I’m sitting on a cement stoop outside New York’s Knitting Factory with Tara Jane O’Neil and Cynthia Nelson. In a few hours they’ll settle onstage inside as Retsin, a subtly countrified and wholly mesmerizing multi-instrumental duo from Louisville, Ky., New York City, a cabin in the woods and the roads cutting tributaries in between. Nelson’s trimming the ends of her hair with a small pair of Swiss Army Knife scissors; O’Neil’s humming almost unconsciously into my tape recorder; taxis and trucks are speeding by and we’re talking about home.
“It’s our van right now,” O’Neil admits. “It’s where we have friends and projects … I don’t know. It’s more of a time thing than a place thing anymore.”
They recorded their latest album, Cabin in the Woods, in, yep, a cabin in the woods last summer and fall. It captures the moss and dusk of a forgotten forest as song melts into song within dark and hypnotic folk, similar to the work of Nick Drake or Tim Buckley, but with banjo, flute, guitar and serene female voices.
“There was one day when we were living on Ludlow Street and there was a sub station behind our apartment and it caught fire,” O’Neil explains. “I woke up in the morning and there were firemen all around and smoke, toxic smoke, was pouring into our place. That was the day that I said, ‘Oh Christ, I can’t take this anymore.’ So we went upstate to this Super 8 motel and drank a little pint of Jim Beam and decided that we were going to move to the Hudson River Valley. That was the year before we actually did it. I think the catalyst really was getting kicked out of our apartment.”
A friend of a friend of a friend happened to be renting a cabin, so they signed up for six months.
“We were planning to record our album that summer, probably at home, before we got kicked out,” Nelson says. “It was perfect because we did want to make a sort of folksy-sounding record, more natural sounding. The cabin happened to have these great acoustics, wooden walls and ceilings and porches. It all came together.”
Throughout the album, a strong sense of place and settlement is personified, with songs about leaking rust, plaster, bathtubs, bugs, trees, corners, four-leaf clovers, stars and gardens. But an overriding sense of nowhere also makes itself apparent. “Southern trees throw sepia shade/and a lady is just a made up thing in her own room/with the things she makes” (“Sepia Shade”). “All my accomplishments lie underground/All my accomplices live in other towns/Catch me I’m falling/Each week a warning” (“Land of the Lost”).
Since recording Cabin in the Woods, O’Neil finished a follow-up solo record to last year’s acclaimed Peregrine, which comes out soon (its title when we talked was In the Sun Lines). O’Neil was also in Rodan and now plays with the Sonora Pine as well. Nelson was in Ruby Falls and now also plays with the Naysayer. For the time being, however, they’re on a two-month Retsin tour, which is taking them through most of the United States. In New York, Retsin was joined by K. (a solo project of Ida’s Karla Schickele) and His Name Is Alive’s Warn Defever (also on the bill this week in Detroit). The dynamic of the lineup was one of friendship and almost a study of the blurred dichotomy of masculine and feminine.
Schickele opened with her confidently played songs about awkwardness, almost giving the impression that you were watching her belt out the songs in her shower. On nearly every song, a different person joined her onstage. “We’re trying to get every musician in New York on the stage at least once tonight,” she joked. Defever followed, joined by Ida’s Dan Littleton and Flashpapr’s Jacob Danziger, playing songs and telling stories about hunting, bears, climbing mountains, whales and guns. There was a silly and, of course, false tone to the stories, mocking what’s often perceived as a masculine wilderness. Then Retsin closed with the feminine, more Dionysian, women-in-the-woods, mysterious and maternal sense of wilderness. But their take was also somewhat jovial in tone, begging the audience to line dance and O’Neil calling the tambourine rubber-banded to her stomping foot her “strap-on.”
After the show, Nelson and O’Neil packed up their stuff, sold a few records and began their trip south for a short break in Louisville. Nelson says she craves being on the road “because it’s happening, for it to keep happening. Like if you’re drunk and you want another beer, whereas if you’re not drunk, it doesn’t mean you want to be drunk … unless … you’re an alcoholic.”
O’Neil likes the simplicity: “You put your clothes in your bag and those are the clothes you wear. We have all this stuff in storage upstate. Two-thirds of our stuff is up there, but really, so what? We don’t need any of it. I like that. I like waking up early in the morning and being in a flat parking lot in Iowa, seeing the morning and having absolutely no context to anything. I’m just enjoying the morning. That’s great. I have this feeling of being no one when I go on tour and I love it.”