Bowerbirds has a distinctively rural DIY aesthetic: They live somewhat in isolation in the country of North Carolina in a cabin they built themselves using homemade gear. They write devotionals to trees, sparrows and majestic mountains. At one point they lived in an Airstream trailer. But when it came time to make their their third album, The Clearing, Bowerbirds' core songwriters Phil Moore and Beth Tacular (who are also a couple) and multi-instrumentalist Mark Paulson eschewed some of their trademark homespun craft.
The band is clearly in expansion mode with its music, allowing the templates of their simple folk songs to bloom into something far richer. They also decided to turn to some outside help. Bowerbirds recorded with engineer Brian Joseph at Justin Vernon's Wisconsin studio April Base and later mixed the record with Nicholas Vernhes of New York's Rare Book Room. Both contributed a discerning ear to all the new sounds and instruments present on the record. "The effect was making us care more about the timbre of all these little details," explains Tacular.
Until The Clearing, Bowerbirds instrumentation was spare a creaky acoustic guitar, some churning accordion, a violin and a lone bass drum. But the first thing that stands out on Bowerbirds' third record is how vibrant it sounds. The songs contain ornate string passages and regal horn arrangements, clacking percussion, pianos and even some buzzy guitar distortion, sounds that two albums ago might have felt out of place.
I recently spoke with Beth Tacular about one of the record's tracks, "In The Yard," how Bowerbirds came about its richer sound and about the personal struggles Tacular and Moore overcame that rekindled both their relationship and joy for music.
What is "In The Yard" about and what's the feeling you were trying to capture?
Beth Tacular: "In The Yard" is a celebratory song; it's one of those pure joy feelings, like when you're laying in the sun and feeling the sun on your body. The lyrics are about back when we bought some land. It's not land that's on some mountain range or a river or in the Alps or these amazing places we see when we're on tour.
The song was inspired in part by this story I read a few years ago by a man who took his son into his backyard because he felt bad that he lived in the suburbs and never had time to take his kids out into nature. And when they went into the backyard he realized there were all these tiny insects that they could look at and there was nature to be seen.
We definitely have more nature than that where we live we're at the end of a long road, there's 100 acres on one side of us and we have these two awesome dogs so they can run around. But there's some things that are kind of ridiculous about our land, like there's a little area that was a dump old car parts and manky little trees and stuff. But at the same time you just sit there and see all kinds of animals and it's so quiet out here. So I think it's about being happy.
You've talked quite a bit about how you and Phil broke up for a time and you also faced a fairly serious health scare. How did those things affect the dynamic of the band?
I think the lusher sound of this record came [from] our changed perspective in the last year where we went through those difficult life things when we broke up and got back together. Then we had the health things and I got really sick. Also, one of the songs on The Clearing is about Phil's best friend, who he had known for years who died. He was a professional skydiver and his parachute got tangled and his back up parachute got tangled too. And it's just like Phil's closest person and that was really hard for him.
Phil and I had broken up while we were on tour. During those months while we were still touring and not sure we were going to get back together, the best time of the day was the hour or hour and a half we were on stage everything went away and it felt really wonderful during that time every day. So I think we focused more on what that felt like.
On The Clearing, and more specifically "In The Yard," you are now playing with a more dramatic, colorful palette. Was there a conscious desire to expand the scope of Bowerbirds' music?
[With] the other albums we would work on the songs in between things, and then record them in two weeks. This one we recorded over six months and just kept listening to the songs and adding things and taking things away until we felt like they were the way we wanted them. We recorded most of this one ourselves, and actually made demos of all the songs ourselves, kind of in the same vein as our earlier recordings. But they were a lot fuller in terms of more instruments.
Justin Vernon and Brian Joseph have been our friends for a long time and we felt like, to capture all the different instruments and sounds, it would really help to work with someone who knew what they were doing a little bit more than we did. Brian is just an amazing engineer and has a great ear we wanted to work with him to get the sounds recorded the right way. Just working with Brian, the way he captured things was so much clearer compared to us just recording in some wooden room somewhere. He also would say "Oh, this is the best part of this song."
We also wanted our live shows to be more potent. Before, we had this quieter vibe and that worked in certain halls and cathedrals, but when we were playing in a rock club, we got swallowed up. I think we wanted it to be more exuberant.
Did what you guys went through affect the types of songs you wrote or change the ideas you wanted to address compared to before?
Our first album was a lot about us being frustrated with the culture we are part of and how the the natural environment was being ruined, and about other injustices. We were living out in the wilderness in South Carolina [where we] had a lot of connection to nature. There weren't any people around really, so those songs were sort of a love story to nature.
I think back then we had a very idealistic view I mean it was not idealistic about the world and everything was going to be okay. But we were idealistic about our life choices and how our relationship was perfect: We were going to move to the country and build a cabin and all this stuff. Then I think along the way touring non-stop and working on the cabin we got a little bit burnt out.
For a little bit, I think we were actually feeling kind of jaded right after we put out Upper Air [in 2009] that's when a lot of the bad things started happening. When I was sick I came pretty close to where I could have died, and our relationship came pretty close to where we could have lost our relationship and our cabin and our band all these things that were so important to us. We were just having trouble seeing the beauty in things anymore.
What did you learn from facing and ultimately coming out okay on the other end of these challenges ?
I think the hard times and working through that and conquering fears about commitment or trying to change ourselves to make our relationship work, it just made us feel more like working harder on the songs. We were more excited working on them. After all that, we had this fresh start feeling where we said "Let's just do exactly what is the most fun for us and will make us the happiest."
We just decided to purposefully try to become more positive about things, and look at what we do have in each other and our lives focus on that. On the new album, there's a lot of death, the end of things and how you can so easily lose something. [But] there's also a lot of coming to terms with the reality of things and being happy with what you have.