A blog for Joe Henry fans

vrijdag 6 mei 2016

A Conversation with Birds of Chicago

"There is a connection that can be made amongst humans through music and words together, and I haven’t found a way to replace it."

On April 23, I went to see Birds of Chicago perform in Eeklo, Belgium. Allison Russel, JT Nero, Joel Schwartz, Chris Merrill and Bart de Win, gave us a wonderful evening. With each song, the concert grew more intense. It was beautiful to see how they offered warmth and comfort to the audience.

Before the concert I sat down with Allison and JT for a wonderful conversation. We talked about recording ‘Real Midnight’, songwriting and what it can do to the listener, and most of all, we had fun and laughed. But first we discussed the word ‘Kinderspel’, a song title from their latest album, and that there is definitely a correlation between the Dutch and English use of the word. (Addressing that something is very easy to do.)

But in that case, why choose to give the song the Dutch name, and the English merely as translation between bars?

JT: Well, the song was finished in the Netherlands, and we played it for the first time at ‘Meneer Frits’. (concert venue in Eindhoven, NL). We sort of announced that we didn’t have a name for it yet. Then someone came to us after the show, and suggested it.
Allison: Well 3 people actually. First a friend of ours, and then 2 different people, separately, who heard her say that, said: “Indeed, you should call it kinderspel”.
 JT: You have the ‘Child’s game’ line repeated…
Allison: …. And it’s such a beautiful sounding word.

TIAL: Indeed, that’s what I was wondering also, did you choose it because it is a beautiful word?

JT: That also, indeed. Some words, that have the same meaning, can carry an extra musicality.
Allison: Yeah, Kinderspel is much more musical than Child’s game. 

TIAL: And in ‘Sparrow’ you end with a few French lines, is it also because of the musicality? 

Allison: I grew up speaking both languages when I was very small. I grew up in Montreal, Quebec. My parents where Anglophone, but I had a foster family for almost 5 years. And they were French speaking. So when I was very small, I spoke primarily French. I went to French school through primary and secondary. So, I just love the language, and there are certain things, I think, yeah, sound right or sound better in French then in English. I sometimes do that within one song.
I moved away from Quebec when I was 17. I try not to lose my French, so I’m always trying to find ways to incorporate it in life, but nobody in our community speaks French (laughter)
My husband doesn’t speak French, and those very few people in Chicago,….
JT: I know, I know... ,Particularly since she is teaching it to our daughter…

TIAL: So they’ll say something to you, and you answer, “Yes Yes,….”


JT: They’ll have their secret language, when they speak about me….

Allison: We never played a song more than 3 times. Maybe there was 1 song we played 4 times. That’s not at all the experience that I’ve had prior to this !

TIAL: Was it 'kinderspel' recording ‘Real Midnight’?

JT + Allison: (very firmly) YES!!

Allison: Because of Joe and his team it was! He made it feel so easy.
JT: So much, that we didn’t necessarily trust it the first couple of days. We both associate a certain amount of, with the lack of a better phrase, ‘labor pains’ and angst with a recording process. And I say that, and I think we did actually have pretty good recording processes before, but still, it was a whole other special sort of magic that was created with Joe, and his usual suspects.

TIAL: Yes, there is not only Joe, but also Ryan (Freeland) and Jay Bellerose…

Allison: And Patrick Warren….

TIAL: They are all people you really wanted to make this record with. Was it the first time you worked with them?

Allison: The first time we were meeting ! We met Joe briefly prior to the recording because we decided to work with him. We happened to be in California, and he came to one of our shows, we went to see his home and his studio. You know, With the fact that they were in the process of selling it, we realized: “Bands recorded there”! It was a very bittersweet and very emotional time for Joe and his family.

TIAL: Yeah, I can imagine, in a recent interview Joe explained why they moved. One of the reasons was because every time a production process goes on, the crew ‘takes over’ the house. That’s quite understandable.

JT: yeah, …. And then, I’m sure also with the reality of the recording industry, in terms of what people can budget, ….labels not as likely to fly a band out to a specific spot. It probably makes sense for him to be more mobile. We just felt lucky to have gotten the last bit of that. On the very last day…
Allison: … He called it his “master’s class for the last 10 years”. 

JT: You know, Jay Bellerose had a set of drums there, that hadn’t moved for like 7,5 years. That is one of the things that makes them able to make records the way they do. It’s one thing to say : “We are going to make our record live, and we’re going to do it the old way, and we’re going to do it in 4 days…” It all sounds great, but it takes Euhm,…. from the practical engineering side, Ryan and Joe, they knew all the ‘frequency ghosts’ and all those things you, at the start of a project, spend so much time on… Hours and Days…
None of that is happening. You are walking into a relationship with a physical space that has already been mented.  And so much of that, for Joe’s records, IS that drum sound. And that is so often where you spend the most kind of soul sucking hours on just trying to figure out, … You know…… and what They do…
Allison: Oh, it’s Ryan’s whole philosophy. 
JT: …Your first run-through of a song… When you hear it back, you should pretty much be hearing, what you’re going to hear, when the record comes out.
Allison: Which is NOT the norm for most recordings or producers. It is not the norm.
JT: for neophytes coming into that, I mean that is exactly what happened with us. We were running through the first tune we were going to do, and for Bellerose and Patrick Warren it was probably the 2nd time they heard the song. We ran through it a couple of times, … recording,… And then Joe says : “why don’t we stop for a second and listen”…. And I’m like, “Euhm that’s weird, we barely just,…!?” you know, … But then they play it back to you, and just that first run-through sounds so much better than anything you ever recorded in your life. (laughter) You feel so …

Allison: …. Buoyant…

JT: YEAH !, and galvanized, and from that point on, you feel so trusting and so confident and …. What is happening is that all that nervousness and all that burden of self-awareness like (in a whispering deep voice) ‘we are making a record-we are making a record….’ Just goes out de window, and you’re just ‘in it’. And that makes it sooo easy. That vibe is also reinforced with so many other small things in the way they kind of,… in Joe’s manner, in the way he operates….

Another big Joe Henry thing is : He doesn’t like people to know what they are going to play. He wants them to be open eared and responsive.
Allison: Joe has such an amazing ears. We never played a song more than 3 times. Maybe there was 1 song we played 4 times. That’s not at all the experience that I’ve had prior to this, in the studio! Not so much this project, but certain other projects, where you do take after take after take…. And you just want to shoot yourself by the end of it. (Laughing) You’re like “I never want to hear this song again! I hate this song! “ (laughing)

TIAL: You mentioned the nervousness disappearing. Nervousness, because you really wanted to work with these people. You even had actually never met them, but at 1 point you arrive in the morning, and they are standing in front of you, and you have to do it…

Allison: it went out of the window like JT said. Meeting all of them, Ryan and Jay, and Patrick and Joe, they are all such completely egoless people. They put everyone at their ease. They were all very welcoming. we just kind of played together, ate together and very quickly became sort of friends and family. That was the feeling. That nervousness of meeting our heroes, what’s this going to be like?, went out the window so fast, because they put us at our ease. They made us feel like peers and part of their club.

JT: And that’s also something: We, Birds of Chicago, have a very intuitive, tight bond with our people, our tribe. It is similar to what their tribe has. I suppose the open question we are going in is: Will the 2 tribes match? And they matched so beautifully. The reason why, is that everyone carries a similar ethic. It is never about you, it is about the song, and about that moment of empathy and connection with fellow musicians. Everybody wants that I think, and it is so easy to say, but in 99 out of 100 times it is so easily forgotten. It does not happen quite that way. We all, as musicians, particularly in the studio, without knowing it, set up impediments for ourselves, our own roadblocks, and things that make it harder for ourselves. 
Allison: which comes from insecurity.
JT: Yeah.

TIAL: But when you hear your songs, it makes total sense that you worked with these people…

JT: Yeah, and I think there is some of that to begin with. I think we were kindred spirits in terms of…
Allison: ...Joe would not have accepted the project if he didn’t feel like it was something he could connect with. That’s very wise on his part, and on Ryan’s part. And I think they are very careful in what they do and it shows in the body of work. The incredible bodywork they have between them all is really remarkable. Some of my favorite records, my favorite writing: Joe’s writing!  It’s all injected with that.

TIAL: You were the last ones to have recorded in the Garfield house, do you think that some of that atmosphere ended up on the album?

JT + Allison: Yes, I do, I do…

JT: You know, I think I became aware of that, by,…like the 3th day. On the first day, there is a process going on of letting go any baggage that we brought in. But once we relaxed enough, we became aware of what was going on for them, and that it wasn’t a typical recording for them.
Allison: They were very emotionally raw...too, in some ways this record is emotionally raw,... the kind of answering being parents for the first time, all of the looming mortality questions and what is this world our daughter is going to inherit? is it going to be better than the world we grew up in? That can be really frightening. (laughing)
JT: The thing with Joe and Ryan and those guys is they, again, create an atmosphere where none off those walls that go up between you, and why you wrote these songs in the first place, are allowed to exist. You are in that moment.  And I hear it in Alli’s singing. There is relaxation on one hand, but there is also a complete connection with why the song exists. Why you do this, why you need to do this. And again, That’s so easy to say, and so hard to achieve and maintain, in terms of creating that kind of bubble. We knew by the, ... I don’t know at what point, but we felt sort of the magic of that interaction, and it’s like: ‘ I’m definitely not going to do anything to get in the way of this, (laughing) Don’t let me be the one that…’ (laughing)
Allison: So, everyone becomes their best selves in that moment and you ARE,…You know, we use this phrase ‘in the moment, in the moment,…’ . It’s so hard to do that, but we WERE for those 4 days, because of this magical fairy dust, Joe sprinkled over all of us. 

It was quite unique, something I never experienced before, and probably never will again, unless we get to make another record with these guys.

JT: Giving a kind of emotional framework with lyrics, without giving the whole A to B to C …., that is something that’s appealing to me.

TIAL: In an interview, you once said:” We write it to “save” ourselves and don’t shrink from the idea that it can “save” other people…”

JT: Yes, we write songs to safe ourselves, but we don’t step away from the idea, that they could do that to others as well. That’s simply out of an awareness.
Before I started writing, (to safe myself), there were the artists, they still are, who wrote the songs I returned to, time and time again, when I was adrift, or worse than adrift… Who literally saved me, refortified me, redirected me. You become aware that music affords that to you in a way that nothing else in the world does. There is a connection that can be made amongst humans through music and words together, and I haven’t found a way to replace it. I’m not interested in finding a way to replace it. (laughing)

TIAL: But you write the songs with a certain emotion in it from yourself. Receiving feedback from the audience, or music journalists, critics,... does that change the way you see your own song? Like, “Hey, I never looked at it like that!”.

JT: Well we’re big believers, that once you’ve written a song, it is not yours anymore. I think one of the beautiful things of writing songs, I mean for my songs, is I am interested in creating an emotional skeleton, but not necessarily supplying all of the extendnace, -bad metaphor- :’flesh-bones-hair-eyecolor-…’ You know, some fluidity… . Because people are always going to insert their own narrative. And they should! Giving a kind of emotional framework with lyrics, without giving the whole A to B to C …., that is something that’s appealing to me. That’s satisfying. I don’t have much problem or fear with somebody taking a song and interpreting it, however they want to interpret it. That’s the beauty.
Allison: And it’s such a gift. Because when you read a review, or someone writes to us to explain what it means to them, that is such a gift. That something we wrote is of value to you. I mean: how amazing is that !

TIAL: I wrote my thoughts on your album, in the days after we had those terrible attack at Brussels Airport, and the subway. Listening to ‘Real Midnight’, made me think, this is the song that we need now! We need to stick up for each other. Don’t put us down, lift us up! It was a very difficult time for us over here. Hearing that, I thought, this is what we need! Listen to it!

JT: That means a lot to us! I think a lot of the emotional imperative of this album is, and this is me, as a person: When I’m aware of all the swirling, and terrible, chaotic forces in the world. Which, like anybody, you can feel very helpless about. my only antidote for that is to get small. There is a phrase: ‘to control, what you can control’. There is a bit of that in terms of : emotionally controlling what you can control. There are people that love you and that you love. It’s like:

“Are you doing all right, right now ?”, “How are you doing?”

you know, with the folks that matter around you…
And that’s, kind of always,… when things are so overwhelming on a world scale.
Allison: Don’t you feel like that? Cause I feel like that is the solution to any of the kind of violence that people enact when they don’t feel part of this world or loved in this world. Because that’s what that is really. They think there is another better world that they are going to go to, and maybe there is, or isn’t. If you totally given up on the world that you are in. The life that you’re in, to the point where you don’t care how many people you take with you.

TIAL: Absolutely! They don’t see it anymore...

Allison: That’s so scary!
JT: So much of living in this moment right now, is constantly being aware, you know, with the internet, of everything going terribly wrong, and every second around our globe.  It begs of you to think about ‘Where do you start ?’  

You start with…
Allison: …Being as loving and kind to the people that you come in to daily contact with. 

Birds of Chicago and Joe Henry will be seeing each other again at the end of the month, where they'll both perform at the Nowhere Else festival.  Jealous?, Me?, because I'll have to miss this. What makes you think that?


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