Don't folk with the Crane Wives 

The only label you can put on their music is that it's damn good

The Crane Wives are going back to the drawing board. Well, it's not as much a drawing board as it is a giant white board in the basement of drummer Dan Rickabus' house. The white board is filled with about 30 songs, and over the next two months, one of Michigan's most talked about acoustic outfits will whittle that list down.

When the workshopping, hand-wringing, and crossing out are done, the Crane Wives will be left with a list of tunes that will comprise their third studio album. "We have 30 new songs that we're working on," Rickabus says. He has to raise his voice to be heard over the Michael Jackson song blaring from a speaker in the corner of the Garden Bowl bar, beneath the Magic Stick, where the band played in its first Detroit show in early December. As of now, the band hasn't made any cuts.

"We've got a seven-day (recording) session and then a five-day session in March," he says. "And our plan is to try to get as much of it down as we can. And then either pick and choose or whatever ..."

So what happens to the songs that don't make the cut?

"I'll cry over them," says guitarist Emilee Petersmark without missing a beat.

Realistically, the leftover songs will likely be released as EPs as time goes on, but Petersmark's comment hits hard, showing just how much the Crane Wives care about their music — all of it.

The band, which formed in 2010, has an unremarkable history.

Petersmark, along with fellow guitarist, singer, and friend Kate Pillsbury, were playing as a duo in and around the campus of Grand Valley State University, where they hooked up with Rickabus and yet another guitarist, Tom Gunnels. With one guitar too many in the mix, Gunnels picked up the banjo. After a handful of shows and aspirations of recording an album, the group added Ben Zito on bass. And that was that. It was a standard coming together of proficient musicians. It happens every day on college campuses around the country. One might even call it boring.

Their name, the Crane Wives, is a bit more interesting.

According to Petersmark, the name has a dual meaning. It's a reference to a Japanese folktale, as well as an homage to the Decemberists' 2006 album, The Crane Wife.

"I love the Decemberists," Petersmark says. "Colin Meloy is a storyteller of insane caliber. His lyrics and his method of being able to bring a lot of variety to folk is where I, personally, drew a lot of inspiration, especially starting out."

And inspiration isn't the only way Meloy helped the band.

In the summer of 2011, a month after the Crane Wives debuted their first full-length album, Safe Ship Harbored, Meloy caught wind of them. During an NPR interview, the singer had his picture taken with the Crane Wives' album, which sparked some national attention. The attention was nice, but the album received quite a bit of buzz on its own, as well as several local awards.

Since then, the band recorded its second self-produced album, The Fool In Her Wedding Gown, which was every bit as good as its predecessor. The band has toured extensively for the past few years, mostly throughout the Midwest.

They've also joined the friendly family of Michigan musicians, a group Rickabus still has a hard time believing is just so damn nice.

"It's crazy how quickly you can become friends with just about any of these people," he said.

Rickabus noted how he stepped in as the drummer of Seth Bernard's Michigan side project band, Airborne or Aquatic, filling the spot of Dave Bruzza (who plays guitar for Kalamazoo's Greensky Bluegrass). He said because of that connection, he and Bruzza have become friends and text one another semi-regularly.

Rickabus opened up his home to Ionia's Lindsay Lou and the Flatbellys for a few weeks when they were recording their new album and the Crane Wives have shared several bills with the Ragbirds from Ann Arbor ("We LOVE the Ragbirds," Petersmark gushes).

The Crane Wives are becoming a staple in the conversation about Michigan bands. But nobody, the members included, can tell you quite where they fit in. They are a folk band that just can't quite figure out if they want to be a folk band.

"We were just having a conversation yesterday in the car about our new material and I, personally, don't like to think about, especially the new stuff. It's getting really hard to define," Rickabus says. "We've been bringing in a lot of — I know Zito and I have been getting a lot funkier with the rhythm section stuff, and I've been taking a lot of inspiration from tribal music, like world music.

"I've also been playing with a little bit of, like, hip-hop stuff. Trying to make it a little more, that kind of tight groove. But then, still, we're lyrically based music that's acoustic, so that brings in the folk. But then we get loud, and we get angry so there's some rock. I just like to think that we get together and we each have our influences. And we don't try to come to the table with anything preconceived. We just start playing."

The genre-bending band has also found that when you don't necessarily fit into any particular box, you can play just about anywhere.

Three nights at the end of November was a perfect example. The Crane Wives played back-to-back-to-back shows, and all were at different venues with different audiences.

"We had the Mitten Bar in Ludington, which was asses to elbows packed," Zito says. "It was sweaty and pretty drunk. Just bouncing floors, floor shaking. People dancing and having a great time. Then we had Short's (Brewing company) the following night. It was a more respectable crowd, a little quieter, mostly people sitting. Then the following night we played a house show for 40 people in a living room, just acoustic style.

"So we did the whole gamut in three days, and we were totally comfortable in those situations because it lets different songs shine."

For the Crane Wives, it still all comes back to the music. It all comes back to the songs.

They won't be playing any shows for the next several weeks. They'll practice. They'll enjoy a break and celebrate the holidays with their loved ones.

Then they'll go back to the drawing board. They'll stare at that basement white board and make decisions that are the musician's equivalent of picking which of your kids you love best. They'll craft and hone and scrap and hone some more. Then, when it's all done, they'll be left with a list.

And if history is any indicator, it will be one hell of a good list.

Speaking of The Crane Wives, Dan Rickabus

More by Mike Larson

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