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Exclusive In-Depth Interview with the Bowerbirds

Exclusive In-Depth Interview with the Bowerbirds

by on 2 February, 2012

in Interviews

The Bowerbirds are due to release their third album ‘The Clearing‘ on 6th March. Beth Tacular and Phil Moore’s lyrics on ‘The Clearing’ offer a far more complex depth compared to previous work and comes from a stronger personal perspective. A lot has happened to them since the release of their last album Upper Air in 2009. Beth nearly died following an inexpliable illness, they rescued and adopted a dog that ran beneath their tour van and they ended their relationship after which they became very aware of everything they would be losing, from their shared personal dreams to the music they make. They got back together with a renewed focus and vigour from which this album blossomed.

We interviewed them recently during which they gave a very personal and candid insight into the making of ‘The Clearing’ and their life together as a couple. The depth of some of the answers surprised us in some ways but in others it perfectly reflected what they are about, it also focused our attention on the binding force that unites them and makes their music so special.

They hit the UK shore in May (dates below)


There have been a lot of significant moments or changes to your lives since your last album which seems to have had a large bearing on the songs on The Clearing. Can you tell us more about what has happened?

Beth and Phil

Beth and Phil

In a way, we set ourselves up for disaster when we started a band at the same time that we decided to live out of an AirStream trailer, with no running water, while we built a cabin, ourselves, by hand. And we didn’t have electricity for a long time, and therefore were building our house with no power tools.

It was adventurous and exciting at first, but we probably pushed ourselves a little too hard. We didn’t know, when we were starting out, how much touring was involved in being a touring band, or how much work went into building a cabin, and that they might conflict with one another. At one point, after a straight three months on the road, our relationship fell apart. We were broke and worn out from working all the time, with an unfinished house back home. People tell you not to start a band with your significant other, and they warn you that building a house together will be hard on your relationship, and they are right.

Beth also broke two ribs during this time, and had to tour that way, and we ran over a dog in our tour van, who became our girl, Spice. It was a lot.

Eventually, and ironically, the touring and the dreams that we’d had together helped bring us back together. We realized what we’d lose by breaking up with each other and giving up on our dreams of making music, and of building our little homestead in the country with our dogs. So we moved back in together and gave it another go.

The Clearing

The Clearing

In the following year, when we were writing our new album, we got to spend a lot of time together, out in the quiet of the woods, in our field, and watching movies together with our dogs on the couch. We worked on our cabin again, and we cooked meals together – all things we had missed doing when we were on tour. We were really rejuvenating ourselves, finding our love for each other, falling back in love with the land we live on, and also finding a new, deeper love for the music that we get to make together.

Halfway through the year of writing, Beth fell suddenly and inexplicably ill, which was pretty terrifying. When she pulled through, that was probably the final straw, where we were just able to totally let go and be happy to be alive and to be able to work on our music full time. We decided to put all our worries completely aside and just focus on making our lives, and our new album, as beautiful as we could. And a lot of the lyrical content reflects that perspective.

Whilst the songs are in some ways reflective is there also an element of acceptance of the future or what you both want from it?

There’s definitely an acceptance, or a coming to terms with things as they are. That includes accepting that everything will end one day: we will all die; we will lose all our relationships, either by death or breakup; one day the sun will even die and decimate our solar system.

Besides our breakup and Beth’s illness, we also ran over a dog who almost died because of it, and a few years back, my long-time best friend, Marc Bunnell, died when working as a professional skydiver. Death and impermanence were looming large in our consciousness these last few years, and thoughts of death tend to have a clarifying and freeing effect on a person, I think.

We can’t really know what the future will hold, but we want to appreciate what we have right now, because we won’t have it forever.

In the Yard:
[audio:http://www.scjag.com/mp3/do/intheyard.mp3|titles=In the Yard|artists=Bowerbirds]
(download link)

Last night I dreamed we’d found a stand of trees
Framing a pond and a field in between.
And with a hammer and a blade and our four hands,
Here’s what we made.

The logs we peeled and stacked in a ring,
And then we crowned it, our tiny house, with tin.
And by the fire,
Flickering bronze and gold across your face,
I heard you say:

It may not be a grand parade of snow capped peaks,
No river silver-backed crashing through,
But we have our black-haired babes running free
Through the woods.

When did you come up with the thrust or concept for this album, was it clear that you were taking your music in a different direction?

The concept for what the songs are about just evolved naturally as we were writing the songs. We finished a group of songs, and then we looked back at them and tried to decipher common themes, like you would do with recurring dreams. That’s how we realized how our lives had affected what we wrote about, in terms of lyrical content.

In terms of the sound of this album, versus what we’ve done before, I think that the sounds got richer and more intense as a reaction to the intensity of our life experiences and all the emotions we were going through. Having almost lost a lot of what’s important to us, we maybe had the courage and open-mindedness to try new things musically.

When did you start building you cabin and what was your reasons for choosing that lifestyle?

Building their Home

Building their Home

We started work on our cabin in 2007. We had lived in the swamps of South Carolina in the summer of 2005 where I worked as a bird tracker and where the first Bowerbird’s songs took form. Beth worked on paintingsand it turned into a very creative isolated time. We realized that the isolation was something that helped us focus on our creative projects. We spent the summer of 2006 driving around the US in search of that isolated place. We were not unhappy living in North Carolina, but we just wanted to explore the country and see if any other place felt more like home. In the end, we decided that the people of North Carolina were the most uplifting and least judgmental people that we could find. We moved back, and after attempting to live in Durham, NC for a few months, we decided to get out of town altogether.

How remote are you?

Beth's artwork

Beth's artwork: Painted on old wood she has found

We are at a dead end road and are surrounded by large tracts of land on three sides and on the other side we have some neighbors — good neighbours that help us jump our car when it doesn’t start. It is remote, but we can drive thirty minutes and see some of the best music in the world.

How did you go about choosing a location?

We wanted to be close to the Triangle (Durham, Chapel Hill, Raleigh), but also far enough out to feel disconnected when we wanted to. We moved out to an amazing county that is rampant with sustainable agriculture folks, bio diesel manufacturing, an awesome grassroots music festival and all things progressive. It also doesn’t feel like things are going to change around here too quickly, which is something we truly value. We don’t want our land to be enveloped by the suburbs. We want to still hear the owls and coyotes at night.

Did you do all the work yourself?

Yes, everything except the electrical work. We got our friend to set that up for us. We are still doing the work. It is a more tedious project than we expected, but that’s how everyone says it goes with building, so we don’t feel bad about it.

What do you love most about where you live?

The quiet.

Apart from making music what else do you do in your spare time? I saw a lovely photo of you all canoeing recently.

We go on a lot of hikes through the woods, jump on our giant trampoline, make bonfires and have friends over. We have a disco ball for dance parties in the unfinished cabin. We read a lot of books and watch a LOT of movies, mostly either independent or foreign films, or documentaries. We also work on building the cabin, go scouting at second hand stores and salvage shops for materials, and draw up plans.

Beth works on her art in the art studio we built her, and she has been taking sewing classes and learning to do brain tanning on hides from roadkill deer. I chop a lot of wood for our wood burning stoves. I love cooking, especially making freeform soups out of whatever we have around. Lately, we’ve both been practicing yoga. We also love going to shows and going dancing with friends.

Recent Canoe Trip

Recent Canoe Trip

The canoe expedition was from a recent trip to the beach. Beth’s grandparents built a house at the shore beach years ago, so we go down there as often as we can. It’s on an island that you can only get to by passenger ferry, so there aren’t any cars there. There’s a lot of wildlife, and we’ve gotten to see sea turtles laying their eggs and hatching, which is pretty amazing.

You have two dogs?

Yes, we have Spice, also known as Smallrus, the little short-legged dog we ran over, and also her big sister Olive. They are really amazing dogs, so smart and caring. They help encourage us to go on lots of adventures together.

They are both black and gorgeous, and they will do anything for a snuggle or a meat snack.

It must be incredibly strange to leave such an ideal place to go on tour, how hard is that for you both?

It’s really hard to leave our dogs, and to leave the beautiful forest and land behind, but we also really love the magic of touring, and getting to see a new place every day. We love performing our songs and meeting people along the way. And cities are very exciting. It’s nice to be able to get the thrill of the cities in month-long doses, interspersed with downtime in the country.

Did you tend to find creativity when living in the cabin; has this changed on this album?

I’m not sure if the creative ideas come faster in the countryside, or if they just come in a clearer way, less muddled by the distractions of what everyone else is doing in the cities. Also, if we aren’t constantly moving like on tour, we’d rather be still in a place that’s also still.

Musically where do you take your inspiration from?

A lot of places. We will usually get one or two musical obsessions at any point in time – usually someone current who is doing something creative and new. But we also listen to music from a really broad range, in terms of genre. We listen to jazz from the 60s, latin and African music, hip hop, folk from the 60s and 70s, regular pop music, and anything else current. We like to dance to drum and bass and dubstep.

Can you tell us about some of the new musical approaches you’ve used on the new album?

Well, for one thing, we invited several friends to contribute their own ideas to the songs, or to help us work out ideas we had come up with. We worked with Rachel Rollins on violin, who also wrote the string arrangement for Walk the Furrows. Leah Gibson played cello, Matt Wasmund brought a whole car full of reed instruments and just kind of went crazy over the songs. Tim Phillips played trombone, Sean Carey of S. Carey and Bon Iver played vibraphone. We worked with Brian Joseph, the amazing sound engineer who worked on Bon Iver’s most recent album, to get us started recording the album, and then we mixed the album with Nicolas Vernhes, who also contributed some extra production to The Clearing.

We just tried to surround ourselves with people who have great ears, and who we trust, and asked for their feedback along the way.
We also spent a year just brainstorming ideas for the arrangements and instrumentation of the songs, and we kept working on them, adding things here, taking away things here, until we felt they were finished. It was a more thoughtful and careful process than with our other albums, but we also took more risks this time.

We really wanted to try to create a cinematic feel with the album, where there are highs and lows, intimate moments and almost terrifying ones, just like in a really good film. That led us to utilize a lot of different instruments and household objects to create the soundscapes we were going for.

Tuck The Darkness In
[audio:http://www.scjag.com/mp3/do/tuckthedarknessin.mp3|titles=Tuck The Darkness In|artists=Bowerbirds]
(Download link)

Bon Iver & Bowerbirds “Lovin’s for Fools”

You’ve been touring with some well-known artists (Bon Iver, Phosphorescent and John Vanderslice), what have been your most memorable tour moments over the past year or two?

One of our all-time favorite tours was the North American tour with Julie Doiron. We felt an affinity to them musically as well as just in how they act and live their lives, so it made for a really fun tour. And it was amazing to watch Julie sing every night. She writes some deadly songs.

What have you been listening to recently that you’d like to share with our readers?

Beth, seemingly along with the rest of the world, has been listening to Lana del Rey on repeat. Those songs are catchy. We’ve also been listening to Doug Paisley, the soon-to-be-released Midtown Dickens, Cass McCombs, Alice Coltrane, the Rosebuds, Skrillex, Arthur Russell, The Big Picture Show, and a bunch of old-timey accordion LPs that Beth found at a thrift store.

What have you been reading?

Kingbird highway

Kingbird highway

I’m reading a book about birding called Kingbird Highway by Kenn Kaufman.

Beth is reading a book called Daughters of the Earth, about the lives of Native American women; a Carl Sagan book called Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors; and Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, by Weston A. Price, about the effects of a modern industrial diet on the human body and mind.

Tour Dates

Apr 20th Fri Rotterdam (NETHERLANDS) Motel Mozaique Festival (link)
Apr 22nd Sun Copenhagen (DENMARK) Vega (link)
Apr 23rd Mon Stockholm (SWEDEN) Debaser Slussen (link)
Apr 24th Tue Goteborg (SWEDEN) Pusterviksbaren (link)
Apr 26th Thu Berlin (GERMANY) Lido (link)
Apr 27th Fri Munich (GERMANY) Feierwerk (link)
Apr 28th Sat Zurich (SWITZERLAND) El Lokal (link)
Apr 30th Mon Paris (FR) Cafe De La Danse (link)
May 01st Tue Antwerp (BELGIUM) Trix (link)
May 03rd Thu Leeds (UK)  Brudenell Social Club (link)
May 04th Fri Manchester (UK) Deaf Institute (link)
May 05th Sat Brighton (UK) The Haunt (link)
May 07th Mon London (UK) Cargo (link)
May 08th Tue Brussels (BELGIUM) Ancienne Belgique (link)
May 09th Wed Amsterdam (NETHERLANDS) Paradiso (link)

Artist Links

Bowerbirds Blog
Beth’s Artwork

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