Interview: Birds of Chicago Turn Personal Bond Into Sweet Harmonies, ‘Secular Gospel’
Not every romantically involved couple is able to work together professionally; sometimes, even sharing the deepest, most love-filled connection does not translate into career-related creativity and success. Birds of Chicago, however, don't have to worry about that; in fact, they have almost the opposite problem.
JT Nero and Allison Russell first met in the early 2000s: He was leading his own band, JT & the Clouds, and she was part of a duo called Po' Girl. The two kept crossing paths professionally, but it was while Po' Girl and Nero, as a solo act, were touring Europe together in 2007 that their musical future really began to take shape. Russell went from an occasional guest to a near-constant presence during Nero's sets, and, as Nero recalls, "from there on out, there was such a kindred soul dynamic."
While dating, Nero and Russell formed Birds of Chicago in 2012; he explains the transition from their individual groups to their duo together as "a five-year friendly merger before we made it official."
"I feel like I'd internalized Allison's voice so much that I'd begun writing for her voice ... moreso than my own," Nero tells The Boot. "It was something that I wanted to pay attention to, and we knew it was time to give our thing its proper space."
Now husband and wife -- they married in 2013 -- Nero and Russell have added their young daughter into their collective creative life as well. The 2-year-old more often than not is on the road with her parents -- an arrangement that Nero calls necessary, but also "fantastic."
"Things are a lot easier when you have no damn choice," he muses of their decision (which wasn't really a decision at all) to bring their toddler with them on tour. "Like any first-time parents, we're just figuring it out as we go ... Our basic philosophy is, if we're bringing a new human into the world, we may as well be doing the one thing we kind of know how to do, and that is [be musicians].
"It is a bit unorthodox, but it is also very regimented; there's a rhythm to it, and there's a pretty rigorous schedule to it, so I think that actually works," Nero adds. "It's way more square than most folks realize."
Birds of Chicago released their self-titled debut in 2012, Live From Space in 2013 and their most recent project, Real Midnight, this past February. The record was produced by Joe Henry (Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris, among others), who played off of Nero and Russell's intrinsic connection to each other.
"He likes [the songs on an album] to be fresh and not -- he doesn't want them to be over-rehearsed; in fact, he'd probably prefer them to not be rehearsed at all," Nero says of Henry. "His philosophy is that, if you have a bunch of big-eared musicians who have a lot of love and trust for each other, the responsive way that they'll play in their early moments of getting to know a song has a certain magic that is never caught again."
There's something about words and music that lets us, for little brief windows, love each other better than we can any other time.
Nero is Birds of Chicago's primary songwriter -- though he's quick to point out that his wife is a great tunesmith herself, "she just tends to spit them out a lot more slowly than I do" -- but Russell and their backing musicians get their say in the creative process, too.
"[There is] a high, high intuitive trust level, and one of the things I look forward to the most is taking that skeleton of a song and having it be gutted and re-purposed and put back together in the arrangement process with everybody," explains Nero, adding that Russell will "definitely let me know" if a particular lyric "just doesn't feel right."
Truly, it's Birds of Chicago as a whole that make Nero's songs truly come alive. The group thrives thanks to Russell's heartfelt vocals, their incredible harmonies and the musicianship that, all together, elevate each track. Nero and Russell describe their style as "secular gospel" -- meaning, they're looking to capture the genre's "certain fervor and electric energy."
"That whole notion of, every beautiful thing that we can create, whether it's words or music, gets us closer to god -- that's the gospel mission, right?" Nero reflects. "And, for us, it's taking some of that energy and that grace and that succulence of those words and melodies and refocusing, redirecting it at each other."
He continues, "It's spiritual, but it's an earthbound spiritualism ... There's something about words and music that lets us, for little brief windows, love each other better than we can any other time ... That's the good stuff; that's the stuff we're trying to trade in, and that's the thing we're always chasing."
Real Midnight is available for download via iTunes. Birds of Chicago have an extensive tour planned throughout the spring and summer, including a stop in Los Angeles on Wednesday night (April 6).
Listen to Birds of Chicago, "Real Midnight":
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