Birds of Chicago Interview

Husband and wife duo Birds of Chicago - JT Nero and Allison Russell - make a welcomed return to Ireland in May, playing two sold out dates at the Kilkenny Roots Festival. The shows take place on the weekend of the official release of their eagerly awaited new album Love In Wartime, a fitting title reflecting the more than ever requirement for empathy in disturbingly uncertain times, both in The States and Europe. Among other things Lonesome Highway spoke with Allison about the new album, their gruelling touring schedule and the prospect of a return to Kilkenny where she performed with Po’Girl back in 2007.

The song writing on Real Midnight, released in 2016, often reads as a reminder of appreciating the present and living in the moment as much darker places may lurk on the horizon. Is that a reflection of JT (Nero) and your own ideology or simply a theme you adopted for the album?

I think we try to live that way… in the moment, in the present. But we don’t always succeed. We became parents 4 years ago - having our daughter, Ida Maeve - intensified everything. The greatest love we’ve ever experienced and also the deepest fear, terror and uncertainty. We were (are) wrestling with the profound heaviness of being responsible for another’s life. The fear of the vagaries and cruelties of the world - the desire to keep her safe always and the pain of knowing that’s impossible. We’re trying everyday to be our best selves for her, seeing the wonder of the world through her eyes. I think the writing on Real Midnight reflects the beginning of that journey.

Engaging Joe Henry as producer on Real Midnight seemed the perfect fit for that particular album. What drew you towards him?

We’ve been admirers of both the albums he makes himself and those he makes with others for many years. Joe brings out the best in everyone he works with. He knows a little something about shadows and light - love and revelation…He was our dream producer really- and like a dream - we didn’t think it could ever happen in reality. But our friend Rhiannon Giddens stepped in and brought us together. It was a transcendent experience working with Joe. There’s a warning about meeting your heroes - but he is better than we could have imagined. And we’re proud to call him a friend now.

I believe the album was the final album recorded at his legendary Garfield House Studio?

It was indeed, and a bittersweet happenstance it was. Joe, and his wife Melanie, and their children Levon, and Lulu had spent a decade in that house. They rebuilt and beautified it and filled it with music, life, love, and goodness in a most palpable way. Everyone from Bonnie Raitt and Lucinda Williams to Solomon Burke and Allen Toussaint recorded there...I got to sing into the same mic Bonnie used.  Joe called it his decade long masters class. The “For Sale” sign went up as we were beginning the Real Midnight Sessions and it sold shortly thereafter. Jay Bellerose had a kit that had lived there for over seven years. Ryan Freeland (Joe’s go to engineer- he is a genius and a fantastic producer in his own right- he produced the Barr Brothers Sleeping Operator album and their latest) and Joe knew every acoustic nook and cranny of that house and used them to best effect for each project. The walls radiated history, creativity, and song... We feel very, very fortunate to have been blessed by that mojo…

Rhiannon Giddens, a regular visitor to Ireland, features on the album and in many ways the album has a gorgeous bluesy spiritual thread similar to that of her solo work. How did that connection come about?

I met Rhiannon when she was playing with the Carolina Chocolate Drops at the Vancouver Folk Fest in 2006. I was playing with Po’Girl at the time. My bandmate Awna Teixeira and I wound up in shared a dorm with CCD in the artist residence (literally a dorm at the University of British Columbia - which is where the Fest put up the artists in those days) - and epic jams and hangs ensued. I remember Rhiannon showed me Skype for the first time - which seemed so Sci-Fi to me - she was skyping with her then fiancé, now husband,  Michael Laffan, who was in (and is from) Limerick, Ireland…And she helped me track down a recording put out by the Library of Congress called Sweet Petunias - a compilation of rare early “race records” of African American women blues songwriter/singers. We stayed in touch and in 2011 she invited me to be part of a production that she and the Drops were spearheading at Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago. It was an exploration of the Great Migration of the African American diaspora from the South to the North and Vaudeville called Keep a Song in Your Soul - telling the story of the Black experience in America through Archetypal Vaudeville characters and music and dance from the period. Rhiannon played the protagonist “Country Girl” - and I played a bit of a villain- “City Girl”. There was a dance off involved - ha! JT and I formed Birds of Chicago in 2012 and Rhiannon invited us to open for the Drops on a tour and then had us open for some of the dates of her solo debut Tomorrow is my Turn tour in 2015.  She introduced us to Joe Henry, and now we rent her house in Nashville. And in her role as guest Artist Curator she’s presenting us at the Cambridge Folk Festival this August alongside Yola Carter, Amythyst Kiah, Kaia Kater, and Peggy Seeger. I’m also working on a project that she’s spearheading for Smithsonian Folkways. She’s a dear friend and a kindred spirit and has been a generous champion of ours.

We await the release of your new album Love In Wartime. Very interesting title. How will the material compare with Real Midnight?

Thematically there’s definitely a through line. Musically though - it’s a bit more of rock n’ roll record than Real Midnight. It’s more urgent. It’s been a fraught and divisive time in America, as I know it has in Europe as well…As a Canadian, who can’t vote in the country I’ve married into.. the last election was particularly destabilizing. If we only ever listened to the 24-hr news cycle or the current administration and didn’t have the privilege of traveling the length and breadth of the US - we wouldn’t know the deep kindness and goodness of the vast majority of Americans. We receive so much kindness and generosity from strangers in our touring life. Red State and Blue State alike. In the US, and Canada, and Ireland, and the UK, and the Netherlands - everywhere we’ve had the joy of touring. Strangers welcome us into their communities and become friends...  Friends who have all sorts of different beliefs, views, backgrounds, experiences, ethnicities, orientations, hurts - but who ultimately have more in common than not… We felt an urgency about reaffirming the ties that bind us and our shared human experience-  strength and vulnerability, fear and anger, hope and love- music… rather than buying into the specious rhetoric of  “us” and “them”...

The songs on Love in Wartime were born on the road - through two years of intensive touring and bonding with our 5 piece road band- Chris Merrill on bass, Nick Chambers on drums, Joel Schwartz on electric guitars, and JT and I of course, and Ida Maeve and our magical tour manager/ Ida whisperer Suzi Boelter... It marks the first time that JT and I have co-written songs (in the past we’ve written individually and then brought the songs to the band to arrange and elevate) - and the first time that Chris Merrill and JT have co-written, and the first time that Drew Lindsay (JT’s younger brother and our keys man on all our records) and I have co-written. We were also joined on the record by Dan Abu-Absi (Radio Free Honduras), who is a long-time member of our extended musical clan and a JT and The Clouds (JT’s previous band) alumnus - he plays second guitar. And we were joined by Javier Saumee Mazzee on percussion, and Kelly Hogan and Nora O’Connor (The Decembrists, Neko Case, The Flat Five) on additional harmony vocals.  We were joined by the marvellous Luther Dickinson (North Mississippi Allstars) in the role of co- producer along with JT. He made sure that we never played a song more than 3 times. We were all together at Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio Studio A (great warm sound, high ceilings, fantastic sight lines, and more music history mojo) with Alex Hall on the board (The Flat Five) - playing live and in real time pushing back the shadows in our hearts and minds and revelling in the communion that is a whole becoming more than the sum of its parts.

Is the album’s theme based in the present day or a retrospective on bygone times?

Both I’d say - and with a hope that our children or their children’s children may see an end of war in all its guises...

JT gets the writing credits for the majority of the songs on Real Midnight. Is this also the case with Love In Wartime and does he seek your input to ensure that the songs suit your vocal?

It’s always collaborative arrangement and shaping wise - but Love in Wartime is specifically more collaborative in terms of co-writing, though he still takes the lion’s share - not in a selfish way - JT is simply a much more prolific writer than I - he tends to churn out finished songs faster that I do. I have a slower arc to my writing- I have to fight the crippling inner critic more fiercely - particularly since becoming a mother. I’ve tended to write more in fits and starts.  But that’s starting to shift now that Ida is older and doesn’t get enraged anymore every time I pick up a banjo, or work on a tune- ha! JT is my biggest cheerleader. And he has been one of my all-time favourite writers since before I met him in person. So, I do particularly love when he taps into his inner feminine and merges with my voice/perspective. It’s a deeply intimate, open heart process. And I shape and bend the melodies as I see fit. Trust and connection and intuition like that with another writer/musician who also happens to be my life partner and one and only love is a gift I don’t take for granted.

You’re certainly working with some of the best with Steve Dawson co-producing the American Flowers EP released last year and Luther Dickinson on board for Love In Wartime. What factors dictate your choice of producers?

Joe, Steve, and Luther are all kindred spirits. They all have the same disregard for false/ superficial genre divisions that we do. They all have a bracing lack of preciousness or perfectionism in their approach as producers and musicians. They are all three musicians first - extra-ordinary ones - which I didn’t really think of consciously before you asked me this question. They are all ego-less - it’s not about them slapping some sort of brand upon the other artists they journey with/guide. It’s about keeping the conduits open, and the music flowing as naturally, and honestly as possible. It’s about helping the artists they work with get out of their own way. And that resonates deeply with us. They are also all three supremely good, wise, gentlemen and long-term husbands (of truly brilliant, amazing, creative, strong wives Melanie, Alice, and Necha) and fathers of equally brilliant, amazing, creative strong daughters (Joe also has a son - extremely creatively gifted too) - another commonality I never really thought of before...None of them supports flogging a song into the ground. Flow masters one and all...All of them tend to make a record in 6 days or less. In our case 4 days for Real Midnight, 1 day for American Flowers, 4 days for Love in Wartime.

Does Luther also contribute on the new album given his vast instrumental talents?

He doesn’t - this was such a band record - Luther didn’t feel the need to play since Joel and Dan were already shredding so hard- ha! Again Luther, like Joe and Steve isn’t coming from an ego-based place with his producing or playing. We will definitely do some recording together in future. I had the joy of doing some singing, and playing some clarinet, on Luther’s upcoming children’s record… He was initially slated to come and do some playing on the American Flowers session - but his schedule got too crazy ... he’s one of the hardest working musicians I know.

Has your relocation to Nashville changed your musical direction in any way?

Maybe in the sense of being more open to co-writes. And perhaps feeling more validated as a writer. There’s something so freeing and empowering for an artist and a writer to be in a town that has literally been built on songs. It is a “real” job!

You seem to be constantly touring, playing up to 200 shows a year. Is this a labour of love for you or a necessary industry evil?

Both I’d say … in a perfect world we’d tour 6 months out of the year and not 10-  Ida is getting older and needing more social time with peers…That’s been part of our move to Nashville - trying to shift things enough - to have a little more home time. She’s started (pre)school three days a week at a lovely gentle school here -they are used to musician’s children and nomadic schedules - and are flexible about it.  JT and Steve Dawson have started a production/engineering team together called Dim Stars. They just produced an album for Raina Rose (she is wonderful) - which I’m very excited about. I recently had a song of mine recorded by another artist for the first time - the luminous Lizz Wright (Concord Records) recorded a version of my song Barley to start off her latest Joe Henry produced album Grace. So, baby steps towards diversifying our music industry portfolio so to speak...I’ve always wanted to do voice overs- just putting that out there. 

You’re embarking on an intensive four-week tour in Europe commencing in April. How challenging is that both logistically and financially for Birds of Chicago?

We’re bringing over our five-piece band (with Andy Stack filling in for Joel Schwartz on electric guitar) for the first time - so it’s definitely a bigger risk/leap that we’re taking financially this time around. We wanted to do justice to the record and play our full band show in Europe- so hopefully people come along...I heard our Kilkenny Roots Fest shows are already sold out - so that’s encouraging! Logistically we are in very capable hands with the debonair Will Waghorn covering tour management duties. Our dear friend Pam is coming to watch Ida. We love how short the drives are in Europe as compared to touring in North America - especially my Canadian homeland … JT and I are very much looking forward to exploring the parks and museums of Europe with Ida before soundcheck everyday. 

Are both your previous projects, JT & The Clouds and Po’Girl, history at this stage or just in a self-induced coma?

Ha, I like that - self- induced coma ... Not history -Po’Girl has been on an extended hiatus whilst I worked on BoC and nation building, and whilst my beloved bandmate and sister from another mister - Awna Teixeira worked on 3 gorgeous solo records, we are the last two Po’s left standing. Trish Klein is managing other artists and running her own cafe/small venue/record store/label in Vancouver, BC called Hidden City Records. Diona teaches fiddle on a small island in BC. Most of the Clouds are also Birds. And Awna has also just relocated to Nashville - she and I are working on writing a new Po’Girl record (which is going to be produced by JT and Steve Dawson AKA Dim Stars) - that we’ll start recording sometime in the autumn. It’s a big extended family.

You played the Kilkenny Roots Festival in 2007 as part of Po’Girl. What are your memories of that visit?  

We had so much fun - hard to reckon that that is over a decade ago now! I remember we got there in time to dance with wild abandon to the Sadies set, I remember staying up till all hours in the hotel bar with all the other musicians- I remember playing in some beautiful underground ancient stone place- for some of the sponsors maybe with some of the other artists - I remember being mesmerized by Patrician Vonne’s castanet dance. Hearing Sarah Borges for the first time ... I remember being too shy to go up and talk to Amy Helm who was playing with Ollabelle at the time- she has since become a dear friend. I remember Paul Brainerd from Richmond Fontaine leaping up onstage to play a ripping trumpet solo with us … I remember feeling so welcome and at home and our whole band plotting how we could move to Ireland - in fact Trish Klein took steps to get her Irish citizenship soon after that - and met some long-lost relatives of hers while we were there … We were very young and we all drank too much and didn’t sleep enough and it was glorious.

I’ve no doubt you’ll receive a very warm welcome on your return to Kilkenny Roots in May and we very much look forward to your shows!

Thank you so much Declan- I’m thrilled that I get to come back with my new band! And with my family - peace, love, music - See you in May: xo Alli and the BoC family.

Interview by Declan Culliton