It sounds like a hippie’s idea for a short story: boy meets girl (at a Whole Foods, of course), they fall in love, and eventually they shack up in an Airstream trailer in the woods of North Carolina. They do everything together—even design Web sites, oddly enough—as they build a cabin in the wilderness with nothing but hand tools. Meanwhile, the boy crafts eco-friendly folk songs and the girl learns accordion to accompany him. Now meet Phil Moore and Beth Tacular of Bowerbirds. With an indie-folk sound as organic as the produce among which they met, the duo has won the admiration of everyone from the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle to their friend and fellow Midwesterner Justin Vernon of Bon Iver—praise that does not come cheap.
Bowerbirds’ friendship with Vernon has influenced their sound and career, even in the most mundane ways (“On our first tour, he watched our cat,” Moore told us), and the sonic connections are clear. Both possess a down-to-earth earnestness and a Thoreau-inspired isolationist philosophy about songwriting. Moore seasons his lyrics with images of the natural beauty with which he and Tacular surround themselves. “It’s almost less about being in nature and more about being in the absolute most quiet place I can be in so I can concentrate,” he explained. “But it’s like, being out there, the imagery just kind of bleeds through.” Given Bowerbirds’ hummable harmonies and back-porch strumming, it stands to reason that the coziness of Yoga Soup will serve them well when they play there this Sunday night.
In fact, the members of Bowerbirds are so immersed in their unusual lifestyle that promoting their music in big cities was enough of a culture shock to inspire one of the strongest tracks on their most recent album, Upper Air. “House of Diamonds” is a reaction to, in Moore’s words, “touring around and being in cities and having successful people all around you. … Especially since we’d been out in North Carolina for two, three years straight, where it was really quiet. Starting the tour was pretty weird. It was really exciting for us, but it definitely was a difficult transition, for sure.”
Bowerbirds’ first LP, Hymns for a Dark Horse, put their environmentalist convictions front and center with lines like, “It takes a lot of nerve to destroy this wondrous Earth / We’re only human. This, at least, we’ve learned.” As they’ve matured as a band, they’ve toned down the Al Gore-isms and added more and more personal touches. “When I first recorded [Upper Air], it just felt entirely different,” Moore said. “I was nervous about how odd and different it felt. And it was just like, ‘No, I can’t put this on a Bowerbirds album.’ But it was also like, ‘Well, this is what I have, and these are the songs I really like.’” The result is an effortlessly sincere collection of modern folk tunes.
Moore’s musical heredity includes more than just folk, though. He grew up listening to old-time country, jazz (Charles Mingus was an early favorite), and even classical music, and is now particularly interested in the textured works of Mahler and Debussy.
This fascination with musical textures again recalls Bon Iver’s soundscapes, but where Vernon tends to focus on the moods of his pieces, Bowerbirds personalize and politicize their songs. On “Northern Lights,” Moore intones, “I don’t need from you a waterfall of careless praise / And I don’t need a trophy for all the games I’ve played / But all I want is your eyes / In the morning as we wake, for a short while.” “You can’t fake grandeur in a song,” Moore said. “Anything groundbreaking can’t be forced—it just has to happen.”
Club Mercy presents Bowerbirds at Yoga Soup (28 Parker Wy.) this Sunday, January 31, at 9 p.m. Call 965-8811 for tickets and info.