at Seaside Lounge, predominantly, and Wombat Studios, both in Brooklyn. The musicians Aigner collaborated with on the record, including the breathtaking violinist Caroline Shaw, worked largely without musical charts.
“There had been no prior collaboration,” Aigner said. “They all, including the percussionist, just came in and instantly got it. Especially Caroline, she really understood the music on a very deep – and also a surface – level.”
The songs, most of them written in 2008 and 2009, achieved a magical kind of glow in the studio, one that would be difficult to reproduce on stage.
“They never sounded as good prior to making the album as they do now,” Aigner said. “[It’s] kind of a curse because, when I play them solo, I want to hear all that amazing instrumentation that happened in the studio.”
At the time the record was released, Aigner was enraptured by Rufus Wainwright, listening to the Avett Brothers and Bombadil, and citing John Prine’s Diamonds In The Rough as one of her favorite records. But, she stressed, she does not have a voracious appetite for music. But it’s always there in her head, waiting.
Curtis Eller grew up in Detroit and participated in musical theater in Michigan and Chapel Hill, N.C. for the better part of a decade before moving to New York City in 1995.
In 1997, Eller, whose father taught him to play bluegrass-style banjo when he was 13, began to perform live around town. Three full-length records and two EPs followed, each of them offering passionate takes on tales from the distant and not so distant past. In his lyrics, John Wilkes Booth and Stephen Foster rubbed elbows with Elvis.
Eller can’t remember the first time he met Aigner, with whom he has collaborated as a solo musician and with Piñataland.
“She’s just one of those people that was always there,” said Eller, 40, now of Astoria, Queens. “She was always popping up. She was either in the gig or at the gig of the people I was playing with. It was one of those New York things. You knew you were at the right gig if she was there.”
But, Eller stresses, neither he nor Aigner are icons of New York’s Old Time scene. Instead, they form a circle with bands like Piñataland and Kill Henry Sugar that make new music about old tales.
“For some reason, there are several of us that started mining this strange, historical stuff all at the same time and found each other at gigs,” Eller said. “It was a weird shadow that fell on songwriters at once.”
Eller also had something of a friendly competition with Aigner.
Both had heard stories about “The Great Molasses Disaster of 1919,” when, according to Aigner, a huge stationary tank of molasses in Boston exploded on an unusually hot day in December, killing people and toppling the El tracks.
“I had been wanting to write a song about that event for a year or two and had been struggling,” Aigner said. “Then I heard Curtis wanted to write a song about it, so I knew I had to get shaking. It was a showdown!”
Aigner won; the song, a touching piece set to carefully plucked acoustic guitar, closes Bandito.
Though Aigner’s catalog features its share of historical narratives, there is also, as is often the case with singer-songwriters, a trace of autobiography.
“See You Around,” the “relationship song” on Bandito, tells the story, in first-person, of a musician whose lover is not pledging enough of himself to their relationship. In it, her vulnerability can be disarming.
“I can make a meal for a king/ sing a tune about any damn thing/ You would know all of these things/ if you were around,” she sings, trying to fight off the broken heart. “Sometimes, I can’t even recall your look/ Sometimes, I erase you from the phone book.”
Aigner said the song, which is pulled from real-life experiences, details the ambiguous nature of a new relationship. She also admits there are traces of her life – and the lives of her friends and family – in her story-songs. Sometimes, it’s the little details, like her fascination with Mason jars, or those of a friend, like the lyrical reference to a hat from the blind man in Denver. But other feelings loom larger.
“You know, I think we are all lonely at some point – we are all constantly looking for things,” Aigner said. “So, there is pretty much always a restlessness in the characters in my songs and a loneliness. There is also a lot of mystery, because I like mysteries. My personal life is woven into the songs, almost always.”
And the intensity with which she throws herself into her craft is starting to get attention.
“She has a very strong focus when she’s singing,” said Kuhn, the Brooklyn bartender who was struck by Aigner’s music nearly a decade ago. “She’s in it. She’s completely in it when she’s up there. And you can see it.”