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The SPECifics: Q & A with Beth Tacular of Bowerbirds

Bowerbirds, Beth Tacular interview, Bowerbirds interview

Photo by D.L. Anderson

[Win tickets to see Bowerbirds live on Saturday, Oct. 20 at Crescent Ballroom]

There is a vulnerability that comes with sharing one’s stories, especially in art form. In Bowerbirds‘ March release, The Clearing, Philip Moore and Beth Tacular offer a sincerity that is rarely found in modern music.

The third album from the North Carolina folk group that formed in 2006 feels like a deep breath, a sigh of relief, fresh air.

Since 2009, Bowerbirds has been dealt troubles that threatened its musical growth — a break up and the sudden illness of Tacular.

With time, the two reconnected, Tacular healed and the band found its bearings.

The Clearing has undertones of darkness throughout,  “everything falls to death,” Moore explains in opening track “Tuck in the Darkness.” But there is also a since of hope, an undeniable optimism when Moore sings, “no you’re not alone” in closing track “Now We Hurry On.

The album ends with a soft reminder to “take your time with it / all of it,” which is exactly what Bowerbirds has done.

The Spec had the opportunity to ask Tacular some intimate questions about her life and work, read her answers below…

The Spec: The last few years have been toilsome – how are you? How does it feel to be back with new music and live shows?
Beth Tacular: We are hanging in there! It feels good to be playing new songs, and also to be reinterpreting the old ones with our different instrumentation. At this point in our album cycle, after already touring twice in the U.S. and three times in Europe this year, we are playing the songs in new arrangements. We toured this summer as a three piece, after being a five piece band for the spring tours, to be able to afford flying back and forth to festivals in the U.S. and Europe, but for this fall tour we have our cellist Leah [Gibson] back in the band.

This summer we worked out arrangements with synthesizers and other electronic elements melding with acoustic ones, which was fun, but it’s made a lot richer with Leah’s gorgeous cello playing. Rehearsing for this tour was a lot of fun because of all the options we have for how to make the songs sound.

TS: I read in an interview with Moore that you don’t listen to many indie artists but enjoy revisiting older music. Can you share some musicians who have inspired your work? Are there any artists who your fans would be surprised to know you cherish?
BT: I’m not sure we don’t listen to other indie artists, but we aren’t really influenced by other artists working in the folk genre. There are some similarities between the sound of Bowerbirds and some other current “indie folk” or “indie rock” artists, but that’s mostly because we share influences like African kora players like Mamadou Diabate, or Paul Simon, or Alice Coltrane. We listen to Fleetwood Mac, Neil Young, and then I’d say we are more influenced by current experimental artists or hip-hop artists than other folk artists.

Not that we don’t listen to acoustic music. We love love love love Doug Paisley, for example. Phil and I met in 2004, and on our first date, we talked about music for like two hours, amazed we had such similar taste. We had both been into Polvo, Superchunk, Radiohead, Simon & Garfunkel, Bjork, Aphex Twin and a lot of electronic music as we were growing up. We basically like a good song, with good energy and that is doing something new.

TS: What is the Bowerbirds’ creative process? Your lyrics are so intimate, does one of you take the reigns for songwriting or is it a shared task?
BT: Phil writes most of the music and lyrics. I write parts to a lot of his songs, and I wrote most of two songs on our new album, including the lyrics. I help him out with the song structure and lyrics for his songs, but overall, he is a better musician than I am. When we met, I was a visual artist getting my Master’s degree in Visual Art and Social Change. My art was largely about the natural environment and other politically oriented topics, and I think that rubbed off onto Phil’s lyrical content on that first EP and consecutive albums.

All our lyrics are very personal, even when they don’t seem to be. This might sound corny, but we are sort of in love with the earth and the land we live on, as much as we are with each other, or with music or any art form. Or more so, probably, which is why so many of our songs are love songs about the land.

Bowerbirds interview, Bowerbirds The Clearing, The Clearing, Bowerbirds, Beth Tacular interviewTS: Taking into account the ups and downs you’ve experienced in recent years, The Clearing seems to have been therapeutic for you individually and as a whole — what do you hope listeners take from your music or this new release?
BT: It was therapeutic, although it was a ton of work to make this album — much more work than our previous ones. But we intentionally wanted the lyrics and general vibe of the album to be coming from a positive outlook and maybe inspire hope in people, or acceptance of one’s situation in life, in a good way, where you aren’t always thinking the grass is always greener somewhere else. Or maybe we just wrote these songs as a way to remind ourselves of that, and if other people get that same thing out of the songs, then great.

TS: Your past albums were more stripped down, D-I-Y and lo-fi in terms of production, even The Clearing was partially recorded at your own home — what was your experience recording at April Base Studios?
BT: We love Brian Joseph, who we met when we toured with Justin (Bon Iver) in 2008, when he was doing their live sound. Brian is an incredible and fastidious engineer, so it was very educational to work with him for a couple weeks up in Wisconsin. We learned a lot about microphone placement during that time, and we probably also realized our past recording efforts were a little slapdash. Not that there was anything wrong with the live recordings we did for our earlier albums, but for this album, we took our time more. It took a lot of patience, which we learned in part from Brian.

It was also really nice being up on the land in Wisconsin, going for walks in the snow and checking out local livestock along the roads. We got Yan [Westerlund]’s college friend to come over and play saxophone and a variety of reed instruments on the songs, and Sean Carey came over and added some vibraphone. We had all these parts written at home, for the strings and reed instruments, which we used a melodica to write, for the demos that we brought with us to April Base. The demos that we recorded before going to April Base were basically almost identical to the finished album, except a lot less polished. We knew we had only a couple weeks to record everything with Brian, and it turned out that it wasn’t enough time to record the vocals at all, which we did at home, afterwards.

TS: Can you share with us a typical day for you at your home in North Carolina?
BT: Well, it really depends on what project we are working on. During the summer that we were finishing recording the album, it was pretty much: wake up at 10 A.M., make and eat breakfast, drink tea while setting up microphones, record parts until 2 P.M., take a snack on a walk with the dogs, record again until 10pm, I made dinner while Phil kept recording, then record until 4 A.M., go to sleep. It was pretty grueling. When we are writing music, it’s the same, only with more walks, a real lunch, and chill time in the evenings to watch movies or read or snuggle the dogs.

When we are building on our cabin, we put in 10-15 hour days building. We have basically been working way too hard for the last few years, but it’s because we have too many big dreams, I guess, and we have to work really hard to make ends meet. We have been talking to each other recently about what we want our ideal day to be like after this tour, when we are home again for a while, and we really want to reclaim our time and have our lives be more like they were when we were writing our first EP and album, when we did have a lot more free time and were home a lot more and had more time to spend with friends. There is always the conflict between the life of a touring musician and having connections to one’s local community. That’s really important to us.

In the two weeks we were home before this tour, we spent a lot of days where we woke up, make breakfast and tea, and then each worked on our own creative projects for the whole morning, then I did yoga and made lunch, and then we’d talk a little and get back to work on our projects until dinnertime. We’d cook together and then watch movies or have a glass of wine and talk. On weekends, we like to hang out and party with our friends. We like to have friends out to our land and cook together, or to go visit them in town, go to concerts and art shows and have big slumber parties. I’d say most of our lives these days are a slumber party of some sort. Sleeping bags play a big role in our lives.

TS: Traveling to big and small cities while touring is a change from your daily routine – what do you enjoy most about touring and how do you counter bouts of homesickness?
BS: Our favorite things about touring are: people watching in cities, noticing the cultural differences between different places, tasting the regional foods, going for walks when we have time, and playing the shows. We’d just as soon give up all the long drives and sleep deprivation. But we try to eat well on tour, stopping at a lot of food co-ops and similar places. We try not to think too much about home while we are away and just embrace this totally different life. Tour life is entirely different from country life, and it’s sort of a nice balance. I come home from tour each time with a lot of inspiration.

TS: How much, and in what ways, do you anticipate your live performances during this tour to be different from the recorded work, especially with the addition of Leah Gibson on cello?
BT: I think most of the live versions on this tour are louder than our recorded work, and with some synthesizers and electronic elements, as well as the accordion, cello and acoustic guitar. It’s a good blend, I think. We are trying to make the live shows as dynamic as we can. Leah is amazing, as is our drummer Yan Westerlund, and we have five people to sing harmonies right now, which is always fun.

In one word, Danger at the Sea is…cliff.

In one word, Hymns for a Dark Horse is…wagon.

In one word, Upper Air is…storm.

In one word, The Clearing is…valley.


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