Concert preview/interview by Kevin Steeves.
A lot has changed since the last time North Carolina natives Bowerbirds played at SPACE Gallery. At the time, the homespun folk trio were touring in support for the (now) pastoral folk megastar and Kanye West collaborating Bon Iver — and only had one full-length release to their name. Now four years later Bowerbirds have another pair of full-length releases under their belt, and are headlining a June 20th show at the alternative arts venue with Canadian-native and NPR favorite, Basia Bulat, as well as Portland’s very own The Milkman’s Union. Tickets are available here.
HillyTown recently caught up with Phil Moore, the lead singer and songwriter of Bowerbirds for had a talk that covered a number of subjects including how their once private lives have become increasing more public with success, the ease of touring as a three-piece and of course, spending time on the road watching rockumentaries on The Rolling Stones and Duran Duran.
HillyTown: This is actually just the first part of a larger tour in support of your newest album, The Clearing. For a band whose music is so associated with the idea of homelife, how do you deal with being away from home for so long?
Phil Moore: It’s difficult, we try to relax as much as we can between tours and be home as much as possible. But, I think a lot of writing on this album is about yearning for a home and solidifies the lifestyle which we did have while recording [The Clearing]. But then, things like raising chickens, which I had done in the past is out of the question. Even planting a garden; it would be gone without the weeding process and would be taken over by North Carolina. We put a lot of our home life on hold while we do all of this touring, which right now is really intense.
HT: You usually tour and record as a three-piece. But with an album that is as big of a departure from your previous work as The Clearing is that something that you’re able to do?
PM: Well what happened in the spring is that we toured as a five-piece just to kind of try it out and it was really exciting, but honestly a little much, and our priorities sort of shifted. The ease of touring with just three people is unmistakable, so we went back to that. I guess the album does have a lot of larger parts on it, but we try to compensate for that feeling. On this recent tour we are trying more synthesizer stuff where we kind of interpret the songs like ‘This is the feeling this song would have had with full instrumentation.’
HT: When you were recording The Clearing did you see it as something that you can really tour around? It doesn’t seem like it’s something that is easy to bring to a live situation compared to your previous work.
PM: Yeah, our last albums were recorded live essentially, except for violin and vocals. With this last album, we actually approached it as a recording project and didn’t really think about what would happen when we actually started to tour. I really love the recording process though, and to blow it all on bells and whistles, and to get in production mode. It was kind of necessary for the evolution of the band; we just wanted to make that record and not really think about the consequences.
HT: When you were working on The Clearing did you see it as a new chapter of the band, or did you see it as a growth on top of what people had begun to expect from the band?
PM: I would say we always saw it as an extension of the band. I get the same feelings from the songs, they still feel like Bowerbirds’ songs. They don’t seem an they don’t feel too terribly different, it was just more built up and felt very instinctual. We didn’t worry too much about how it affected the progression of the band.
HT: In that same way, it feels almost like a cinematic album while also being very literal at the same time. Do you ever see yourself as trying to create a balance between your grand vision while still being accessible to people that might expect something specific from Bowerbirds?
PM: That kind of feels like part of my personal nature to just sort of be like personable person. When I do art, when I write songs, I feel like I wanted to breakout from that. But the whole reason I started to write songs though was to experiment, to figure out why, and not to be overly dramatic, why we are alive in the first place. I feel like a lot of people are drawn to that, I still think of Bowerbirds as an inner-part and outlet to do that. I try to think about it as little as possible as like a band or a business or anything like that. But I feel like we gained fans by doing what we love to do, I feel like our fans will stick with us. I feel like, compared to other bands I’ve been in, Bowerbirds fans are very loyal to our vision.
HT: It’s interesting that you say a large part of what you write about is what it means to be alive. Do you feel sort of off-put when a large portion of the reviews, or discussion of your music is based around an idea of darkness and death — or do you see them as hand-in-hand?
PM: I see them as hand-in-hand, to write about death is just a little clearer. Writing about death is just acknowledging that death is there and we should be happy to be alive, and the moments we have; the whole seizing the day mentality. I don’t think that there is a way to understand that mentality of the moment if you don’t take into account the idea of death later in life. It gives you an appreciation of your day-to-day life and to get out there.
HT: How do you react though, to people that automatically want to make that connection to your music. That it’s about death, and that they might be seeing one side of it too much?
PM: I can understand it, I think that the general people don’t listen to or put as much thought into the lyrics, or put as much thought as I do into them. But that’s not really a criticism, because I honestly don’t really listen to lyrics as much as I pay attention to the writing of my own lyrics, so I totally understand. They’re just a couple levels past the surface, and I feel like they are often lost and I feel like I sort of have to do that; that I can’t just write quick lyrics in just one shot. I don’t think I can get away with it.
HT: More than ever with your music, people tend to want to get some sort of background context of the album. Do you think that’s completely necessary for people to know the background of everything, or do you think that people should just go in with an open mind and just interpret things in whatever way they want to?
PM: I don’t think it’s necessary at all for people to enjoy the music, and it’s weird how that has become such a large part of people listening to music these days. But the thing about our music is that it’s very personal, so the stories are out there if people want to read or hear about them. But everyone has a story and they are all equally valuable and intriguing. I guess it is sort of weird for me, being a Midwesterner and kind of shy while I was growing up to have your whole story out there, but I don’t think it’s completely necessary.
HT: But as a fan of other people’s music, do you ever find yourself trying to find the background of anything?
PM: Yeah, and it’s weird because recently I’ve been watching all of these documentaries on Netflix about these classic albums being made. It’s super intriguing to hear about the Rolling Stones, Duran Duran, Black Sabbath, The Who, and all these bands personal stories behind these albums. It’s kind of a weird fascination in finding out how these people made music and made art for a living and how they made sense of their lives. With them having to focus on a very specific album is really cool and a very focused thing. And you get people discussing why they wanted to make music in the first place, it makes you reevaluate why you’re doing it. But the thing is that it doesn’t really apply to music specifically — it really makes you think about everything. And I guess in that way, the backstory is really a lifestory a lot of times for people like me, for sure.
Read on for the “Tuck the Darkness In” video and the band’s upcoming tour dates.
Bowerbirds tour dates:
June 19 Montreal, QC Il Motore
June 20 Portland, ME Space
June 21 Providence, RI The Met
June 23 Brooklyn, NY Music Hall of Williamsburgh
August 3 Happy Valley, OR Pickathon
August 4 Happy Valley, OR Pickathon
August 5 Chicago, IL Lollapalooza