Arc Iris broke musical ground with the release of their acclaimed self-titled debut in 2014. The Providence, Rhode Island-based band quickly won over audiences in the US and Europe, supporting artists such as St. Vincent, Jeff Tweedy, and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. The group performed at the London Palladium and festivals including Bonnaroo, End of the Road and the Rolling Stone Weekender.
Released on Bella Union in Europe and ANTI Records in the US and, the band’s self-titled debut album drew admiration for its innovative style and distinctive sound. “It’s hypnotic,” said the Boston Globe. The New York Times wrote of “songs that seesawed between the elfin delicacy of Joanna Newsom and some brassy raucousness.” The Guardian talked of “a shape-shifting treat” while new music site The Line of Best Fit proclaimed, “Arc Iris is traditional music thrillingly positioned at the nexus of the old and new.”
Moon Saloon, released on Bella Union in August 2016, constitutes a natural progression from the first album’s whimsical explorations and energetic diversity. Produced by the group and mixed by electronica producer David Wrench of FKA Twigs and Jamie xx fame, the album showcases beat-heavy melodies and textural, groove-riding rhythms. It developed from the band’s distillations of musical influences, combining traditional elements with percussive structures and dense, beguiling harmonies. In many ways this second album captures Arc Iris’ musical odyssey as a band. “It has a heavier sound, more intense,” says Arc Iris keyboardist Zach Tenorio-Miller, who makes liberal use of sampling in many of the songs. The group matches an unusual array of organic acoustic instruments with layered electronic sounds.
Lead singer and lyricist Jocie Adams, Tenorio-Miller, and drummer Ray Belli form the core of Arc Iris, all virtuosic musicians in their own right. Adams spent eight years as a key member of indie darlings The Low Anthem, effortlessly zipping from hammer dulcimer to clarinet to bass to vocals, sometimes barely pausing to take a breath. Her 2011 solo debut, Bed of Notions, sparked a musical beginning that became Arc Iris. Joining Adams on Bed of Notions was cellist Robin Ryczek, a conservatory-trained musician who toured with Jethro Tull and founded a rock school in Afghanistan.
To help launch Arc Iris in 2012, Adams teamed with Ryczek and the musically agile Tenorio-Miller, an established indie-rock keyboardist for well-known talents from Gene Ween to the New Pornographers’ A.C Newman. Later that year Tenorio-Miller brought in his longtime friend Belli. The two toured with Jon Anderson of Yes when they were just 16. Arc Iris strive to reach the songwriting integrity of the Greats—Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen—while exploding the boundaries of pop music. The group bridges the digital computer music of Radiohead and Bjork to Brazilian Tropicalia and Bowie-esque performance art.
As the band members see it, Moon Saloon works like a song cycle that parallels the arc of Everyman’s passage through modern day dilemmas. According to Adams: “The album is meant to be cathartic. There’s an imbalance in everyone’s lives. When there’s often so much going on, we yearn for simplicity.” The album starts with “Kaleidoscope”, mimicking a kind of fanciful stroll down the street, and ends with the title track, “Moon Saloon,” a delicate soliloquy in a strange, desolate landscape. These pieces bracket compositions that can burst into lilting orchestration or energetic piano chords. The album sometimes offers a sharp counterpoint to the dark, mean-spirited nature of current American political discourse. One example is “Paint with the Sun,” a paean to those who help others in need. Soaring over each song is Adams’ ethereal voice, often joined in close harmonies with other members of the band.
On Moon Saloon, the four musicians—Adams, Tenorio-Miller, Belli, and Ryzcek— are complemented by bassist Max Johnson; Mike Irwin on trumpet; Charlie Rose on pedal-steel guitar, banjo and trombone; and Martha Gunther on background vocals. Josh Page, a member of the group Forte, lent his booming tenor voice to the track “She Arose”. The album was recorded in just five days at Dimension Sound Studios in Jamaica Plain, near Boston, but speed was essential. When the band members trekked to the studios, a surprise awaited them. Arc Iris were asked to join St. Vincent on a European tour the following week. A few days later the group were on a plane to London.
Adams wrote most of the songs during a songwriting retreat on an island in New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee several months before the recording session. For Adams, it was a week-long creative rush with no electricity, no running water, no cell phones—just a bed in a cabin and an acoustic guitar. She took her work back to Providence, where she and Tenorio-Miller worked on the songs, layering sounds, developing ideas, “transforming them into the world of Arc Iris,” Tenorio-Miller recalls.
Belli crafted the rhythmic backbone, typically based on a close reading of the sound. “Ray’s very musical and extremely patient,” Adams says. “He also pays close attention to the story. It makes sense because he’s a writer who is also a terrific drummer.” Belli continues to publish essays and short stories between gigs. Dan Cardinal, who engineered Arc Iris’ first album, also worked on Moon Saloon at Dimension Sound. The group considers Cardinal an extraordinary craftsman who can intuit musicians’ quest for the right sound. “He reads our minds. He knows what we want before we tell him,” says Adams. “Plus he’s super-relaxed and works very fast.”
Arc Iris have attracted numerous fans around the world as the group’s stage performances become storied events themselves. Space domes reveal giant golden wings in flight while montages light up the backdrop with evocative images. Above all, the group’s love of music is a shared passion that comes alive with each song. As diverse as their musical interests and influences have been, the band members find avenues for producing a blend of soul-satisfying sounds that are truly their own.