by Harry C. Tuniese
Formed in 2008, led by singer/ songwriter/ guitarist Alan Williams, along with compatriots Darleen Wilson (guitar/ vocals) and Greg Porter (bass/ vocals), and a host of new and old collaborators, Birdsong At Morning creates elegant tapestries of sound, words, and music. Here is a trio that been on the local scene for almost thirty years – not collectively – but as participants in many worthwhile projects that have enriched Boston music. Alan Williams and Greg Porter played together in several groups, notably the star-crossed folk-rock ensemble, Knots & Crosses. Porter was also a founding member of Talking To Animals, before playing for Aimee Mann and Patty Griffin. Darleen Wilson established herself as a groundbreaking recording engineer in Boston, working with a broad spectrum of artists from punk (Salem 66) to pop (New Kids on the Block) before becoming the preeminent producer of New England folk artists – i.e. Bill Morrissey, Patty Larkin, Catie Curtis, Chris Smither.
During the long period between the demise of Knots & Crosses (precipitated by their calamitous signing with Island Records) and the formation of Birdsong At Morning, Williams embarked on parallel careers in music production and academia. He served as musical director for Dar Williams and engineered a number of records for Patty Larkin, while earning a PhD in Ethnomusicology from Brown University. He is currently an associate professor of music at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, and has published several scholarly chapters and journal articles, all while maintaining a presence as a creative, performing musician.
The depth of experience present in every aspect of the band’s work helps to explain the professional quality that exists in this totally DIY project. The band releases its own records, designs its packaging, and does much of the engineering and musical production work. Quietly ambitious, confident, and assured, Birdsong At Morning debuted with a four CD box set entitled Annals of My Glass House in 2011 (though they released each disc individually since their inception). The lustrous sounds and gorgeous packaging garnered rave reviews and airplay across the country and served as a prelude to the expansive vision evidenced on the band’s new album, A Slight Departure.
Noise: Would you each tell me a little about your journey?
Alan: Serendipity and happy accidents. It’s taken me a long time to realize that all my life experiences could be integrated into both outlets for creative expression, and as a viable career path outside of musical performance. An early encounter with a piano; an obsession with The Beatles and all things from around the age of nine; the influence of my uncle, a well-respected poet and author; the challenge of grappling with a broad spectrum of musical concepts under the tutelage of Ran Blake at the New England Conservatory; the long and winding road of professional musical education and the perils of romantic relationships forged in between rehearsals and the gigs that was Knots & Crosses; the profound loss of self-confidence and musical identity following that band’s demise; the slow road back via studio work and the occasional teaching gig; the total leap into academia en route to a PhD in Ethnomusicology; the subsequent career as a college professor; and the creative resurrection that is the overt purpose behind the formation of Birdsong At Morning. Somehow, all of that is synthesized in the music we make, and my musical perspective shapes my teaching and scholarship. Weird. Exhilarating. Gratifying.
Darleen: I’ve been involved in music forever. Started playing piano in kindergarten and picked up guitar as a teenager. I was scared of performing, and got into recording and spent a couple decades as an engineer and producer. Eventually shifted away from recording and into a musically fallow period. Birdsong emerged in a very off-hand way, sitting around the living room with a couple guitars. Greg came over and as soon as he plays, whatever is going on becomes infinitely more solid and musical. Alan started writing more and more and I started to explore the electric guitar. It is freeing to be able to get so close to the music and not be responsible for one hundred percent of it. I love the material. I am amazed that I get to do this.
Greg: Playing music with Alan and Darleen is part of my musical soul. I worked with Darleen on numerous singer-songwriter recording projects going back to the ’90s. And Alan and I first made music together in our teens discovering the magic of playing Pink Floyd, The Who, Talking Heads, and The Beatles, and a handful of originals. So to be in a band with these two incredible musicians now seems inevitable, and right! After we all took some time off from making music, we started getting together to hang out, drink coffee, talk, and play a little. It just felt like the seed of a band was there… and we were doing it for the joy, and for ourselves. Still today, that is the main driver, and what keeps the music honest and pure.
Noise: Alan, as you originally conceived the group, has it met your expectations? How has it changed?
Alan: The original concept was to keep the whole endeavor a secret (which has been remarkably successful), though once it was in motion, I hoped to be able to share music with the world. In one respect, I am stunned at how much of the vision has been realized. We now have a body of work that I am quite proud of, one that has surpassed in size and scope what I was only tentatively imagining ten years ago. Yet, the realities of both the current state of the music industry, and where we find ourselves on the aging timeline has also limited the reach of the music. On that account, I don’t think we’ve yet struck upon a truly workable solution. In all honesty, the sense of satisfaction/ frustration is a constant cycle. Some days it seems utterly hopeless, and at other times, I can’t wait to roll up my sleeves and start in on the next chapter. A case in point – this past fall, we performed a concert with full band, drums, additional guitarist, accompanied by a 20-piece string orchestra. Not many artists of any level can get to say that. And it was a truly joyous experience! The music came alive, the songs held up, and a dream came true. Then the next morning, I got up and taught my usual classes, and the rest of world hardly registered the accomplishment. Such high points are the stuff of dreams, but at our career level, they aren’t remotely sustainable. The realities are that I can’t afford to lose that kind of money every day, much less have the music actually earn anything.
Noise: Since you all come from other professional exploits, how has this participation differed from past experiences?
Greg: Birdsong has always been a departure from other parts of my life. Since it is just of part of what makes up my world, when we get together to play and record is always a special time.
Alan: From the outset, I established that Birdsong would be a forum for my music. Greg and Darleen would have substantial input, but final decisions would be mine. That puts a lot of pressure on me to generate material and ideas, but it also dramatically reduces inter-band tensions as the roles and ground rules are really clear. In past projects, so much energy was wasted on claiming territory and decision-making power. It can be nearly impossible for a group of individuals to wholly subscribe to a singular vision. In Birdsong, neither Greg nor Darleen have to believe completely with everything we do (though I do). For example, there are songs that Greg would probably rather not play, and Darleen may disagree with an arrangement direction, or a final mix. But they don’t have to be 100 percent invested in every aspect to be 100 percent invested in most of what we do. In short, Birdsong is by far the least tense musical collaboration I’ve ever experienced.
Darleen: As producer or engineer, I spent all of my time listening or engaged with gear, and little time actually playing or singing. Now I get to play, which is the joy of it, and also a huge challenge way outside my comfort zone.
Noise: Darleen, you became a highly touted folk producer, yet you’ve ceded that role to Alan. Is it because it’s his overall vision and do you help at all?
Darleen: I have hearing loss and no longer trust my ears to make sonic assessment. Musically and lyrically, the old production muscle is intact, but I see my role as supporting Alan’s vision, and encouraging him to go for it. I trust his talent and skill. I try to help by keeping my opinionated self on hiatus, especially in the nascent stages of a song.
Noise: Your output seems to be a continuous exercise in shaping atmospheric art-folk or chamber-rock. The delicacy that pervades your music must demand constant dedication. How does it come about – through the initial songwriting or the arrangements?
Alan: Some of it comes from a rhetorical question Frank Zappa once posed – “Must we rock?” I’m not opposed to “rocking,” and some of the music I have made in the past came from a desire to “rock.” Now, I see that kind of energy as one of many possible directions to take. I feel that it can often be more audacious to risk being vulnerable rather than to put on a display of bluster. The attention to detail then emerges as an opportunity to explore sound and texture, but not as a challenge. I sometimes see Birdsong related to the motivations behind experimental noise music, wherein the importance of sound plays in radically different timbres and textures. I think much of the music I write now has that delicacy built in since I’ve seen I can perform solo with just voice and an acoustic guitar. No drummer in the band means that kind of energy isn’t intrinsic to the formation of a musical idea. Obviously, we also use drums in a lot of our music because the music is allowed to dictate which direction to go, rather than having to fit a specific instrumental form. Think how great it would be to work with a drummer/percussionist at the formative stages since the music would shift towards something more rhythmically grounded, as well as being more energetic or dynamic. At the same time, I haven’t yet exhausted my curiosity about acoustic instruments, or carefully honed electronic textures. Perhaps, the main point is that we’re all too old to sustain dreams of rock stardom and that is such a liberating place to be. Just create the music that happens to come to you, without steering in a direction to fit the stage, or the radio. I write a lot of music that leans heavily on string orchestras. That’s not something that’s really economically viable in terms of constant presentation. But being free to imagine what would be fun to do, rather than what one would take out on the road, allows for pretty much any idea to become a real possibility, if only for the time it takes to make a recording.
Noise: How do you compose – impulsively, collectively, or academically? Since we only hear the end result, does it take a while to fully develop the material?
Alan: Yipes! Academically?! Lord, I hope not. The only truly conscious aspect is putting an instrument in one’s hands. After that, impulse and subconscious thought takes over. I tend to noodle on the guitar until something resonates. Melodies often emerge from the guitar, especially as I tend to finger-pick rather than strum. Then weird uttered sounds emerge, and after a while, begin to suggest words. Words become phrases, which often don’t make a whole lot of sense. At that point, the conscious mind comes back into play to try to organize these phrases, to come up with new ones that might link one abstract idea to another, until you arrive at something a little more coherent. Often I tend to work the lyrics towards something that presents its meaning fairly directly. I marvel at songwriters that trust their own dream logic enough to leave lots of loose ends dangling. That said, there are a few conscious constructs that I have often applied that establish some parameters to work within. The primary one being that I force myself to play an instrument that I don’t really understand. Guitar is a mystery to me in a way that the piano is far better understood. When I sit at a piano, I am always completely conscious of the musical theory underpinning everything I play. This is this chord, and it’s harmonic function is this if I want to follow with that, etc. But eliminating this type of knowledge allows me to more completely give over to discovery. Compounding this is the use of altered tunings that further obscure my conscious foreknowledge of what I’m playing. Thus, I am consciously setting up situations that allow me to be more unconsciously creative. Inspiration is instantaneous when this happens. Most of the time, a song’s melody and harmonic structure will come very quickly, and I will often know exactly how the song will be structured, including a great deal of instrumental texture, though I often ruminate in terms of lyrics. For years now, I’ve been trying to let the phonetics of words and phrases complete the lyric process, all happening without interruption. In the songwriting process, there’s usually a burst of creative energy, then a lull. If in that lull I allow myself to think about other things, to go make lunch, etc., I lose the momentum and will then have to cogitate on the lyric for months, or even years at a time. There are songs in the Birdsong catalog that took decades to complete. But, if I can push myself to stay present during those lulls, and allow them to pass, then sometimes the energy comes back, and the song gets finished in one sitting, consciously pushing myself to remain open to the subconscious.
Noise: Your string section work is very impressive. Since your first album, you’ve utilized this. Was that always your intention?
Alan: Thanks – the string thing is just that – fun. I had always noted how strings imparted grace and/or grandeur to certain recordings, from George Martin’s work with the Beatles, to John Paul Jones’ arrangements for Led Zeppelin, to Thom Bell’s elegant orchestrations on all the Philly International stuff. But, it was David Sylvian’s Secrets of the Beehive featuring Ryuichi Sakamoto’s bold, yet delicate arrangements for strings and brass, followed by my subsequent discovery of Nick Drake’s first album that convinced me that thinking of strings from the outset, rather than appending them to an existing arrangement, would result in something beyond anything I had ever done before. Of course, I had no idea what I was doing, though I had put together some tentative string arrangements on other people’s records (Susan Piper, Todd Thibaud, the Cry Cry Cryproject that Darleen and I produced), so it’s been a real learning process. I am indebted to the folks who played on those early sessions for not snickering, but contributed to my understanding of what works on their instruments, and introducing me to the infinite possibilities of bowing techniques, dynamics, etc. The first set of arrangements with the whole notion of hiring players and booking a studio was the riskiest thing I’ve ever done as a musician. It was a big financial gamble, and it might have resulted in overblown-sickeningly sweet-horrifyingly precious-self-conscious “arty” music – all potentially possible outcomes. Moreover, I’m sure many folks hear our music in that way, despite all our efforts to avoid that feeling. But, Greg (though doubtful and often the litmus test for transgressing the bounds of taste) came to the session and recognized that this could really work, that it might lend us a more singular identity. His and Darleen’s encouragement allowed me to get a little bolder and more confident with each subsequent batch of recorded arrangements. As a result, the control freak in me loves being able to tell musicians exactly what I want them to do, and then amazingly, they do it!
Noise: Early on, you were all keen on singing, though that aspect has receded. Do you think really good songs come across because of your vocalizing or is it all wrapped in the dynamics of the arrangements?
Alan: Hmmm… That’s an interesting question. I have a love of harmony singing, and that was such a fundamental aspect of my time with Knots & Crosses. Of course, with most that that music, my role was as support harmony for Carol (Noonan), rather than as a lead singer. I got pretty good at being able to match her phrasing and to blend in or accentuate her singing. But some of those techniques became liabilities when I tried to sing lead. A good harmony singer often dials down the consonants or rounds off the grain of the vocal tone. When you just listened to me, it sounded like a foghorn with no lips or teeth. To develop as a lead vocalist meant that I had to consciously work away from using my role for vocal harmonies. At the same time, Birdsong began the moment that Greg and Darleen spontaneously began to sing some “oohs” during the chorus of a song I played to them. The sound of their harmonies set off light-bulbs all around, and suddenly an informal workshop felt like a band. At the time we were just trying to encourage each other to play music and maybe begin to do a little songwriting. We had no intention of forming a performing entity. Later, there was a period where my songs exchanged string arrangements in place of the harmony vocals. But many folks in the audience kindly let me know that they loved when Greg and Darleen sang, so we have been working them back into the mix on more recent material. As for either Greg or Darleen taking the lead, I kind of nixed that from the outset when I demanded full control. Of course, when it’s time to sing two sets after a full day of teaching, I begin to wish they sang everything…
Noise: A lot of your songs contrast beautiful melodies and deep moods. Do the songs grow from the music or the words? Are you conscious of that or does the mind just wander?
Alan: As I stated earlier, the more the mind is allowed to wander, the better the result, provided the conscious mind steps in at the end to pull it all together. The best results come from the happy medium where the conscious mind knows what to do with the raw gems the unconscious mind conceives. That said, music leads the words every time. I’ve tried to work the other way, but the best I can do is maybe come up with an interesting lyric phrase that might work in a future composition.
Noise: Are you seeking that tension? Are you committed to certain themes? Is there anyone who influenced this style?
Alan: I don’t think of it as seeking or committing as much as I just can’t help it. I have a hard time expressing joy lyrically, though I think music can do that very effectively. For example, Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely,” is a bit of a Hallmark greeting card lyrically, but the extended harmonica solo conveys so much more of the joys of being a father. You know, the easy trap for most young songwriters is trying too hard to be deep, to be significant. The challenge for older songwriters, at least for me, is to lighten up. I’m not sure I can identify select musicians that have influenced my approach in this regard, but I think some of the sense of understated tension might come from writers I admire. The work of my uncle Fred Chappell certainly shaped me. My favorite works of his are his poems that feel like conversations, where the speaker’s voice and the words betray a much deeper thought or reflection than is apparent on the surface. The same can be true of someone like Cormac McCarthy or Raymond Carver.
Noise: What do you listen to for inspiration? Do you see some of the roots of your music in other people’s material? For example, each of the four discs in “Annals”, as well as “A Slight Departure” contains a well-chosen cover tune – were you referencing styles or were your selections just whims?
Alan: The music I listen to is often pretty far removed from the music I make. I’m usually drawn to musicians with a sense of adventure and exploration, yet with command over the outcome. Folks that may have experimented, but now create music from what they learned from the experimental process. This past summer, I was obsessed with Kendrick Lamar’s record, and now when I listen to Bowie’s last album, I respond to the mastery of exploration on both, and respect Bowie for absorbing the influence of Lamar while still remaining Bowie. I’m also a big Prince fan from the days of Dirty Mind on, though I doubt much of that influence comes out in my music. I think some of my formative influences do come through on things like the second side of Brian Eno’s Before and After Science, in terms of the patience that let tempos and sound relax and carry the listener away. Or perhaps the crop of what I dub the “new transcendentalist” composers – such as Arvo Pärt, Henryk Gorecki, and John Taverner – whose further sense of patience and beauty, even in dissonance, seems very powerful. I hope to create music with that same gentle impact on the listener. In terms of covers, I am absolutely referencing music that has connected with me – much of it from that formative period in one’s late teens when you’re trying to make sense of the world and your place in it. Blondie’s “Dreaming” always grabbed my attention when it came on the radio, though I never bought the album. I particularly avoided a lot of contemporary music in my teens, which means I missed a lot of great music at the time. Instead, I was trying to educate myself on the emerging rock canon, moving from the Beatles to Pink Floyd, The Who, The Stones, etc. So I listened to Sticky Fingers every day for a few months, but in 1978 rather than 1971. But looking back, I see that 1980 was the year I started paying attention to current music. That’s when Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk and King Crimson’s Discipline albums were out, and while they are very different stylistically, they both evoke that sense of discovery and possibilities of musical exploration. So, that’s the sources of the four cover songs on Annals. On A Slight Departure, “Lead Me On” comes from Bobby “Blue” Bland, and is a song I discovered when I was in college. That’s something I wanted to do because the original recording has a really interesting orchestral arrangement surrounding a raw, blues vocal. It’s one of the earliest songs with a string arrangement that got my attention. “Moonlight Mile” was another. Since we had established strings as a fundamental part of the Birdsong sound, I thought I’d tip my hat to a song that led me there. I firmly believe that interpretations of outside works often provide a better foundation for self-expression than self-composed works. The pop canon is full of great cover versions by folks that knew how to write their own material – The Beatles doing “Money,” Aretha Franklin doing “Respect,” Harry Nilsson doing “Without You,” Bowie doing “Wild is the Wind,” Sinead O’Connor doing “Nothing Compares to You,” Tori Amos doing “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Jeff Buckley doing “Hallelujah.” Etc., etc., etc.
Noise: You have developed a fine balance between an earthy and a sophisticated approach. Is this a parallel you intend to keep following or will a tougher edge start to creep in?
Alan: I’m not sure I see those as contradictory paths. “Edge” is an interesting notion, though I often think “edgy” music feels more like a bludgeon. That’s something I’m not really interested in. I think I’d rather think of what we do as a bunch of roses with the thorns left on the stem.
The Noise: Is your obsession with sound or content? Alan may guide the group, but is it a determinate partnership? I don’t mean adversarial, but rather, is there any friction or tension or are three separate visions just aiming at the center?
Darleen: What’s the point of sound without content? I would say that our natural sensibilities mesh easily. Alan tends to hear a full production in his head at the inception of a song. So he will often have specific things he wants to hear, but he is open to other ideas. Greg’s got a great sense of feel and can give Alan perspective on performance. Of course there is tension sometimes (mostly harmonic tension) but it is in quest of finding the right feel/sound/part. My chops are limited, so that’s not easy on anybody. When you run through a song and do something Alan likes – he’ll say—ooo, I like that, do more of that. Greg and I have veto power regarding our own participation in Birdsong, but, for the most part, Alan drives it. I think Birdsong is getting better because Alan is owning it more.
Alan: I take full responsibility for the content. That said, Darleen will sometimes offer a lyrical critique that can be hard to hear, but always worth considering. I think I know both Greg and Darleen well enough to anticipate a lot of their critical reactions, so there are certainly times when I will self-edit by imaging their feedback, before I give them a chance to prove me wrong (or right). From my perspective, both Darleen and Greg make enormous contributions to the sound of the music. Darleen tends to come up with guitar lines that respond to the vocal melody, and extend the sense of composition into the details of the arrangement. Greg simply plays with a command of nuance that far exceeds my imagination of what’s possible. Bass playing is so easy to overlook, but it is so intrinsic to the success of any music. Greg has great ideas for melodic movement, but to me, his real forte is a total command over articulation. Many bass players might make the same note choices, but no one executes those choices like he does and knowing this, I try to shape the song arrangements to give him the room to demonstrate this. You can hear it in the way he touches the strings, the amount of microscopic space he may leave between notes, the full tone he coaxes from his instrument. I’ve made music with Greg for over 35 years. I simply can’t imagine a bass sounding any other way.
Greg: So much of the arranging and individual parts just play themselves. The musical vocabulary that we all share often makes it effortless to create and flesh out arrangements. Visions are fairly aligned.
Noise: Since I’ve been following you from the start, your new album surpassed every expectation… a totally brilliant effort. Is “A Slight Departure” the record you have been leading up to from the beginning, a culmination of sorts both lyrically and musically?
Alan: Wow – thanks! I think Annals documents an extended period when we formed our musical identity, one that was focused on developing new approaches to music. Departure allows our previous musical identities to creep back into the overall. It’s who we once were coupled with who we have become. And in that regard, it does feel like a culmination. I feel that there’s a confidence in both the writing and the performances that isn’t always present in the Annals material, though I am not embarrassed by any of that music, and in some cases I’m quite proud of the material from those early records. Sometimes the old songs surprise me with depths I hadn’t known were there. It’s almost as if I’m interpreting someone else’s song. That’s a recent development for me – discovering the joys and possibilities of performance. Live shows used to be something I thought I had to do, but now I see them as something I get to do. And the difference is profound.
Noise: Where does Birdsong go from here? More live gigs or more tremendous videos?
Darleen: We have talked all along about how Birdsong can be this flexible thing, depending on who is available and what sounds and images Alan gets in his head. My sense is that Birdsong will continue to evolve, driven by Alan’s creative energy and eclectic imagination. There are so many dimensions to Alan’s artistry, it promises to be interesting!
Alan: Coming up soon, we’re going to release an expanded edition of A Slight Departure on Blu-ray/CD. This will feature the album in high-resolution stereo, as well as 5.1 surround, instrumental mixes, and a ton of video content. The music videos we made for some of the album tracks were really enjoyable, and I think they amplify the music well. It’s nice to be able to present them in high-quality audio/video. I’m fairly convinced that our recorded output will always have a companion visual component from now on. The process of making the videos was revelatory, and I can see the videos we made for Departure being akin to the identify formation of the music on Annals. Future videos will hopefully benefit from the clarity and confidence we gained, and I am really excited about exploring what video can do to amplify musical meaning, not as an afterthought, but as part of the initial creative impulse, much as strings have become part of the composition rather than just an arrangement touch. The technology is affordable; it’s coming up with an interesting idea that is the challenge. But that’s where the fun is as well. We shall see, we shall see… In terms of live gigs, we’ve been doing a weekly Wednesday night residency at a coffee shop in Lowell – Coffee & Cotton in the fabulous Mill No. 5. It’s both rewarding and challenging to maintain a weekly commitment to perform, but it also keeps the music alive and the whole endeavor going. We are now trying to work out the technological kinks that will allow us to stream these shows over the web. Since we can’t often go out and meet the world, because of our job commitments, the world can easily check in with us. More future info via our website.
Noise: Thank you all very much – very complete and most illuminating!