On the website for his just-launched publishing company, button-down bird, Ben Rubin ’03 describes its first offering, When Comes What Darkly Thieves, as “a fairy tale, to be sure. One that you’ll wake from feeling as if someone spent all night weaving nets in which to catch your dream animals.” The book, written and illustrated by Rubin, features a blind gypsy king, a giant crow, moonbeams that turn into swings, and evokes that sense of a dream whose memory and meaning dances tantalizingly in and out of the dreamer’s grasp.
When Comes What Darkly Thieves, whose striking collaged illustrations employ cut-up magazine pages, will also be available in the form of an iPad app with original music by some of the hottest young alt.country musicians in Nashville, Tenn., where Rubin grew up and still lives. Among the musicians creating the score for the app are Ryan Norris and Scott Martin, part of the band Lambchop; William Tyler, a sometime member of Lambchop and a sought-after session guitarist; as well as singer Cortney Tidwell. (Several of the musicians also headlined a launch party for the book in Nashville in September.)
Music was always part of Rubin’s concept for the book, whose spark of inspiration came from a book by Elias Canetti. Rubin originally envisioned a CD that would be packaged with the printed book, but when he began shopping his manuscript around to agents, he learned that its richly elaborate illustrations would make its printing too expensive to interest a commercial publisher. That’s when he decided to launch his own publishing effort.
“The iPad app was really a fundraising idea at first,” he says. “And the music was going to be provided by this other musician. When she backed out of the project, the fit with Ryan, William, Scott and Cortney just happened really naturally. “ Rubin has known Tyler since he was a teenager, and was friends with some of the other musicians. “Cortney was the last to get involved, merely because I didn’t know her as well,” Rubin says. “But I knew wanted a strong vocal element to the music and Cortney has such a beautiful voice. I’m really excited about what’s going to come of this. It’s not just a piece of music that is going to go along with the book. It’s going to be something that is capable of standing alone.”
After graduating from Haverford, Rubin moved to Florence, Italy, for a time, to soak up the art there. He spent an unsatisfying semester in a graduate program in fine arts, then worked for several years as a lab technician doing oncology research, all the while making art on the side. Eventually he began writing novels. “And somehow that led to making a children’s book,” he says. “I think I just had to get back to making things with my hands. There is something rewarding about that, about getting a little dirty, that writing just can’t provide on it’s own.”
So what are his plans for button-down bird? “We don’t want to pigeon hole ourselves by saying we’ll publish books just for kids or just for adults. Or even just books,” says Rubin. “I would venture that every project we do will have a strong visual component to it, but most of them are going to be for the iPad or other tablet devices featuring music as well, and depending on the project, animation or video. We’re just looking for interesting projects to explore.”
Excerpts from the music for the still-in-development app can be heard at soundcloud.com/button-down-bird