She speaks softly and carries an electrified mandolin to the stage; bodies cluster in the darkness, waiting to hear one of the truly inimitable voices in music today, as close as possible, in the setting with which it’s become most identified: leading one of the most beloved bands in town at Burro Bar.
It was a night for serious music, by serious musicians, and now it was time to get serious — but first, a blooper: Robin Rutenberg spills a little beer on her effects pedals, which are both priceless and disposable because she built them herself. It’s doubly embarrassing, because she helps brew beer for a living. She laughs that off, and Four Families proceeds to make everyone’s night, as she always does, whether she’s performing or not.
Here’s Rutenberg in a nutshell: singer, guitarist, songwriter, artist, activist, community organizer, brewmistress, house-party planner and leader of two of the city’s most interesting bands — Four Families and The Little Books, which both have new recordings on the horizon.
“There is nobody who sounds like Robin,” says videographer/promoter Keagan Anfuso, as he stands shivering on the sidewalk outside Burro Bar moments after Rutenberg’s set. “She’s incredibly talented, as far as bringing music styles together. Everything that’s coming out of her is so passionate, and that’s a huge part of our community that a lot of people outside of Jacksonville don’t understand: The people here are so passionate about what they’re doing, and they’re typically doing it for the right reasons. Robin is a perfect example of coming from the right place.”
Rutenberg started playing guitar at age 12, but sang long before; early disasters in voice training helped her resolve to do things her way. She released her first album, Kitten In A Ferris Wheel, in 2008.
Rutenberg worked mostly as a solo artist before she formed Four Families with bassist Quinn Messner, cellist Naarah Strokosch and drummer Summer Wood in early 2011. They released the appropriately titled Sea Legs EP later that year and toured the East Coast.
Four Families’ new self-titled album, dropping at Rain Dogs March 1, leads off strongly with the single “La Florida,” whose propulsive rhythms and dense, driving harmonies encapsulate their sound. The video for the song was shot in one day, with a little blonde girl (who could, probably not accidentally, pass for a young Rutenberg) frolicking through the forest at Camp Milton, interspersed with shots of the bands’ hands.
“Robin really wanted to capture how, when you’re a child and you’re in nature, it’s a very magical experience,” says Anfuso, the video’s director. “You kinda create your own world inside nature. And she also wanted to capture how absolutely gorgeous Florida is.”
It is a beautiful video, which is ironic, since “La Florida” is one of Rutenberg’s angriest compositions — in Rutenberg’s words, it’s “pretty critical of post-colonialism and modern conquistadors. … I don’t think of myself as political, [but] any kind of social injustice against women, or people of color, or the LGBTQ community, they set me on fire, and I always get very warm when I hear about any of atrocities or wrongdoing. I think the most important thing to me is to live in a community that is caring and compassionate to everyone, and it’s not real, so that’s upsetting, and I write about it.”
Rutenberg’s support of the scene has been facilitated in large part by the support of her employer, Intuition Ale Works. When she went on tour with Four Families in summer 2012, not only did she get the time off, the owners gave the band a van — probably the same one Rutenberg will be touring in later this year.
She was at Intuition the night before the show, dispensing some of the region’s finest craft beers to a room of regulars largely unfamiliar with her music. Even with First Coast News outside, reporting at that moment on the scuttling of the King Street Farmers Market, it was still all fun and games inside, mostly because of Rutenberg’s reassuring presence. Whether she’s on stage or behind a bar, Rutenberg has an air of concentrated calm — like the eye of a hurricane. Recently, those winds swirling around her have started getting darker and more dangerous, but in a good way.
Having worked exclusively with traditional song forms, she’s now stepping as far outside her comfort zone and commercial base as she could get: Robin Rutenberg, who’s helped craft some of the most languid, lustrous harmonies of recent years, has begun experimenting with noise music. This says almost as much about the genre as it does the artist: Her new work is a sort of reconciliation of seemingly opposite ends of the sonic spectrum.
There is as little conflict in her music as in her life. Her come-to-Jesus moment came not even two years ago, with the purchase of her first electric guitar — a white Telecaster she wields like her own Hattori Hanzo. “Everything I’ve done in my career musically, so far, has been very much about structure and perfection, I guess, and finding something pleasing and balanced,” she says. “And I never really thought about how wonderful ugliness can be, especially when it comes to art, and knowing how to use that little tinge to set things apart in your art. Pedals totally opened this whole new realm of songwriting and structure and sound.”
Rutenberg began building her own pedals right away, then experimenting in collaboration with Strokosch, a classically trained cellist whose playing may be the real center of Four Families’ sound. Their only performance so far has been in an unusual place — a graveyard.
These experiments have fueled an explosion of writing and composing, as Rutenberg heads into her most creative period yet. Some of the material is sure to turn up on her upcoming second solo album, Tender, due out in April under the moniker Insel, and some on The Little Books’ album, Bridges and Empires, due out in May. Some of the noise material will also be utilized in Wild Apples, an art publication being developed by artist Jim Draper.
What’s more, the spring and summer are looking even busier than usual, starting with Four Families’ album release at Rain Dogs on March 1. The Little Books play Jack Rabbits the next Saturday. From there, Rutenberg’s set to tour with Four Families in June, then with The Little Books in July. Rutenberg will also be involved in the Girls Rock Jacksonville camp later that month.
If Rutenberg has a dark side, no one’s seen it; the mere thought gives one pause. The best advice would be not waking her in the morning, because the only people who hate mornings more than musicians are bartenders, and she’s both.