Nesting instinct

If the tag says organic, free-range, non-GMO, it’s got to be good, right? But what if that claim comes on a CD—say, Hymns for a Dark Horse by the Raleigh-based folk-pop trio Bowerbirds? After all, the nature-imbued, avian-centric song collection was crafted at the off-the-grid piece of land where the Bowerbirds’ founding members Beth Tacular (accordionist, percussionist) and Phil Moore (guitarist, songwriter) live.

Without running water or electricity.

In an Airstream while building their cabin.

Homegrown hymns: Bowerbirds’ low-key life makes for high-quality folk pop. Photo by Derek L. Anderson.

“The most recent album was written on GarageBand,” Moore says of Hymns. From the couple’s solar panel, he was able to derive enough juice to “power a laptop, but everything else had to be acoustic.”

So, unplugged by necessity, Bowerbirds’ sound is hauntingly minimalist—but also emotionally lush, evocative (thanks to sophisticated lyrics, spot-on percussion and the exotic strains of accordion) of narrow, cobbled streets, bonfires, gypsy caravans, rustling wings, rich soil and graceful plumes of smoke.

The group’s single, “In Our Talons”—Hymns’ most energetic, booming track—makes the statement, “It takes a lot of nerve to destroy this wondrous earth,” but Bowerbirds seem unwilling to be the soundtrack to any sort of eco-movement. In fact, Moore sees the band’s growing profile and mounting tour schedule as antithetical to the life he and Tacular are in the process of building.

“Part of the dream of living out in the country is to start a garden and to homestead. There’s no time for that. There’s no time to maintain a garden or have Guinea hens or chickens,” he says. “The two worlds are butting heads with each other right now.”

As they gear up for another couple weeks in the Netherlands, the U.K., Belgium, France, Spain, Italy and Switzerland (this just on the heels of last autumn’s Europe jag), Moore and Tacular find themselves taking care of business in Raleigh’s concrete jungle, rather than working on their 30-foot by 17-foot cabin.

And there are other discrepancies: “It’s really hard to come back from tour, staying in places where there’s running water and then coming back to roughing it,” Moore says. Many musicians think being on the road is the hard part—for Moore it’s the cushy life that’s at odds with his back-to-the-land ideal. Then again, many musicians strive for that leather-pantsed, packed stadium, diesel tour bus paragon of excess. Most rockers would be hard-pressed to leave the clutches of green rooms and groupies for the clucking of chickens.

“It’s hard to look at playing music as a career,” Moore says. “I don’t imagine it going on forever. It is what it is at the moment.”

But, at the moment, it’s good. Since Moore and Tacular first embarked on Bowerbirds (Tacular, who recently told Salad Days Music, “I was always into music, but never thought I could sing well enough to be in a band,” learned accordion specifically for Bowerbirds’ first show), they’ve added a regular drummer (Matt Damron), a roster of guest players and a growing fan base.
Those listeners attending shows in, say, Basel and Brussels? Even if they aren’t fluent in English (and Moore’s lyrics are poetically dense: “We stow our words in the cellar so we never lose hope, and keep this wood fire stoked while the bitter winds blow”), they still relate. “It shows you can pick up on an idea of a song without really knowing the full content,” Moore muses.

It’s possible that the wholesome goodness, the organic, free-range, non-GMO-ness of Bowerbirds transcends language. Or that, on both sides of the ocean, listeners grasp the rare—and likely fleeting—amalgamation of artful writing, sincere musicianship and unadulterated instrumentation. (A new album is already recorded and due out in July. Moore describes it as “more personal. It’s still vocally and lyrically driven but it feels less like it was just recorded and played in your living room.”)

Still: “When we play Berlin or something and there are people who like our band—we just wonder, how did you people figure out how to like our band? It’s super-surprising.”

who: Bowerbirds (with La Strada and Saint Solitude)
what: Nature-inspired folk-pop
where: The Rocket Club
when: Thursday, May 7 (10 p.m., $5. or 505-2494

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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