The first new artist on Ben Harper’s Mad Bunny Records, he was discovered while crawling through Manhattan
We’re happy to share this premiere today of a singular songwriter even among the most singular. His name is Birdthrower, and his new album, also called Birdthrower, is the first project to debut on Ben Harper’s new Mad Bunny Records. This is the first single, “Let Me Drive.’
These new Birdthrower songs, produced by Harper with stunning purity, form the ideal song cycle for these nonsensical times. Because, as Birdthrower allowed, “Songwriting is the one thing I know how to do that helps me try to make sense of my life and capture what it feels like.”
“Let Me Drive,” he said, is a song he considers “the most straight-forward love song on the record.” Unlike others about the dissonance of life, the holes into which we fall, and streets though which we crawl, this song is about the cradle of human love.
“It’s about connecting,” he said. “It’s about trust. That feeling you had as a child when you fell asleep in the backseat and you knew someone else was driving and everything was going to be alright.”
In the video for the song, Birdthrower is seen in his father’s famous blue suit, his chosen uniform in which to bravely become his art.
“That suit has crawled the length of Manhattan,” he said, “and performed music all over the world. I’ve dug in the earth in it and laid in holes in the ground. It is my suit of armour, I can do anything in it.”
Before he became Birdthrower, he was still Robbie Leaver, a poet-artist-songwriter with a passion for making art by becoming it. To determine if a metaphor for modern existence was valid, he’d make it literal. For his Hole Earth project, which likens existence to perpetually digging holes into which we fall, he dug a series of deep holes and fell into them.
His Crawling Home project road-tested the theme of forever crawling through the chaos of our world while others sped past, which he accomplished by literally crawling, blue-suited always, from lower Manhattan due north to Washington Heights. It was the dramatic determination expressed in this act which attracted acclaimed producer-songwriter Ben Harper to this merger of music and motion.
Not unlike a songwriter who senses a song before grasping its meaning, Birdthrower would throw himself, like a bird, into the air of his art in order to fully realize it.
From his New York crawls came the song “Crawl Away With Me” which started, like much of his art, from indistinct visions he brings into focus. “Crawling became the idea,” he said. “I would do it in 20 different crawls; start at the bottom of Manhattan, go all the way to the top. Took me about six months. And I can’t tell you why exactly I did it, except that I wanted to blow my own mind without blowing up my life. And it didn’t blow up my life, but it definitely blew my mind.”
It was conceived, he said, as a kind of “low down solo funeral march” for our imperiled earth, “but in the end I did it without explanation and let people come to their own conclusions.”
It started with a dream of crawling, he said. Crawling in public. Being the kind of artist who makes art by becoming it, he wrote a song of crawling through life by painting that dream in real-time. His dream became a series of blue-suited crawls through Manhattan. Unsure exactly why this mission compelled him, he dove into to find out.
His chain of crawls were a kind of living poetry which transformed him forever. “There’s my life before I crawled and then my life since then,” he said. “I met all kinds of people: cops, homeless people, people that wanted to help, people that crawled with me, friends that came along and watched, my father. Different family members would come and watch me crawl. My son.”
This was exactly the response for which he’d hoped. “Sometimes you want the people in your life to see you in a new way. It’s very hard to make that happen with people you’ve been with for a long time. So, there was a certain desperate aspect to wanting to just shock myself and shock other people without scaring them.”
But none of these projects were only about the doing, they were always geared to the writer’s endless mission of creating new content. “I don’t think any of it would have existed if it hadn’t been a writing project also,” he said. “Because as soon as I got home after I’d crawl ten blocks, I’d write the story of the crawl.”
Much of his motivation, he allowed, was that which also has led him to write songs, the attempt to make some sense out of what’s an increasingly nonsensical world. Now, especially, as all Americans are living through this long season of isolation, and there’s an ongoing and concerted effort by our leadership to forever question what is true and real, the real power of song to clear through the chaos compelled him.
One who was a witness to his crawl through the clutter was Ben Harper.
“I saw a man on his hands and knees,” said Ben, “crawling through Manhattan in a blue business suit. The world was walking by him as if crawling up Broadway was standard practice. I personally found it highly devotional and felt he was someone I needed to know.”
That someone, as Ben came to learn, was a songwriter, and one with songs as vividly dimensional as his Manhattan crawls: “This was not just any songwriter,” Ben said. “This was Birdthrower.” He welcomed the songwriter into the fold of his new record label, Mad Bunny, where these literal metaphorical journeys became real songs.
The timing was right for this new alliance, as Mad Bunny came to be with the intention of championing singular songwriters, the ones writing songs nobody else had ever written before. Soon the man in the blue suit crawling towards Harlem was in Silverlake, just east of Hollywood, in Sheldon Gomberg’s carriage house recording studio. It’s a happy home of song, where Ben’s made many albums of his own, and played on ones by friends, such as Peter Case’s great Highway 62,
With his trusty rhythm section of Jimmy Paxton and Jesse Ingalls sitting in, Ben invited his new friend to start throwing some birds. To capture the energy of musicians making music together, the way records always used to be made, Birdthrower played and sang each song live with the band. With only one or two takes of each song required, eleven songs were perfectly captured in mid-flight.
To preserve the energy of musicians making music together, the way records always used to be made, Ben brought in his trusty rhythm section of Jimmy Paxton and Jesse Ingalls and invited his new friend to start throwing some birds. Robbie played and sang each song live with the band, and with few takes, never more than four at the most, they soon had eleven songs captured in mid-flight.
As Ben was delighted to discover the essential songwriter in this crawling man, so was Birdthrower comforted by his producer’s openhearted embrace of his singularities. Starting with that of his chosen name.
“When Ben and I first started talking about this, I told him that I am called Birdthrower, and this music would go under the name Birdthrower. I was worried that he would say, `Birdthrower? Are you serious?’
But instead he was, like, `Cool, I’m totally down. Birdthrower, yes, yes.’ “
The name, he explained, came from his son when he was five. “He was asking me, “Who throws the birds?” I was so blown away by that idea, that I immediately took credit for it. I told him I am the Birdthrower. And I called myself Birdthrower after that, and wrote a song almost right away about it. It’s basically a frustrated God point of view, asking, hey, how come you guys don’t appreciate the fact I’m doing everything? I’m putting you together. I’m throwing the birds! So give me a little love here.”
Not only did Ben get it, he loved it.
“I had never met anyone who could sing from the frustrated perspective of God,” he said, “and not have it have a trace of ego, irony, or grandiosity. He pulled it off, off. It’s funny, but it’s not cynical or ironic. And we’ve heard a lot of things, a lot of music in our lives, but I had never heard anybody humbly write from the perspective of God, like, “Come on, get it together. I put you guys in pairs for a reason. I’ve got some expectations.” It flattened me. That’s when I knew.”
This video was shot in an abandoned car in upstate New York. The single, like a bird thrown into flight, is being released today, May 10, 2020.
“I love Birdthrower’s music,” said Ben, “and I want the world to have the chance to love it as much as I do. Take a listen. “
Go here for more on Birdthrower and Ben Harper’s Mad Bunny Records.