March 4, 2010

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Nini+Ben: A musical love story
Berklee duo off and running
By Michael Witthaus music@hippopress.com

One advantage of living close to the Massachusetts border is frequent visits from Berklee School of Music alumni. The Boston arts college has an embarrassment of talent, and many of these bands choose to play out in New Hampshire. The latest is Nini+Ben, a young sextet with an original repertoire that melds folk pop, rustic Americana and country rock.

Named for leaders Christina “Nini” Fabi and Ben Gebert, the band released a full-length album, The Reasons We Try, last November, and it’s a gem. Frequently, it’s hard to translate a good studio effort to a live setting, and vice versa, but Nini+Ben have no such problems. They have an easy onstage chemistry, and possess a knack for performing note-perfect versions of the album’s songs in concert.

Their music evokes many familiar elements without being derivative. It’s not hard to spot Edie Brickell in the lilting, laconic rhythms of “You Don’t Love Me” — until the song is punctuated with a sly dobro straight out of a Ryan Adams record. Fabi’s voice bears an eerie resemblance to Stevie Nicks on “Down to the Road,” but the bluesy riff driving the song gives it a sinister edge. Such surprising elements turn up on just about every one of the album’s 10 tracks.

This unique sound has drawn the attention of producer Don Was, who tapped them for a recent showcase of selections from the producer’s many works. Two of their songs appeared on a school-produced showcase album, Heavy Rotation Records: Dorm Sessions Volume 6. Nini+Ben was among only nine Berklee bands chosen for the project.

Nini+Ben’s history is both a love story and a musical tale. The Ohio-born Fabi moved to her mother’s native Germany at a young age. Growing up, she spent a lot of time shuttling between Europe and her father’s home in the United States. She met Gebert in high school, and the two quickly found a common bond, which eventually led to something deeper.

“We were a couple after we started making music together,” the 25-year-old Fabi said recently. “It wasn’t serious at that time, but the music was definitely our connection.”

The pair sharpened their songwriting skills, performing throughout Europe and as far away as Australia. On the road, they lived out a rough and ragged fantasy life of club and coffee house shows, rides in rickety microbuses and collaborations with like-minded players; everything became the stuff of art. “The Reasons We Try is all about personal experience,” Fabi said. “Not always 100 percent autobiographical, but the gist of it is … we really want to create songs that are true to us that can apply to people.”

Around this time, Fabi and Gebert set their sights on a formal music education in the United States. During a visit with friends in Boston, they checked out Berklee and decided to audition, something they each did separately, not as a duo. Gebert focused on piano; Fabi studied voice, harmony and ear training. Each took classes in business and theory.

Early on, they took a semester off to record an EP, Rise and Shine.

“We just got the feeling, it was pretty intense,” Fabi said of the decision to make the recording. “When you first go to Berklee, you get caught up in all these other things and doing other people’s music and honing … your craft.”

Fabi and Gebert will both graduate in May, and they’ve already begun to make the most of the new record. A show at Nashua’s Studio 99 this Saturday (March 6) is part of that effort. When they finish at Berklee, the couple plans to move to Brooklyn for the many artistic opportunities there. “It seems like there is a scene for our kind of music, and we just want to be performing a lot,” she said. “We’re getting a manager, so we don’t have to pull out our hair doing that stuff all of the time.”

“Sometimes it feels like this is the only thing we can do,” Fabi said, adding that the creative rewards outweigh the business challenges. “This is a tough time, but if you stick with people of your generation and kind of go with it, it can be a really exciting time for new ideas and creating a new kind of music business.”


Nini+Ben
Where: Studio 99, 115 Main St. (3rd floor) in Nashua 
When: Saturday, March 6, at 8 p.m.
Tickets: $8
Info: 562–5179, www.studio99nashua.com