- Thomas Meek
- 11 September 2009
Bowerbirds - Northern Lights
Spending months in the great American wilderness worked for Bon Iver in creating great music to reflect a complex, beautiful nature. Such experiences have had a similar effect on North Carolina's Bowerbirds it would seem, with the epic Carolina woods home for the gesticulation of the folksome duo (both musically and romantically) of Phil Moore and Beth Tacular. Whereas Iver's work gained its emotional depth from his own heartache though, Bowerbirds is that of hope and development, as two characters get to know each other, as well as the natural world they got so close to. And you can get close to them as they come to Scotland in October, but first, see what Beth had to say.
So who are the Bowerbirds and how did it all happen?
Right now, the band is Phil Moore, and me (Beth Tacular). We originally formed the band as a duo, later added Mark Paulson on violin, bass synth and percussion, and then he had to stop touring last winter for a while because of other commitments in his life. So since then, we have been touring with different musicians. We also realized it would be hard to find someone to replace Mark, so on the tours he doesn't come with us on, we try to think of what other instrumentation will give us a different dynamic that we still like.
Luckily we just found a phenomenal percussionist to tour with this next time we come to Europe, so we are coming as a three piece this time. We are excited to see how our songs sound with the three of us. Each tour has us sounding pretty different, and it's fun to try out new things.
You can hear the American wilderness in your work. Is that the sound you grew up on?
Phil and I both grew up spending a lot of time in wild places, or at least outdoors in or near cities or towns. Phil is from a very small town in Iowa, and he spent time in summers in northern Minnesota, in a cabin by a lake. I grew up in a normal sized town in North Carolina, but I spent a lot of time, throughout the year, in the mountains, or at the coast, on an island that at the time only had sixteen houses on it, and had a lot of wildlife and its own wildlife conservancy. So we grew up really loving wild places and with a lot of reverence for wild plants and animals. We have since shown each other a lot of our favourite natural places, around the U.S. mostly, and it's a love we share and connect on a lot.
And I guess we also listened to a lot of music that sang the praises of the natural world, and sang folk songs with our families on camping trips and things like that. That's one of the things both of us learned from our parents: a deep respect and love for nature and for being in wild places. I remember that when I met Phil, I was drawn to the wild parts of him, and I was excited that he wanted to live in a similar way that I did.
You apparently spent time living in a cabin in the woods of South Carolina tracking birds. How was that experience?
It was something Phil had done once before, in Arizona (which is a very different kind of habitat than the Carolinas, which are similar to each other). We were living in an abandoned schoolhouse, a small shack really, in which we were squatting. It was in the middle of an old hunting village, which was empty of other people, in the middle of miles and miles of wild swamp at the convergence of two rivers. Some land adjacent to the swamp was owned by a paper company and was used to grow pine trees to harvest later. Since then the land was bought by the Nature Conservancy, which is great.
So we were living there while Phil had a job tracking birds. He would wake up before dawn every morning, and would tromp off into the woods with his notebook and recording devices, and follow birds around all day, and then come home in the early afternoon. I was a visual artist and spent the morning working on my own things, and then when Phil got home, we would go on walks together, or go swimming, or I would work on art while Phil would play guitar and write music on the porch. We were very isolated from other people, since it was a thirty minute drive on sand roads out of the wilderness, even to get to the closest normal road, so we spent a lot of time alone, or actually in the midst of a lot of different wild animals. There were night hawks, bears, alligators, wild turkeys, wild boars, deer, raccoons, and all kinds of interesting plants, some of which we figured out were edible.
Just before that, we had lived in the city, and it was sort of a shock at first, especially to get used to not seeing other people hardly ever. But we soon slowed down to a really calming and serene way of living. It was so quiet, and so beautiful, and a lot of that experience was hugely influential in our early songwriting for the band.
And how has that time affected your music?
Well, it was when we fell deeply in love with the Earth and the land around us, more than we ever really had before, and it made the whole idea of not destroying the environment a lot more important to us. And I think if you read the lyrics from our first EP., Danger at Sea, or Hymns, or Upper Air, you can see how natural imagery is everywhere. It isn't out of some sort of effort to think about animals or the Earth, but is more just all we were thinking about, and still is a really important thing to us. We were also reading a lot of amazing books about humans' evolution, our relationship to things like mushrooms, and the rest of life on Earth. We were also more politicized about those things by reading books by Derrick Jensen, particularly "A Language Older than Words," which was a book that changed both of our lives. It's a really good book.
Your second album, Upper Air was released earlier this year. How would you like people to feel when they listen to it?
That's not really something we have ever really thought about. I have heard from a lot of people that it's an album that grows on them, that they find that listening to it over and over makes it sink in more and more, and they like it more over time. That's sort of the way I think it was for us to get into the rhythm of living in a wild place, to discover its rhythms and ways. So I suppose I would like people to come to it with an open mind and with some patience, to see if it affects them at all. I just hope people get something out of it, whatever that is. The way we feel when we are playing the songs is actually pretty emotional, and the songs have a lot of meaning to us, so I hope that comes out when people hear the songs.
You’re doing a pretty comprehensive tour of western Europe soon. Are you looking forward to it?
Touring is fun, but grueling. The best parts are being able to play a show every night, and getting to see new places. It's sad that we have to travel so quickly on tour, and that we don't have time to really see any of the places where we play, but we do catch glimpses, and it is pretty inspiring. Also, there seems to be more appreciation for musicians over there, so we really like the hospitality at the clubs where we play. People are really nice to us.
What’s the nicest thing anyone’s said about your music?
Probably that they felt inspired to spend more time outdoors or to quit a job they didn't like, or things like that, after listening to it. Or that it touches them in some deep way. That's so amazing to hear, and it makes all the hard work that we do in order to tour and record the music totally worth it.
Bowerbirds play Edinburgh, Sneaky Pete's on 30 Oct and Glasgow, Captain's Rest on 31 Oct.