There are a few bands out there that get to reinvent themselves in a way that they don’t end up eventually crashing and burning into ashes. Acts like Birdsong At Morning have found the way on their new album Signs and Wonders to wow audience with their blend of cinematic music courtesy of the 20 piece orchestra and the blend of psychedelic and progressive rock a la Steven Wilson and King Diamond.
Their blue driven, artsy new video for “Study In Blue,” which we are pleased to premiere today, captures this the best and works as a nice introduction to the band.
Before getting to watch the video, get to learn more about the song, the video process and the album itself.
Hi Alan, welcome to VENTS! How have you been?
Well – thanks for asking!
Can you talk to us more about your latest single “Study In Blue”?
“Study in Blue” has an anthemic quality to it. Early on, it became clear that it would probably be the album closer for that reason. There are lots of references to other songs that have the same feel, length, extended fade, etc. embedded in the arrangement. The four-chord/pedal point sequence is a repeating cycle that I found myself playing for long periods of time, almost like a musical mantra. And from that, the idea for the arrangement grew. Then when I thought about lyrics, I decided to counter the epic scale of the sound with a more intimate narrative about a person struggling to overcome a creative block.
Did any event in particular inspire you to write this song?
Two things, really. The first was recognizing the challenge I was facing in trying to come up with a lyric for the song. The phrase “something in blue” popped into my head. It “sang” well but didn’t provide a sense of direction for a lyric observation or story but the second experience that really helped shape the song came from my days modeling for art classes. Just standing on a podium for hours at a time, I picked up on lots of phrases and concepts that visual artists grapple with. So, when I amended “something” to “study,” I suddenly had a number of metaphorical phrases that could be worked into a story – “negative space,” “cadmium red,” etc. So, in the first verse, the “study in blue” is the actual room, a study. In the second verse, the attempt to paint a still life frames the story as about a work of art, a “study in blue.” Then the final verse reflects back on the artist, working in phrases about paint tints that are chemically toxic to describe someone struggling with depression as a “study in blue.”
How was the filming process and experience behind the video?
This was one of the first videos we shot for the album and one of the most challenging. It was inspired by some of the work of Michel Gondry (videos for Bjork, and the film The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). Working with almost no budget, I found a space that had a very open floor with no supporting columns that served as a soundstage. But the floor was slightly sloped, full of dents and pockmarks, and ended up making an 8-minute continual dolly move beyond challenging. The rear projections required a great deal of distance for the images to cover the full screen wall, and therefore needed very powerful lamps. There were props that had to be moved on the set, as well as the rotating skyline in the window that shifts from night to day and back, with the daylight cardboard skyline replaced by a nighttime variant. And everything had to be painted blue – tables, bed sheets, my guitar. The handmade quality has a kind of charm, and I’m proud that we all survived the experience!
The single comes off your new album Signs and Wonders – what’s the story behind the title?
I first heard the phrase in an off-hand remark made by Tommy Lee Jones’ character in the movie No Country for Old Men. It’s a biblical reference that sometimes is taken to signal the end of days, but which I also imagine to be more about minor miracles present all around us. It seemed to fit the recurrent themes of the album to be a little observant of the world around us, and perhaps a little more empathetic for the people we find in it.
How was the recording and writing process?
Because of my day job commitments, I almost avoid picking up the guitar for fear of writing songs that I won’t be able to do anything with for years at a time. So, the writing mostly happened over the course of a couple of weeks when I consciously set aside the time. Once I had enough songs, I spent a couple of days recording guitar and vocal demos so that I could send off to everyone to learn. The basics were then recorded with drums, bass, and electric guitar, playing along to my demos. And as sometimes happens, the demos end up being the vocal and acoustic guitar parts that you hear on the album. The rest of it was putting down some additional instrumental overdubs, re-cutting a few vocals, adding harmonies, then getting the string orchestra scores written and recorded. That all took place in fits and starts over the course of a few months. Then rough mixes were made so that we could begin the process of making the videos for each song which took almost a year to shoot and edit. I should add that the stereo mixes evolved over the course of that year, but I didn’t begin mixing the 5.1 surround mixes until after the stereo mastering session.
What was it like to work with David Minehan and how did that relationship develop?
David Minehan is massively talented. And a real sweetheart. There’s really no better way to spend a day than to hang out with Dave in his studio, Woolly Mammoth Sound. He’s got all the right gear, with plenty of room to move around, and everything set up with musicians in mind. I first worked with Dave over 20 years ago on a project I was producing and found the experience so enjoyable (and the results so strong), that I’ve worked with him on many projects since then, including the last two Birdsong albums. Because he comes to engineering from being a musician first, he understands the value of creative flow, of putting the technology in service of the music, rather than the other way around. He knows his room and his gear so well that getting sounds is almost effortless. If the musicians are prepared, it’s possible to get an album tracked in a matter of days. He’s really supportive, and when something speaks to him, he gets a gleam in his eye that is soooo encouraging. It’s almost like if I can get him to smile really big, I know the track has something going for it.
How much did he get to influence the album?
I’m not sure he had a direct influence, but despite some surface level differences in where we are coming from – he’s a rock legend in Boston, and I’m a wimpy guy with an acoustic guitar that likes to surround himself with orchestras and such – we share a lot of the same early influences. For example, one day I came to the studio a bit early while he was setting up, and he had The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society playing over the system. I was a little surprised to encounter it, and he was equally surprised that I knew it like the back of my hand. Turns out, we both really value focused pop songwriting, and when my delicate writing needs a little muscle, he knows how to provide that sound without overwhelming the nature of the song. And since I knew I would be working with him, even the writing of the songs probably has the expectation of how we will record subconsciously baked into the formative stages.
How did you guys approach the whole orchestra on the record?
I always liked a good string arrangement but specifically ones that seemed to advance the song, rather than just being something slapped on to make it sound more grandly “artistic.” We’ve used strings on every record we’ve done. At first, these were more intimate quartet performances, but with the previous record A Slight Departure, I got more fully into larger-scale scores. So, for Signs and Wonders, I knew the songs would feature the strings prominently, and so the songs were always conceived with that kind of sound in mind. Ideally, the arrangements sound like an essential component of the performance – as vital as the drums or vocals. Sometimes, I would remind the band that we might need to leave some space in places for the orchestra to create a different type of atmosphere or excitement. This can be especially challenging on long songs that feature the strings such as our cover of “The Logical Song.” For the extended four-minute instrumental vamp, there really wasn’t much for the band to do. In fact, Greg put his bass part down after the strings had been recorded so that he could really pick his moments for impact, and otherwise leave tons of open space for the strings to take center stage.
Was this always meant to be a somewhat epic and symphonic album?
Yes. Though I’m not sure I knew it was going to be quite as “epic and symphonic” as it turned out to be…
Do you tend to take a different approach when you are collaborating with someone else rather than on your own?
That’s a great question. Back when I was much younger, working in other bands – though often with many of the same folks on the Birdsong stuff – I was a bit of a difficult guy, too dictatorial, not able to incorporate others’ ideas into my own, though desperate for their talents and skills in areas that I couldn’t deliver. I’ve since become much more open and grateful for what musicians can bring to the table. But that might be because from the outset, I proposed that Birdsong would be “my” project. I made it clear to Darleen and Greg that I wanted to focus on my songwriting, that I had fairly specific ideas about how the music would sound, and the directions it might go in. I was open to their input, but when a decision had to be made, it would be mine to make. Having that clear from the outset then takes the pressure off, eliminating a lot of the drama that goes on in bands. I put up the money, I commit the bulk of the time. They hopefully contribute their ideas and their talents to the degree that they want to, rather than being obligated or committed to something they don’t really believe in. And even if they don’t like a song (and Greg and Darleen both have a way of letting me know when this is the case), they only have to suffer through it for the 20 minutes it takes to get their parts down. And I tend to leave those songs off of the set list when the group performs. Solo shows are great outlets for getting to give some attention to the songs that only a father could love…
Having so much hard-hitting musicians on the album – how did you get to split the duties and balance the creativity?
I’ve worked with Greg since we were teenagers – we’re entering our fourth decade of making music together. Greg and Ben and I were roommates and bandmates in college, and I’ve made music with Darleen and Thomas since the early 90s. So, I’m pretty familiar with what they can do, and can anticipate what they will bring to the table. That kind of familiarity means playing together is almost second nature. There have been periods when four or five years have gone by since Ben and Greg played together, but halfway through the first take, they are reading each other’s minds. It’s a beautiful thing to experience, and I hope I never take it for granted. Ben and Thomas are ultra-professional, so they make extensive notes from listening to the demos. When we get to the studio, we don’t rehearse. We just go into record mode, and it’s truly amazing how the performances are so fully realized, even from the very first attempt at running it down. Then everyone goes away and leaves me to dive deep into the minutiae. Ben has been very kind to let me know he trusts me completely to put together edits and mixes that will reflect well on him. And that’s important because he is an amazing producer in his own right, and usually takes care of those aspects on other projects. I often run rough mixes by Darleen for her feedback. She has multiple decades of experience as a record producer and engineer, so her perceptions and suggestions are invaluable. Greg’s input is most helpful in the “taste” department. He has a great instinct for what works, and for what is overplayed or underwhelming. Together, they keep my worst ideas in check…
What role did Lowell play on the writing of this record?
It’s interesting that the album was written knowing we would be making videos for the songs. So certain images were part of the writing and recording stage. And once we started filming, it turns out that Lowell certainly plays a central character in so many of the videos, and by extension, the music. One example is the song “Smiles of a Summer Night.” Early on, I had the basic plot line of the video – busking musicians growing into a full-on parade band. There’s an amazing Honk-oriented marching band in Lowell, The Party Band. A little anarchic attitude, a whole lot of groove energy, etc. They are known to just show up in the street, or at some party, and in time have become a bit of a fixture in Lowell. Everyone knows the Party Band. So, I knew I wanted them in the video. Which then meant that I would have to have them on the record as well. I struggled with the notion of having a brass band suddenly show up on the album, as that was a sound we had never even hinted out before. It probably does throw listeners for a loop a bit, but when you see the video, it makes complete sense.
But environment can be so important in shaping the creative process, and so after moving to downtown Lowell a few years ago, it would be odd for the city not to influence the writing.
Where did you find the inspiration for the songs and lyrics?
That’s a question that can’t be answered very simply, other than to say “everywhere.” When I think of trying to answer, I think about how the mundane logistics of music/record making tend to drive creativity. For example, I use a lot of altered tunings on guitar. In a live setting, it can take a little extra time to adjust these tunings between songs. A set can go so much smoothly if a few songs share the same tuning. But you don’t want those songs to have the same tempo and feel. So sometimes, I will set up the guitar in a tuning I use for a ballad, and then explore the tuning to see if I can come up with something with a different energy. “Need more up-tempo songs in X tuning,” or perhaps something strummed rather than finger-picked, etc. So, the practicalities of live performance provide the impetus for writing a song. I used to approach lyrics in a very regimented way. I would have a theme, and then force the words to work with that theme, often away from any instrument. They had to make logical sense, move in a clear direction from point a to b. But I’ve since relaxed that considerably, opening up to include phrases that crop up early in the writing, crafting lyrics around them, even if I don’t fully understand where they came from.
Any plans to hit the road?
The requirements of my job for the last three years have made it very difficult to travel and perform. However, I will be stepping down as department chair at the University where I teach and will begin to book more shows in the future, probably travelling as a solo act, and performing with the group locally. If there’s anyone out there that wants me to come to their town, please let me know and I’ll figure out a way to make it happen!
What else is happening next in Birdsong At Morning’s world?
I’m resurrecting an album I recorded in the early 90s that I had a loss of confidence in after its initial release, only putting out a handful of copies to the public then carrying boxes of CDs with me for every move I’ve made since then. In a weird way, it’s got Greg, Thomas, and Ben performing on most of the tracks, so it’s not all that far away from Birdsong in one sense, even if the music is closer to the nexus of King Crimson, Badfinger and Johnny Cash. I’m going to redo my vocals, change up a few guitar things, remix and issue early next year. We may also re-issue our first album, the 2-hour box set debut Annals of My Glass House in new stereo and 5.1 surround mixes, perhaps as a 10-year anniversary release later in 2020. And I stupidly picked up a guitar a few months ago, and a new song sprang forth, so now I need to make plans for a new Birdsong album, probably for 2021 or later…