Writer Of The Week: Birdsong At Morning

We’re pretty enamored with this Q&A with Alan Williams of folk music trio Birdsong At Morning. Great bands beget great answers, we guess. Read on to learn how a college professor and former New England Conservatory of Music student learned how to rock, albeit acoustically.

You all have interesting day jobs. What are they, and how do they play into your music and songwriting?

I’m a college professor, Darleen is a web/media consultant, and Greg is the Vice President of Operations at Tea Forte. I’d say that our current jobs allow us to make music without depending on it to generate income. Our previous professional lives have more to do with music. For many years, Darleen was a record producer and engineer, Greg played in other bands and did a lot of session work. In both cases, I would say their background lends itself to the attention to detail and nuance in arrangements and performance. It’s not so much the number of notes, but rather how they are played. In my case, my time doing graduate work in ethnomusicology opened my ears and mind to new sounds, and new ways of thinking about music. Not necessarily in terms of drawing from particular musical practices, but rather the joy of making music free from the constraints of professional/music industry considerations. Playing in various traditional world music ensembles rejuvenated my music mojo, and I emerged a different musician than when I entered.

What defines your band’s sound?

It’s a predominately acoustic instrumental setting, with an emphasis on a softer, warmer approach to singing. That’s not to say that there aren’t electronic sounds (both Greg and Darleen play electric instruments), but that most of our sounds are initiated by fingers touching wood. Beyond that, there’s a careful attention to arrangement details. It’s a lovingly crafted sound that is trying to make a direct connection with the listener.

As students, you and Greg attended the New England Conservatory of Music. What was that like?

We were both in a little experimental program called Third Stream. It’s now a larger program that goes under the heading Contemporary Improvisation, but the core approach to music making remains. Initially, it was supposed to be a hybrid of jazz and classical music, though by the time we got there, it was more about synthesizing multiple musical concepts and practices, in most cases by emphasizing the “ear,” and de-emphasizing written notation. In pop and folk, this is kind of a “duh,” but in classical, and even to an extent in jazz, this is a very different approach. Everything was learned by ear, and you had to be able to sing every note before you were allowed to move to your instrument. We learned Billie Holiday, Al Green and James Brown. Then we moved to Bartok piano pieces, Ellington horn charts, etc.

Removing the notation, and learning all music in the same manner had the effect of eliminating the divisions between “classical,” “jazz,” “pop,” etc. One could still identify the sounds by genre, but the hierarchy of high and low art began to vanish. This had a profound effect upon me because it validated my love of rock/pop, but also brought new ideas to the table in terms of harmonies, form, structure, timbre.

Of course, we were kind of the oddballs in the building, and most folks could be found spending inordinate amounts of time practicing at a fever pitch. Listening to some of the pianists at work brought me to an identity crisis, and I abandoned the instrument that I was admitted to the Conservatory on. Fortunately, I was allowed to re-classify myself as a “composer/vocalist,” and also found a useful role as a synthesizer player in an experimental world/jazz/pop band called Danse Real. Greg and I played in this group along with Ben Wittman, who plays drums on most of the Birdsong At Morning recordings, so in many ways, the bonds of music and friendship formed in the NEC practice rooms was more important than any particular classroom instruction.

Do you buy into the argument that trained musicians aren’t as “soulful” as non-trained musicians?

Hah! Well, I lived that argument – on all sides. For a while, I viewed myself as the anti-conservatory student, blasting my Clash and and Marvin Gaye records. And this was the 80s, so my complete and total fixation on Prince got me a LOT of dirty looks and comments from my fellow students. That is until Miles Davis starting talking about how great the Purple One was. Funny that after a couple of years, Prince was totally cool with the same crowd that mocked me before.

That said, it’s really easy to become very cerebral in a conservatory, or other academic setting. But really, it’s a false argument because none of this education determines the final musical expression. Facility on an instrument might give a musician a greater number of options, but those options can be utilized in the service of something “soulful,” or something “soulless.” Often, it’s question of knowing when to leave the options on the table. That can be a hard lesson to learn, but many, many trained musicians have come out the other end, tapping into a vein that I find powerfully moving. Dawn Upshaw and Howlin’ Wolf both have the power to blow me away.

Tell us about the new box set (Annals Of My Glass House, out February 15); not everyone gets to have one.

Boxed as you wanna be. Really, anyone can do it if they amass the material and the capital. And amassing is kind of an appropriate word. I am a very patient man. The band, and the box set have been on my mind in a formative way for decades. It seems a little bit odd, but there’s a great deal of truth in the notion that I got a PhD so that I could get a steady job that would finance the band, and allow for doing some gigging. The songs have been gestating in some cases since my days at NEC, so dealing with the bulk was one of the motivating factors in deciding to package the work as a box set.

In some ways, the four EPs collected in the box were a response to changes in the listening habits of lots of folks. Many people prefer to cherry pick specific songs rather than deal with whole albums. So we thought an EP was a smaller dose than a full-length CD. But at the same time, our conceptions of musical works were formed in the LP era, so it’s almost impossible to let go of the idea that songs can be connected as a whole “work.”

Breaking the big chunk of songs into smaller groupings also allowed us to set and maintain a particular mood or theme throughout an EP, while allowing a broader range of expression over the course of multiple discs. So theoretically, the best of both worlds.

How did you decide to cover King Crimson’s” Matte Kudasai.” Was that hard to pull off?

Each EP features a different cover version, usually an unexpected choice treated differently from the original. Discipline was a really important record for me in the transition from high school to college, and “Matte Kudasai” always struck me as indescribably beautiful. The challenge was to recreate the ethereal mood of Adrian Belew’s processed electric guitar using acoustic instruments. So we do it more as a chamber music piece, with a string quartet setting the mood and a nylon guitar part making the Fripp lines semi-classical in nature. In terms of vocal approach, I split the difference between Belew and Daryl Hall, whose vocal on Fripp’s “North Star,” is really part of the same DNA of “Matte Kudasai.”

And yes, it was hard to pull off.

What’s a song on your latest album, Lumens, that you really want people to hear, and why?

Depends on who you ask. Greg’s favorite is “Heartland,” and I have to agree that it’s some of my stronger writing. I had a blast with the Arabic string arrangement on “Light,” seeing it as some caffeinated relative to Zeppelin’s “Kashmir,” or “Friends.” Radio-oriented folks seem to respond to “Velvet Indigo.” I don’t know – it’s a Sophie’s Choice.

What’s a lyric you’re particularly proud of on the album?

In the song “Heartland,” the words tend to straddle the melodic phrasing, implying one direction/meaning, but ending at a different, but related point. So my favorite line in that regard is, “Maria, I was half-way there/Turning down the road we’d shared/Everything, or none at all/You had a choice and made the call/Thy will be done.” But I’m also fond of the words to “Light In The Window,” and the conceit of “Wishful Thinking” – “Do all of us wonder just how long we can endure?/While falling apart together, shaken and unsure/If when we say ‘I love you’/Is it just wishful thinking”

Are there any words you love, or hate?

No, I don’t hold a grudge or carry a torch for any specific language. I do tend to avoid current lingo. Dates badly, and usually fails to convey any real meaning after awhile.

How do you typically write songs? Words first, or melody?

Usually a song begins as a more harmonic-based guitar part. Then a melody begins to suggest itself. This in turn implies vocal sounds that some sort of phonetic content. If I’m lucky, these sounds become words with a logical flow. But usually, it’s murder turning “aaa” “ooo” and “eee” into a coherent lyric.

One thing I’ve learned (but sometimes forget) is if actual words emerge early in the process, go with them. Let the lyric form quickly.

Do you find yourself revising a lot, or do you like to write automatically?

I do a lot of revision, not so much by choice, but because I have a lot of half-written lyrics that require attention, the process is often like solving a puzzle. But once I have a full set of words, I don’t tend to make changes, much to Darleen’s occasional dismay.

Who’s an underrated songwriter, in your opinion?

Two people come to mind for different reasons. I did some engineering work with Patty Larkin, and I found myself first dazzled by her instrumental dexterity and creative ideas. Her vocal delivery can sound so direct, so frank, so honest. But listening to her music closely and repeatedly, her songwriting became the thing I latched onto. She tends to keep her lyrics terse, and the vignettes and settings are as musically constructed as they are lyrically. Check out “I Told Him My Dog Wouldn’t Run” as an example of a complex set of emotions related with a minimum of fuss.

And I also want to acknowledge Paul McCartney. Not exactly underrated, but I think most folks celebrate his obvious gift for melody. But many of his lyrics are quite strong, and I think uniquely his. He tends to do a lot of internal rhyme scheme that you don’t even notice going by. Even a song as silly as “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” has incredibly creative internal rhymes. And “Penny Lane” has some great turns of phrase – “photographs/Of every head he’s had to pleasure to know,” etc. And there are many hidden gems in his post-Beatles catalog.

What’s a song you wish you’d written?

Can I submit a short list? I’ll keep it to five. Off the top of my head:

Richard Thompson – “The Great Valerio”
Sinead O’Connor – “Black Boys On Mopeds”
Patty Larkin – “Good Thing”
Merle Haggard – “Silver Wings”
Randy Newman – “Marie”