Last year, right as all of the "best of 2011" lists were already beginning to make the rounds, the Providence-based Brown Bird quietly released their latest album, Salt For Salt. On the album, the duo set out to capture the intense energy of their live performances, while maintaining a sharp focus on delivering their own unique sense of songwriting and arrangements.
Brown Bird, which is Dave Lamb (guitar, banjo, and various percussion), and MorganEve Swain (vocals, fiddle, cello, upright bass) has built its fanbase through joining some pretty amazing partners for live performances, delivering their truly unique brand of songwriting and virtuosity to audiences everywhere. Dave and MorganEve have played with such acts as The Low Anthem, O' Death, and The Devil Makes Three among others. The two-piece wowed audiences last summer at The Newport Folk Festival, and will be returning this summer as well in support of the new album.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Dave and MorganEve regarding their individual experiences and personal development as multi-instrumentalists, the band's trajectory and evolution, and Brown Bird's discography up to, and including Salt for Salt.
Here's our conversation:
Since you both are accomplished multi-instrumentalists, can you each discuss your earliest musical experiences, including when and how did you each learn and begin playing music?
MorganEve: As a toddler, the music that was playing in the house (constantly) was my dad's: The Talking Heads, Led Zeppelin, The Animals, mix-tapes that he would make of things like The Cure, UB-40, Pere Ubu, The Fools, This Mortal Coil, Del Shannon, The Clash...I could go on forever. Some of my earliest memories are of he and I watching the Beatles movies together. I loved them.
Dad educated me starting with Beatlemania and working backwards and forwards from there: The British Invasion, The Blues, Skiffle, Rock 'n' Roll...When Dad would play something like Harry Nilsson or The Rolling Stones, I'd ask "Is this the Beatles?" and he'd answer, "No, but they were friends with The Beatles." Music was all-encompassing to me, and Dad my biggest influence.
My older brother, Spencer (who works as our tour manager and appears as a guest violinist on our song "Shiloh"), started playing violin in the Suzuki program in our town when he was 4. I was enrolled in their "Pre-Suzuki" program when I was 2, which provides a pretty incredible introduction to music as a language. I started studying violin at 3, and it quickly became "what I did". During our formative years, Spencer and I both were subjected to weekly private lessons, monthly group lessons, Saturday morning Youth Orchestra rehearsal and a life as young violinists that we would both love and hate until we learned how to make it our own.
Dave: My earliest musical memory is singing and dancing along to a record of "Blue Suede Shoes" at my next door neighbor's house when I was still in Pre-school. On a more regular basis, the music from my parents' church that I grew up in had a very lasting influence on my understanding of melody, harmony, and music in general as a means of spiritual expression.
Like MorganEve, the Beatles were a very strong influence when I was young. I remember taking my Dad's records and transferring them onto cassette when I was in the 6th grade. He had a lot of great 45's from the 1960's and a few German released LP's of the Beatles that he bought in his high school years while his father was stationed in Germany. Soon after that, I started taking drum lessons and quickly became a huge fan of Led Zeppelin, particularly John Bonham's drumming.
What inspired you to get more serious about music?
MorganEve: By the time I was entering my later years of elementary school, I was beginning to resent my identity as a violinist. It wasn't exactly "cool", and tended to keep me from participating in things like sleepovers, since I'd have to get up early on Saturday mornings to go to orchestra rehearsal.
A trip to Prince Edward Island with family friends (which turned into a trip every summer until I was in high school) changed that resentment when I became immersed in the area's Scottish culture. "Fiddle music" was everywhere, and it was way more exciting than anything I'd played. I was into 90s grunge-rock and metal, and in Canada, fiddlers like Richard Wood and Ashley MacIssac were combining traditional Cape Breton and Scottish fiddle tunes with rock 'n' roll. This was something I could do!
Years of playing Scottish fiddle tunes morphed into an interest in Bluegrass, and in High School, I joined an established Connecticut cover band which played traditional Irish music, as well as songs by The Band and The Rolling Stones, and everything Jerry Garcia's Old and In the Way ever recorded. That was my first gig as a paid musician, aside from the occasional wedding ceremony. I always had tons of support from the guys in the band (all my parents' age) and from my folks, so there was never a question of whether or not I'd be playing. But I never really considered performance as a full-time career until I met Dave.
Dave: My two biggest influences when I first started playing music were The Beatles and Led Zeppelin. Beyond that, I started playing in bands that introduced me to a wide variety of bands I would grow to draw inspiration from (specifically as a drummer), such as Sonic Youth, Sex Pistols, Dead Kennedys, Grateful Dead, Phish, Ozzy era Black Sabbath, Neil Young, Smashing Pumpkins, The Pixies, Fugazi, Primus, Don Caballero, Shellac, and countless others.
Morgan Eve, You play the stand up bass, cello, and fiddle in Brown Bird. Can you discuss how and when you began playing each instrument, and how does each connect, influence, and/ or differ from each other for you?
MorganEve: Playing the violin for my entire life has been both a blessing and a curse. I grew up hating to practice, and that's something I still struggle with. Dave can play for hours on end, even if it's one tiny part that he's practicing over and over. I seem to revert back to 4 year old me, and get frustrated and cranky, and have very little patience for practicing.
Dave surprised me with a cello a few Christmases ago, and interestingly, having a new instrument to learn renewed my love for the work that goes into playing. The cello is an instrument that I've always been drawn to, and the similarities it has to the violin gives it both a familiarity and a challenge. It is a similar situation with the upright bass. I bought it about 9 months after getting the cello, and it holds all the same challenges and familiarities. Having three instruments to choose from has given me a new freedom as well, and certainly changed the sound we were creating as Brown Bird.
Dave, you play the banjo, guitar, and drums in Brown Bird. Can you discuss your progression of learning these instruments, and how developed your style of playing these string instruments with the drums simultaneously when performing?
Dave: I started taking private drum lessons when I was in fifth grade from Joe Galeota, a professor of African Drumming at Berklee School of Music. Throughout junior high and high school I played the drums in several different kinds of rock bands and I started learning a few chords on the guitar here and there from my friends and band mates. I realized pretty quickly that I enjoyed writing songs with the few chords I could string together.
I picked up the banjo sometime around the winter of 2002-2003 when I started writing songs and playing under the name Brown Bird. When I would write songs and record ideas on my Tascam cassette 4-track, I would often put simple percussion or drum tracks down too. So I had been looking for a way to reproduce those tracks live without adding a drummer to the line-up. For a while, Jeremy and Jerusha (former Brown Bird members) and I would share percussion duties in performances.
Soon after that, I came across the Gajate bracket which makes it possible to attach a variety of percussion instruments to a kick pedal. I found that with a little bit of practice I could incorporate a lot more of the percussion tracks I'd written into our live shows. As we've scaled back the band to the current duo of MorganEve and myself, the percussion has become a more prominent element in our songs. Now, I'm really trying to challenge myself to incorporate more interesting beats into the music we create.
Can you share the formation, lineup changes, and evolution of Brown Bird?
MorganEve: Dave started writing and playing under the name Brown Bird in 2003, and since then the band has gone through several lineup changes. When we met in the summer of 2008, Dave was touring solo, after the original two other members decided to focus on their project, South China. We met in Virginia, where Brown Bird and the band I was currently playing with, Barn Burning, were meeting up to share shows in Roanoke, Philly and Providence.
I sat in with Dave (playing fiddle) the first night, and each night we played on a few more songs. By the time we got to Providence, we knew that I'd be joining him for the his next week of shows, and when we returned back to Providence (where I was living) he moved in with me. Around the same time, Mike Samos, who had been playing in Barn Burning as well, started playing with us, and when we recorded The Devil Dancing in 2009, we asked South China (Jeremy and Jerusha Robinson) to join us too.
Brown Bird only lasted as a five-piece for that recording. We existed as a trio, with Mike playing dobro for a short time, but as we wrote the material for Salt for Salt, we realized that the turn our music was taking wasn't conducive to his instrument, and we became the duo we are now.
I was drawn to your music because it was very unique, and seemed to be influenced by various forms of traditional string band music, but also expanded and integrated aspects of rock, blues, and strong gothic elements as well. Can you discuss how you began developing your sound and what your sources of inspiration were?
Dave: When I first started writing as Brown Bird, I was heavily influenced by some of the more contemporary songwriters like Will Oldham (Bonnie Prince Billy, Palace), Bill Callahan (Smog), Chan Marshall (Cat Power), Jeff Mangum (Neutral Milk Hotel), and Sam Beam (Iron & Wine). Around the same time I was introduced to Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music and I started seeking out more Old Time, Pre-War Blues, and Early Country music such as The Carter Family, Charlie Patton and Hank Williams.
In the following years I would continue to seek out broader forms of music that moved me, and allow them to influence the sound of Brown Bird's songs as well. A few examples of these groups would be Taraf de Haidouks, Secret Chiefs 3, Mastodon, Muzsikas, John Zorn, A Hawk And A Hacksaw, Queens of the Stone Age, and genres (in a very broad sense) such as Rebetiko, Klezmer, South African, Eastern European, Central Asian, and Middle Eastern music.
I'd like to briefly dig into your previous recordings before we move onto your latest record, Salt for Salt.
Can you briefly take listeners through your discography up to Salt for Salt?
Dave: Our first album, Tautology (2006), is actually made up of two 4-song EPs that were self-recorded and self-released called Tauto (2005) and Brown Bird (self-titled, 2006). Such Unrest (2007) was our first full-length recording that was also self-recorded and released. The lineup for all of these first recordings was myself, Jeremy Robinson, and Jerusha Robinson.
In 2008, Jeremy and Jerusha started focussing on their band South China more, and I recorded The Bottom of the Sea with Ron Harrity of Peapod Recordings in Portland, ME. The Bottom of the Sea was meant to be more of a solo album where I recorded songs that I'd written spanning from the beginning of Brown Bird, until that time (songs that we just hadn't recorded yet). Jeremy and Jerusha ended up helping out along with a few other special guests who added a few backup tracks here and there. In support of the album, I went on a solo tour for 5 or 6 months and that's when I met MorganEve.
The next album, The Devil Dancing (2009), was also recorded by Ron Harrity and released on Peapod Recordings. It was performed with the lineup of myself, MorganEve, Mike Samos, Jeremy and Jerusha Robinson, and special guest Micah "Blue" Smaldone playing upright bass on several songs. Just prior to the release of The Devil Dancing, we released four songs from the same sessions as an EP titled By The Reins. As Jeremy and Jerusha continued to put more time into touring for South China, we did a lot of touring as a three piece (MorganEve, Mike Samos and myself) in support of the album.
When it came time to start recording for the next album, MorganEve and I decided to permanently scale down the band to the duo that we are today. We started approaching the songs with the idea of recording an album as live as possible with just the two of us, while still maintaining a "full" sound. At this time, we signed on with Tom Weyman of Supply & Demand Music to release our next album. We recorded the songs that would eventually make up both the The Sound of Ghosts EP and the full length, Salt For Salt, in the same sessions in the first few months of 2011 at Machines With Magnets in Pawtucket, RI.
Can you take us through your writing process for Salt for Salt?
Dave: For Salt For Salt we made a concentrated effort in trying to capture the energy that we had going into our live shows. This is, of course a pretty hard thing to reproduce due to the absence of crucial elements like an audience, that makes a live show energetic in the first place. That said, we're still satisfied with the overall live quality of the album and the great job that the folks at Machines With Magnets did to capture it.
What were you listening to, and what were some of your biggest influences and or sources of particular inspiration during this time?
Dave: We were listening to a lot of Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Queens of the Stone Age, Tom Waits, Sam Chatmon, Charlie Patton, Black Ox Orkestar, Mastodon, Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, The Pixies, Muzsikas (especially the album "The Lost Jewish Music of Transylvannia"), Willie Nelson, and Roger Miller over the period of writing this album. I'm sure there are many more but these are the few that stick out in my head when I think of the direct influence that some of these had on my writing processes.
I remember thinking a lot about the fullness of the early Sun Recordings that a lot of the groups got with just a simple lineup of guitar bass and drums. Whereas, people like Roger Miller and Willie Nelson might have had more influence over the lyrics and phrasing. Then there are a few tracks like "Nothing Left", "Shiloh", and "Cast No Shadow" that were influenced from groups like Mastodon, Muzsikas, and The Pixies. These were a little more obvious.
You mentioned that you tried to capture the fullness of Sun Recordings. What was your set-up like for recording the record?
Dave: We basically just set up in one room of the studio and recorded the songs just as we would at a live show. There were a few songs where we added a few hand claps, shakers or background vocals but for the most part we just played our instruments and sang all at once.
Can you discuss your writing of both arrangements and lyrics? How do these processes influence each other?
Dave: These days, I most often start the writing process with either a melody or a rhythm. Some melodies "come" with a sort of inherent rhythm to them but I've found that a lot of the time the rhythms are pretty similar. So if I'm hearing too many melodies (or ideas for different songs) with the same rhythm, I'll play around with making those melodies work with different rhythms. (This is where I often have to remind myself that there are more rhythms in this world than I'll ever be able to put into songs in my lifetime…Although I do end up reusing some favorites from time to time).
Then it usually it becomes fairly clear if this initial melody is meant to be played or sung. I can't really explain how, except that some melodies seem to have a more syllabic quality than others. If they do, I usually end up writing the first bit of lyrics to match it. I rarely write lyrics straight through in order anymore. It's usually section by section, and often times I won't finish the lyrics until the structure of the whole song is complete, using the lyrics that I have come up with as sort of a place marker to allow me to continue writing more parts.
When it comes to lyrics, I also try to consider not only the meaning, but the sound of the words that I'm using to be just as important as each melody and each instrument that plays it. There is a great quote by Amnon Shiloah, a professor of Musicology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, that says, "The combination of letters creates enjoyment in the soul just as musical harmony does, because of the unveiling of secrets confined in such combinations."
What would you say connects this record most to your previous recordings?
Dave: I guess there are some lyrical themes that connect this record to our previous recordings. Themes of good and evil, and characters caught in between them. Beyond that, I guess the instrumentation itself is the big piece of glue that holds it all together. Not to mention a steady stream of deep rooted influences that tend to show up subconsciously in everything we write.
What would you say sets Salt For Salt most apart?
Dave: I would have to say that I think it is the broader array of influences that have been making their way into our songs, and the fact that it was recorded as a two-piece.
MorganEve: I would add that Salt For Salt is the first record we've written with the intention of playing it exactly the way it is. In the past, we'd written basic song structures knowing that other instruments would flush it out. The addition of the upright bass changed how we were writing slightly, and knowing that each song would feature only one of my instruments at a time was also very significant. We also allowed our influences of rock and metal to come through on this record much more than in the past.
You have performed with so many great acts. Can you describe a few of your more memorable and inspiring live experiences?
MorganEve: We've been incredibly lucky to play and tour with the bands we have, and there have been memorable experiences with them all! Most recently we toured with O'Death in New England, and at the last show of tour in Keene, NH, we had them all join us on stage for our song "Cast No Shadow". It was epic!
They are all such talented and tasteful musicians. The addition of a second violin, a trombone, three more voices, upright bass, and extra percussion was something we never anticipated putting on that song, but what they added to it was so incredible in a live setting, not to mention the experience of rocking out on stage with six friends!
Dave: In 2010 we also had the great pleasure to open for our friends the Low Anthem on a European tour. That was truly an amazing opportunity for us. Last year we had a couple of great West Coast tours with The Devil Makes Three that were a lot of fun too. We also had one incredible weekend last year playing at a festival in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
As a Rhode Island native myself, I am always so proud of the community and number of more and more great artists coming out of Providence. Can you discuss your experiences being based out of Providence?
Dave: The music community in Providence is particularly very supportive and diverse. There are all different kinds of art and music happening and people come out and support the ones they love no matter what genre it falls into. We've been to a lot of shows to see much "heavier" bands like The Body, or Lightning Bolt, and there's a good amount of their crowds that come out to see us play too.
There are also a lot of extremely talented groups that don't necessarily get as much recognition as they deserve, such as Joe Fletcher & The Wrong Reasons, Death Vessel, and Alec K. Redfearn & The Eyesores. These groups, and others in town, seem to approach their own music with an inspiring amount of diligence and musical ability.
What are your plans for 2012?
Dave: We're heading down to Austin for SXSW and playing a few select shows on the way down. Then we've got 3 tours coming up where we're opening for Yonder Mountain String Band on the west coast, Horse Feathers for some dates in the Midwest, Canada and New England, and finally we will play with Trampled By Turtles back out on the West Coast again.
We'll be traveling pretty constantly until June, and then we'll mostly be around the Northeast playing festivals for the rest of the summer, including the Newport Folk Festival. After that, we're looking forward to spending some time working on new songs and to prepare for recording the next album. We have no specific plans as to when that will happen yet, but we're picturing getting back into the studio sometime next winter.