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Escape Velocity

Home Is Where The Heart Is: An Interview with Bowerbirds
John Freeman , March 6th, 2012 08:44

Phil Moore tells John Freeman how the making of new album The Clearing pulled Bowerbirds back from the brink of extinction

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The male bowerbird is a pragmatic romancer. While trying to woo a mate, he’ll construct a bower to attract any females looking for a home as well as a lover. It’s rather endearing that keen ornithologist Phil Moore, of alt.folk outfit Bowerbirds, has mirrored this avian courtship ritual. Over the last five years, he’s been building a house deep in an isolated wood in North Carolina to create an oasis of calm for himself and his partner – and fellow Bowerbird – Beth Tacular.

In parallel with this prodigious act of DIY, Bowerbirds have created three albums that document the couple’s rollercoaster of emotional turmoil. The recently-released The Clearing is perhaps their finest work: it manages to sound both outwardly vibrant and intensely personal, as Moore and Tacular flesh out their previously sparse sound.

But The Clearing nearly didn’t happen. Suffering from burn-out while touring 2009’s Upper Air album, the couple briefly separated, and as they began to record the songs for the new record, Beth fell seriously ill and nearly died. The couple allowed themselves the space to undergo some significant soul-searching – and it’s almost impossible not to listen to the The Clearing without hearing two people trying to make sense of their world.

When the Quietus spoke to Moore, he’d been running errands in Chapel Hill, a small university town that serves as Bowerbirds’ nearest conurbation. He is a man who’ll happily talk about domesticity (apparently he makes a great “freeform soup”) while postulating why the tension between a quiet country life and the “craziness” of being a touring band may ultimately be Bowerbirds’ undoing. Until then, we can enjoy the rich honesty of The Clearing.

I believe there were some pretty difficult times for yourself and Beth during the making of The Clearing.

Phil Moore: Yes, it was about halfway through making it that Beth got very ill. We took a little break after that point, as we had been working too hard. We evaluated just about everything we were doing and we started to question why we were in a band in the first place.

What conclusions did you come to?

PM: We realised we needed to make something that was really honest and as autobiographical as possible, and that wasn’t just ego driven. We also realised that we could perhaps help people.

I can relate to that. My son was very ill a couple of years ago, and it made me feel as if I needed to give something back to society, in some way. It was hard to explain why.

PM: Yes, perhaps it is about being less driven by one’s self - I dunno. That veil between life and death was lifted and that has given us a different perspective.

Changing subjects, I believe you and Beth have built your own house in the seclusion of the woods. As someone who can barely rewire a plug, I’m amazed by such a project. Has the house become your sanctuary?

PM: Well, it not that big a deal. It’s something that is a lot more common in the States, probably because of the space. Yes, it is our sanctuary, especially in the future tense as it is not complete quite yet, but we are getting there. It is our little hideaway away from the madness of our other months spent on tour, where we are meeting people every single day. It is really nice to get back here from that. We have a country setting and can relax and watch the seasons change.

So, your life has real extremes – the peace of your home life and the constant demand for your time when you are promoting a record. How hard is the contrast for you?

PM: It’s okay; it’s just part of the job, I guess. It is so intense when you have actually finished a record and then start playing it. But, the balance is there when you are not recording, or on a break between tours, and then it really calms down. You can then begin to naturally prepare for what’s to come. We are not burnt out yet, but we will be.

So, with your re-evaluation of the band, and the peace your domestic life brings, is there a sense that The Clearing documents your desire to try and ‘clear’ away the superfluous crap from your lives?

PM: That’s pretty much it. I like that you used the word ‘try’ because it is not that we’ve done it or that we have successfully figured it all out, but that is the idea, for us to create this space and peace in our lives.

The Clearing is the third Bowerbirds album - do you see a sonic evolution between the records?

PM: I do, yeah. I feel like our newest album has more attention paid to every last detail. For the first album, we kind of had a set palette we were working with musically; we just had an accordion and a nylon-string guitar and maybe a little bit of violin. That was intentional. I had been in a band prior to that and used everything - all the bells and whistles - and tried to create amazing soundscapes with the focus less on the songs. So when Bowerbirds started, the intention was to be a musical group that focused on the lyrics and songs. But, over time, we kind of missed the bells and whistles, but we still wanted to focus on the song so that it didn’t get lost in the scheme of things. The lyrics are still around big issues - life and death and whatnot - but I think this has come out more on this album than on previous ones. It became a little more personal on this album and that is one of the main differences.

As you and Beth are in a relationship, can these very personal songs become difficult to sing night-after-night?

PM: I feel like some of the songs from the last album were a lot more difficult to sing, because I was singing them with Beth onstage and some of them were love songs and some of them were love-hate songs, at a time when we were not together. It was difficult. I feel like our relationship is quite strong these days. But, there are a couple of songs on the new album which are really difficult to sing without getting extremely emotional but it is very cathartic for Beth and I. It is great to have those songs so we don’t forget about our thoughts and feelings.

My journalistic intrigue will force me to ask about which two songs you are referring to.

PM: Well, the first song on the album, ‘Tuck The Darkness In’, is about a really dear friend of mine who died in a skydiving accident. He was just about my favourite friend in the world and he died seven years ago. So, that one is always difficult to sing but, at the same time, it feels right to sing it.

Could lyrics ever be so intense you would pull back from recording them?

PM: No, I think it is important to write whatever comes out because I don’t think people want to listen to music that is guarded, and they want to hear what you really are feeling. If the stories are there to be told, I feel like they should be told; maybe not for everybody else necessarily but at least for our band.

There is an obvious ornithological theme to your band name, but it is correct that you were once a professional bird tracker?

PM: I was a bird tracker. I have a biology degree from the University of Iowa. I am a birdwatcher recreationally, but I took a couple of jobs in South Carolina doing field research tracking birds with radio backpacks. It was pretty fun.

While you are touring the world, do you ever grab the opportunity to do some bird-watching?

PM: I’d love to try a little more. Peter Liddle from Dry The River is also a birdwatcher and we are going to be on tour together. It’s going to be their first full trip around the States so he is probably going to be very excited about getting some new species. So, we may watch some birds together.

As for the future, do you have any idea what the next Bowerbirds album might sound like?

PM: It is hard to say right now, but there is something. We are working on a couple of side-projects and one might turn into Bowerbirds eventually and it is a little more electronic, while the other is a little more punk-rock electronic. But they are just ideas in our heads right now.

And which will come first - album number four or a fully-completed house?

PM: I think we are going to finish the house. You can quote me on that, but we have said that for five years and it hasn’t happened.

The Clearing is out now via Dead Oceans.