Birds of Chicago use aspects of gospel to bring their audience together for the latest album
With lyrical imagery that reads like sacred writings and a rock ‘n’ roll blues-gospel sound backing them, Birds of Chicago have been creating a musical village that audience members can be a part of.
Clusters of people found themselves converging towards the stage during the Edmonton Folk Fest performance. They were easily drawn to the natural passion emoted by husband-and-wife band leaders JT Nero and Allison Russell while they sang and strummed their guitar and banjo.
“We try to get in that raw spirit and try to commune with the audience. To me, that is very much a gospel thing that has followed us since day one,” Nero says.
Birds of Chicago began after Nero and Russell started constantly collaborating on songs while focusing on their other projects JT and the Clouds and Po’ Girl.
“With Po’ Girl we started covering one of JT’s songs called “‘Til It’s Gone,” and he eventually came on tour with us,” Russell says. “So we were on the road together for three months and that sewed the seeds for our project and of course, we also fell in love.”
Nero found that he would subconsciously write songs for Russell and her voice. In some ways, she became his songwriting muse.
“It’s probably the main reason we went from having separate projects that collaborated to actually forming a band,” Nero says. “I’d be writing tunes and they would immediately present themselves as a song Allison should sing. That had never happened to me before. It was really organic. I had internalized her voice so much that whatever melody or fragment I was thinking of just fit her.”
The musical kinship came first, but eventually the two married and set Birds of Chicago as their main project, playing more than 200 shows a year since the formation in 2012.
“It didn’t seem insane to either of us to be on the road for 250 to 280 days of the year,” Nero says. “That’s no small thing when you’re talking about building a life with someone.”
Birds of Chicago have released three albums with the latest one being Real Midnight in 2016. The album was melancholy, joyful, and at times, eerily lonesome sounding. It was also a very cathartic release for Nero and Russell.
“I think that somewhere along the line I noticed that the more I was willing to look inward and use songs as a personal life raft, the more I was going to connect with people,” Nero says. “Everybody is wrestling the same demons and can relate to a lifeline.”
One of the most powerful songs is also one of the quietest on the record. It’s a near A capella piece called “Barley,” and is inspired by Russell’s grandmother.
“She was this amazing powerhouse of a woman born in Scotland but raised on a farm in Saskatchewan. She was struck down with early onset Alzheimer’s and it was her worst nightmare,” Russell says. “She lost language pretty quickly, but when I sang her songs she had taught me, she would respond and sing them. She knew a lot of old murder ballads or creepy Scotland folk songs. So that song is rooted in that traditional Scottish feel and I was trying to channel her presence when I wrote it.”
Nero and Russell have recently moved to Nashville, a city built on the music industry. They are currently preparing for the fourth record, the American Flowers EP, which will release on November 14.
“We also have one recorded full-length record called Love in War Time that we did in four days, Russell says.”
“We recorded live off the floor to try and capture the same spirit and lightning in a bottle as playing a live show,” Nero adds. “It’s definitely more of a rock n’ roll record, but that human energy in a room that’s captured is a very real thing. It’s a universal language.”
Fri., Nov. 3 (7:30 pm)
Birds of Chicago
$35 at ticketmaster.ca