The Ragbirds mold foreign traditions, both real and imaginary, into a refined domestic export. By burnishing the sounds of the Eastern world to an Americanized glow, they guarantee themselves some cross-cultural appeal.
"We've been really fortunate in our ability to experiment with the different styles of world music," contends lead Ragbird Erin Zindle. "We're like children exploring a playground in that sense."
Zindle is preternaturally chipper on this Wednesday evening. Yet she claims, understandably, that she's grown ragged and stir-crazy in recent weeks. Right now the band is on an epic automotive excursion from Ann Arbor, Mich., to an undisclosed tour stop in Florida.
For all their old-timey bohemianism — Zindle's charming, unaffected compositions lay forth the image of a dust-swept Eastern European backcountry that may or may not have existed a century ago — The Ragbirds are 21st centurists through and through. At their best, they rework the properties of classic Slavic literature with ultramodern savvy.
Paradoxically, Zindle claims Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel as steering influences. You can hear it not in Zindle's honey-marinated voice but in her lyrics, which ponder all of the big themes: ill-considered love, impenetrable lust, messy grieving. "I've read that what Simon writes is fictional in large part," she says. "But for me, it's difficult not to write from personal experience."
We last heard from The Ragbirds on Finally Almost Ready, where producer Tim Carbone (he of jam-band revivalists Railroad Earth) amped up the guitars to thwart Zindle's vista-pillared world music. It was a marriage of two worlds: beefy Americana and Euro-folk.
"At its core, what we play is folk rock," Zindle says. "But we utilize elements of gypsy and other stuff as well."
Released via Japan's Buffalo imprint in 2009, Finally Almost Ready is a sturdy, artful tapestry with the musical chops to match its culture-blinding pretensions. Many songs surpass even "Tarantella," a string-sodden 2008 ballad that the court of popular opinion seems to regard as the crowned jewel of their rich, eccentrically disparate discography.
"Onyame Kokroko" is part Brian Eno, part Paulinho da Costa, and all swagger. The strutting "Get In" might as well have jacked its brassy guitar overruns from an old Mamo Lagbema record. Listening to these tracks in consecutive order, it dawns on you how expensive they all sound — though The Ragbirds try hard to project gypsy sensibility, Finally Almost Ready is not the work of poor, bus-hopping refugees.
"The album was funded in part by the $16,000 we raised through a foundation called Kickstarter.com," Zindle says, referring to the online threshold pledge system. "We had a little more money this time around, and that helped enormously."
But much has changed in the years since Finally Almost Ready's recording. Independent music's axis has spun further and further eastward. While critics bestow Beirut, Gogol Bordello and The Mystery Jets with symbolic handjobs, the similarly multicultural Ragbirds have yet to truly catch on. Your scarf-clad, WIRE-subscribing roommate probably isn't as familiar with them as he is with, say, Vampire Weekend's Rostam Batmanglij.
Zindle chalks that up to the band's willing inaccessibility. "I mean, I see why people like Vampire Weekend," she says. "They have some cool rhythms, some cool stompy drums. At the same time, it's much more polished than the Afrobeat I'm accustomed to hearing.
"I can imagine hearing it play at Target, as opposed to in Brazil somewhere," she continues.
Even nonbelievers will have to contend with The Ragbirds' status as growing fringe favorites, though. Their most recent tour brought them to Japan, where Zindle was greeted with unanticipated rapture ("I was told that the crowds there would be more reserved, but they seemed really into it").
Hipster pariah or not, Zindle is a most thoughtful conservationist. At various points during our interview, she stops to expound on her deeply felt thoughts about the Arab spring and climate change. She's particularly well-schooled in the latter respect, since The Ragbirds are practicing environmentalists.
"We haven't spent a dime on gas," she says of her group's responsible means of travel. "The bus runs on 90 percent vegetable oil."
That's Erin Zindle for you: crusading for awareness by day, bridging cultural gaps by night.