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Interview with Birds of Chicago (JT Nero and Allison Russell)

The story behind the melding of Po'Girl and JT & the Clouds


Birds of Chicago

Birds of Chicago

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You might recognize JT Nero from his band JT & the Clouds. You might recognize Allison Nero as one third of Po'Girl. Indeed both those outfits made waves in the contemporary folk, roots, and indie music circuits. But, through the years, Nero and Russell discovered they were both lending their instruments and voices to each other's projects with increasing frequency and, finally, they decided to make the collaboration official. With the release of their debut album in 2012, Birds of Chicago's stripped down guitar-and-banjo Kickstarter-funded debut album (purchase/download) is showing that there is whimsy to be found in the intensely personal, and magic hiding in even the thickest shadows. I caught up with Nero and Russell while they were on tour in San Francisco for a quick phoner about life, music, and why they're one of this year's artists to watch.

Kim Ruehl: I was familiar with JT and the Clouds and Po’Girl...just wondering what made you guys finally make the leap into a full band together?
JT: It definitely felt like a natural evolution, particularly with Alli and me singing together, we were finding more and more excuses to sing on each other’s records. Itw as a growing thing, just a natural, special thing, that it became clear we needed to map out its own space and give it its own name. it really coalesced my last solo record, which we always joke about putting solo in quotes now because we think of it as more of our first Birds of Chicago record, where Alli wound up singing and playing on every single song. That’s when it became clear that it was its own thing. That was the first time we used the guys from the Clouds as the house band. It was a great time, when we had that combination of people all together and it felt so good and right, it was the jumping-off point.

KR: It’s clear the music itself sounds like whatever would exist halfway between Po’Girl and JT and the Clouds. Are you writing together now, or do you still write separately then come together to influence the growth of the song?
JT: We still write separately, at least with the bones of the song. From my perspective, from the Clouds or whatever I was doing with my solo work, I would always do the initial writing by myself but there’s always been an aspect of trust in knowing that once I brought it to the other musicians, it would morph and take on…go in directions I hadn’t anticipated. That’s the joy of the situation we have. That’s continued in Birds of Chicago. Both Alli and me write the bones of the song individually, but when it gets brought to the forum, it always morphs and changes. I actually always look forward to that process.

KR: I’ve been hung up on this Tapeworm song (purchase/download "The Moonglow Tapeworm") for days now. How do you turn a completely non-musical word like Tapeworm into this incredible, insightful song. Did you have a tapeworm at the time?
JT: [laughs] it’s funny – a lot of times when I write, it comes down to – I love words and I love playing with them. So much of songwriting, as opposed to any other kind of writing, is that it comes down to remembering it’s just a bunch of syllables and consonants and your mouth has to love the sound of it, has to enjoy the shape of it all together. When I was younger, it would be like I have these ideas I want to say and I’d just put them into the song. It’s the opposite nowadays with these phrases that’ll tumble out and I have to figure out later where they were leading me. That’s a good example – I was just messing around with “I’ve got this and I’ve got that.” The moonglow and the tapeworm popped out.

KR: It sounds like what you were saying is that, when you’re younger, you have this urgency of let me just say exactly what’s on my chest, as opposed to when you get to know your craft a little more, you can explore the nuances. So it’s a growth thing…is that what you’re saying?
JT: Yeah, you know I think it’s a trap young songwriters fall into. I definitely did. I think early on you approach songwriting the way you’d approach essay writing – come up with a set of ideas you want to put forth in the world, map it out, then hammer that into the shape of a song. As time has gone on, for me, it’s much more visceral and spiritual. I'm getting at the relationship between melody and sound and words. When you use that approach of painting with words, there’s a random fragment of a sentence in your head repeating itself over and over. I have to follow that thread to the song. I have more of a sense that there’s already a song there and I'm just chiseling away to get to that place... I get a little glimmer and you chase it down.

KR: Alli, I was wondering about how this project is different for you from what you were doing with Po’Girl, and whether you feel like you’re approaching music from a different place now.
AR: For sure. I’ve gotten more exploratory with the instruments and textures on this project. I’m going in as more of an instrumentalist, so I get to explore that more. With the writing, I find it inspiring...to experience [a different way of writing]. I get to interpret JT’s songs. Also, to be able to write in a different way than I've been used to, writing for me and Awna [Teixeira] – for male and female voices – so I can open up other avenues. Different things are coming out of what I wind up writing overall.

KR: It seems like these are great songs that would have room to evolve on the road.
AR: Definitely. Particularly with the way we’re approaching the project. It’s not always the same lineup. When we’re playing festivals, there might be seven of us. The last few weeks, we’ve just been touring as a trio with JT and me and our wonderful bass player, playing the songs in a stripped-down way. We’ve written some new ones, but I think you’re right. The songs do change a lot, depending on the audience. Also we can feel confident in a song when a basic spare lineup of just the two of us can deliver it.

KR: Does that have anything to do with why you called yourselves Birds of Chicago? Or did you just like the way that phrase sounded?
AR: I think when we started getting really serious about working together, we were just using our names but that didn’t feel right because we have this family of musicians we like to work with. We wanted a different name to embrace the collective. JT and I are the smallest unit, but there’s a musical family that’s a part of it as well, so I think the Birds of Chicago name was big enough to encompass that.

Birds of Chicago is always on the road, with tour dates in Europe planned for the start of 2013. Visit their website for more information and a current performance calendar.

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