The Chamber-Pop Band BIRDSONG AT MORNING Opens Up About New Music, Growing Over The Years and More!
Posted On 16 Apr 2019
“Art is the Handmaid of Human Good” serves as the motto of Lowell, Massachusetts, the birthplace of Jack Kerouac, Bette Davis, the American industrial revolution, and where Birdsong At Morning draw their inspiration as a part of the growing community of artists and musicians moved by the heritage and the spirit of renewal evidenced all around them. The chamber-pop band returns with Signs and Wonders, a carefully crafted and richly textured work featuring a lush 20-piece string orchestra. The Boston Herald describes their sound as “…gentle and mellifluous, a slow drift down a lazy river.”
The two-disc CD/Blu-ray package recorded in high-resolution surround sound to highlight the masterful audio quality of the music, is available on iTunes now. Along with this collection, earlier this year, they put out a music video for their track, “Extraordinary”. See it HERE. Signs and Wonders is the follow up to A Slight Departure (2015) which Pop Dose said, “These Massachusetts based visionaries have a compelling and expansive sound…a serious, ponderous and lush piece of work that will make you stop in your tracks and pay very careful attention.”
Thought-provoking and soul-baring, Birdsong At Morning’s music spins elegant tapestries of sound, words, and melodies that reflect the city of Lowell’s solid foundation of the still standing buildings, and the warmth of the beating hearts within this community. “Lowell has a large number of brick mills and factories that are preserved as a National Historical Park. Yet at the same time, there’s a thriving creative art scene taking place in the spaces where spindles and looms produced much of the fabric that clothed a new nation,” says singer Alan Williams, who also holds a full-time position as Chair of the music department at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. “It’s a curious place where past, present, and future co-exist, and an endless source of inspiration for character stories, and inventive sounds.”
Like many indie-minded endeavors, Birdsong At Morning, a phrase that comes from a 19th century Robert Louis Stevenson poem, is a project centered around Alan Williams, who writes and sings the songs, creates the string arrangements, conducts the orchestra, co-engineers, produces and mixes the albums as well as scripts, directs, and edits the band’s music videos. He leads the collaborative effort between he and his band-mates, bassist Greg Porter (Aimee Mann, Patty Griffin) and guitarist Darleen Wilson (Patty Larkin, Catie Curtis). The album features drummer Ben Wittman (Sting, Paul Simon, Paula Cole), guitarist Thomas Juliano (Talking to Animals, Seven Mary Three), and is recorded with Boston legend, David Minehan (The Neighborhoods, Paul Westerberg), and mastered by Grammy Award winner Adam Ayan, who has mastered many award winning recordings, including 46 Grammy Award winners, is a 5x Latin Grammy Award winner, and a 2018 nominee for Audio Engineer of the Year by the Academy Of Country Music.
From their quietly ambitious four-CD box set debut, Annals of My Glass House (2011), through the expansive territory of A Slight Departure (2015), and now with the official launch of their masterful new album, Signs and Wonders, Birdsong At Morning is poised to make their national debut. “It’s the most fully realized version of what we have set out to do so far, a progression from the more tentative, getting our sea-legs version on the Annals box, to the far-more confident Slight Departure a few years back,” says Williams.
The new album was conceived with the visuals in mind, so the full-experience includes videos for each track such as the bold colors of lead-off track, “Waterfall,” the beautiful and heartbreaking, “All The Sadness,” the politically charged “Won’t Let Go”, and the haunting “My Ghost”, among others.
Connect With Birdsong At Morning Here:
Learn more about Birdsong At Morning in the following All Access interview:
Thanks for your time! What is on tap for the rest of your day?
At my university gig it’s the home stretch – lots of grading, reports due, schedules to make, budgets to review.
Now that we are into the 4th month of the year, how would you say that 2019 is treating the band so far? What are some goals that you have for this year? How are those New Years Resolutions going?
The big push for getting the album done and out was last year, so 2019 has been relatively quiet. We’ve been getting videos up on YouTube, and trying to get the word out to a world that’s looking to discover something new. My resolution to get some more practice time in seems to be waiting for the semester to end…
Can you recall the moment when you thought you could be in this group together? Was it hard to think of a name that you could agree on? Has anything surprised you about this musical journey so far?
Definitely. The roots of the band come from an effort many of us had made to reconnect with making music after we had put our instruments away for a number of years, and put music to the side for a variety of reasons. Darleen and I began hosting informal get-togethers in the living room, just encouraging old friends to try to rekindle their interest in making sounds. Greg was a frequent guest at these. For a long while, no one had any material to play, so we ended up playing old songs and covers. That was good for shaking off the rust, but eventually got a little boring. But putting a guitar back my hands eventually resulted in a new song, which I vowed to bring to the next gathering. Oddly, the only person to show up for that was Greg, so the three of us began to learn this new song. When we got to the chorus, Darleen and Greg spontaneously burst into a harmony vocal with me. The sound was so striking that we stopped what we were doing, and looked at each other – “Wait – that almost sounded like a real band.” So we decided to make it one.
I had actually held on to the name Birdsong At Morning for a number of years, having run across it as a subheading in the Joy of Sex. It seemed like such a poetic phrase (and it turns out to be a line from a Robert Louis Stevenson poem), and struck me as a possible band name. So pretty soon after deciding to form a group, I proposed the name and it stuck. No real argument or discussion.
I think the biggest surprise about the journey is how long we’ve been able to continue moving forward. We’ve been doing this for over a decade now, which is much longer than any band I had been in previously. But as we age, our perception of time shifts as well, so a decade feels more like a couple of years.
How do you think your hometowns have influenced the sound and how you all carry yourselves in this group? If not, what do you think does influence this group?
I’m initially from the mountains of western North Carolina, and Greg is from the piedmont, on the eastern side of the state. Darleen was raised on Long Island and Connecticut, but we all ended up in the Boston area for college, or post college. I think the sense of being an outsider has followed me around, and probably colored by musical identity. When I was surrounded by country and bluegrass, I wanted to be a prog rock musician, and when I moved to Boston, I wanted to play folk music. Currently, Darleen and I live in Lowell, Massachusetts which has a strong tie to the origins of the American Industrial Revolution – lots of old brick mill buildings and canals. So the notion of the long outmoded “modern” seems to be filtering into the music fairly strongly. It’s old black and white photography projected on an LED screen, or a computer used to capture the sound of a harmonium or string quartet – eras colliding.
How did your band name first come together? Was it hard to all agree on one name? What other names were you considering?
As mentioned in an earlier answer, it was pretty much the only name under consideration. Plus, we operate kind of as a benign dictatorship. Greg and Darleen pretty much do as I say, as long as I ask nicely.
Let’s talk about your newest album, “Signs and Wonders.” What was it like putting this collection together?
Sure. Because of my day job, I have to sometimes relegate music to the side for extended periods. I’m almost afraid to pick up a guitar for fear a new song idea will come to me, but I won’t have the time and focus to finish it, or have the chance to play it for anyone. So instead, I wait until I have some open time on the horizon. This album was written in large part over the course of a month, often with a handful of songs all coming together in a couple of days. Then, because everyone has jobs and challenging schedules, the songs sit around waiting to be played and recorded. So when calendars align, we take full advantage and move as quickly as possible. About 80% of the album was recorded in two days. But then the whole project gets put to the side for months at a time. Very start/stop. Plus for this album, I wanted to make a video for every song. This meant getting the album pretty close to completion, then spending almost another year making videos whenever we could squeeze them into our schedule. So while the project took a couple of years to complete, it’s probably six weeks of work if you add it all up. You’ve got to have patience and a belief in the long-term vision.
While it’s difficult, can you pick out a few of your favorite songs on this new album and talk about their inspiration? How did they get to be on this collection?
One of my favorite songs on the album is called “All the Sadness.” It’s fairly simple, fairly dark. But I wanted to stretch out and see if we could sustain this really sad mood for several minutes. I was thinking about a Sigur Ros song where the orchestra keeps playing after the rest of the band has faded away. And they repeat this sad chord sequence for several more minutes – much longer than most folks would allow. And as a result, it creates a different feeling. The amount of time it takes playing a simple passage repeatedly is quite audacious. So I wrote this expansive string arrangement that builds across a long period of time over a repeating chord pattern. I think it’s powerful, but Greg never really got it. Until he saw the video, and it all really resonated. The story needed that much time, even if there weren’t any words for most of it.
I also like “Waterfall” and “Won’t Let It Go” because they came very quickly. Mostly complete within an hour, though “Waterfall” didn’t seem close to finished for a few weeks until I realized I could actually use the word “waterfall” as the chorus, when I thought it was more of a placeholder.
Generally, how do you all go about writing your music? Do you write together or separately?
The writing is all me. Greg and Darleen weigh-in on what they like – Greg tends to focus more on the arrangements, while Darleen has a good editorial eye for lyrics. But I basically present completed songs to them, and we go about shaping the performances as a band.
How has the sound of this grown changed over the years? What has remained the same?
Probably the element that emerged unexpectedly was the use of strings. Our first EP was written without really thinking about having them. But there were a couple of songs that I heard a quartet on, and finally decided to take a risk on recording them in a decent studio. I really wasn’t sure if it would work, but both Greg and Darleen were quick to see how this could become much more a part of our sound. So from that point on, we have brought strings into the music. At first, more as a small-scale quartet, but by Signs and Wonders, we were recording 20-piece orchestras, and the songs were conceived with strings in mind from the outset.
Where do you think you are all happiest- in the studio recording new music, on stage performing or elsewhere?
I used to not really enjoy live performance. It wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t as much fun as the studio. I’m a producer at heart, and just love the recording process; it’s such a comfortable place for me to be.
But recently, I’ve really begun to enjoy the live experience, especially as I’ve done more solo shows and had to find new interpretations of the songs. It’s that sense of endless discovery that makes live performance so interesting, and the fact that the energy of the audience shapes that interpretation can make for a really powerful experience – hopefully as much for the listener as it does for me.
Where can fans see you perform next? What do you think makes for an ideal show for this group?
Because of our various obligations, we don’t perform very often, and the group itself never tours. But I’m booking shows now as a solo voice and guitar player, primarily in New England, but later this year working my way down the eastern seaboard. And I’m making some preliminary inquiries to do shows in the southwest, so maybe one day, I’ll be nationwide.
We have begun a tradition of doing one big show a year with string orchestra and a chorus, pretty much playing the record live. That’s really fun as well, though the logistics are challenging, and economically, it means having the audience come to us, rather than the other way around. Look for the next one in Lowell this fall…
Do you find that all of social media and keeping up with your fans has gotten so overwhelming? Or do you rely heavily on others to take care of that for the band? Which platform would you say that you enjoy engaging with the most?
Absolutely overwhelming. And constantly changing, so it’s difficult to know where to put your energies. Since we created a ton of video content, we’ve been relying on YouTube to get material out to the world. It’s a great way for folks to fully experience the music, but it can really hard to effectively drive people to the site. I’m always open to suggestions…
We are currently living through a very trying and politically charged time right now so I am curious to know how you all think being musicians and in this band still gives you the most joy in life today? Do you find that your music is an escape to all the current events?
For me, music is a way to engage with current events, to address the anxiety that I feel all around me. There are some really ugly things going on, and for self-preservation, it’s almost necessary to tune it all out. But rather than use music as an escape, I use it as a way to process what I feel and think about what goes on around me, even if it is most explicitly stated from a perspective inside myself.
What musicians would you love to work with in the future? What artists have really been inspiring this group and your music since day 1?
Many of my heroes are gone – John Lennon, Marvin Gaye, Bowie, Prince. Of course, I’d be too intimidated to work with the musicians that have inspired me most. But I truly love working with the members of this band, and the extended family of Birdsong collaborators. In terms of inspirations for this band, I’d say there are a few touchstones – the David Sylvian album Secrets of the Beehive, the epic songs on Gillian Welch’s Time (the Revelator), the kaleidoscope of XTC’s Nonsuch. And a ton of other brilliant things that have come across my horizon.
What do you hope is the message of your music? What do you hope people continue to take away from your songs?
Given our age, I think one message is that we can still be creative, engaged human beings long after our teen and college years. That continuing to explore is an ongoing endeavor. It never stops. In some ways, I think our music is something to age into. You can be 15 years old and still connect with the music. But if you stay with the music another 15 years, it may still hold real meaning. Probably different meanings, but still resonating.
Is there anything else that you would like to share with our readers about this group?
We’re not much of an instant gratification band. Come to the music with some time to spend. Maybe give songs a couple of listens. We aim to stash a lot of elements into the songs and recordings. We reward repeated listenings. We almost demand them…