Using bold, rich vocals and dynamic instrumentation, Aaron Nathans and Michael G. Ronstadt create a compelling musical experience. We speak with frontman Aaron Nathans about their latest acoustic single ‘I Go Low’, effects of Covid-19 and future plans.
OSR: How did this duo come together?
Nathans: Michael Ronstadt and I met at a gig at the late, great Barrington Coffeehouse in New Jersey where my duo at the time was booked to open for his family band, Ronstadt Generations. Michael sat in on cello for my finale, a klezmer wedding-style song in B-flat minor. He was spot on. From there, we became fast friends. A few weeks later we rehearsed, put a set together and played at a farmer’s market outside a Whole Foods in metro Philly. That was ten years ago.
OSR: What is the most unique aspect of your group?
Nathans: People use the word “unique” to describe us a lot. Michael is a classically trained cellist in a field dominated by guitars. He knows the musical rule book well enough to have absorbed it, then thrown it out and blazed his own path. He also knows when to stand out and when to hang back, whatever serves the song. I love his worldview as a songwriter – free and straight from his heart. I’ve studied songwriting and my thing is writing about subjects that haven’t been covered in a song yet. I think we both share a love of smashing ideals and breaking the unwritten rules.
OSR: What can you tell us about the single ‘I Go Low’?
Nathans: I wrote this in the aftermath of the Trump victory in 2016 after Democrats had attempted to “go high”, in the words of Michelle Obama, and paid a price. The song was a visceral reaction, a primal scream, a flush of anger. It was written with a dash of irony, especially after writing my song about Jackie Robinson, “The Strength To Not Fight Back”, about not taking the bait and about the dangers of escalating. But those political candidates who have let attacks go unanswered in recent years have gotten steamrolled. Even this year, a lot of down-ballet candidates who chose not to go door-to-door because of the pandemic paid the price. I’m tired of watching the good guys win only moral victories.
OSR: What is your creative process?
Nathans: I write most of my songs in February, but I like to have something new to present each month at the Philly Songwriters Circle critique group which I run with my friend Avi Wisnia. Michael and I tend to write remotely when we write together. We’ll send each other a snippet of lyric or a riff or a bit of music and the other will run with it.
OSR: What about the official music video? Can you tell us about it?
Nathans: The ‘I Go Low’ video was created in lockdown this past spring. It was filmed using iPhones in my house and his separately. I edited it together using some tricks I’ve learned with editing software. It helped to pass the time. I’ve enjoyed learning the art of making videos. We’re making a video (or working with someone else to make a video for us) for each song on the album. I guess we’ll have a lot of time this winter to do more.
OSR: Why did you choose to make a music video?
Nathans: Since we can’t tour, this is the next best thing.
OSR: What was the best part of making the video?
Nathans: For all of its simple photography, this is a pretty intricate video. Seeing the pieces fit together was pretty cool. I close a drawer here at home in Philly and then it fades to black, then he opens the drawer in Cincinnati. It was fun finding a visual representation of what it means to go low.
OSR: If you had to compare yourself to another artist who would it be?
Nathans: That’s a tough one. As a duo, I’m unaware of another quirky guitar-cello duo. Personally, I’ve long admired storytelling singer-songwriters like Greg Brown, Dar Williams and David Wilcox. I know Michael adores Paul Simon, but with a cello in his hands, he reminds me more of Zoë Keating.
OSR: Have you ever got lost on vacation?
Nathans: GPS technology has taken all the fun out of getting lost, unfortunately.
OSR: How are you coping with the Covid-19 pandemic and do you think it will have a lasting effect on the music industry?
Nathans: I’m lucky enough to have a day job. I’ve been working from home and we’ve managed to stay healthy here, thank goodness. I haven’t played a live show since March, but have done a few live streams. I know Michael’s managed to continue working live under limited conditions – that’s his job. Michael and I managed to meet up a few times over the summer to shoot socially distanced music videos outdoors, but now it’s cold out.
The lasting effect on the music industry will be the venues we’ve lost, as well as the people we’ve lost; but what a party it will be when the world opens up again. People will be so hungry for live music. It will be like nothing we’ve seen before.
OSR: Do you have any message for our readers?
Nathans: I remember the feeling at summer camp of waking up to rain. The feeling that whatever plans we might have had that day, that they were put aside. There would be no archery; on this day, we would take it easy and I’d feel a weight lift. Stay in the bunk bed, read, listen to the rain. If we approach this winter like that – an unexpected bit of a rest if, in fact, we have the luxury of being able to stay home – we might just live to see the spring. Don’t rush it. It’ll be here soon enough.