Time and space

“A little control freaky”: Phil Moore says that it was difficult to surrender some creative control on Bowerbirds’ ambitious new release, but admits “it turned out much better than I could have ever done by myself.” Photo by D.L. Anderson

Phil Moore is enjoying his last hours at the secluded cabin he and his girlfriend Beth Tacular built from the ground up. In two days, their band Bowerbirds will head to the beach for a week of rehearsals and then depart for a two-month tour.

The past three years have been trying for Bowerbirds, and Moore admits to some anxiety about the trip. It's the band's first in almost two years, and a return to normal in some sense. From 2006 to 2010, Bowerbirds were on the road nearly year-round. But the hectic pace came at a price: It almost cost Moore and Tacular their relationship. And their band.

"That constant touring and being on the road, it was just too much," he recalls. "Too much time together working, not enough personal space. We broke up on tour. It was a very uncomfortable time, to say the least. When we got home, we spent a lot of time apart. I was in the country, and Beth lived in the city. It was almost a year of living like that, and then we did end up eventually getting back together."

Reunited, and, Moore says, stronger than ever, the pair resumed writing and recording, transforming their personal struggles into a narrative of love and gratitude. But the storm had yet to pass. In late 2010, Beth was hospitalized with a mysterious and life-threatening illness. They retreated to the cabin, halted work on the album and recuperated in the serenity of their country home.

Even now, Moore sounds exhausted recalling the tumultuous years that preceded the new release. But listening to the record, one would never guess it was plagued with hardships.

The Clearing is undeniably Bowerbirds' most lively collection to date, a departure from the straightforward, stripped-down folk of the band's previous efforts. After three years, the band has emerged with a sprawling and ambitious album, rife with orchestral sweeps, distorted electric guitars, unorthodox rhythms and walls of lush backing vocals. Lyrically, it continues the band's tradition of pastoral imagery and revealing, autobiographical storytelling. But tracks like "Tuck the Darkness In," "Stitch the Hem" and "Hush" utilize an eclectic pallet of instruments and effects pedals more akin to the anything-goes arrangements of Andrew Bird, St. Vincent and The Dirty Projectors than to heart-on-your-sleeve folkies.

It's not unfamiliar territory for Moore, whose previous project, Ticonderoga, was "as experimental as we could possibly make it and stay within the bounds of pop music," he says. "I just really missed all the fun and experimentation that went with having every instrument and every effect at your disposal."

So, armed with an arsenal of instruments, Moore and Tacular began the long process of trial and error, layering tracks in their home studio over the course of an entire year. But the pair wasn't laboring alone. In addition to Bowerbirds’ drummer, Daniel “Yan” Westerlund, the album features a number of outside contributors who provided everything from horns and strings to keys and vibraphone.

Moore describes himself as "a little control freaky" when it comes to the band, so allowing others to write parts and color the creative process was difficult. In the past, he wrote the material, Tacular edited his lyrics, and that was the extent of outside influence. Suddenly Moore had to surrender the reins.

"It was definitely difficult to have people do things for it,” he admits, “to have Beth start songs herself and to have string arrangements on top of songs. But I just kept an open mind and let the things happen. That was the only way, I think, the album could have been done. And it turned out much better than I could have ever done by myself. I just had to give it a little time and space to get comfortable with those new things. That was really good for me and for the music."

Now that the record is finished and the tour is booked, Moore is ready to enjoy the fruits of their labor and finally put the arduous process behind them. But that won't be easy. The album is a permanent chronicle of the difficulties, and, for better or worse, there is no separating the music from their personal life.

"If I had thought about it, I probably would have chosen a different style of music maybe," he says half joking. "It seems like there is this thing with the style of music we write. People want to know what you're thinking and feeling. I guess that's what I want to write about too, so there's really no choice but to live our lives completely in the open. And that is hard sometimes, for sure. There are definitely times when I'd rather just wear a mask and be in a crazy dub step band or dance band or something."

— Dane Smith can be reached at dsmith@mountainx.com.

who: Bowerbirds, with Mandolin Orange
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Sunday, March 18 (8 p.m. $12)

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