Blaq Lily's new sound goes all acoustic

Paul F. P. Pogue

Arminta and husband Mikel Schwab head up the five-person band Blaq Lily.

For Jennifer Arminta Schwab, better known as Arminta, lead singer for Blaq Lily, it seems that the big changes in her life have always been the result of catastrophe. Most significant was in 1992, when she was poised to break all the records for her class in women's power lifting. A severe injury during an audition for American Gladiators put her out of sporting action permanently; her subsequent musical career has included broken bones, a busted arm that left her unable to play bass for some time, a flying ladder to the face. Not to mention the time in 2002 when the entire band quit at once.

And yet each of these crises has led to change. Her injuries ended her dream of a record-breaking powerlifting career and a shot at the Olympics, but brought her into music instead. The inability to play bass pushed her into the spotlight and helped her come into her own as a frontwoman. The current incarnation of Blaq Lily is musically tight and as stable as it's ever been. (As of yet, nobody has really come up with a silver lining to the ladder to the face.)

It is the sum of these experiences that informed the songwriting process of Arminta's sixth album, Forged in the Fire. Arminta and the newest incarnation of Blaq Lily will be performing at the CD release party at Radio Radio Jan. 14, with The Spares opening up. Admission is $10, and includes the CD and limited-edition live DVD (which, as Mikel points out, retail for $16.99, which makes the show a bargain right there in itself).

The near future promises to be busy, as they're putting songs together for three new albums: a collection of traditionals entitled Seven Miles to Scotland, a Christmas album and a new album of originals tentatively titled American Celtic. ("Hopefully we'll break that cycle [of lineup changes] by releasing a bunch of CDs close together," Mikel noted.) They'll also be headlining their yearly benefit for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation Feb. 28 at Radio Radio.

This album is being released under the Arminta name, but future releases will go under the name "Arminta and Blaq Lily." The current incarnation of the group includes bassist Duncan Putnam, multitalented banjo/guitar/mandolin/bass player Brooke McKinney and drummer Greg Mrakich, whom Mikel praises as being able to replicate the sound of traditional Celtic drums so closely on his drum kit that even sound engineers are fooled.

NUVO: You've changed your style on this most recent album, backing off from the electronics. How would you describe your current sound?

Arminta: We call our musical style progressive Celtic. It's very earthy, very focused musically. Before we were going two different directions ... We just wanted to get more focused and go all acoustic and more Celtic. The only way we knew how to do that was get rid of the electric guitars.

Mikel: It was more alt-rock, but with kind of gothic overtones. The gothic is always there in some overtone. A lot of people associate gothic with Marilyn Manson, but I think of gothic as being like what you would hear in Lord of the Rings. We were going in an electric direction, I hesitate to say in a Cranberries style, but people would listen to obscure Cranberries songs and think it was us.

NUVO: Is there an overall theme to the album?

Mikel: All the songs have a common theme of journey, and different challenges in life, whether it's starting over on a new life or dealing with the loss of a loved one. That's why "forged in the fire" kind of describes what we've been through with the band. It's very metaphorical. You can't look at it and say there's one experience that does it. You're going through life's storms, then you're in the eye and it looks good, almost too good, and that's the imagery we've got of a ship. We've got a lot of Celtic heritage, which is one of the reasons we've pursued that the way we have. Arminta's name has been passed down for generations.

Arminta: "In the Wintertime" is, I think, the most hard, about not wanting to accept reality, and just wanting to give up. But there's always hope. And there's always someone there for you.

NUVO: The songs on Forged in the Fire sound very layered, very complex for a five-person band.

Mikel: It's thick for five musicians. And it's not like five musicians playing a bunch of overdubs. Many of those songs were cut live. It was like, bang, we did it without even a second take.

Arminta: I'm really excited about it. There's a few songs on there in particular, every time I hear them, I think, 'We wrote that!' And I'm still excited about it. I'm still amazed.

NUVO: What's it like performing in Indianapolis these days?

Mikel: We know everybody in the scene. There's not a lot of venues here that cater to what we do. There are a few but not many. The same thing that's lacking here is what's lacking everywhere, which is commercial radio rotation for local musicians, even on the independent stations. But Indianapolis is a great place to be FROM in order to do music. We're within a day's drive of half the country.

NUVO: What effect does it have on you to take this very heavy material and sing it over and over again?

Arminta: It's very therapeutic. It was still hard for me to sing for a while. But I find myself, if I don't sing about these things like I need to, I start getting depressed myself, and I start getting angry.

Mikel: That's how a lot of Celtic music is defined. You've got a lot of happy music and very terribly depressive lyrics on the top of it. And I think that's what a lot of it is about, letting out those feelings. With all the loss we've suffered, we'll meet them again someday. There's a phrase in our CD cover ("Casfaimid le chelie aris") which means "We will meet again." Everybody's got depression. Where there's hope, there's life. It's cliché, but it's true.

NUVO: With all this you have coming up in the near future, where do you see Arminta and Blaq Lily going from here?

Mikel: We want to play a lot of festivals, venues, anything Irish or Celtic. We want to play more family audiences, is what it all boils down to ... We've opened for Cheap Trick, America, we've had some pretty good shows, we just don't get enough of them. The reality of what it takes to support five people is pretty overwhelming. If we decided we never, ever wanted to have a band again, we might be able to do it, but we love our band too much.

Arminta: My ultimate dream would be, of course, to be as popular as the Cranberries are. Which means we wouldn't be very popular here, but we'd be popular everywhere else!

Advance tickets for Saturday's show are $10 at Future Shock and Vox Music. Forged in the Fire is available on

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