Blue Cactus is Steph Stewart and Mario Arnez, a North Carolina-based country duo. Their sophomore album Stranger Again is out May 2021 via Sleepy Cat Records.
(Photo Credit: Chris Frisina)
We crave familiarity as much as we desire the strange and new. There’s a perfect balance of that when traveling to play music. Most highways look the same. There’s the steady lines on the road, the same fast food chains. Most venues have their own feel, and many have that same dirty basement vibe. There are things you can count on, but the majority of the experience is a total mystery until it happens. We try out new things on instruments we’ve played for countless hours. On the road, we develop strength and confidence to bring familiarity to strange, new experiences. In our case, we do this as the closest of friends. Maybe an hour goes by, and we hardly notice. I guess what we’re getting at is, you don’t have to try very hard to bring new energy into your life when it’s built into your way of making a living together.
After a few years of telling ourselves we needed to stop for a second and breathe, we finally didn’t have a choice. We found other ways to make ends meet. The dust settled on what was once a manic dash toward the next show, the next milestone, the next footnote in a career that lives and dies alongside an ego, and we were left to ponder what we’ve been doing with our time. We now have to try harder to maintain the strength and confidence from a routine that once was a simple fact of life: perform and get better. In an act of self-preservation, we stop marking the varied microscopic lost pieces of our old lives and reclaim gratitude in granular shifts toward a new outlook. We noticed the seasons change, the gradual shift in color giving way to a burst of gold or green. We felt the air thin into winter and welcomed the first hints of spring as daffodils reclaimed their place in the world around us. An hour goes by, and we bear witness to every passing second.
There seems to be a perception that couples who play music together have an easier time avoiding the pitfalls that come with long-term relationships, that our personal and professional lives are inextricably buoyed by a bright and shiny love for music and each other. A lot of that is true, but doesn’t always come easy. We’re business partners who are entirely responsible for our successes in this incredibly difficult field. It’s a beautiful thing to share triumphs and failures so closely with each other, but it’s a full-time job with faint boundaries that easily disappear when we aren’t careful. Sometimes we need a break from each other, but we still have to show up and do our thing.
These days, familiarity is a quiet hum, the refrigerator or A/C kicking on. New experiences are more subtle, more sacred than they used to be. A neighbor pulls in the driveway, and it’s such a privilege to bring them a spare loaf of bread from the freezer. Our partner comes home, and the house shrinks. Maybe we’ll sleep in separate rooms for a spell.
“Stranger Again” was written before COVID, but it feels like we wrote it about this moment in our lives. We spent so much time in experiences that came from being onstage that we became strangers to ourselves and each other when we were home for a year without that external stimulus of touring. We realized we had to actively manifest a sense of the new and familiar in our partnership. “Stranger Again” taught us to understand that the deepest levels of intimacy are created when we give our relationship intentional space, let our love evolve and root. When we sing, “Let me keep you wondering, I want to be your stranger again,” we’re singing just as much to ourselves as we are the listener. Daily life with a partner can be mundane or precious. Halfhearted or Wholehearted. It’s a choice.
(Photo Credit: Chris Frisina)