Bowerbirds explore the forest of their hearts
By Jordan Lawrence
Bowerbirds’ Phil Moore opens up on the professional and personal heartache that led to The Clearing
Tranquil, relaxing, peaceful — these are just a few of the pleasant adjectives one could assign to the rich and accessible folk of Bowerbirds’ first two LPs. With 2007’s Hymns for a Dark Horse and 2009’s Upper Air, the Triangle-based duo of Phil Moore and Beth Tacular connected with nature on an ethereal level with evocative lyrics and earthy arrangements of acoustic guitar, accordion and drums. The results gleam with purity and power, an expression of faith in love and the natural world.
Their new LP, The Clearing, muddies those waters without harming the band’s identity. The narrative is more complex, building on the same symbols but allowing the specter of death and decay to invade the Bowerbirds’ quiet woodland. Adding to the new aesthetic is a bigger, darker sound. Gauzy strings build alongside walls of distorted guitars. Pianos clang before Korg synthesizers force the modern world into the band’s pastoral setting.
Shuffle caught up with songwriter and guitarist Phil Moore to discuss the new album and the personal travails that forced the Bowerbirds — as a band and a couple — to reassess their lives and their sound.
Shuffle: You guys chose to call the new record The Clearing. Why? What did it have to do with the circumstances you went through leading up to the album?
Phil Moore: It was a lot to do with kind of where our lives were at when we started writing the record and where both of our lives were at right before that time. We were really just touring for what seemed like forever, not really getting any breaks. We had to record another record in that tour as well. It was a difficult time in me and Beth’s relationship. So The Clearing was kind of like this time when we could just be in our cabin, at our land and focus on our daily lives, at peace and watch the seasons changing — all that good stuff. It was along those lines. That’s why we titled it that. There’s a line in one of the songs that says, “We will find a clearing in the forest of our hearts.” It was just a place to get away from the crazy, hectic touring schedule.
Shuffle: You referred to the turmoil in you and Beth’s lives at the time. Can you tell me more about that?
PM: The stress of all the touring for like three years and then recording an album and everything kind of gnawed at our relationship, I guess you could say, and Beth and I were just constantly working around each other and couldn’t find any personal time or personal space. It was really very difficult for us, and we ended up breaking up in Europe while on tour pretty close to when we were supposed to come back and record our next album. It was really, really tough on us, so we broke up and we came back. We kind of recorded Upper Air in pieces where I recorded a lot by myself and then recorded with Beth. We tried to minimize our time together.
When we started touring Upper Air we had broken up again, which was more difficult to try to be friends and tour the band together. In the midst of that tour we basically got back together, I guess. It was still difficult to take time for our relationship.
We just decided to take a very large break. We eventually got around to writing these new songs that are on this record. That was much easier after having a large break. We were trying to get it out on a deadline and everything and writing songs, just, “Make sure they get done. Make sure they’re awesome. But we have to get it done soon.” So we rushed through some of the process, and then Beth fell really, really ill. She fell into kidney failure. That was right after Thanksgiving 2010, I guess. We were really scared about that. She had to go to the hospital. She had to get her iron levels back to normal and just relax. So I just relaxed with her and didn’t really do much. We laid around and watched movies and hung out. It was kind of a moment in time that was 100 percent necessary, not only for our happiness and our understanding. It helps to put perspective on why we’re doing this thing in the first place. We just saw how crazy workaholic we were being.
Shuffle: There’s a different, kind of darker, emotional quality to The Clearing as opposed to your other albums. How much did those struggles contribute to that feeling?
PM: It was our getting back together and our new-found happiness with life rather than just touring constantly, I think that really affected the mood of the album, the content. Mostly it’s just that. It’s just a little more. It’s not that it’s optimistic. It’s optimistic in the light that there is death around us, but it’s more just acceptance, more accepting of growing older and realizing that you can’t do everything you want to do and you should just focus on the things you really want to do. That kind of accepting what life gives you, I think those experiences really informed that whole feeling. Then we wrote about that in pretty much every one of our songs.
Shuffle: I was very intrigued by the way death is incorporated into the record, that it’s as much a part of life as anything else. It felt like a natural expression of your narrative.
PM: Yeah, it felt very natural. Most every word I’ve written for the Bowerbirds has felt very autobiographical, of the moment, and I think these lyrics are even more focused in that way. They’re even more autobiographical.
Shuffle: There are many instances on this record — and throughout your catalog — where you bring up words or phrases that are similar and seem self-referential. What are your thoughts on building an aesthetic like that as a band?
PM: I think that’s what a lot of my favorite songwriters do. I remember hearing an interview with Bjork on like Charlie Rose 10 years ago talking about that. She was just really searching for that song, her best song, and she was trying to write it with every single song that she writes. I think, definitely, I’m trying to do the same thing. Obviously this record is filled with completely brand new elements and vivid, sparkling details, but I’m also very much into the core of the Bowerbirds songs staying there. It’s just really a search for that one song that means exactly what you mean to say. I think that’s how elements repeat.
Somebody tweeted the other day, “Every time you hear furrow, take a drink.” You know, “Bowerbirds drinking game.” I get into these very similar things. I quote my old band Ticonderoga a lot, which are lyrics that I’ve written like, “I’m dust, and you’re dust, and we’re honest.” I quoted that on “Brave World,” which is a song on The Clearing. I’m definitely into that whole quoting thing. I quoted Bob Dylan, and I quoted Ticonderoga like three different times on the album. It’s like a jazz thing, I guess.
I like to discover themes that I haven’t completely fleshed out yet.
Shuffle: There a lot of new elements here — some just bigger, some more electronic. How do those accentuate the core element of the band that you alluded to?
PM: I wanted to make the songs more diverse on this album. I was in the mindset, on the first record especially and then kind of continued it on the second record, where I just wanted to have a consistency, so people could put the record on and just listen to from start to finish and not even be phased and, you know, play it at a dinner party or whatever; go into the bed and listen to it, and there’s nothing really harsh that jumps out at your or anything like that. That was really good for the first record, and that was what we wanted to do.
We just really wanted to, for this record, give people more of a visual experience while listening to the record. I think that’s how at least I listen to records. I’ll hear the song and then pick up on some new texture, and that will certainly inform what’s being said in the song. I just think changing those from song to song is really good for a lot of the songs. It’s also just really fun. It’s just fun to explore and be creative like that.
Shuffle: You referred to the harshness of the new elements and how with the first two records there was a little more simplicity to the themes. There wasn’t so much of the dark element to what you were saying. I feel like the new sonics very much accentuate that. Is that what you wanted to do?
PM: Yeah, exactly. On the first album there was a song called “In Our Talons,” which I guess was sort of the hit or whatever from the first album. It’s talking about how it “takes a lot of nerve to destroy this wondrous earth.” It’s essentially like a death metal song, an environmental death metal song, but it’s played in like this acoustic, accordion, bass drum thing. Even though the bass drum is really boomy, there’s no elements that are really dark about it.
I think that’s what we wanted. We wanted to add some mysterious sounding elements and some darker things, and little louder and harsher distortions at times, just to kind of let those moments jump out at you more.