Clear and Present: Darrin James looks at marriage, family, and loss on “See Right Through”

MUSIC INTERVIEW

Darrin James wears sunglasses and holds an acoustic guitar while standing next to a river.

Darrin James explores a gamut of emotions on See Right Through. Photo by Doug Coombe.

When it comes to writing about love and loss, Darrin James believes in being crystal clear.

The Ann Arbor singer-songwriter and producer shares honest and vulnerable stories about marriage, family, death, and uncertainty on his latest album, See Right Through.

“A lot of people say it’s heart-on-your-sleeve. I think that’s true and it’s always how I’ve kinda written. This album came from the more reflective side of things, and you have to embrace the vulnerability to write an honest song,” said James, who plays guitar, piano, organ, and synth on his fourth full-length release.

“Sometimes those tropes can express really true feelings … and sometimes when you’re being honest, a song is easier to write. It comes out more like a diary … and you’re staring at it thinking, ‘Now that it came out of me, that’s the song—it’s done.

On See Right Through, James reveals a gamut of emotions ranging from gratitude to joy to grief to hopelessness across seven tracks. Those raw feelings come to life through the album’s personal lyrics, heartfelt roots-rock instrumentation, and dreamy synth and horn textures.

“Those were personal songs that I waited until I had [them], and it made more sense after I had the love songs to counter the sad songs. I thought, ‘Now the whole album can have an arc of not just being a sad story,’” he said.

“Because [the songs] are more personal, they’re also more universal and timeless … Those themes I’m trying to deal with are ones that everyone [experiences].”

All the Time: Frontier Ruckus Explores the past, present, and future on new album

MUSIC INTERVIEW

Frontier Ruckus' David Jones, Matthew Milia, and Zachary Nichols stand outside on a wintry day with bare trees in the background.

David Jones, Matthew Milia, and Zachary Nichols of Frontier Ruckus. Photo by John Mark Hanson.

For Frontier Ruckus, aging represents a mixture of nostalgia, fear, and hope. 

The Detroit-Ypsilanti folk-rock trio of Matthew Milia, David Jones, and Zachary Nichols explores those feelings alongside the passage of time on its new album, On the Northline.

“The main soundbite that Matt has been saying about the record is that half of the songs were written before he met his wife, Lauren,” said Nichols, who plays trumpet, musical saw, melodica, and air organ on the album.

“He said half of the songs are angsty and half of them are happy. I hear a lot in the lyrics about getting older, looking back, and thinking about the future. I think we all feel a little bit middle-aged now.”

As part of that reflection, Frontier Ruckus engages in deep soul-searching across On the Northline’s dozen tracks. Contemplative lyrics, vivid suburban imagery, and wistful Americana, country, and jazz-inspired instrumentation encourage listeners to ponder their life trajectories.

“The feelings and the ruminations on aging and getting to the point that we’re at in our lives … they’re probably a little conflicted because it’s conflicting for all of us,” said Jones, the band’s banjoist-vocalist. “To a certain extent in Matt’s songs, there’s always a lot of nostalgia in a way that’s positive, but sad as well.”

Despite those conflicting thoughts, Frontier Ruckus forges ahead and finds some solace while revisiting hometown landmarks, adapting to everyday surroundings, and welcoming unexpected changes.

“There’s a certain amount of happiness to be where we are now and be past the turbulent days of our youth when we were in the van all the time,” Jones said. “There’s a level of contentment with being in this place that we’ve all settled in that feels good and more comfortable.”

I recently spoke with Jones and Nichols about waiting seven years between releases, dissecting the album’s introspective themes and tracks, writing and recording the album, preparing for two celebratory shows, and going back out on the road.

U-M Writer-in-Residence Caroline Harper New's poetry book “A History of Half-Birds" unfolds time and explores human-animal interplay

WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Caroline Harper New and her book A History of Half-Birds.

Author photo by Steven Kardel.

“Control is a delicate science,” writes Caroline Harper New in her poetry collection, A History of Half-Birds. This book won the 2023 Ballard Spahr Prize for Poetry as selected by Maggie Smith.

New is a Writer-in-Residence at the University of Michigan and a U-M alumna with an MFA in Writing. She will read and be in conversation with poets Abigail McFee and Maia Elsner on Thursday, February 15, at 6:30 p.m. at Literati Bookstore.

A History of Half-Birds examines destruction from both natural events and human actions. The consequence is that a person’s life—or an animal’s life—is no longer the same. Since “We study the past to know the future,” there is no forward movement in these poems without probing what happened previously, whether that is Amelia Earhart’s disappearance or a reimagined Wizard of Oz in which Dorothy repeats “there’s no place like home anymore” amidst alligators. 

This poetic investigation finds that pain and love are intertwined during these trials. A songbird that appears dead awaits its burial, but when the poet is ready to place it in a newly dug grave, the bird has vanished. This different type of loss brings new emotions. The poet implores that “I need you / to know I would have kept you, and loved you / most, had you never escaped my hands.” The past, present, and future are tinged with wondering what could have been if details had been altered. 

The Gulf Coast storms raging throughout this collection are out of control, but they do not only consist of fury because “our lemon trees bloomed most brilliantly post-hurricane.” Specks of light also emerge. All people can do is name what they see, as the poem “Garden of Eve” suggests:

Weatherproof: Annie and Rod Capps Celebrate Life’s Highs and Lows on “Love and Rain” Album

MUSIC INTERVIEW

Rod and Annie Capps face each other sitting on a blue couch while holding their acoustic guitars.

Rod and Annie Capps explore the importance of gratitude on Love and Rain. Photo by Jen Prouty.

Annie and Rod Capps weather life’s sunny and stormy moments together on Love and Rain.

Those moments also serve as lighthearted and serious reminders about gratitude on the married duo’s latest album.

“There’s an overarching theme of love and rain being that contrast and balance of life,” said Annie Capps, the duo’s vocalist-guitarist, who’s based in Chelsea with her husband Rod Capps. “It’s about not taking the rough stuff too seriously, yet it’s also about being grateful for the good stuff and not taking things for granted.”

The Capps demonstrate that mindset personally and professionally on Love and Rain, which features 10 tracks filled with perceptive lyrics, vibrant Americana instrumentation, and rich harmonies.

“Annie is fortunate because she has an outlet to write songs about these things,” said Rod Capps, the duo’s guitarist-violinist-violist, who will celebrate 30 years of marriage to Annie Capps in June. “My role in the songwriting is to color around the edges. Annie builds these structures, and I help flesh them in and put filigree in.”

I recently spoke to the Capps about celebrating their anniversary, working with their bandmates, exploring different themes on the album, writing and recording tracks for Love and Rain, preparing for their annual Valentine’s Day show at The Ark, and planning for other performances and projects.

Insulation Versus Isolation: U-M's production of “Arbor Falls” holds a mirror to society's divisions

THEATER & DANCE PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Arbor Falls promotional poster detail.

Arbor Falls promotional poster detail.

Caridad Svich’s play Arbor Falls is set in a small, landlocked, tree-lined town of that name. We know little about the town, save that it is near another place where something terrible happened, and the people of Arbor Falls want to feel safe. We know, too, that it is home to a church with a dwindling congregation and a preacher unsure of his faith. 

In one scene, the preacher says they don’t think about what to say in their sermon but what to leave out. In this play, much is left out, too. Only one character is named other than by title (Preacher, Lover, Owner), and none have specific genders; pronouns are gender neutral. The dialogue—short lyrical lines, lacking in detail—also leaves a lot for the actors and director to imagine. 

Into Arbor Falls comes a stranger, a traveler nobody knows, who makes “odd” sounds when praying. Preacher offers them safe harbor and food. But who is this stranger? Can they be accepted here? 

“I’ve been really excited about the way the cast and production team have embraced the project,” says Tiffany Trent, chair of the University of Michigan’s Department of Theatre and Drama and director of Arbor Falls, which makes Michigan premiere on February 15 at Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre.

For Trent, a major theme is insulation versus isolation.

U-M anthropologist Ruth Behar sails “Across So Many Seas” through the stories of four 12-year-old girls

WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Ruth Behar author portrait and her book Across So Many Seas

Spanning hundreds of years and four countries, Ruth Behar’s new middle grade novel, Across So Many Seas, features four 12-year-old girls, each facing their own momentous challenge. 

Behar, a University of Michigan professor, will be in conversation with fellow professor Devi Mays at Literati Bookstore on Tuesday, February 13, at 6:30 pm. 

The common theme among the girls’ challenges is exile. They are part of the same Jewish family, and different generations of their relatives find themselves traveling across different oceans to a new home. Benvenida journeys with her family from Spain to Naples and then Turkey in 1492 owing to the Spanish Inquisition. Reina is abruptly forced out of Turkey to forge a new life on her own in Cuba in 1923. Alegra escapes Fidel Castro’s regime with her family and relocates to the United States in 1961. Lastly, Paloma has the chance to learn about her history on a trip to Spain from her home in Miami in 2003. In fact, Paloma is the daughter of Alegra and granddaughter of Reina. 

Each move causes pain for the characters, and each new country marks a new chapter in the long history of the family. As Benvenida takes a ship from Spain to Naples, she reflects: 

Zingerman’s “Celebrate Every Day” cookbook offers recipes that correspond with the seasons and holidays

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

Zingerman's Bakehouse Celebrate Every Day book cover and four author headshots.

Authors from top to bottom: Lindsay-Jean Hard, Amy Emberling, Corynn Coscia, and Lee Vedder. Photos courtesy of Zingerman's.

Picking just one recipe to make first from Zingerman’s Bakehouse Celebrate Every Day: A Year’s Worth of Favorite Recipes for Festive Occasions, Big and Small is a difficult decision. 

Would it be something savory, like “The Works Grilled Cheese Sandwich” and “Tomato De-Vine Soup?”

Or would it be something sweet, such as the “Maize and Blue Cobbler” or “Not-Just-Chocolate Babka?”

The 75-plus recipes to choose from emphasize the seasons and holidays so there is a dish or dessert for every time of year. 

The inspiration for the book stems not only from the seasons but also from COVID-19. For authors Amy Emberling, Lindsay-Jean Hard, Lee Vedder, and Corynn Coscia, the seasons include not only the big things but also the little things. One reason for this approach was that the pandemic changed many people’s outlooks and the ways they spend time. Despite the modifications to day-to-day life, food remained central—and even grew in importance—when the world stayed at home in 2020. As Emberling writes in the book’s introduction:  

DIY Approach: Manchester Underground Music and Art Supports Local Artists Through Monthly Live Shows

MUSIC INTERVIEW

“Pistol” Pete Midtgard sings and plays an upright bass with The Twistin' Tarantulas in July at River Raisin Distillery for a Manchester Underground Music and Arts show.

"Pistol" Pete Midtgard performs with The Twistin' Tarantulas in July 2023 at River Raisin Distillery for a Manchester Underground Music and Art show. Photo by Chuck Marshall of Life in Michigan.

Back in 1977, high school friends Steve Girbach and John Mooneyham bonded over listening to Rush, Judas Priest, and AC/DC albums after school.

Those listening sessions at Mooneyham’s house in Manchester eventually turned into serious discussions about forming a band and playing live shows.

It wasn’t until a few years after graduating from Manchester High School that Girbach and Mooneyham put their musical plan into action.

“Steve and I were talking and we said, ‘Why don’t we get some gear and we’ll put on shows and festivals?’ We had all these grand ideas people in their early 20s come up with,” said Mooneyham, who now co-runs the Manchester Underground Music and Art monthly concert series with Girbach.

“About a month later, Steve said, ‘I invited some guys over to your house to play some music and you’re gonna play bass.’”

Together, guitarist Girbach and bassist Mooneyham played in two cover bands, Allister and The DTs, and later hosted a music festival featuring 13 acts at a former amusement park in the Irish Hills.

Not long after that, The DTs called it quits and everyday life took over for Girbach and Mooneyham. What they didn’t realize at the time was that initial music festival helped lay the groundwork for what would become Manchester Underground Music and Art in 2019.

A Search for Meaning: Nishanth Injam's new short-story collection hopes for "The Best Possible Experience"

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

Nishanth Injam and his book The Best Possible Experience

What is “the best possible experience?” Is it subjective or objective? How does one find it? Does it fulfill or disappoint? 

Nishanth Injam’s new short story collection, The Best Possible Experience, seeks to find out whether the best possible experience is everything that it is chalked up to be. The University of Michigan MFA alum’s characters endure losses, yet they nevertheless hold on to their longings. Those longings may or may not be their own, and sometimes their actions mask a deeper desire.  

The characters in The Best Possible Experience live in or are from India. They seem to be at odds with something. Here is not there. A significant other or close relative is not present. Despite trying hard, “It wasn’t supposed to have been this way,” says Rafi, who lost his wife, in “The Sea.” 

The characters who have left India struggle with being neither at home in the United States nor having a place that feels like their own in India: “Once you go, there’s nowhere to return.” When Sita travels from the U.S. to her village in India to visit her grandfather, Thatha, in “Summers of Waiting,” she reflects on how much time she has there and the way that time passes: 

Sense of Adventure: Instrumental Duo Mindful Dynasty Experiments With Different Genres on “The Barn Waltz” Album

MUSIC INTERVIEW

Toshana Grim holds a bass guitar and Jason Wiseley holds an electric guitar on stage at Zerbo's Market and Bistro.

Mindful Dynasty's Toshana Grim and Jason Wiseley at Zerbo's Market and Bistro in Commerce Township. Photo courtesy of Mindful Dynasty.

When it comes to creating music, Mindful Dynasty embraces a choose-your-own-adventure approach on The Barn Waltz.

The South Lyon instrumental duo of Jason Wiseley (guitar, percussion, strings) and Toshana Grim (bass, strings) experiments and improvises with several genres—ranging from psych rock to EDM to flamenco—on its latest double album.

“It’s like going through an adventure, and there are highs and lows; there are also fast parts and slow parts. There are parts that are a little funky and maybe ones that make you laugh a little because there’s a wonky note,” Grim said.

“There are also parts where you might think, ‘This is so beautiful.’ That’s just life—in my opinion—because it is an adventure. The more you can just relax and go with the flow, the more fun you have.”

That carefree attitude and creative mindset flow throughout The Barn Waltz’s 17 tracks, which also feature elements of metal, classical, and funk interspersed with film samples.

“I write for everybody, but in my mind’s eye, it’s [especially] for somebody who plays an instrument. … I just want people to feel inspired. I want people to [hear] our music and think, ‘Oh Jason’s goofy, I can do that, too,’” said Wiseley, who workshopped the album’s tracks live with Grim during a past residency at Zerbo’s Market & Bistro in Commerce Township.

“Part of the reason why The Barn Waltz is dark and has all the movie samples is because I wanted to juxtapose the pretentiousness of the guitar playing. I wanted to put in this silly stuff and put in all of the dance music to pull back the idea that to have that level of fun playing music requires you to actually not have any fun at all.”

I recently spoke with Wiseley and Grim about their backgrounds, the origin of Mindful Dynasty, the evolution of their sound, select tracks from The Barn Waltz, the creative process for the album, and upcoming plans.