I was sad to find that the quite-anticipated double-header of Bowerbirds at Johnny Brenda’s and Grimes at block-away Kung Fu Necktie was recently squashed when Grimes promptly sold out KFN and had her show moved to the First Unitarian Church. However, Grimes’ avant-garde indie pop, in my mind, must take a backseat to Bowerbirds’ brand of Nu-Folk so, come March 22nd, it is their JB’s gig where you will find me.
Bowerbirds’ third album, The Clearing, drops today… and, with walls of electric guitars and drums, along with pianos and vibraphones, is quite a departure for the formerly quite-minimalist North Carolina outfit. I recently got a chance to chat with Beth Tacular, accordionist, vocalist, and one-half of the core of Bowerbirds (along with partner, musical and otherwise, vocalist/guitarist Philip Moore).
Unfortunately, despite the fact that Bowerbirds have played a fair amount of memorable Philthy Shows (opening for Elvis Perkins in Dearland in the Sanctuary of the First Unitarian Church, back-to-back hyper-intimate shows in the chapel of the First Unitarian Church, or with “Grammy-nominated” Bon Iver in the basement of the First…), the band has few substantial Philthy memories, usually being en route from either NYC to DC or from DC to NYC: “We don’t usually get to hang out a lot. Most memories are just of playing and eating and loading in and loading out.”
Bowerbirds have been through a lot since the release of their last LP, 2009’s Upper Air. Beth nearly died after a mysterious illness, the couple adopted a dog that their van nearly ran over, and, perhaps most significantly, they broke up… and then got back together. Beth tells me that she and Philip’s relationship trouble stemmed primarily from their life on the road: “It was three years of touring without stopping between albums. It was hard on our relationship, always being on the road with other people.” The two broke up on the road, making it “Hard playing love songs about each other,” which characterized much of the later touring behind Upper Air. On top of that, Beth fell and broke ribs “And had to tour with that.”
The combination of all of this inspired a break (no pun intended) of sorts for the band, who desperately needed a chance to stop and breathe… and also spend a little more time developing what would be the next work of Bowerbirds. Beth tells me that the break gave them a chance to “Slow down and pay attention to the details of our lives and appreciate each other. I wouldn’t take those experiences away. I think, basically, that all came out when we were writing the songs.”
Although it’s hard to imagine their recent history not having a lot to do with their recent output, much of Bowerbirds’ evolution of sounds seems to be attributed to the recording process. “We told ourselves ‘Let’s take some time with it,” Beth says. Unlike The Clearing, their previous albums were recorded quite quickly: “I think when we went to record Upper Air we were sort of going in that direction [of this sound]. Partly, we just had three weeks to record Upper Air. If we’d had a year, we would’ve wanted it to be more fleshed out.” The sound of The Clearing is far more epic than the band has ever produced in the past.
Although they enjoyed their break and a more easygoing recording process, Bowerbirds are quite excited for their upcoming tour (which kicks off March 17th in Carrboro, NC). “We were really excited about going on tour. We were totally having wanderlust.” She also tells me that the touring band is going to be looking new: “We have five people in the band now, which is the most we’ve had… We wanted the sound to be that of the album, with lots of instruments.”
While Beth tells me she and Philip are quite excited to get out to some different towns and meet new people, they still enjoy their more solitary time as well. At the time they broke up they “Had been building a house [cabin] together.” She tells me that they’re quite anxious to “Finish working on [their] cabin. We put it on hold to work on the new album. We thought if we’re gonna do something, we want to do it right.” She tells me that the cabin is made out of mostly recycled materials and located somewhere sort of near Chapel Hill, but “Kind of out in the middle of nowhere… We wanted it to be far enough away that they wouldn’t put a super mall next to us.”