Music News

The Bowerbirds are every bit as ornate as their namesake

Some say the bowerbird is one of the most fascinating birds in the world. The males go to great lengths to build ornate bowers with twigs, grass and bright objects to attract the females, which is pretty rare in the animal kingdom. This particular bird inspired the moniker of North Carolina-based alt-folk group the Bowerbirds. Chief songwriter Phil Moore, who used to be an avid birdwatcher and has had a couple of jobs tracking birds, thinks bowerbirds are cool.

"They're like artists, and they put these bowers together with berries and flowers and stuff," Moore explains. "That's why I think we thought it would be a cool name. We're just intrigued with these birds because of how much they're artists, basically. They're really fascinating birds. I wouldn't say that means we're that fascinating, necessarily. That's what we see ourselves as doing. We like to make things."

Like their namesake, Moore and Beth Tacular, who's also a painter, are artists who like to live among the trees. For the past three years, the pair has been living off the grid in an Airstream trailer in the woods outside of Pittsboro, which is about an hour east of Raleigh, North Carolina. Until they started focusing more on music and touring with the likes of Bon Iver, John Vanderslice and the Mountain Goats, they also had a web design company, which they ran out of the trailer or at a nearby coffee shop with Wi-Fi.

Moore says they're still holding on to the web business, even though, these days, they don't really have the time for it: "You have clients who need your help, and they need you when you're on tour, and you're like, 'Oh, shit, I can't do that right now.'"

Talk about an interesting juxtaposition: using solar power, and not very much of it, to design websites in the woods. "Looking back on it, it's funny," Moore agrees. "There were so many times when we were slapping mosquitoes on us in North Carolina humidity, 100 degrees, and having to finish this website for a person or something like that. It is really funny."

Funny, but not all that novel when you consider how resourceful the two web designers are. Moore and Tacular have also been working on a cabin made of reclaimed boards, which they were hoping to have finished last year. "It's really hard, because we want to put a lot of time into it, but we keep going out on these tours," he says. "We're not spending a long enough time at home."

Not long enough to be productive, perhaps, but they've certainly been home long enough to be inspired to write songs. "That's pretty much what I need," Moore notes. "I just need some isolation and some quiet."

Bowerbirds songs reflect that sentiment, especially the ones that appear on the group's debut, 2007's Hymns for a Dark Horse, which essentially focuses on how the earth is a sacred place and how humans are just visitors here. On the song "Dark Horse," for example, Moore and Tacular sing in wonderful harmonies: "We live with the cockroach/And we spilt our cords of oak/And keep this wood stove burning/And we stow our words in the cellar/So we never lose hope." And on "In Our Talons," Moore sings about warblers, sparrows, beetles and crippled trees.

Moore says he didn't necessarily set out to make an earth-friendly album with Hymns for a Dark Horse; rather, he just started writing songs, some of which were inspired by books he was reading at the time by author and environmental activist Derrick Jensen. He adds that the band's new album, Upper Air, released this month on the Dead Oceans imprint, was a continuation of the style he's always written in, but that it's definitely more personal than Dark Horse. Indeed, the disc, which also features violinist/percussionist Mark Paulson and bassist Wes Phillips, contains a fair amount of songs devoted to love and relationships, such as "Beneath Your Tree," in which Moore sings, "I could bleed, bleed, bleed for days, but my heart would still beat for you, dear/Yet we carry on like a storm, like we've no idea where we're coming from."

Moore is tight-lipped when it comes to revealing whether songs like "Beneath Your Tree" were written with Tacular in mind, saying only, "Maybe or maybe not. Depending on what song it is, I like to leave it up to the listener to interpret it however they what. I like literal lyrics where you can really figure out what's going on, but I also like equally kind of vague lyrics where you can interpret certain sections the way you want to."

For the most part, Bowerbirds songs are straightforward and literal, though some can come across as a little less direct. "I'm trying to be as truthful and honest as possible," Moore explains. "Sometimes it comes out more obtuse. I remember talking to Mark in the band about one of the songs, and he was like, 'Well, it's a lot different than the other songs in that it's more obtuse.' I forget which song it was. I had no idea, but the song made perfect sense to me."

On both albums, Moore's wispy vocals, which at times recall Andrew Bird or Sondre Lerche, are the centerpiece of the act's minimal acoustic sound. For her part, Tacular lends some lovely harmony vocals throughout both recordings. Upper Air was recorded in a huge empty space in the back of what used to be a label-making mill and is now a co-op in the town of Pittsboro.

"We set up back there and tried to get a lot of that room sound in the recording," Moore recalls. "It was a pretty fun experience. Overall, the recording process only took a couple of weeks. Maybe even a week, or a week and a half. I had been writing songs for probably for about a year and a half now. That was quite a process - between touring - to get these songs done and everything. There never seemed to be very much time."

In contrast, Moore, Tacular and Paulson recorded the sparse Hymns for a Dark Horse live in the studio. Upper Air is more layered, and you can hear the difference. "We were pretty limited with the instrumentation just recording live," says Moore. "We wanted to be able have more options, and so I just recorded all my vocals and guitar separate, and then we added things that we felt we should add or whatever."

To that end, Upper Air is rounded out with organ, piano, marimba, autoharp and upright bass. To help interpret some of the new material on the current tour, Moore and Tacular have added Paulson and Brad Cook, who also plays with tourmates and fellow North Carolina alt-folkers Megafaun.

From the sounds of it, these Bowerbirds are indeed not all that different from their artistic avian namesakes when it comes to adding ornate flourishes to their handiwork.

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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon