Music Editor John Freeman talks with Allison Russell and JT Nero of Birds of Chicago about their musical influences and process, the dialectics of realism and joy, and the their take on the contemporary protest song.
I first became aware of Birds of Chicago when I saw them perform at the 2016 Fairlane Folk Festival in Dearborn, MI. They opened their set with a hypnotic rendition of the title track from their 2016 record, Real Midnight. My wife, Sarah Pazur, and I, along with the group of friends we were with (Ben Brown, Dana Brown, Emily Freeman, and Steve Cousins), were completely entranced by the set that followed. It was immediately clear that in Allison Russell we were witnessing elite vocal talent. I’m talking a range that spans several octaves, along with legato phrasings that dramatize the highly-detailed stories underpinning the Birds of Chicago songs. Allison and JT Nero, the band’s chief songwriters who also happen to be married to each other, harmonize beautifully. But virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake can quickly wear thin for this writer, and it was evident during the show that night that the Birds offered far more than mere technical aptitude. Here were two serious songwriters who possessed not only off-the-charts vocal talent, but a rare ability to evoke character and place with the verisimilitude of the best poets and short-story writers. Take Allison’s “Barley,” an acapella number about her grandmother that hearkens to the poetic eclogue, or JT’s “American Flowers,” whose proper noun choices evoke places as disparate as “the banks of the Rio Grande” and “The Islamic Mosque of Greater Toledo.” It didn’t surprise me then that in the middle of their set, between JT’s banter about ex-Detroit Tigers players and playful jests aimed at his brother Drew, the band’s keyboard player, he confessed, “I’m one of those weird people who read a lot of poetry.” I left that 2016 show a huge fan and went home and bought all their releases to that point, which I devoured in the following months. I’ve kept up, too, with their subsequent releases, the American Flowers EP and their latest full-length, Love in Wartime. I am honored to be able to interview them for the museum of americana.
Tell me a little bit about how the two of you met and started working together musically.
We had mutual pals in the music world; Alli was playing and touring in her much loved Canadian roots band, Po’ Girl; I was playing in the criminally under-loved rock and soul band, JT and the Clouds. We were based in Chicago. Po’ Girl toured 300 days a year, all over the world…we put on their first Chicago show…a bell went off the first time we sang together; from there we just made more and more excuses to sing together—but it wasn’t until 2012 that we got it together to really do it…give it a name.
Could you describe Birds of Chicago’s style and instrumentation? What typifies a Birds live show?
We are a pretty elastic collective. We tour in acoustic trio format much of the time but also swell to our full Cadillac version with rhythm section and keys…we get thrown in the Americana genre these days, which I have come to embrace—but mainly because it’s the least musically prescriptive or restrictive genre out there right now…what we do…I don’t know—as Winston Churchill once said—or maybe it was Billy Joel—“it’s still rock and roll to me.” I know the phrase “rock and roll” has a lot of baggage these days, and probably doesn’t serve anymore, but I have a 1958ish relationship to the phrase–that notion of an earlier American blending of all these traditions and musics…European folk, west African traditions morphing and getting pressure cooked in different ways in the new country. …I still think of what we do in those terms.
Who are some songwriters who have influenced each of you?
JT: Van Morrison, John Prine, Sam Cooke, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Townes Van Zandt…that’s kind of a Rushmore there for me, and a million others.
Alli: definitely all of the above—and Janet Russell (my Aunt), Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten, Loreena Mckennit, Tracy Chapman, Hoagy Carmichael, The Staples Singers, Ann Peebles, Nina Simone, Dolly Parton, Lucinda Williams, Gordon Lightfoot, Stan Rogers, the oral traditions of Scotland and the British Isles.
JF: Allison, could you tell us the story behind “Barley”? What was your process like for writing this song? Is this typical of your songwriting process overall?
Alli: I wrote that song in homage to my late Scottish Canadian grandmother, Dr. Isobel Rodger Robertson. She was my hero and the most important woman/mother figure in my young life. She had a wealth of songs and lullabies from the “old country” that she used to sing to me. She was taken too soon by early onset Alzheimer’s—towards the end language was gone, she didn’t know who we were—but when I sang her those songs—she sang with me. It was like having her back for five minutes. I wrote “Barley” trying to make it sound timeless, as though it could have been a tune handed down orally. I was thinking about my grandmother’s strength and resilience—the hardships that she and her forbears went through—and her gifts of hope and endurance that sustain me and my daughter and her other descendants.
This song came to me almost whole—a gift in itself—which is not typical of my writing process. For me each song is its own universe—sometimes the lyrics come first, sometimes a snatch of melody that I have to chase down and dance with for awhile before the lyrics come.
JT, I’m curious to learn why you wrote “American Flowers” when you did? Do you have any thoughts on the protest song in contemporary America?
JT: I had just left the Woody Guthrie celebration in Tulsa and was driving across the heartland… the feeling of poison in our veins, as a country, or a toxic cloud hanging low…was more palpable then I could remember… but the event I had just left—which happened to be Jimmy Lafave’s last show in Oklahoma before he died—was one of the most spiritual experiences I’d ever had. Jimmy basically conducted his own wake. He’d marshaled enough strength to say goodbye to Oklahoma—and Austin, Texas with two last shows…then checked out. Anyway, I knew that was a room full of both Republicans and Democrats…and everyone was there in an completely open, loving way…to say goodbye to their native son…and to commune together.
Anyway it moved me greatly, and I wrote that song to remind me of the basic goodness I know is natural to most of the people in this country.
There is a general assault on empathy, on compassion and kindness, in this country right now—and I would ask people to consider that as an entirely non-partisan declaration—to me, a song that took snapshots of decent people being decent to each other…and that showed some frailty, vulnerability as well… felt like a protest song, in its own way—at this moment in time.
Each of you in your songwriting seem to engage in the dialectics of realism and joy. I think of lines in “All the City Girls,” for instance, when Allison sings, “I’ll soothe you if it pleases you. That’s a thing that I can do, but I’ve got that drop of poison, too.” Or, on “Superlover” from the recent album, the lines, “Lord let me die before my child / Prayed every mother far and wide / That’s a super love / I’m a super lover.” The hopefulness and love in your songs seem completely earned, the opposite of Polyannaish optimism. How, as writers, are you able to achieve this? What is the function of hope during dark political times?
JT: Well, to borrow a term from the visual arts—“high relief” is the phrase I come back to a lot in any kind of art making. Light requires shadow. One does not appreciate the gift of the sun on one’s face if they haven’t shivered in the dead of the night…and on and on…
Alli: Yes exactly. It’s easy to be loving and hopeful when everything is going well and there’s no conflict or strife—it becomes radical and brave to continue to find, foster, create, and embrace hope and love and empathy when the dark days descend—and I truly believe it’s the only way forward—to remind ourselves and each other of our shared humanity and frailty.
Allison, I’m interested in your recent project with Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, and Leyla McCalla, Songs of Our Native Daughters. How did that project come about, and how is the musical process there different than working with Birds of Chicago?
Alli: Rhiannon Giddens had the idea to do a album exploring the legacy of slavery, minstrelsy, and the Black Diaspora—inspired in part by James Baldwin’s Notes of A Native Son—but centered around black women’s experiences, stories, and voices. She got Smithsonian Folkways on board and invited Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla, and I to collaborate. The musical process was quite different–we were writing original tunes based on source material like slave narratives and old minstrel songs—I personally delved deeper into the Grenadian Canadian side of my family history—finding intense lines of connection with my enslaved foremothers. We had very limited time–twelve days of living and working together in the Bayou of Louisiana outside of LaFayette, during which time we wrote and recorded the whole record, and fit in a photo shoot and a video shoot for the Smithsonian! There was a lot of co-writing, Amythyst and I really connected that way, and there was no time to second guess. We would finish a song at 3 am and record it at 11:30 am that morning.
My process is much slower with songs I write for Birds. JT and I have recently begun co-writing which I really love—we come up with things together that we wouldn’t have found each on our own.
JT, as a fellow Midwesterner, I’m curious how growing up in Toledo informs your writing. I also understand that your parents were English professors. Can you talk about how that fact may have helped influence your reading and writing life?
JT: Toledo’s a good town. I actively embrace every cliche about Midwesterners—without getting into some tedious but important distinctions between Midwesterner and Great Lakers…Toledo has a bit of an inferiority complex, but it’s actually a real crescent of blues, jazz tradition…and it’s forty-five minutes from Detroit. We were Tigers fans…stole across the border for many shows.
As for my Mom and Dad—she was a comp teacher and he a lit professor at the University of Toledo…the main thing I appreciate about growing up in that context…when it occurred to me I wanted to be a writer—and then a songwriter—I wasn’t crossing some rubicon from “real job” world to irresponsible fantasy. Words, sentences—they’ve always been the family trade in one way or another. It’s always been important for me to view songwriting and performance as a craft like any other craft.
Birds of Chicago have been riding a swell of good mojo in the Americana scene since their inception in late 2012. With their new album, Love in Wartime, they are set to both confirm that roots world buzz, and break on through to a much wider audience.
Recorded in Chicago against a backdrop of bewilderment, deep divide and dread, Love in Wartime is a rock and roll suite with a cinematic sweep. Co-produced with Luther Dickinson (North Mississippi Allstars), it evokes epic efforts of the 60’s and 70’s, with love as the undeniable through-line.
Built around the chemistry and fire between Allison Russell and JT Nero, and their rock-steady band, BOC tours hard. Russell and Nero played with different bands in the mid-aughts (Po’ Girl and JT and the Clouds) before finding their way to each other. Nero, who writes the bulk of the songs, found himself a transcendent vocal muse in Russell (a powerful writer herself) and the band honed its chops on the road, playing 200 shows a year between 2013-17. All that shaping and sharpening, over so many miles, led them back to Chicago’s Electrical Audio in January of 2017, to begin recording Love in Wartime. “Any act of love is an act of bravery,” says Russell. “We want to give people some good news. And we want them to be able to dance when they hear it.” Check them out here.