When Kate Peterson and Sarah Cleaver take the stage at The Ark on Nov. 11, expect some happy tears from the duo known collectively as Nervous But Excited. After all, it’s been a decade since the beloved “pleasantly aggressive” folk group last played the Ann Arbor venue.
Even talking about playing with Cleaver again brings Peterson to the edge of tears. “Every time we get together, there’s a couple songs we play, where I just immediately start crying,” she says. “I could cry right now thinking about it, honestly, because it’s something special — it’s something outside my body, I feel like, when we sing together.”
It’s clear, hanging out on a recent Zoom call with Peterson and Cleaver, that there’s still plenty of love between these two musicians. “Sarah is one of my very favorite people in the entire world,” Peterson says. “I would not have chosen to spend so much of my life with someone that I didn’t love as much as I do her.”
Ultimately, the end of Nervous But Excited’s touring years was something that happened not because of a single event or bad blood. For Cleaver, it was just time to explore other parts of her life. “A huge part of it,” she says, “is being tired. It’s a hard life, and I think if you want to do other things, like have kids or a different kind of career, there really isn’t room to explore that.” As much as both women loved being together and making music, and as much as fans seemed to love them right back, at a certain point, the right move was moving on.
Ten years later, both Peterson and Cleaver seem content with their divergent paths, which have never really meandered too far away from the other’s, despite a significant increase in geographical distance. The space between the two — Peterson is based in Ypsilanti and Cleaver is raising a family 850 miles away in Kittery, Maine — hasn’t hampered a lifelong friendship based on mutual admiration and support.
These days, Cleaver is raising two young kids with her wife, Shannon, and working as a hospice social worker. “It’s a really rewarding job, and it’s also a job that allows me to play a lot more music than what I would have ever imagined, to a population that is very grateful,” she says.
Peterson is still performing live music in Michigan, often with her wife, Leah, who often provides harmonies and stays busy working as a graphic and web designer and video editor. That’s when Peterson isn’t owning players on the pickleball court, according to Cleaver. “[Kate] has a very booming pickleball career — let’s not leave that out,” she says. “She’s been in it to win it for many years, even if she’s not showing her trophy shelf on this Zoom call.”
Nervous But Excited reunited in September for a show in New Hampshire, closer to Cleaver’s family. The two upcoming shows, billed as the finals shows they will perform, will mark the band’s return to Michigan. In addition to Nervous But Excited’s reunion show at The Ark, they will also reunite to play during the East Lansing Women in the Arts Festival on Nov. 12. The band’s former manager, Susan Giang, will join the pair on bass and banjo, and multi-instrumentalist Murray Stewart-Jones will sit in on drums during some songs.
Why now? Peterson says the reunion shows were the brainchild of Susan Frazier, who books artists for the Women in the Arts Festival. Frazier suggested the idea and when Peterson realized the 10-year mark was coming up, she and Cleaver started planning in earnest. “We both just agreed that it would be really fun. We were both like, ‘Well, we hope everybody still remembers us,’ and it turns out that they do,” Peterson says.
It was the Women in the Arts Festival where Peterson and Cleaver first started to get to know one another some 20 years ago. Cleaver remembers Peterson as a “little bit of a lady about the town” when they first met. “You were much cooler and popular,” she tells Peterson during the call. “It may have been a little bit of a stalking situation, with me thinking ‘I just want to be friends with Kate,’ and what would it take? I ended up a winner on that end.”
Giang seems unsurprised that longtime fans are looking forward to the reunion shows. “Kate and Sarah are some of the most important folks in my life, and I am so excited to be back in this moment and on stage with them again,” Giang says. “Nervous But Excited has always been about building community with song and sway. Their music is vulnerable and so relatable, and they bring folks healing and laughter — if you were lucky to be at any of their shows, you know exactly what I mean. Their songs and art made us connected, and their community and humanness helped us belong.”
Peterson says reuniting at The Ark holds special significance, too, which is why $5 of every ticket sold will go back to the venue. “I saw Patty Griffin there when I was 17, and I feel like that was a switch for me. That’s when I really found folk music,” she remembers. “And later, someone asked me my goals as a musician, and one of those was to headline at The Ark, which felt completely unreasonable, something that was never going to happen.”
Over the years, Nervous But Excited would go on to play many times at the venerable venue that has helped launch the careers of artists as varied as Ani DiFranco and Iggy Pop over its 57-year history. Perhaps The Ark had a role to play in Peterson and Cleaver’s success, too. The duo’s storied, decade-long career included sharing stages with not only DiFranco, but indie and folk mainstays like Iron and Wine, Ben Gibbard and Utah Phillips.
Nervous But Excited played over 600 shows throughout the U.S. and Canada between 2004-2012 and released three studio albums, a live album and three EPs. In addition to frequent collaborations with Giang and Stewart-Jones, Nervous But Excited worked with Theo Katzman (Vulfpeck), Allison Russell (Po’ Girl, Birds of Chicago), Joshua Davis (Steppin’ in It, “The Voice”), Chris Bathgate, Girlyman, Frontier Ruckus, Hana Malhas, Katie Sawicki and Lyndell Montgomery.
Peterson estimates that 30 to 40 percent of a Nervous But Excited shows are spent on banter between the two musicians and with the audience, an element sure to carry through to the reunion shows. “It’s a big part of who we’ve always been. We get a little chatty, and we have fun up there,” she says. In fact, she and Cleaver picked the band name “Nervous But Excited” partly to describe the energy those conversations inspired. “Our presentation is loose and fun, but also very serious — it’s a roller coaster in the best kind of way. I love roller coasters,” Peterson adds.
When Nervous But Excited takes the stage this time around, Peterson suspects longtime fans will appreciate the addition of ASL interpretation — something Peterson insisted on — and may be surprised to hear a new quality in their musicianship. “We’re a little bit old, a little bit more set in ourselves,” she explains. “One thing that keeps coming up for me is that we’ve both been through some loss in the last 10 years — Sarah is immersed in it every day. Our shows have always had some element of catharsis that we bring, but I feel like when we were practicing, our partners said something’s different. Some things feel more mature, maybe.”
For her part, Cleaver attributes a potential shift in tone at least partly to intent. These days, it doesn’t feel like her job because it isn’t. “We’re not trying to sell this music anymore,” she explains. “We’re not trying to make a living. We’re just doing it because we love it.”
Nervous But Excited performs at The Ark in Ann Arbor Nov. 11 and the East Lansing Women in the Arts Festival Nov. 12. More information at nervousbutexcited.com.