Monday, May 21, 2012
Beth Tacular of Bowerbirds Emerges From "The Clearing"
Since releasing their new album, The Clearing, in March on the Dead Oceans label, Bowerbirds have been on the road wooing audiences and refining their adventurous, full band performance. The band recently wrapped up their three-week European tour and will begin playing more shows in the Midwest and Northeast.
The band will hit all new towns where they haven't previously played since the release of The Clearing, as well as return to New York following their sold out show at the Bowery Ballroom this past March. In addition to playing the Pickathon Music Festival outside of Portland in early August, Bowerbirds will also perform at this year's Lollapalooza. A full list of tour dates can be viewed on the band's website.
As the momentum is building for the band, I thought that this would be the perfect time to interview Beth Tacular. As you will read, Beth was very generous with her time, digging deep into the band's history for new listeners as well as uncovering fascinating aspects of the band's trajectory to longtime fans.
When did you begin learning and playing music? Can you describe your trajectory as a player and and how/ when that led to others?
Beth Tacular: I started singing in the school choir in maybe second grade, and then started playing clarinet in fourth grade, which I kept up through eighth grade. In ninth grade I started taking piano lessons. I always was really into collecting music, and in high school I lived near Chapel Hill, where the music scene was really thriving. I went to go see bands like Superchunk, Polvo, Archers of Loaf, and a million other local and touring bands at places like the Cat's Cradle or Duke Coffeehouse.
I dated mostly guys who were in bands, and for some reason knew a lot of guys who started bands as early as high school, but not one girl in a band, so I guess subconsciously I thought it was not something for me to do. Visual art was my first love, so I focused on that. I got an undergraduate degree in graphic design, and a graduate degree in visual art and social change. Halfway through my Master's program, I broke up with my husband, who had always played in bands, and I met Phil (the lead singer of Bowerbirds).
How did Bowerbirds take shape?
Beth: When Phil and I started dating, I was making a lot of art and he was playing in a really good experimental post-rock band called Ticonderoga. He was also starting to write songs on the nylon string guitar that didn't really fit in with Ticonderoga's style. I encouraged him to work on those new songs, because I found them stunning. Eventually, when we were living in the wilderness for six months, while Phil had a job tracking birds, he fleshed out a number of those songs, and it became a real thing.
He was going to call it Bowerbird. But then, inspired actually in part by my friend Kelly Crisp, who plays in the band The Rosebuds, I decided I wanted to play with Phil in his band. I knew I had the basic understanding of music that it would take to figure out how to be in the band with Phil, and I had recently started playing around with an accordion. I thought it would be a great opportunity to try expressing myself through music, instead of just art or writing, so I told Phil I wanted to play with him. He told me I had one month to learn the accordion and vocal harmonies and drum parts, and if I was ready, I could play with him at his first show.
About 100 people came to that show, most of them musicians from the Triangle area, and we got a really warm reception. The Rosebuds asked us to open an upcoming sold out Cat's Cradle show for them, which we accepted. My third show ever in a band was in front of like 700 people. That was in the spring of 2006, six years ago. I was terrified then, and I couldn't eat all day, but now I love performing. Phil and Mark Paulson, who was another member of Ticonderoga, and who joined us onstage for that show, had been playing in bands together since they were eleven years old, so it wasn't that stressful for them.
When did you begin writing your own material?
Beth: I only began writing songs a few years ago. This album is the first time I wrote anything from scratch that got recorded to an album. In the past, I had helped with arrangements, or wrote my own parts, but this time I sat down and worked on songs from the beginning. Phil started writing his own songs in college, I believe, and had been writing songs for maybe eight years before starting Bowerbirds. I have learned a lot from him.
What kinds of musical sensibilities drew you and Phil together as Bowerbirds evolved?
Beth: Phil started writing the first Bowerbirds songs in summer of 2005. I joined the band in January 2006, and we self-released our first EP, Danger at Sea, at the Rosebuds show in April 2006.
I think a big reason that I felt inspired to work on music with Phil was that our tastes in music were so incredibly similar. For our first date, we went to see Califone, and then we went to the Orange County Social Club and talked over gins and tonic until the bar closed, mostly about music. We had listened to the same bands in high school, and we were still into a lot of the same music.
I had seen Phil at a Battles show a month before, where I remember looking around and seeing tons of guys in attendance, and then literally one other woman. Phil later told me that other woman was his sister Amy, who was in town visiting him. Besides both liking math rock, indie rock bands like Polvo, electronic music like Aphex Twin, Bjork, Radiohead, and a million other bands in common, we also both grew up listening to 60s and 70s folk music, and we were both huge Simon and Garfunkel fans. There was just too much of a crossover in our tastes to not start a band together.
Just before I joined the band with Phil, he had actually joined my freelance graphic design business and had learned to do some complex coding for the web that I could never be bothered to learn, so while we were starting the band, we were supporting ourselves with web design and logo design for a couple years. In the same way that meeting him allowed me to explore music, meeting me allowed him to explore design. It's a pretty symbiotic relationship. We also have been learning house building together and each bring different skills to our cabin project, which we started in March 2007.
Who were some of your biggest influences, and how would you say their inspiration fueled your own development, as well as the evolution of the band?
Beth: The Rosebuds were an influence, in that they were another couple. Ivan sang with a really beautiful voice, almost crooning, and they used a certain rhythm in their guitar strumming, which Phil used in a few songs, but slowed way down. Justin Vernon actually used that same rhythm a little bit later, after hearing our first EP, so the Rosebuds influenced a lot of people around here. I think Ivan's singing style allowed Phil to feel that he could let his beautiful voice out, rather than hiding in behind an almost speaking style of singing that had been popular in indie rock for years.
Also, the whole interest journalists were suddenly taking at the time in what they called "freak folk," gave us the confidence that maybe people would like the quiet songs Phil had been writing. And people with interesting, non-traditional voices, like Joanna Newsom, made me think maybe I could sing in a band after all, with my weird voice.
A lot of the musicians who got clumped into the freak folk category were not really folk musicians, in the same way that I don't really think of ourselves as such, but they were just writing experimental and creative music with acoustic sounds involved. It was inspiring, and it gave Phil the confidence to share his quieter style of songs that he had been writing for a few years, with whoever wanted to listen.
We also listen to African and Latin musicians, a lot of whom come twice a year to this festival out in the country near where we live, and the local music scene in general is amazing. Everyone in this area gives and takes from each other a lot. Des Ark and Bellafea were early Bowerbirds influences, even though they were loud rock bands with a melodic punk sound. They were just really good. Having people around who were writing really amazing songs and incredible performers, in your hometown, is always a good thing for spurring you on.
For readers who may be new to Bowerbirds, can you briefly discuss some of Phil's pre-Bowerbirds work with Ticonderoga?
Beth: Well, if a person wants to understand where Bowerbirds really came from, I would recommend listening to the two albums that Ticonderoga put out in the early 2000s, a self titled CD and then one full-length called Helig-Levine.
They are really exploratory and creative albums with beautiful soundscapes and great rhythms and intricate parts interlocking together. There were three songwriters in that band: Phil, Mark, and Wes Phillips, who had all moved down from Iowa to be a part of the North Carolina music scene that they'd known about since middle school.
There are several songs on those albums that foretell Phil's future songwriting style. Also, if you listen to the first song on the first album and compare it to the first song on Bon Iver's newest album, they sound a lot alike. Justin moved to Raleigh with his band, Deyarmond Edison, a year or two after the Iowa guys moved here and started Ticonderoga, and he was a big fan of Ticonderoga as well as Bowerbirds. The rest of that band ended up forming Megafaun after Justin returned to Wisconsin, and they became a big part of our music scene.
To hear some of the songs Phil wrote for Ticonderoga, you can buy the albums on Amazon, and maybe itunes, but some examples of songs Phil had been writing in the vein of future Bowerbirds were songs like "Drunkmare", "Country Mouse", "Two Old Witches", and "North Shore", for example. "Two Old Witches" was one he wrote about me, before we started dating. It contains some lyrics that he later used in a different way, in the song "Brave World", off our new album, The Clearing.
When I first heard Ticonderoga's albums, I played "Drunkmare" on repeat for like a week. It's a good song, and very haunting. My favorite Ticonderoga song never got recorded though, because the other guys in the band didn't like it, but I am always trying to get Phil to record it. It was called "Ride the Elephant".
Before we discuss the new Bowerbirds album, The Clearing, I'd like to ask you to briefly discuss your previous discography. Let's start with your first EP, Danger at Sea.
Beth: Danger at Sea was written mostly by Phil when we were squatting in an abandoned schoolhouse in the wilderness of South Carolina, while Phil had that job tracking the Swainson's Warbler. I was making art during the day while he was out mucking around the swamps. We lived a half hour drive down a sand road from the first paved road, and then another half hour from town. We were really remote and separated from other people, so the "people" in our lives ended up becoming the plants and animals, the stars and sand and rivers, that we encountered in our daily lives.
We went for a lot of walks with our dog out there. There were alligators, bears, wild boars, nighthawks, and a lot of edible plants that we learned to harvest. We fell madly in love with that place, and we made art and music about it. We were also reading a lot of anarchist books and political nonfiction, and I gave Phil a copy of Derrick Jensen's A Language Older than Words, one of my all-time favorite books. Phil read that book and then wrote In Our Talons.
We wanted to create really reverent music that was a collection of love songs to nature, and hate songs to the culture that is destroying the land that sustains us. We wanted the sound to be very natural and organic. We also care a lot about the lyrical content, rhyme structure, and meaning of the songs. I had been making a lot of political art at the time, so Phil started writing political music. There are lyrics like "Death to the oil machine, death to the civilized, death when all want masquerades as need."
How did that lead you to your full-length debut, Hymns for a Dark Horse?
Beth: After self-releasing the EP in spring 2006, we got evicted from our apartment for "loud music," which was just playing acoustic guitar on the stoop in the afternoon. At first we were angry, and then we took it as an opportunity to outfit Phil's minivan with a loft bed, and we drove around the U.S. for seven months, living in the van or camping in our tent in deserts or woods or beaches wherever we could. We saw a lot of amazing places.
Our intention was to try to find a new place to move, but we ended up loving North Carolina best, so we came home and bought a few acres in the country. We found a large 1960s AirStream trailer in the classifieds to take it to our newly purchased land, and then lived in that AirStream with no running water for three years, while we started building our cabin out of salvaged materials.
We knew we wanted to keep being in a natural place, but we wanted to live close to a good creative scene, which is why we chose the place we did. Our music back then had to be able to be played completely acoustically, for when we were living out of the minivan and playing shows around the country, or when we were living in the Airstream. We had simplified our sound for our first EP and Hymns for a Dark Horse, to just an accordion, nylon string guitar, violin, and bass drum, turned on its side and played with rim clicks as well as a mallet.
Those first recordings are more stripped down than the later ones, and they are sort of the bare bones of what we would later become. They have odd time signatures and polyrhythms, and the same kinds of melodies, but in our next two albums we diversified our sound a bit more, incorporating more instruments into the core sound, and experimenting more with arrangements. At the time, we thought our next album, Upper Air, was a huge departure from Hymns, and we were afraid no one would like it. It seemed like more people connected with that album though, so for The Clearing, we felt free to be as exploratory as we wanted to.
Can you talk about your experiences making Upper Air?
Beth: With Upper Air we had started to incorporate piano, which figures pretty heavily into The Clearing. We wrote Upper Air from the AirStream, or sitting on the porch of the cabin we were building, or off in the woods out here. We worked really hard in those few years, writing music, touring for two years for Hymns, and building our cabin. It was a lot of work and no down time, and then in the middle of five straight months of touring and recording, Phil and I broke up.
We were away from the quiet nature that we loved, we were broke, and we were exhausted. We didn't really have anything left to give each other. There are songs on Upper Air that are sort of love/hate songs between the two of us. We had dreamed such big dreams about creating a world for ourselves where we could live off the land and write music that meant something really deep and important to us.
We really believed in our music, but then our first record label stole money from us, and then we really had to scramble to get by, and a lot of our dreams were being crushed. All the money we'd saved to finish the cabin went into the band.
We finished recording Upper Air, broken up, and then we started touring that way. Midway through touring Upper Air, the fun and emotional release of playing shows every night together and having the band start to catch on a bit more, encouraged us, and we got back together as a couple. We moved home after tour, started working on our cabin together, built me a little art studio with a tiny piano, and just spent a lot of time walking in the woods, listening to other people's music, watching movies, and vibing out together.
In all those years of touring, we had started to get a big backlog of creative ideas that we wanted to try out in our music. Phil missed the experimentation he used to do in Ticonderoga. The intentional sonic paring down that we'd done with Bowerbirds started to feel stifling, even though we love those albums, and we were ready to try anything that came into our minds.
What direction did that steer you in?
Beth: The lyrical content of the album deals a lot with the complexity of feelings we were undergoing in our lives, realizing how good we had it, even in the face of hardships, with having each other, and having these beautiful dreams together, however cheesy that might sound. Expressing this complexity required a more complex and dynamic sound, and we had started to really let go of the darkness that had been holding us back for a year or so. We had a big outpouring of creativity and energy, and we poured all that into The Clearing.
In the middle of that time, we had some different additional crazy experiences - I ran over a dog in the tour van, who darted in front of the car, and who we then adopted and nursed back to health; I fell when running with the dogs and had to tour with broken ribs; and then I went to get vaccinations so I could go with my brother to Brazil, but instead suddenly got very ill and ended up in the hospital with multiple organ failures. It was a really close call, and it was very humbling, as well as incredible to make it through ok and have another chance to do my life in a better way.
The dog we adopted is also the most positive-minded individual I've literally ever encountered, and she helped us both learn to let go of expectations in life and just embrace whatever beauty you can find around you. So we just tried to use that mentality while recording and writing The Clearing.
How did your previous work prepare you most for beginning to work on material for The Clearing?
Beth: Probably the songs "Crooked Lust" and "Ghost Life", were our favorites from Upper Air. We wanted to write more songs that used interesting rhythms like on "Crooked Lust", but take that a step further, like on "Hush" and "Stitch the Hem". "Ghost Life" is a pretty exploratory song, and we explored a lot more on the new album.
Also, we recorded both the previous albums ourselves, with Garage Band on our laptops, and we wanted to try going into a studio to see what that added sonically to the songs. A lot of the roughness is wiped away, and things sound more pristine with The Clearing, which reflects our outlook in general.
Can you talk about how and when you began working on The Clearing?
Beth: We started writing the songs for The Clearing in the summer of 2010, and we wrote and recorded demos of all the songs but one ("Hush") by that December. We had to wait a few months to get into Justin Vernon's studio to work with our friend, the sound engineer Brian Joseph, because he was getting ready to record Justin's Bon Iver album. We actually finished our demos at the same time Justin started recording, but it took almost a year longer to get our album out.
Justin had been listening to the demos as we finished them, because we were considering working with Justin on co-production for the record, but then he got wrapped up in Kanye West stuff and ran out of time, so we ended up producing it ourselves.
We had been talking to Justin for years about collaborating, since before he started Bon Iver. He had actually joined Ticonderoga back in the day, after he quit Deyarmond Edison, and he had been working with Mark and Phil on some songs that never got recorded, because soon after, he went home and recorded For Emma, Forever Ago, and then he blew up and was on to other things.
So when we went to Eau Claire, we had only ten days to record with Brian. We had practiced all our parts and were ready to just lay everything down, but Brian is very meticulous, and everything was going really well but taking longer than we had thought it would. We ended up recording a lot of parts there but coming home to finish the album.
Because the album didn't get finished by the May 1st deadline, we had to wait to release it the following March. That drove us crazy at first, but then we embraced it and just spent a really long time experimenting and adding parts to the songs until we went to New York in September to mix the album with Nicolas Vernhes at Rare Book Room.
Did you have a set plan or any preconceived idea of the record?
Beth: It just happened completely organically. Once we had all the songs written, we typed up all the lyrics and read over them to try to understand what themes we had been working with, what ideas repeated themselves. I guess actually we had set out to make it sonically have a new palette, and to have it sound really unique and fleshed out, with creative use of instruments and sounds and rhythms.
But lyrically, it happened organically and was a response to the events in our lives and the places where we live - our home in the country, the Iowa countryside where Phil grew up, and the island where we spend a lot of time off the NC coast.
Please discuss your songwriting process for The Clearing.
Beth: Phil has always started to write songs by going off somewhere private and playing his acoustic guitar until he gets a chord progression that he likes. He doesn't settle upon a chord progression until he has a vocal melody that he is singing on top of it. Then he records the idea on his phone or computer. Eventually he will write lyrics for it, or just start writing other parts for it, or he will hand it off to me to add parts to or give feedback on, or to rearrange.
For this album, I started trying to write songs myself, on piano. And I wrote the lyrics for two of the songs, on which I sing. Phil is still definitely the main songwriter, but I feel like my main role is as editor and co-producer, where I really get a strong feeling from hearing Phil's early version of a song, and then I fight for where I think the song needs to go. I was more involved in this record in that way than on previous ones, because I guess my understanding of the music has been evolving.
How does each process (musically/ lyrically) influence each other while writing?
Beth: I was trying to write in a way that matched Phil's style, which was difficult for me. With the song "Hush", Phil added an African guitar part and some intricate percussion to make the song more "Bowerbirdsy".
Lyrically, I think I'm a little more straightforward than Phil, as you can see on the lyrics to "In the Yard". It's just a very honest, straightforward song about our cabin and dogs, and about being all right with the life you have.
Do you write lyrics or music first?
Beth: Music first, definitely. But there is usually a feeling along with the song that gets developed in the lyrics. A wordless feeling. Usually a phrase will pop into Phil's head, or my head, and we will take it from there. My original lyrics to "Hush" were kind of sad, and so was the whole vibe of that song, until Phil got a hold of the musical part of it, at which point I had to change the lyrics to fit the vibe of the song.
With our lyrics, we work really hard to make them perfect. We want them to be able to actually communicate something to the listener. There are very few artists who I can listen to whose lyrics appear to mean nothing. That drives us both crazy.
Which writers are significantly inspiring to you lyrically?
Beth: Annie Dillard, Mary Oliver, Billy Collins, and Gary Snyder. All poets.
Was there a tune that set the direction for the album?
Beth: "Stitch the Hem" was the first song Phil wrote for the album where I was like "That is the song, that is the amazing best new song, and the album will be fine". That's still my favorite song, although I'm not sure people get it as well as some of the others. It's a confusing song, I realize, but it's my favorite.
What were you listening to during the making of The Clearing?
Beth: Beach House, Joanna Newsom, the Rosebuds, Dirty Projectors, and then a bunch of African and Latin albums we found at thrift stores.
Otherwise we were completely and only thinking about our own music. We worked on writing and recording the album for about a year, for an average of 14 hours a day, with no weekends. All we did was think about our own album. We bought only a handful of albums that came out in 2010, because we didn't have the time or inclination to discover any new music.
Doug Paisley was someone we discovered during the mixing process and was basically the only thing we listened to for the next six months until we started touring. We covered one of his songs for a Dutch radio thing the other day.
We were already fans of Joanna Newsom, the Rosebuds and the Dirty Projectors, and so we were excited to hear their new records, or otherwise we wouldn't have taken time off to listen to them. They were all great albums. Beach House was new for us, but was our favorite record of the last few years. Our friend Bryant played it for us one night when he was helping us build the cabin.
We also listened to Sufjan Stevens' newest record, which we found out about on a vacation we took to Maine right when we moved back out to our land. It was playing on XM radio in our rental car, and it was the first vacation we really took once we had gotten back together, so it also has sentimental value. The style Sufjan used on that album is not anything like what we would do, but it was super-inventive and inspiring. A very no-holds-barred approach. We also liked the new Kanye West album.
What would you say are your biggest sources of non-musical inspiration and influences?
Beth: Documentary films like the David Attenborough nature documentaries, poetry, yoga and buddhist philosophy, psychedelic drugs, camping and spending time outdoors, our dogs, visual artists like our cover artist, Monica Canilao and Allyson Mellberg Taylor and her husband Jeremy Taylor, making dinner together.
Can you describe your live performance for the uninitiated?
Beth: We used to be a lot quieter and more tender live, but now we have a lot more dynamics. We are currently touring with a five piece band, and we play a synthesizer, keyboard, accordion, violin, cello, acoustic and electric guitars, bass guitar, a full drum set and auxiliary percussion. We are pretty intricate with the parts we play, interlocking rhythms, and multi-part vocal harmonies. We come across like an art rock band most of the time, I think.
What are your plans for the rest of 2012?
Beth: We will tour as much as people want to come see us, and we will hopefully have some time to work on our cabin too. We are so close to finishing it.
If you had to pick one significantly inspiring recording that you have been listening to lately that best represents where you are presently, both creatively and personally, what would it be and why?
Beth: We heard the new Here we Go Magic in the van on tour, and we really liked it. We haven't heard it enough times to know if it represents where we are in our lives, but it sounds pretty cool.