A Q & A with Birds of Chicago

by Kelly McCartney (@theKELword) for FolkAlley.com

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Birds of Chicago — the duo of JT Nero and Allison Russell — have never made big splashes with their music. They prefer small ripples… the kind that undulate out as far as the eye can see. Their subtle brand of artistry was put into the hands of producer Joe Henry and came out all the better for it on ‘Real Midnight.’ It’s a collection of heartfelt and soul-filled songs that, just like those ripples, run much deeper than the surface might suggest.

Kelly McCartney: The idea of music as a sort of saving grace seems to be one of your basic tenets. In what ways has it saved the two of you — spiritually or otherwise?

JT Nero: It’s a saving grace, a life raft, daily bread, and water. It’s interesting how when you get to a certain point in life — where you’ve tasted real loss, real aloneness, real love, and the absence of real love — well, some of the things you might have paid lip service to, that are easily voiced in clichés such as “music heals” or “music brings people together” come back to you as if written in flames: MUSIC HEALS! MUSIC BRINGS PEOPLE TOGETHER! Other things heal, other things bring people together, but not quite the same way. A day without it is a terrifying day, to me.

During these awfully tumultuous world times, do you guys feel any sort of quickening that demands or begs you to counter it with a more meaningful and hopeful message?

JT: There’s no doubt that’s part of it. One thing we know is, whether or not our world is more or less troubled than it’s ever been before, we know we are much more acutely aware of those troubles. That hyperawareness of everything rotten — in our neighborhoods and literally all over the world, in essentially real time — that’s good and that’s terrible. My reaction, as a person and as a poet, to feelings of chaos, of incurable, endless human awfulness has always been to get small, to catch moments, memories, feelings like fireflies in a jar. That makes me feel better. Hopefully it makes other people feel a little better, too.

These musical sutras of yours have been called “secular gospel” as a way to convey their breadth and depth. Is that a comfortable tag? Or are we, collectively, missing a bigger, broader point?

JT: I get it. I embrace it to a degree. I am also a little wary of it, because I have many friends in the actual gospel community for whom the term “gospel” refers specifically to the Evangelical mission and I have great respect for that tradition. Having said that, the designation is a lot closer to what we seem to be doing than a lot of other phrases that could be thrown out there.

Great gospel music starts with this basic notion: Beautiful words, beautiful melodies bring you closer to God. We operate on a similar principle — and, again, it’s one that can sound a little trite, potentially — words and music can bring us closer to each other. I believe in the power of words, sung words, to link people’s spirits in a way no other thing can on this earth. So we try to bring as much grace and succulence to those words and melodies as possible.

Another intriguing part of your approach is the intentional underwhelm — everything feels deliberately, beautifully understated. You’re not shouting loudly on a street corner. You’re sitting quietly on a park bench. Was that, in fact, a conscious choice?

JT: I am going to collapse these last two questions together, because they are interwoven, to my mind. I think there is definitely a “still waters run deep” ethic on this record. Part of what I think you are referring to starts with Allison’s singing. (She’s napping with the baby right now, so she won’t be able to step in and stop me from bragging on her.) Alli has become a pretty miraculous singer — and a great “under-singer.” I put her in a tradition that spans from Dinah Washington to Roberta Flack to Ma Carter. She can bring a lot of fire when needed, but more often it’s her restraint and nuance that make what’s she’s singing pack such a wallop, so writing for a singer, an interpreter of that caliber makes you want to rise to the occasion..

When this project started, we had our sights set on Joe Henry, from the start. There’s no doubt that this bunch of tunes are connected by a certain somber, reckoning tone. Nobody builds a righteous, melancholy space for great singers to deliver a song like Joe and his usual suspects: engineer Ryan Freeland and drummer/shaman Jay Bellerose. I had heard records that Joe had produced that were magically, wonderfully sad and uplifting at the same time. We wanted in on that, and we had the songs that felt very right for it.

What did Joe Henry bring to the mix that wasn’t previously there — or that, perhaps, only he could bring?

JT: Joe pulls off the small miracle of putting artists at their ease and letting them reconnect with the essence of the song in the studio. It’s a well-documented thing that, for any number of reasons, some of the basic joy of music making can be lost in the recording studio. It’s almost expected. That proposition, I think, has always seemed ridiculous to Joe, and he built a collective of musicians and a physical space that absolutely disallows the existence of any sort of weird vibes.

By the way, we had the very bittersweet honor of being the last band to record in Joe’s Garfield House studio in South Pasadena. So much good music was made there. The house was being put up for sale the actual week we were there. I somewhat belatedly realized how heavy that must have been for Joe and his guys, but were we ever glad we got in under the wire.


‘Real Midnight’ is out now and available via iTunes and Amazon.com

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