Sobering Thought: Erin Zindle & The Ragbirds Remember a Late Friend’s Determination to Overcome Alcoholism on “Liquor Store” Single
The bluesy new single from the Ann Arbor folk-rock band addresses the daily struggle Nelson Whitehorse faced while trying to fight addiction and follow a path to recovery.
“He was from St. Louis actually and moved to Ann Arbor to be in a band with me, and we lived together for a year,” said Zindle about Whitehorse, who passed away several years ago. “We lived on the west side of Ann Arbor and he had been an alcoholic since childhood.”
Throughout “Liquor Store,” Erin Zindle and bandmates TJ Zindle (electric and acoustic guitar, vocals), Loren Kranz (drums, vocals), and Shannon Wade (bass, vocals) chronicle Whitehorse’s ongoing challenge of having to walk past a liquor store each day to visit the local Alano Club.
Ominous keys and drums follow Zindle as she sings, “You said ‘Grace is new every morning’ / As you stared into your black coffee cup / Today you’re gonna make it past the liquor store / To get to the Alano Club.”
“I saw that battle play out over and over every day, and sometimes he made it, and sometimes he didn’t,” she said. “The daily work is just getting there every day.”
The track also helps Whitehorse’s family and friends to take comfort in his memory as a “hilarious, loyal, giant-hearted friend” as Zindle noted in a Ragbirds’ Facebook post.
“The message I hope people will take away is that today you’re going to make it,” Zindle said. “It literally is just that one day at a time. I’m so grateful that the song came to me, and it came with that wisdom to know not to add any message to it.”
We recently spoke to Zindle about the band’s new single, its strategy for releasing new songs and an upcoming album, the inspiration behind several tracks, the creative process for writing and recording them, a Halloween show at The Ark, and additional plans for new material.
Q: How did the sound and melody for “Liquor Store” come to you while writing the track? How did you arrive at the track’s chorus?
A: The song was written after [Nelson Whitehorse] died. It all pretty much came out as the song that you hear. I was just drumming on the table and just sang that melody. I was crying as it was coming out of me, and I thought it really needed a chorus. It was like, “What am I going to say now in the chorus?” I tried every other angle, and I realized the [current chorus] is the chorus. That’s all there is to say; every time I tried adding anything else to it, it didn’t work. I just wanted to express the challenge of getting there and celebrating every time you do make it, and leaving the story to be just about that and not trying to put any moral of the story on it … or any other statement on it.
Q: You’ve been releasing new singles on every full moon since June and have dropped a couple of additional tracks so far that fall in between moons. What inspired you to develop a release strategy in tandem with that?
A: I’ve started to do this program called Unicorn Wellness. It’s a Pilates combination … and the teacher is very connected to astrology and the cycles of the moon. For the last couple of years, I’ve been doing my workouts revolving around the moon cycles. It’s interesting hearing this information about how the moon, the stars, and the whole world around us are affecting us and our bodies, and particularly our energy levels. The heaviest workouts will be on the full moon because it’s a time for releasing a lot of energy. During the new moon, it’s like simple stretches and a little bit more relaxing energetically.
That’s been my practice and then just tuning into myself and seeing how that resonates with me … noticing my own body and how my energy levels, my mood, my emotions, and how they’re connected to that. I had all these songs to release, and I was trying to think of what made the most sense for a strategy. For me, energetically, this makes sense and has been a lovely experiment. You can’t plan which day of the week it falls or if that happens to be a convenient time in your life for a release. In some ways, it’s been a little challenging, too, more than I could have predicted. It’s been really cool, and it’s nice to have something to celebrate.
I love just creating, and obviously with these shows coming up on holidays … it’s always important to me to create extra reasons to celebrate. Tying it in with the natural cycles seemed like an extra reason to celebrate the moon and release my work in conjunction with that.
Q: How do these singles help prepare fans for your new album in 2024?
A: The last full album release was in 2016, so our name, our sound, and so much of my life behind the music have changed dramatically since then. In these releases, I’m just beginning to unfold these [songs] … and it takes so long for the actual release of the songs to represent where I am in life. By the time you write the song, rehearse it, record it, and release it, you’ve already moved on to something else. In a way, these songs represent my evolution from three years ago, but I feel like I’m constantly evolving and changing, and our sound is developing. I just wanna share that, and these songs are just the unfolding of that process, and it’s gonna continue to change.
I wouldn’t even say, “This represents our new sound going forward.” This is our sound right now, and it’s different from what it was, and it’s continuing to evolve. The album will include most if not all of these songs, though I have ideas for reworking them still, too. There will be some newness to the release of the album versions of the songs. It will also include some other songs, and additionally, some of the songs I’m releasing this year, including the one at the end of this month, is a solo song. I’m gonna be releasing a solo album, too. They’re kind of separate threads, but they come from the same place.
Q: Collectively, your latest singles—“New Story,” “The Bridge,” “Refresh My Memory,” “Stay Behind the Wheel,” “Rebel in My Veins,” “Armageddon,” and “Liquor Store”—reflect overall themes of growth, independence, introspection, and renewal. What was it like to explore these themes across those tracks?
A: That is exactly what this body of work is reflecting and each in their own way. Some of them are rebellious … [and reflect] the independence that comes from having been held down and then sort of being freed. It comes with some anger involved in that. Songwriting is such a lovely, important gift in a way for me to work through the big lessons of my life and each of my experiences. For me, I tend to use songwriting as a cathartic art to understand my own life and to try to express it in the best way that I can.
There are a lot of different lenses; if you look at “New Story” and “Refresh My Memory” back-to-back, they’re like opposites because one is like, “Yeah, I’m so glad you’re gone,” and the other one is like, “I miss you.” I’m not saying it’s even about the same person—but it doesn’t matter—the whole point is it’s reflecting like that opposite sort of energy, and there are so many ways to feel. In one story, there are so many ways to present it.
Q: “Refresh My Memory” gets nostalgic about a past feeling and sparks an interest to revisit it. How did writing this track allow you to reconnect with that special feeling from the past?
A: It was kind of rare for me to write a song that's just a very simple feeling. I tend to get very heady and wordy and tend to want to cover a lot of ground in what I want a song to say. As I grow as a songwriter, one of the things I enjoy most now that I was never able to do before is living in one scene and just staying with it and letting myself feel all of the feelings in that scene and trying to hold on to it.
That song was a beautiful memory to dig into and reflect on the fact that it’s OK to just remember something as a good memory and let it go and just leave it as that, too. I’ve been developing my voice a lot over the last few years ... discovering new ways and practicing the technique a lot. [I’ve also been] opening up my sound a lot and exploring more melisma, or more movement in the melodies, and finding notes that I can just really dig into and writing a song for my vocal range. I’ve never written with that in mind before, so that’s one of the songs I was most exploring that [with].
Q: “Stay Behind the Wheel” celebrates being in the driver’s seat in life, leaving the past behind, and moving forward. What inspired you to write such an empowering anthem?
A: It’s one that I love playing at shows because it’s true in every moment; and every time it comes up, and I’m singing, “Stay behind the wheel / This is not practice, no, this is real,” to a crowd, and it’s a reminder to myself—even in that moment—to stay present. It’s like, “You’re the one on stage with this microphone; be in it, don’t let it just slip by, don’t let your mind just wander off.”
That’s one of the ways it means a lot to me as just a reminder to be present. There’s also that reminder of wherever I am, it’s like, “My name is signed on the bottom of the deal. I’m the one that set this up, and my name is on it, so I gotta make it the best that it can be, and also there’s no one else to blame for it.” Whether I’m singing it live at a show or we’re at this venue in this place, it’s like, “This is where we are, and my reputation, my name, my integrity—all of it—is here along with the choices I make right now. No one else is to blame … and it doesn’t even do any good to look around and compare it and question it or think, ‘Is this where I should be?’ This is where I am.”
Q: “Rebel in My Veins” celebrates taking risks, denouncing the naysayers, reclaiming your power, and “flipping the middle finger to an abusive past.” How was writing this track cathartic for you?
A: It was, and it’s our first explicit lyric warning, and I .. really saved it up. I wouldn’t throw that in there just flippantly; it’s a great use. It’s like, “You tricked me to trade my power / For the safety of your little box / Now I’m gonna kick you the f out / And I’m changing the locks.” I’m reclaiming this space and … reflecting on the fact that this was an abusive situation, and I’m celebrating the fact that I’m free from that now. A lot of this is a personal revolution that I’ve been going through.
That song, too, starts with saying I’m a good girl … I’ve always tried to do what was right. I wouldn’t use bad language in public … [it’s] just generally following the rules and [being] obedient as a kid and [being] a straight-A student and just trying to stay in line. But there’s a time for really stepping into that spirit of rebellion, so that’s something I’m celebrating in that song.
Q: “Rebel in My Veins” also features Ann Arbor singer-songwriter Jess Merritt on backing vocals. What was it like to collaborate with Jess on that track?
A: It was amazing, and it was a last-minute decision, too. I was so happy when she showed up because I didn’t tell her what to sing, I didn’t tell her where to sing. I was just like, “Will you sing on this?” and she’s like, “Yeah,” and was free to do it. I brought her into the studio, and I felt like it was putting a megaphone on my voice … it made everything so much bigger and more powerful.
Our voices are so very different, and I love and celebrate her voice for its hugeness and its range. She’s like a big-star singer, and I’ve always felt like I’ve got this little, tiny voice, and I’m like, “I’m just doing my best in my folk world singing.” But as I’m developing my voice more I realize and also celebrate … the sound that I create with my voice is unique, too, and hearing them together and amplifying each other felt empowering.
Q: “Armageddon” captures the turbulent emotions between two people amid an explosive situation. How did writing this track help provide the ultimate emotional release?
A: Vocally, it’s a place I got to in my voice … for the first time I’ve ever done this in any song, I’m actually like almost yelling when I’m singing, “I don’t want to play war” at times. It also feels really good sometimes just to yell; I’ve never done that before.
I’ve never really let myself be loud or yell. I’m not a person that yells when I’m mad … so it was kind of shocking the first time I was singing I was so in it that I was very emotional and my voice just did that. [My brother] TJ [Zindle] was like, “You need to do that every time; that’s how the song goes.”
Q: How did co-writer Alex Holycross of The Native Howl and The Ragbirds help you shape the heavier rock-influenced sound of “Armageddon?”
A: When we were working on this song … [Alex Holycross] has such a heavy, edgy sound; he’s doing the thrash-grass, heavy-metal bluegrass, and it was great to dig into that darker sound with him. It felt safer to explore this more aggressive energy with him holding it down like he’s got my back, and it came together so easily. I had been just playing around with the lyrics, and most of the lyrics were written, but they were sort of jumbled all around the page.
I didn’t have a structure or know what the chorus was … it was just lyrics. I showed it to him and he just started playing that and I sang over it. I have a recording of that very first time; it was just like the song unfolded almost basically as it is. When I brought it to my band, they developed it more and made some arrangement choices.
TJ [Zindle] added so much … it was cool to develop it with the energy of my band and add the drums and bass and just get a lot more sound there. TJ added some cool guitar riffs and then we did the back-and-forth battles. I feel like I was leaning into the male energy of my collaborators on that. I’m really grateful for my bandmates and for my friend Alex.
Q: When did you start writing and recording these tracks? How long did you spend recording them at Big Sky Recording and your home with producer Jamie Candiloro?
A: “Stay Behind the Wheel” was written maybe the longest ago of these … we’ve been playing it live for quite a while. “Liquor Store,” too, has been in the rotation for several years … I would say like four or five years. I have so, so many more that I’ve written since then, so the process of releasing them can’t even keep up with me. I can’t even remember when these were written because they were so long ago.
We’ve been playing them live for a while, and it’s a relief to be releasing them so that they can be in a format that people can hear besides when they show up to shows. A lot of fans who’ve been coming to our shows, they’re excited to hear these songs finally on a recording that they can listen to and share and not just hear when it’s live.
Some of these songs we started recording before the pandemic. Jamie had flown in and was recording us live in the basement of my house, and we did several tracks that way. Some of them were almost done and ready; we were going to be releasing them [in] 2020. We recorded a few others that we kind of have scrapped since then, so there was a whole batch of songs and we’ve written more since then. “New Story” came out after that and then some others.
This past year, we went back into the studio here in Ann Arbor with the band and Jamie was just remotely involved in that experience. We laid down just the tracks, we sent him all the demos and he was guiding the arrangements, but then we recorded in the studio in Ann Arbor [with] just the full band. Then I flew to Lake Tahoe, and I worked with him in the studio for a week and recorded all of my parts over the band recordings. He’s been gradually since then one at a time just mixing, and we’re getting them mastered by Greg Calbi, who is one of the best guys in the industry to work with. It’s been cool to have Jamie’s help and support and incredible skills to create these sounds.
Q: Sonically, these tracks cover different genres, ranging from alt-country to alt-folk to Americana to a heavier country-rock and alt-rock direction with electric guitar riffs. What have you enjoyed most about seeing the band’s sound evolve with each single that’s been released?
A: I don’t think a whole lot about genres. When I’m working with a band, or when I’m writing a song, it’s one of my favorite things to feel so free with the way I write. It’s also honestly one of our biggest challenges in marketing the music because people don’t know what to do with us.
We have set ourselves up for this wide-open, like “What does this song need?” That’s the question we ask; we try a song with many different styles, so I’ll bring a song to the band. “Rebel in My Veins” is a great example—from the first arrangement we did to what it ended up with, they’re completely different. The beat and the feel—mostly the words are the same—but the way that I sing them turned out differently. We just love to try it until it feels like, “Oh yeah, that’s the way it feels.” It’s nice to not feel limited by stylistic choices, and it gives us that feeling of freedom to do whatever we want … [and] explore what the song wants.
Q: How do your bandmates TJ Zindle, Loren Kranz, and Shannon Wade add to that sonic growth?
A: TJ’s had the most influence in this sound as far as bringing more and more of his edgy rock ‘n’ roll electric guitar sound into the new music, and it’s one of the things that people point out as significantly different from what we used to do. And there’s always been electric guitar in there and in solos and stuff, but it’s taken a little more of a different role in shaping the phrasing.
And Loren, we’ve always had a lot of percussion in the band. We have a different arrangement now; there’s more space for the melody, the vocals, the guitar, and the violin to have their sonic space to be featured. I used to write songs with layers and layers of polyrhythms and that was the bed I would sing over top. Part of that was because I didn’t have a lot of confidence as a vocalist, and I was overpopulating the song with a lot of sound. I worked with Loren, who is so tasteful with his drum arrangements … he still is keeping the stylistic elements of what we used to do. He’s been so artful in bridging the gap between our old sound and this new sound.
He's such a very dynamic player who can have these busy, intricate, and interesting drumbeats. We don’t have a lot of boom-chick-boom-boom-chick in our songs, but there are also times when he can bring it down, and he’s great at breaking it down and creating room for everything else.
Shannon, too, is such a great, tasteful bassist. He plays a lot and he writes some really interesting lines in the songs, so he has a voice in there; he’s not just holding the line down. He’s a really interesting player, but he knows when to keep it steady. That’s one of the things I really appreciate about them is they’re supportive players. They’re creative players who know how to be supportive and that’s a unique combination of qualities. I feel really lucky to have those guys and have them working on developing these songs with me.
Q: You and The Ragbirds are performing a Halloween show on October 28 at The Ark. What do you have planned for your show that night?
A: That’s always a big deal for us because I go out and make costumes for the whole band. We do themed costumes, and the show was only booked like a month ago. Then suddenly it’s like, “Oh man, I’ve gotta get these costumes made,” but they’re gonna be awesome; I finally got a vision for it. We try to keep it top secret until the big reveal when we walk out on stage. There are always some hints in the poster design, so when you see the poster every year, you’ll kind of have the idea or at least you can guess.
When we did the Fraggles, the poster looked like a Fraggle poster. When we did Pee-wee’s Playhouse, it was a Pee-wee’s Playhouse theme. We’re not giving it away directly, but if you happen to know the reference, then you’re like, “That looks like the artwork from Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” and then you can guess it. Last year, we did a [post-]apocalyptic samurai poster with dark ravens and stuff … a Mad Max-style theme.
One of the fun things about our Halloween show that makes it special is that we do songs that night that you’ll never hear us play again. There are songs that are just in the theme of the costumes. And it’s so fun also just to play … and the way that being in costume affects our performance is so interesting to me. Whether I was dressed in the past as Miss Yvonne from Pee-wee’s Playhouse or a Fraggle or a badass Tina Turner-looking kind of character from Mad Max … it affects the way that I interpret my songs, but there are very different feelings being in those different costumes.
Q: Your next song, “Easy,” is a solo single that will be released on September 29. What other plans do you have for releasing new material later this year? Also, what’s the time frame for releasing your new album with The Ragbirds 2024?
A: There’s another new moon release in November, and it will be on the first day of Transgender Awareness Week. It’s on the 13th of November, and I’m releasing a song called “Camera Camera.” It’s a song that I wrote for my nephew, but it’s a song in that theme of trans awareness and just seeing and recognizing the beautiful lives of trans people.
And then there’s one after that in November; the full moon in November will be our last release of the year on the 27th, and that song is called “Miracle.” That’s another full-band song. [The album] will probably be a little later in  because we still have some more to add to it.
Lori Stratton is a library technician, writer for Pulp, and writer and editor of strattonsetlist.com.