North Carolina’s Bowerbirds has already been around an eternity in today’s internet age, though their work continues to develop as they progress release to release. Their 2009 effort Upper Air, brought them a level of critical and popular acclaim that their previous album Hymns For A Dark Horse barely touched on. After turns opening for such songwriting luminaries as Julie Doiron, they took a year and a half off to record their next release. There’s no doubt with the coming of this year’s The Clearing, they’ll continue to garner similar praise.

We discussed the new album with the band, including its genesis at Justin Vernon’s studio in Wisconsin and its subsequent completion in a cabin. They address many of the changes that their sound has undergone with this new release, as well as giving us quite a bit of insight into their songwriting process, the dramatic basis for many of their songs, and telling us a little bit of what’s gone on in their lives in the time since Upper Air. Check it out below.

You guys have been around in various guises for quite some time now, what is it that you feel distinguishes The Clearing from past efforts?

With this album, we had more resources, in terms of time and money, than we did with our first two, and we also had been through some pretty overwhelming personal circumstances and come out feeling purified, in a way. After three solid years of touring our first two albums, followed by the very intense experiences of our relationship breaking up on tour, the band almost falling apart, Beth breaking her ribs on tour and then almost dying from a mysterious illness, building a house together, and running over and then adopting an injured dog in our tour van, we made our way through all of that, and came out the other side with more positive and fearless attitude. It was like, “Wow, life is fragile, and if we are healthy and alive now, let’s just focus on what we do have, and make everything we do as fun and beautiful as we can. Let’s go as crazy on this next album as we want to.”

We spent a year and a half at home in the country, patching up our relationship with each other, spending time with our dogs, going for walks, cooking for friends, and remembering why we started a band in the first place, which we’d sort of lost track of after all that touring. We had a more “beginner’s mind” mentality, going into writing this album, than we’d had in a while, and it allowed us to explore a lot of different musical ideas and go down avenues we hadn’t tried before.

We also had earned enough money on the last album that we could afford to take a year off and just work full time on The Clearing. We could spend a solid month on one song and not worry about where dinner was coming from. And we had gained a good deal of life experience and musical understanding over the years since we released Hymns for a Dark Horse.

To me it sounds a lot bigger, grander really than anything else you guys have done to this point. Any particular reason for that?

We were going through a lot of emotions when writing these songs, and those emotions had to be expressed in not just the melodies of the songs, but also in the instrumentation and arrangements. We wanted the album to sound as epic and cinematic to the listeners as our lives felt at the time, so we spent a lot of time thinking about the timbre and sonic feel of the songs, and we roped a lot of talented friends into playing on the album. For each song, we tried to imagine the kind of unique soundscape it called for, and then we either figured out how to create that ourselves, or we went out and found people who could play the bass clarinet, or the vibraphone, or the cello. We also acquired some new instruments, including two pianos, so we would work on piano parts in different places at the same time.

It was amazing for us to be able to start a song in September of one year, and then still be adding and taking things away from it a year later, right up until the moment we went to mix it in New York. After putting down so many complex, interlocking instrumental parts on the album, we really needed someone with a good ear to help mix and master the album, so we worked with Nicolas Vernhes of Rare Book Room, who had recently mixed the Beach House and Dirty Projectors albums, both of which sound incredible, and went to the amazing Greg Calbi for mastering. They allowed us to pull off the fuller sound while keeping the clarity.

This is your third full length as Bowerbirds, which in this fast paced blog rock climate is quite a long time to maintain the level of relevancy that you guys have. Is there anything you hope to accomplish on the release of this album that you haven’t so far?

The next step for us is to make our live show, for this album, as full and dynamic as the recordings are. We haven’t had the resources to ever take as many people out with us on tour as we will be doing this time around, and we are really excited to finally be able to perform our songs the way that we want to.

We’ll have five musicians on stage now, each of whom can play several instruments, and sing, so we can do more crazy harmonies and just create a better sound than we’ve been able to in a while.

The themes of the album are pretty meaningful to us, and we hope that we were able to get those across in the lyrics and sound of the album, so that listeners can get something out of it.

So you recorded part of The Clearing at Justin Vernon’s studio and part of it at a cabin in North Carolina? What were the working environments in each of those places like, and do you think either of the places had a tangible impact on the record?

At Justin’s studio, we were working with Brian Joseph, our longtime friend since our tour with Bon Iver, and the engineer who also engineered our Justin’s latest album, Bon Iver, Bon Iver. He has an incredible ear, and he recorded the bulk of the drums, piano and guitar on The Clearing. We initially thought we would have time to record everything with him, when we were in Wisconsin, but we soon realized that for the fullness of sound that we wanted to create, it was going to take us a lot longer to record than we had initially thought.

We recorded our first two albums ourselves, with either Mark (one of our original members) or Phil doing the recording ourselves, but for The Clearing, we wanted to step it up a notch and work with someone who had more skills and better equipment. We learned a lot while working with Brian, and when we came home to North Carolina, we bought a few extra good microphones, at his recommendation, and then we just experimented ourselves until we got the sounds we were going for.

Being home and having six months to finish the album ourselves meant that we could take as long as we wanted to work out a vocal line or harmony, or edit string arrangements. We actually had a few different versions worked up of the same songs, and we took each one as far as we could, before finally picking the best one.

In terms of the tangible impact of the physical environment of the two places, they are both in the countryside and are both beautiful in their own ways. When we were in Wisconsin, it was still early spring, and it even snowed. Justin’s place is on a hill where you can see really far into the distance, as is our place, so there was that continuity. But when we were home, most of the recording was done during a really hot summer, and we had to record with the fans and air conditioning turned off, to keep that sound out of the recording, so it was pretty ridiculously hot at times. We recorded a lot of tracks half-naked, covered in sweat. That might have led to wanting the sounds to be more intense, to distract us from the heat.

The indie folk landscape has changed quite a bit over the past few years. Some of the major players, namely Sufjan Stevens, and Justin Vernon’s Bon Iver, have ditched their more rootsy sounds for something different. On The Clearing, it seems like you guys have branched out while still staying firmly under the overall folk umbrella. Do you see yourself delving further into new sounds in the future, or is the more rootsy side of folk where you find yourself most inspired?

That’s interesting. We don’t consider ourselves to be folk musicians anymore. I’m not sure we ever were folk musicians, in the sense that I think of folk music as songs that anyone could just pick up a guitar and play the songs around a campfire. Our songs have always used pretty complicated rhythms, meter and chord structures, and we are influenced by African music, jazz, Latin music, experimental rock music, and drum and bass, as much as, or more than, we are by folk music.

When we started out as Bowerbirds, Phil had just quit a band called Ticonderoga, which was an experimental post-rock band, and he wanted to create a new stripped down sound, with just bass drum, accordion, and guitar. We then added violin, but we still wanted the sound to be very spare. After adding piano to our last album, we were finally ready to fill out the sound a lot more. We think of the sound on The Clearing as a move toward more lushness, and I think anything we do in the future will keep moving in that direction.

Phil is actually right now working on a side project that is synth-based, with vocal altering and a lot of electronic drums and sounds, which may or may not be the next Bowerbirds album. It’s pretty wild, actually.

Musically, did you find yourself drawing on different inspirations than for previous albums?

Our outlook on life was more positive on this album, so that probably shows in the music. In terms of inspiration coming from other music on this album, we were really just trying to create our own, really unique sound, with The Clearing, rather than being inspired by other bands per se.

Are there any other mediums that inspire your music other than music itself? I know Beth is a well-regarded visual artist as well. Do you take anything from visual art, or say, film in the construction of your songs?

We watch a lot of movies, especially when we’re not on tour. Like hundreds a year. We really love films, so that is probably actually the biggest influence on our music of anything. I bet, without realizing it, film soundtracks played heavily into the structure of our album. We watch a lot of dramas, foreign and indie films, and documentaries, so I guess we are kind of addicted to dramatic moments, and maybe that is why this album feels more dramatic. That’s funny to think about.

Last night we watched the comedy, Blades of Glory, and in the extras there was an interview with comedians Will Arnett and Amy Poehler, who are hilarious, and are married to each other, and they were talking about how they were afraid they would have a melancholy, very serious, method-actor style child, like a tiny Sean Penn. Which we thought was hilarious. We love Sean Penn, and we were like, oh no! Are we like Sean Penn? Are we humorless? Are people going to be afraid to have children like us?

We decided last night that we have to start watching more comedies. No, but I don’t think we’re too serious. We sort of go to extremes, where we’re either really serious or really crazy and goofing off.

But to talk about the visual, I think that’s how I know that one of our songs is finished: if I can listen to it with my eyes closed and easily envision shapes and colors, patterns. And when I’m working on a song, I imagine it all visually, or in a tactile way, like, “oh this song needs more pointy-ness,” or “this song has too much blue and roundness, like a Merlot, and needs some yellow zigzags or scratchiness in it.” Phil is really purely musical and a storyteller, and things come to him more in terms of sounds, words and structures.

What’s one thing that has been most integral to the construction of The Clearing?

Time. Or hope. Maybe the hope that comes from taking time to settle into a place and a group of songs, and to get a clearer look at your life and the dreams you have.

You guys have made big use of the accordion in the past, an instrument that other indie bands have shied away from. Any reason its not popping up as much on the new album? 

I love the accordion, and I’m not sure why other bands have shied away from it. It makes such a gorgeous sound. We didn’t make a conscious choice to use less accordion on this album. Often Phil would start a song, and he’d go ahead and write parts on several instruments before bringing it to me, and I wouldn’t really see a place for an accordion part on the song. It’s also easier for me to write parts on the piano than on the accordion, and so when I was writing, it was usually on the piano or with my voice. And for example, the song 'Hush', which I wrote on the piano, would sound like a totally different song if played on accordion, and I’m not even sure how a person would make that work. We wanted a more percussive sound on this album, with interlocking clicky-clacky parts coming from instruments that are both tonal and percussive, like the piano, marimba, guitar, plucked violin and cello, and vibraphone. And on top of a bed of these sounds, we felt that we could lay some long, sinewy string parts, and some horns and reed instruments, and occasionally accordion.

On this album we were more into using a variety of sounds, in general, to have more for people to listen to – more characters in the cast - and so we didn’t need to put accordion on half the songs, like we had in the past.

We certainly look forward to the release of the album and catching you guys live at some point in the coming year. Anything you’re particularly looking forward to doing this year?

We’re looking forward to our upcoming tours, including our first one in North America, where our friends in Dry the River will be supporting. They opened a few shows for us a couple years ago in the UK, and we got along really well, so it’s going to be a lot of fun touring together. And then we get to fly overseas and play some shows in the UK and Europe, which we always love.

Best of luck!

Thank you for the thoughtful questions.


The Clearing is released on March 5th through Dead Oceans. You can read our review of the album here.