Birdsong At Morning’s Slight Departure
The pop/rock act Birdsong At Morning — singer/songwriter Alan Williams, guitarist Darleen Wilson and bassist Greg Porter — draws from folk rock on its adventurous new album, A Slight Departure. The album opens with the pensive “The Great Escape,” a song that shows off Williams’ resonant vocals. On “Devil’s Stomping Ground,” the band uses Eastern instrumentation and chanted vocals to create a haunting tune. We emailed Williams a few questions about the band’s history and the album.
What made you to first want to start writing songs?
When I was a kid playing classical piano, I found that some the mistakes I made sounded more interesting to me than what the composer had written on the page. Sometimes I would explore the possibilities my mistakes suggested and in that I discovered the thrill of creating something musical. I also was a total Beatlemaniac during the 1970s – after the band was current, but just in time for the first wave of Beatle nostalgia marketing. So I found myself learning their songs by ear, trying to translate them to piano, and later to guitar. I distinctly remember showing my babysitter that I had just figured out the intro to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” So, learning song construction and arrangement began to happen as a by-product of trying to copy their music. By my later teens, I had fallen under the spell of Pete Townshend. The first actual song I wrote sounds like an outtake from “Who Are You?”
I think I read that you stopped writing for a time. What made you stop and what got you started again?
I stopped making music after Knots and Crosses, the band I helped form in the early ’90s, broke up following a disastrous deal with Island Records (not to mention a divorce, though tellingly, it was the record deal that was harder to survive). I quickly channeled my efforts into a solo album, but just as I was about to release it I had a deep loss of confidence and decided to hold it back. I still have almost a thousand of these CDs in storage. After that, I put the instruments away and reigned myself to living a life as something other than a musician. Of course, even though I was convinced I didn’t have the talent to be a musician I also realized I didn’t have the skills to be much of anything else either. I stuck pretty close to that world by becoming a recording studio engineer, often working on my friends’ records. That work led circuitously to a part-time teaching gig, which then led to grad school in order to try to convert that somewhat lowly position into a full-time career. It was while getting a PhD in ethnomusicology, that I became involved in a number of world music ensembles – Javanese Gamelan, Ghanaian drumming, Middle Eastern – and rediscovered the joys of making music without professional expectation. There was also an old time string band that I sometimes sat in with, and the professor that led that encouraged anyone, no matter their ability or experience to join in. Darleen ended up coming down to some of those rehearsals (on fiddle, an instrument new to her). We were both inspired by the warmth of just sitting around in a circle and making some music for the sheer joy of playing. Around this time my old friend Greg mentioned to me that he was itching to do some playing again after a similar career trajectory where his bass ended up in a basement closet after years as a pro/semi-pro musician. So we invited a bunch of our friends, all of whom had given up music at some point in their lives, to gather in outliving room and reclaim some of our musical identity. For months we jammed on old Beatles tunes, as most of us were too shy to put forward anything of our own. But after borrowing a guitar while on vacation in Hawaii, I discovered slack key tuning. Something in the discovery process felt akin to my earliest explorations of the piano. Lo and behold, a song came out of nowhere after a 12 year drought. I duly brought it back to our little circle, and on a day when only Greg and Darleen bothered to show up, Birdsong At Morning was born.
I think the first Birdsong At Morning release was a box set. What was it like to assemble such an endeavor?
After that first song, music started pouring out in an almost continuous stream and I went from writing nothing in a dozen years to writing a dozen songs within a few months. Another batch of songs was in a half-finished state, worked out enough to construct an arrangement but usually lacking a complete set of lyrics. Once we decided to record, I wanted to maximize our time with old friend Ben Wittman who graciously agreed to play drums. He helped arrange a two-day session at Avatar studio in New York—one of the worlds’ finest recording studios, especially for drums. We started with the songs that were solid and complete, and by the end of the session got to the ones that I just sort of mumbled nonsense words for to help Ben know where we were in the form. We then decided to release shorter EPs, so that as I finished lyrics, we would put together the next batch of songs from the Avatar [Studio] sessions. But even early on, we considered all of songs somewhat of a piece, and I envisioned collecting them all in a box set as the true, complete statement. The benefit of this was that we were always in a state of creation. As soon as another set of songs was mixed, we’d work on the graphics and get it off to the pressing plant. Even while waiting for the discs to come back, we would begin work on the next set. We had already picked album covers in advance and put together rough running orders well in advance of actually having all the songs fully realized. The downside was that it was difficult to maintain the energy required to also be in a constant state of promoting new releases, and frankly, many media outlets got tired of us pestering them every six months with a new record. By the time the box set came out, it was kinda old news. But as a statement, it is both a body of fully formed work and a document of our growth as we became more and more confident about the songs, the arrangements, and the mixes.
Talk about the initial songwriting sessions for A Slight Departure. What direction did you want the music to go in?
A lot of the material on the box set Annals of My Glass House was born from writing on my own, developing a more delicate finger-picking and upper register singing style. I made a concerted effort not to force myself to write as I had in my 20s, with all the rock-inspired energy. I saw that part of my songwriting as something that was from an earlier time, and that the more reflective material was better suited to someone of my advanced age. But a funny thing happened… I started to write songs that incorporated some of that youthful energy, but with a more adult perspective. I’m not sure I consciously tried to move away from the quiet sound we have developed, but rather consciously allowed those impulses to come back in to the music. The album title references the themes of restless separation and transition that seemed to emerge from the lyric, as well as a comment of the musical direction we had undertaken.
What were the recording sessions like? Where did you record and how’d you manage to release a surround sound recording?
We employed the same process we had established with the box set. I demoed all the songs, then we brought Ben out to record, this time in a funkier though well-appointed studio in the Boston area. We loved the sounds we were getting, and the vibe was really conducive to making music as something pleasurable rather than purely workman-like. That said, I was highly organized and the group was prepared (most of the songs were actually completed before the session, for example). So we were able to get all the drums, bass, and a number of guitar overdubs done in three days. I then worked on fleshing out some of the arrangements and getting final vocals done before moving to strings. Strings had become a big part of our sound on the box set, and I wanted to maintain that connection while seeing what else could be done with those sounds in a more energetic context. Fortunately, by this time we had done a number of recording sessions, as well as some concerts with a core group of string players. So, even several years apart, it felt like they were part of the band. We were able to get all the strings done with careful layering of recorded performances over two days. We did the strings at WGBH in Boston where they had an excellent room for acoustic instruments, but were also equipped to deal with multi-track playback, headphones, etc. I then began to work on mixes but, because of my full-time job as a professor, that process took place very slowly over a number of years. In fact, even after the drum sessions, it took several months for me to even go back and listen to what we had done, editing takes together, etc. So mixing became somewhat protracted, not because I put a lot of time into it, but rather because I let a lot of time go by. I might find a long weekend to focus on mixes, but then set the album aside for another few months as the semester wore on. This was somewhat frustrating but, on the other hand, I spent a lot of time listening to reference mixes and probably gained a lot of valuable perspective over time. When I went back to mix I had a fairly clear idea of the adjustments I wanted to make. Rather than feeling rushed, I felt very confident in what we ended up with. But even then, I knew that stereo was not really the final statement. In parallel with the formation of Birdsong I become enamored of music in surround sound. Not all older music translates well when remixed in surround, but sometimes the space and depth were revelatory. Sadly, the format never took off and so, despite a few exciting new releases, not a lot of new music was being issued in surround. In a lot of ways, this was very liberating. As I began to survey a number of recordings to see how it was done, I realized that there wasn’t really a definitive approach to treating music in surround. I was free to do what felt right to me. Many of the recorded arrangements were conceived with surround in mind, but several producers and engineers had warned me that I should finish the stereo mixes first because once you start taking advantage of the options surround affords going back to the limitations of stereo can be challenging and disappointing. And I have to say as a listener it’s very hard for me to appreciate the album in stereo now. The surround is a much richer experience. Doesn’t make a lot of commercial sense, but neither does debuting with a 4-CD box set.
The song “Murderous Friend” is one of the more intense tunes on the disc. What exactly inspired the song?
Hmmm… That song is perhaps the only song that I’ve ever written from start to finish in one session. Perhaps staying focused resulted in something a little more intense. The lyric was certainly inspired by the dynamic between the two anti-heroes at the center of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. I didn’t follow the narrative of the story, but did let certain images and tropes from the film reconfigure themselves in the service of a story that is Master-like in theme—a co-dependent relationship that is doomed to break apart in sadness and chaos.
I like the way “Devil’s Stomping Ground” has an Eastern vibe to it. Talk about the music for that song and what you are trying to evoke.
That song is actually from my pre-Birdsong life, co-written with my former bandmate in Knots and Crosses, Rick Harris. The two of us were working on his first solo album when we came up with the song. The melody is kind of all over the place range-wise and thus more suited to my voice than to Rick’s, so despite recording an awesome guitar solo, we left of off the album. Years later, when I began thinking about different things we could do with strings, I thought about the awesome string arrangements that John Paul Jones had done for Led Zeppelin, not just for “Kashmir,” but also “Friends.” I then thought that perhaps I could resurrect the song Rick and I had written, but in place of the guitar pyrotechnics the strings could take over and play something that felt like an improvised solo, even though it was clearly orchestrated, like so much pop music from the Middle East and India has done. So there’s a little of that “exoticized” rock thing going on—a comment on Zeppelin and the Beatles more than a comment on the global music traditions that inform the arrangement.
There’s a place on the central part of North Carolina that is referred to as the Devil’s Tramping Ground. I read about it as a kid in a book about haunted places in North Carolina. In the book, the description of a haunted forest was appealingly terrifying. I’ve never been, and I’m sure if I went I would be disappointed. But keeping it more in the imagination, I could envision shadows—other-worldly beings dancing around a bonfire, etc. And that sense of abandon might even be erotically charged, so there’s that.
You’re a music professor. How does that impact the music you make with Birdsong At Morning?
Having a decent paying job makes it possible to lose ungodly amounts of money on box sets and Blu-ray discs. And having a job that includes extended periods of time off also helps to make long-term projects feasible. Of course, the logistics of the job also mean that I’m rarely ever to completely focus on the music, and thus our albums take a long time to reach completion and we are severely restricted in where/when we can perform. But I also draw inspiration from working with students who have amazing ideas, and lots of energy. Their lack of cynicism about music making, and even the music industry, really helps motivate me in the right direction, with a more open attitude. I enjoy making music more than I ever have, and feel that the students are also inspired by my own example as a creative musician. It’s a great gig – I highly recommend spending many years toiling on a dissertation and living under the intense pressure of going up for tenure.
I think you’ve already begun to give the next album some thought. What direction do you see things going in?
We were all pretty pleased by how the last record came out. I think musically we will continue to explore the possibilities in energized, though considered, music. I think we are learning how to strike a balance, not just by having some songs that are loud, and others that are more delicate, but rather by integrating the precision and detail of our arrangements with a more youthful drive and power while still looking at the world through 50-year-old eyes. Also, the process of creating visual imagery to match the music is really intriguing. We learned so much from making the three music videos on A Slight Departure that I think we will now craft some sort of video for every song on the next record. I’m sure that won’t add any time to the project.