Birdsong At Morning
‘Of Birdsong At Morning and Starshine At Night’
Most lives have many chapters, some more than others. The members of Birdsong At Morning fall into the latter group, with long histories in the music business countered by extensive experience in business, media, and academia.
A series of afternoon get-togethers comprised of semi-retired musicians coalesced into the ensemble now known as Birdsong At Morning, whose core is a trio of friendly relations that stretch back decades.
Fast forward a couple of years, and the group is releasing a stunning 4 CD box set of material entitled 'Annals of My Glass House', featuring the powerful songwriting, compelling voice, and masterful arrangements of Alan Williams, ably supported by the guitars, bass, and voices of Darleen Wilson and Greg Porter, and a bevy of players on drums, percussion, qunun, and strings.
Exclusive Magazine recently sat down with Alan Williams and discussed the exciting new 4-CD box set, where the name of the band originated, and, of course, ... Penguins!
Is it true, taking it from the top, that Birdsong At Morning came together as a trio after a series of afternoon get-togethers comprised of semi-retired musicians? "Yes. For various reasons, a number of friends who had at one time been serious about music making ended up putting guitars away to raise families, or commit to better paying endeavors. A series of chance conversations revealed that this group of folks were still nursing a desire to make music, though not necessarily as a career. So we invited folks over to the house to shake off some of the rust and see if we could rediscover the joy of music making. The afternoons were always enjoyable, even if the music was inconsistent, and over time, the guitar felt less foreign in my hands, and my voice less constricted in my throat."
"But it wasn't yet a band. That happened when one afternoon, only Greg showed up to play. Coincidently, I had just finished my first new song in over a decade, and decided to play it for them. At one point, Darleen and Greg spontaneously burst into harmony, and something in that sound indicated we might be on to something. While not yet official, Birdsong At Morning has been a band ever since that day."
It's been said that the core of the BAM trio is one of friendly relations that stretch back decades - so, how many decades are we talking and in taking this band to the point that it is today, what was one of the biggest speed bumps encountered ... and then overcome? "Greg and I were introduced to each other while we were in high school back in North Carolina, though we lived at opposite ends of the state. This would have been at the close of the 1970s. We ended up coming to school together at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, were roommates for years, and played in various bands together ever since."
"Darleen and I met in the late 1980s when she agreed to produce some demos for the band I was in after graduation, called Knots and Crosses. Darleen was something of a celebrity in the Boston music scene, known for her stellar production and engineering with the new crop of singer-songwriters emerging from the area (She recorded Shawn Colvin's "Live" tape that got her a deal with Columbia, helmed breakthrough albums for Bill Morrissey and Patty Larkin, and worked with Catie Curtis from self-released albums through her major label debut). I was immediately impressed with her work in the studio, and tried to learn all I could about recording as well as general music business questions. Several years passed before our respective marriages had ended, and we became a couple. But we've been together for 18 years now."
"For Greg and myself, encounters with the upper levels of the industry ended in frustration (Knots and Crosses signed with Island, though we were dropped before anything was released, and Greg's band Talking to Animals was kicking around Columbia records before finally issuing something through Walter Yetnikoff's boutique label in the late 90s). The burnout factor was severe and we both looked for other, non-musical avenues to pursue. Those paths led us to greater financial stability, but our current commitments do limit the amount of time and energy we can put towards the band. For Darleen, the challenge has been to commit to being a performer, a role she had never been comfortable with, and this discomfort is part of what led her to the non-performer roles of studio engineering and production."
"The REAL challenge has been coming to terms with approaching music from a serious career perspective again, ESPECIALLY since we know what that's about. The prospect of success is very low, and in many more important ways, the greatest danger is becoming consumed with career trajectory and forgetting to enjoy the experience of creating and performing for its own sake. It's a question that never fully gets answered, or goes away."
You have just released an incredible, truly, 4-CD box set of material entitled 'Annals of My Glass House' - please explain why it was time to do so, and where the box set title originates? Also, the set features four installments of your work - Bound, Heavens, Vigil and Lumens - which gathers together all 25 songs for 2 hours of music! How long did it take to put this stunning box set together, and was it always planned to be this way? "After not writing songs for so many years, once the first one came, the floodgates opened and suddenly we had a chunk of material to work with. All of it seemed of a piece, and all was inspired by the sound we were creating together. The problem was how to choose which songs to keep and which to throw away, which to tackle first, and which to put aside for later."
"We opted to do both – finish and release all of the material, but work on them in smaller chunks. Thus each CD would be completed and then we would begin work on the next one. Because most of the songs existed in some form at the outset, we were able to record drum tracks for all four CDs in one two-day session. As we worked on each CD, we just grabbed the drums for the songs that made up each disc."
"Once we started thinking of shorter CDs, and that each CD would be related to the others, it was clear that the project would culminate in a box set collection. The cool thing is that knowing you plan to connect each release, one begins to think about graphics and titles in ways that will further underscore the connections. I had found an image from the 19th century photographer Julia Margaret Cameron that I wanted to use for the first CD cover (Bound). Once Darleen and Greg agreed, we decided to use her images for all the album covers, as well as the box. This not only imparted a consistent look to the project, but implied a mood and overall creative approach."
"The images we selected in turn began to influence some of the unfinished songs, so the project became musically shaped by the images that had been selected to adhere to the initial concept. For example, a number of songs contained imagery from space, so we decided to group those together on one disc. We found that Cameron had photographed an astronomer, John Herschel as part of a series of portraits of the leading intellectual lights of her social circle. This in turn inspired me to change the lyrics of an unfinished song to bring out the that theme more directly. That song, "Astronomy" is the lead of track of the second disc entitled, Heavens."
"The name of the box itself came from the title of Cameron's unpublished memoirs – Annals of My Glass House. The number of discs, the "windows on the soul" nature of some of the emotional character of the songs and performances all seemed to be aptly summarized by the title, and it pulled the whole project together rather nicely."
And for you personally, which is your favorite album of the four, and why? "Ah, the Sophie's Choice question. My personal favorite has more to do with a few personal challenges being met than with a sense of artistic meaning and connection. There are some lyrics and string arrangements on the second disc, Heavens, that were minor breakthroughs for me, so they hold a special meaning. That said, I think the third disc, Vigil, is the most consistently solid of the bunch, though it is fairly unrelentingly dark and slow. But tracks off the first disc, Bound, and the fourth disc, Lumens, have gotten the most attention at radio and from fans. Really, it's easier for me to think of the whole box as a single work."
Indeed, whilst on the subject of revealing things, where does the bands name originate - and what other choices were circling your thoughts back then? "I'm a patient man. For decades, I'd been toying with the idea of a musical group that could perform Van Morrison's Astral Weeks. I figured if I could pull together the right instrumentation and musical approach, any group of musicians that could do that album justice would also be able to create something new, and potentially as powerful."
"So, all during that time, I kept my eyes open for possible band names. The phrase "birdsong at morning" comes from a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson, and kind of fits the 19th century romantic vibe of the music and imagery we use. But the truth is, I came across that phrase in Alex Comfort's 1970s classic, The Joy of Sex. Struck me as a poetic phrase, and possible band name. In truth, Darleen and Greg were kind of presented with the name early on, with no other options offered."
According to your published bio, the band has suffered through inevitable downturns - marriages begin, marriages end, band forms, band breaks up, band reforms, the music industry collapses, etc. - but through it all here you are today. How did it all get back on track this time, and what can stop it from derailing again? "I need to clarify this section of our bio. The members of Birdsong At Morning have experienced all these things, but not while in the group. All of that turmoil pre-dates the forming of the band. Birdsong At Morning has never broken up or reformed, but my past band Knots and Crosses was formed with my (now)ex-wife Carol Noonan. Our marriage ended while in Knots and Crosses, but we elected to keep the band going for an additional 2-3 very awkward and difficult years."
"That experience DID give me pause about forming another and with a romantic partner, and because of that, I think Darleen and I have made great efforts to not have the band take over our personal lives. I think all of our collective past experiences have made this one of the most emotionally healthy groups you are likely to encounter. We had already made most of the mistakes one can make before we ever formed this band. We're too old now to make most of them again. We won't break up like a cataclysmic event, we'll just decide to stop when the time is right, when we feel that we've said what we wanted to say, when we've had some fun making music, and when we're too tired to force the issue if its run out of steam. Which hopefully will allow for a long and fruitful period of creativity and fun experiences."
Being that BAM seem to play with bird sentiments, if you ever visit the zoo do you flock to the Aviary, perhaps?! "Nope. We're not ornithologistically inclined. I'm afraid that birders are more annoyed that we come up on Google searches than are drawn to our music. Darleen and Greg might be able to identify species, but my knowledge of factual minutiae is limited to album cover liner notes."
OK, as we're not called Exclusive Magazine for nothing, please reveal a secret about one of the other band members - something that will amuse us, and yet not embarrass them! "Kind of unfair to exclude myself from the bean spilling, so I'll go first. I was a HUGE Partridge Family fan back in the day. Had all their albums through Shopping Bag (which suitably enough, came packaged with a brightly colored designed plastic shopping bag). My cousin found this to be so lame as to question our shared DNA."
"Greg used to sport a rat tail back in the mid-80s. He's never been afraid of fashion, and truth be told, it looked good on him."
"Darleen used to record New Kids On The Block just before they exploded. That might be embarrassing for some, but I consider it a badge of honor."
Finally, and back to the zoo theme, Exclusive Magazine love penguins ... do you? "Anything Morgan Freeman wants to endorse is ok by me."
Interview: Russell A. Trunk
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