The Clearing and the Clear View It Lends: A Discussion with Phil Moore of the Bowerbirds
The Clearing, the Bowerbirds third album due out March 6th, 2012 on Dead Oceans, is a grand representation of Phil Moore and Beth Tacular’s outlook on the world, the life they live and the challenges that hail from that pursuit. By now, it should be understood that the Bowerbirds are a band enjoyed by many, especially those with a fondness for DIY, self sustaining lifestyles, nature and poetry. They enjoy the country solitude of the great thinkers; engaging us the way someone like, say, Robert Bly does his readers: reconnecting us with the primitive.
I noticed on The Clearing a continuous theme of time. On the first track, Tuck the Darkness In, it sounds as if it is being narrated by someone who has witnessed the changing times: the ease and beauty of “breath poured out over golden fields” and how this was once so common that it may have been overlooked or taken for granted due to its commonness and is now a cherished memory, lived less frequently, is a scene now associated with the word “few”, and that time itself is “a swindler”, that those kinds of moments are now seldom enjoyed and are difficult to come by in the world we live in. There is a tone rendering to us how important, how VERY important it was/is for us to not overlook our wondrous surroundings in nature and of our relationships, because they will surely “fall to death.” If this interpretation of Tuck the Darkness In reins true, then it appears that the entirety of the album discusses how we have moved very far past the times of say, the transcendentalists or the times of men plowing fields and that we are now living in the kind of monoculture material world where we are required to be very present in order to get anything done. And mind you, when I say “get anything done”, I am not simply talking about completing the common civilized work day or the errands that surround it; I am talking about being present in way that promotes a clear view, a clarity that births something significant: that of our own internal shifts mirroring the external shifts one would like to see; those sorts of tasks. All of this is what The Clearing seemed to be saying. Weary of my own ears, I asked Phil Moore of Bowerbirds for some feedback on what I had personally got from the album, the gist of my question represented by the aforementioned paragraph.
“That is the best and most thorough run down of the whole album lyrically that I have heard thus far, from anybody. Thank you for bringing so much attention to those lyrics. That is awesome.”
I ask because I try not to read into the lyrics to much, after all, it is not always a first person narrator speaking. But you two put so much of yourselves out there in regards to the way you live. So, with that said, I guess I can ask how it is possible to live the way you guys do and to come out ok. The reason why I ask is because it seems for me that it is a hard balance to maintain: the skill of being aware, but likewise, not falling into apathy in the world we live in and also, in being that present, honing the awareness to a point of knowing that there is only so much one individual can bare.
“Yeah, it’s like the activist thing. Being able to take care of your self is the difficult part.”
You mean having a clear enough head, to be present enough to make sound decisions?
“Yeah, well… when you say the way we choose to live our lives do you mean kind of isolated a little more or…?”
(I kindly interrupt) Well I think that, yes, but also I think a lot of people can live isolated. What I mean is living with more mindfulness towards decision making, the most beneficial way of living, not just resourcefully but, dare I say spiritually.
*Dear reader, I am cringing at the use of this word spiritual and for obvious reasons, but…until something better comes along to define this nameless thing I am never satisfied defining…well…you get the idea.
“Yeah, I think that is probably the most difficult thing. I think on the album what we’re trying to communicate is that this is the ideal way to live and that we don’t necessarily live up to this ourselves every day; a lot of days we don’t.”
Well that is the brilliance and mystery of the poetry on the album though: Talking about the amount of pressure we can put on ourselves as individuals when we care about something like the environment and how it can be heavy and can be disappointing at times- to put so much into something. For example, disappointments like the oil spill that affected many individuals, including people here in Florida- that can make one shift into a mode of apathy.
It seemed like in other albums (Hymns for a Dark Horse) there was not much talk of this being ok: that as individuals we are not able to do everything. I notice it more here on The Clearing.
“Yeah, I think on the first album (Hymns…) it was very- as one of the members in the band Mark pointed out to me- didactic, had more finger pointing, more just telling everybody how it should be done. So, I kind of took the personal out of it: the nature is better than man. I mean, I believe all of that but I couldn’t really hold on to that so tightly for that long. I think we needed to let our own personalities and our own human flaws show through.”
And there it was, a clarifying statement, “we needed to let our own personalities and our own human flaws show through”: The Clearing in its entirety explained. This album, like its creators, is soft yet wild, dynamic, playful and mature, sprouted from well nourished soil. Two of my favorite musical qualities on The Clearing are these momentary gestures of a genre called Jit (a style of Zimbabwean dance music).and the fresh chiming of triangles that almost annunciate the bands new found clarity- bright as halos bent into coat hangers and hung in dark closets.But, there are many layers to be found in the instruments being played here. Just pick one:
Whether your ears are cast on the eclectic uses of the guitar, the fluttering percussion (a grab bag of both simple and complex arrangements of claps, tapping, ricocheting off uncountable and often indistinguishable surfaces), the gulping bass lines that are a kind of rebellious shadow dancing with the beat, the bending gusts of string sections that conjure up images of tall grass bowing, or the charming vocal harmonies- it is clear that this is not a fly by night record. On the contrary, it is very thought out, carefully presented, tender in orchestration, carved with a method few poets, let alone bands pull off; for it takes the keenness of balancing the subdued with the accessible and is only properly executed when the artist buries their bounty spade deep- close enough for you unveil, equally near for you to pass over and continue enjoying your musical excursion. Also worth mentioning here: The Clearing was engineered by Brian Joseph at April Base Studios, the same studio that masterfully recorded and mixed Bon Iver, Bon Iver. The quality here is superb- not a fleck of the Bowerbirds style has been taken by this studios gadgetry; every nuance that defines that band has been retained.
In the Yard lends us Beth Tacular’s most endearing vocal contribution to date- the lyrical descriptions are vivid and magical, her voice succinctly expressing a deep quality not yet heard on the previous albums. When I hear the words “But we have our black-haired babes running free through the woods” I am reminded of Billy Collins Dharma and Mary Oliver’s The Dog Has Run Off Again. But all the more fantastic of these poetic features are that, if you follow the Bowerbirds blog you will come to find that Beth and Phil live the life described in these poems, embodying a way of life that promotes beautiful and real, heartfelt songs and healthy living. Why all the talk from me about poetry? Well, multiple listens of The Clearing, like a good poem, reveal multiple views, uproots various accents within the leaf pile that are these songs. When I rummage through the tracks I pull up a shed plume each time, and in doing so now, randomly choosing, I find Stitch The Hem, a song that starts with a galloping piano that swells towards an anthem that tells us how both, “The drafty light” and the “the drafty night lets the quiet in.” and how “There’s a hope that we have what we need.” This track is a triumphant accomplishment for the Bowerbirds and I predict will stand neck and neck next to Hymns for a Dark Horse’s In Our Talons; how could it not, with its being so eloquent amongst a syncopated chattering, their voices grouped, singing“ Find the light in our time here, given”. Equally satisfying is the bands conquest that is This Year.
On each of your albums there are a few songs with a distinct drive, a charging, and an earnestness to be out front. The song on this album that sticks out for me in that way is This Year. Where does that kind of energy come from?
“That song actually under went three or four or, now that I think about it, five incarnations. It was very quiet and soft for a while. Then it got louder and louder and then became a slow half time song and that wasn’t quite working for the song and I didn’t know what it was but there was a sweetness, actually a bitter sweetness in particular to the song that I wanted to capture. So the beginning of the song really had to be like that. But then I couldn’t figure out what to do with the end for the longest time cause I couldn’t just keep it quiet. I needed the juxtaposition between the two halves of the song and that is where that comes in. Our drummer (Yan Westerlund) calls it the bolero beat.”
We were just speaking of juxtaposition. Let’s talk about parallel narratives. With the way humans have utilized nature and exhausted its resources over centuries, I often think of Bowerbirds songs being examples of what not to do in our relationships with one another. Beneath Your Tree (Upper Air- 2009) comes to mind when you say “You don’t own me”.
“I think that example in particular is me playing with double negatives, to peak interest, just changing the way people think about it. Saying something like you don’t own me is kind of aggressive in a way. It seems like its angry…”
Well it doesn’t seem like a “fuck the man” thing…I mean it could be, but it seems more like, LISTEN, we are not to be extracted, not to be tapped into in that way.
“Exactly, that is exactly the point.”
After the interview, stuck in traffic while driving home, two sand hill cranes swoop down beneath a sinking sun- a tangerine skin peeled and pitched into the dusk. The congestion of automobiles line the field that they traverse, long legged, as partners. On any other day I would not find as much peace and clarity in the moment as I did then. They were exactly what I needed a connection with. Seeing clearly, I was now not focused so much on what was wrong, but with what was right: there is an Alpaca Farm down the road, a hydroponic farm that barters with me from time to time, a family owned citrus grove that stretches for miles and is tended by elderly bee keepers and scoured by their pollen foraging friends. It is crucial that I water those seeds! Traffic begins to move and the cranes carry on with their sunset stroll. Now We Hurry On floats toward the surface of my mind, the last song on The Clearing. Suddenly a gentle hand is placed on my shoulder, a voice from behind sings “Take your time with it, all of it.” And so I do.
Please enjoy the tracks below as well as a Mini Documentary on the making of The Clearing which discusses facets of Phil and Beth’s relationship both personally and musically that was not discussed in the article above.
Watch the Mini Documentary
Bowerbirds are about to embark on a year of touring. Some dates are posted below. I have seen them live myself and can attest to the superb performances they are known to put on.
03/17/12 Carrboro, NC – Cat’s Cradle w/ Mandolin Orange
03/18/12 Asheville, NC – Grey Eagle w/ Mandolin Orange
03/19/12 Charlottesville, VA – The Southern w/ Dry the River
03/21/12 Washington, DC – Black Cat w/ Dry the River
03/22/12 Philadelphia, PA – Johnny Brenda’s w/ Dry the River
03/23/12 New York, NY – Bowery Ballroom w/ Dry the River and Mandolin Orange
03/24/12 Boston, MA – Paradise w/ Dry the River
03/26/12 Montreal, QC – La Sala Rossa w/ Dry the River
03/27/12 Toronto, ON – The Garrison w/ Dry the River
03/29/12 Chicago, IL – Lincoln Hall w/ Dry the River
03/30/12 Iowa City, IA – Mission Creek Festival @ The Mill w/ Sharon Van Etten
03/31/12 Minneapolis, MN – Cedar Cultural Center w/ Dry the River
04/03/12 Seattle, WA – The Crocodile w/ Dry the River
04/04/12 Portland, OR – Doug Fir Lounge w/ Dry the River
04/06/12 San Francisco, CA – The Independent w/ Dry the River
04/07/12 Los Angeles, CA – Troubadour w/ Dry the River
04/08/12 San Diego, CA – Casbah w/ Dry the River
04/11/12 Austin, TX – The Parish w/ Dry the River
04/12/12 Dallas, TX – The Loft w/ Dry the River
04/14/12 Birmingham, AL – The Bottletree w/ Mandolin Orange
04/15/12 Atlanta, GA – The Earl w/ Mandolin Orange
04/20/12 Rotterdam, NL – Motel Mozaique Festival
04/22/12 Copenhagen, DK – Vega
04/23/12 Stockholm, SE – Debaser Slussen
04/24/12 Goteborg, SE – Pusterviksbaren
04/25/12 Hamburg, DE – Uebel & Gefahrlich
04/26/12 Berlin, DE – Lido
04/27/12 Munich, DE – Feierwerk
04/28/12 Zurich, CH – El Lokal
04/30/12 Paris, FR – Cafe De La Danse
05/01/12 Antwerp, BE – Trix
05/03/12 Leeds, UK – Brudenell Social Club
05/04/12 Manchester, UK – Deaf Institute
05/05/12 Brighton, UK – The Haunt
05/07/12 London, UK – Cargo
05/08/12 Brussels, BE – Ancienne Belgique
05/09/12 Amsterdam, NL – Paradiso