Dust Bowl Faeries: Soulful Music Born in the Days of the Pandemic

The otherworldly Hudson Valley group won’t let a plague break their stride

Dust Bowl Faeries (Art: Ron Hart)

“I’ve always identified myself as a faerie, but not a normal faerie. I’m a little too scrappy to be a pixie in a forest. I’m a dust bowl fairy, a fighter, a musician and an artist,” Ryder Cooley, the singer, songwriter, accordion player and bandleader of the Dust Bowl Faeries tells Rock & Roll Globe.

“The band added dust bowl to our faerie image to describe our hard working ethic,” she continues. “We have a wide range of influences in our music – folk, singer/songwriter, Balkan brass bands, Yiddish dance music, Gothic pop, tango, Gypsy rhythms and anything else that’s out there.

“My background is in visual arts, but I was always interested in music. I played a little bit of piano growing up and took up trombone in junior high and high school. I didn’t want to play a girly instrument  – the flute or violin. I was rebellious, but I hit the wall after being in the back line of the orchestra pit, making bad jokes with the guys. I grew up hearing my dad play guitar around the house. He let me take his guitar to college with me. My mother got me my first accordion. It’s almost as if she knew it was the instrument I should play. It was out of the blue. My grandmother played piano and accordion. She died around the time my mom got me my accordion, maybe there was something about passing on a family tradition.” 

After graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design, Cooley relocated to San Francisco. She began exhibiting her paintings and drawings and created multi-media performance art pieces. “I got involved with various art cooperatives and the riot grrrl scene. Music took over my life. My first band was The Daughters of Houdini.” 

Cooley studied klezmer accordion with Jeanette Lewicki, learned to play musical saw and put together an all woman folk/rock trio. The accordion led her to Jewish, Balkan and other kinds of world music. The trio slowly evolved into the Dust Bowl Faeries, a multi-generational, multi-sexual quintet, with three women and two men. “We toured the country, made an album, Dust Bowl Faeries; an EP, Beloved Monster and just released a second album, The Plague Garden. Until Covid hit, we rehearsed every week. We’re hoping we can get back to that soon.”

The Plague Garden by Dust Bowl Faeries

Meanwhile, The Faeries are promoting The Plague Garden. Except for one track, the album was recorded remotely, during lockdown. “I co-produced the album at my home in Catskill, New York, with my housemate Mike Schoonmaker. I recorded my parts, vocals, accordion and ukulele with our guitarist Jon B. Woodin. He’s a neighbor, so we didn’t have to social distance. The rest of the band – lap steel player Rubi LaRue, bass player Liz LoGiudice and drummer Andrew Stein – sent in most of their parts. 

“Since nothing else was going on, we had a lot of time to do the project. We worked on it whenever possible, mixing and mastering it, so it sounded like a live band. It was a challenge to stay motived. We recorded without a click track. My songs have a lot of starts and stops and tempo changes, so it’s hard to use a click track. We had to break the songs down into sections. Things got very surreal at times. Now and then, we got into a funk, but we finished it and got it out to all the digital services on time.” 

The songs Ryder wrote for The Plague Garden suggest a freewheeling carnival set up on the outskirts of a small town. Dark, mysterious interludes are balanced by bright tangos and horahs, driven by uplifting backbeats. “Dust Bowl Caravan,” blends rhythms from Argentina, New Orleans and the Caribbean, for a playful complaint about people who seem to breeze through life without a care, even during a pandemic. Cooley and Woodin trade ironic verses, while the band romps in the background. “We wrote that one to cheer ourselves up,” Cooley said. “I can get pretty doom and gloom, but it didn’t seem like a good time for that. It’s a little bit creepy, but a little bit of fun too.”

VIDEO: Dust Bowl Faeries “Candy Store”

“Sirens” references the #metoo movement and addresses the sexism in the music business. An ominous backbeat and Cooley’s somber vocal call out male privilege in a straightforward manner. The fills on musical saw and lap steel add an eerie aura to the performance.  The album closes with “Candy Store,” a mid-tempo mash up of horah and tango. It takes on society’s ills with a sardonic attitude that suggests burning everything down – candy stores, brothels, jails and asylums – to get a clean start. “This one’s based on a song my grandma used to sing,” Cooley explained. “The melody’s traditional. Sometimes the Jewish people in the audience recognize it. We made a video for it during the lockdown with director Lisa M. Thomas at Thin Edge Films. There was a whole crew and we all got tested. Everyone wore masks, even the band, when we weren’t on camera performing.

“It was stressful, but we had a craving to do something creative after all the isolation. It brought the band together for the first time in months. We shot it in Catskill at an abandoned candy store. A cinematographer came up from New York City. Lisa had a script for the video, and we all went for it. Photos of all my grandparents are on the wall of the store, as an homage to my deceased relatives, especially my grandma. She loved to play music.” 

 

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j. poet

j. poet has been writing about music for most of his adult life. He has contributed to the San Francisco Chronicle, East Bay Express, Harp, Paste, Grammy.com, PlanetOut.com, American Profile, Creem, Relix, Downbeat, Folk Roots, New Noise and more national and international publications and websites than he can remember. He wrote most of the Musichound Guide to World Music (Visible Ink, 2000) and had two stories in Best Rock Writing 2014 (That Devil Music). He has interviewed a wide spectrum of artists including Leonard Cohen, Merle Haggard and Godzilla. He lives in San Francisco. 

One thought on “Dust Bowl Faeries: Soulful Music Born in the Days of the Pandemic

  • December 20, 2020 at 9:08 pm
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    Thanks to j. poet & everyone at Rock & Roll Globe for the wonderful interview, and to Ron Hart for the fun interpretation of our pandemic photo! My first band in San Francisco was Down River. Daughters of Houdini was a performance/life art project with collaborator Zoey Kroll (for the record!). meows & purrs from Ryder/Dust Bowl Faeries

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