I discovered The Stray Birds last fall as they were getting lots of love from NPR, including having their self-titled album, The Stray Birds, topping NPR's Top 10 Americana/ Folk Albums of 2012. The group's single, "Dream In Blue", has attracted a lot of attention and has managed to get a lot of roots and folk fans excited. I have to admit, after listening to the album a few times, I quickly realized that the trio is arguably one of the most exciting young Americana bands out there right now. In fact, I chose The Stray Birds as one of Uprooted Music Revue's Favorite Audio Releases of 2012.
Thanks to the power of the internet (since Maya is currently in Guatemala), I recently had the opportunity to correspond with all three members of the band (Maya, Oliver and Charlie). We discussed the evolution of The Stray Birds, including the making of their Borderland EP, and last year's self-titled full-length. We also dig into their influences, songwriting, and the ties that bind the three songwriters.
Charlie: I started playing music because I saw my Dad playing the bass, both upright and electric. I was also tall for the fourth grade and went to a school with an excellent string music program. There were something like 8 violins, 4 violas, 3 celli, and me on the upright bass playing “classical music” in the large group room at Landisville Intermediate Center. We had a holiday concert and a string concert for the entire school, parents, siblings, etc. It’s funny to think of it now....that’s my first experience playing though, in ensemble.
Maya: The first "real" song I learned was “Our Town” by Iris DeMent. My dad taught me how to play it on a tiny guitar for show and tell in kindergarten. Music was a staple in our family. Instruments felt accessible. We had a lot of musical friends, too, so I felt literally surrounded by it.
I started piano lessons when I was 7, with my grandmother. She was a really wonderful musician who adored Chopin, and she herself was a composer. She had her own little system of notation, though, because she played mostly by ear and was pretty slow at reading music. Creatively, this was probably a good thing for me, because from the start, it seemed that written music was there if you wanted it, but it was certainly not essential to making sound. I was always composing little tunes on the piano (just little melodies, nothing complicated) in addition to any of my assigned “pieces”.
Oliver: I hated playing the violin for the first five years I was doing it. My parents started me with classical lessons on my 5th birthday and I was 10 years old before I enjoyed it at all. I should thank them every day because now music is one of my greatest loves. I didn’t start writing music until I was a teenager. It was in high school when I picked up other instruments like the guitar and the mandolin, and started to become more creative.
Which artists, albums, and live experiences influenced you most early on?
Maya: My earliest influence was certainly my family. My parents love old-time and bluegrass music, and all summer long they would invite friends over on the weekends to play music around a campfire. My dad has always played in a band. Blues, gypsy jazz, bluegrass... He plays the fiddle and the guitar, both my mom and my dad like to sing. I remember them singing Beatles songs a lot at the kitchen table at night.
We had a friend from Germany who loved folk music, and he made some tapes of concerts from the Kerrville Folk Festival, and we listened to these a lot in the car, so that was a good dose of contemporary singer-songwriters. Also a lot of Iris DeMent, Gillian Welch, Steve Earle, and Emmylou Harris. Rubber Soul was the first CD I owned, and I remember being obsessed with "Norwegian Wood". I´m still sort of obsessed with "Norwegian Wood".
Charlie: Well I’m not sure how early, early is. My mother loved listening to WSOX (Oldies 96.1) in the car since I can remember. We listened to music from The Everly Brothers, Aretha Franklin, The Temptations, Janis Joplin, The Beatles, The Dead, I could go on for a while... That time was when I really started to sing music mostly because my momma was singing so loudly. Hahahah. If you ever meet her ask her to sing “The Hills are Alive” from The Sound of Music.
As for albums, I connected to Led Zeppelin IV and Houses of the Holy in middle school. I love Robert Plant’s voice and John Paul Jones’ feel on bass. My Grandmother gave me Beatles 1, a record which was all their number 1s chronologically. I liked the back half of that album especially "Lady Madonna". Anything by CSNY or The Grateful Dead was also on my radar.
Live, I'd say that Béla Fleck and the Flecktones was a huge influence. My family would see them anytime they came within 3 hours of Lancaster. Victor Wooten was in that band, a huge inspiration rhythmically. Derek Trucks Band was great to see live too.
Oliver: I grew up playing in The Craven Family Band, so that one is undeniably influential. Honestly, and at the risk of sounding generic, I loved Hendrix, The Beatles and Dylan a lot as a teenager and spent a good deal of time emulating those guys.
Whenever I saw live music however, I was always jealous of the performer. No matter how good it was, I just couldn’t get over the fact that they were on stage and not me. Now that we’re performing a great deal, I’m able to throughly enjoy seeing music more than I ever have, because I don’t feel that envy anymore. Silly? A little. But it’s true, and I think it helped me to work myself into a position where I get to be on stage a lot.
Charlie: Maya and I first met in the Landisville Middle School Orchestra and late at the High School as well. We played in the musical pit as well. When I went to college in West Chester Pa, she traveled around the world (ask her about that) and we met about 3 years later.
Oliver and I were recording an album for a bluegrass project called River Wheel and Maya came to listen to the recording sessions just back from Spain ( I think). Oliver and Maya connected and recorded most of the Borderland EP, adding me for bass when needed. We tried arranging music and playing out. The music was natural and felt really authentic from the start. We took it on the road and here we are about a year and a half later...
Maya: I did travel a lot right out of high school. I traveled with various characters, but always with a fiddle. When I was in Spain, I remember riding on this bus and looking out at this dusty expanse of mountains and listening to Townes Van Zandt on my ipod and thinking, “I could write songs”... I came back to Lancaster a few weeks later, and Oliver and Charlie were about to record with River Wheel.
I felt this immediate connection with Oliver as a fiddler-turned-songwriter, and also as avid travelers. I remember the first time we hung out, we had a map on our laps. We started singing together right away, too. I´d already figured out how much I loved to travel, and finding musicians to arrange and record with were the missing pieces.
I think we all count ourselves pretty lucky to have stumbled upon each other, and it is wild that after all that traveling, we are from the same 10 mile radius in Lancaster County.
Oliver: We liked what we did enough to release it and out of the necessity of naming the record, the band was born. It wasn’t until January of 2012, however, that we were all in the same place at the same time and decided we would give The Stray Birds our priority. It’s been a year now, and enough good has happened that we’re gonna keep going.
What were your experiences like as a band before making a record? What was the timeline between when you formed as a band and making the first recording?
Charlie: We formed coming out of a recording project (Borderland). We used that recording to get gigs around town and the surrounding towns in eastern PA. In July 2012 we released The Stray Birds, our first full-length album. In between those two albums we toured, arranged, ate and slept.
Oliver: I don’t think we ever performed as a trio before we actually released Borderland. Maya and I did a lot of busking at Lancaster’s Central Market before we wound up going into the studio. It’s a beautiful big brick indoor market. They would let us set up at a vacant stand, open our cases and play for tips. It was probably more than once that we went home making more in tips than some of the vendors did selling their goods. No one ever complained about the music though, and I think our neighboring vendors appreciated the attention it attracted. It was, without question, the majority of my income during the spring of 2010.
Who were some of your influences, both individually and collectively?
Charlie: Collectively, the real influence for The Stray Birds is the bluegrass/old-time/folk/ americana music culture of playing acoustic instruments together. Singing songs, sharing tunes, dancing. It is all about making connections with old friends or new and we are just three people who are becoming old friends. Sometimes it’s playing around one candle in a circle at a festival campsite. Sometimes we get to play the music in front of hundreds of people.
Can you describe your experiences writing and recording Borderland?
Maya: When I came back from Spain, I started spending a lot of time working on songs. A lot of them were lines I had begun in my head while traveling, and it just took some time and some space for me to piece them into songs. I was really shy about playing them for anybody at first, but fortunately there was a tiny open mic at a basement bar called the Railroad House in Marietta, PA, and I would try to play at it at least a few times a month. Oliver would often join me on harmonies and lead guitar. The Railroad House stage was enough to compel me to finish some of those songs, in order to have a new one to play.
By May I wanted to record them, with the idea that it would be a demo for me to take along to Boston, where I was headed to the Berklee College of Music that September. Oliver loves the process of recording in general, and I was glad to have him on board when he offered to join in arranging and singing the songs. He was already an experienced harmony singer, and taught me a lot about matching tone and phrasing.
Oliver: Of the five original songs on Borderland, I wrote one and cowrote another. I had recently recorded a lot of my original tunes with River Wheel and there were only a few new things I felt like recording. I was really blown away by Maya’s voice and her songwriting and saw some really great opportunities to add to what she was doing. I had some good ideas, and some more experience, so my presence was welcome in the studio where she had already been spending some time.
Basically, I remember swinging by Dunkin’ Donuts, getting some iced coffee, and going to Steampowered Studios (Jeff Coleman’s basement at the time) to lay down some tracks. We flew by the seat of our pants throughout the process, working against the calendar as Maya was headed to Boston at the end of the summer. She actually took off before all the recording was done, and I went into the studio a few more times after she left town to tie up the loose ends. Jeff and I mixed the record there and soon it went to be pressed.
Did you have a preconceived plan for the album or was it more of a song-by-song accumulation? How did all come together?
Maya: Eventually, I realized that this effort was turning into much more than a demo. I think we were both really getting a rush from the process, and our engineer, Jeff Coleman, who was really generous with his time, was happy to see it advance into a “real”, releasable recording.
We decided it would be an EP, so a couple songs short of a full length album. I still have still have un-arranged songs from that period of writing after Spain, but for some reason, I felt most compelled to put the ones that made it on Borderland at the front of the line.
The one song that really made this meaningful for me was "Birds of the Borderland”, which I wrote in honor of and in the voice of my grandfather, who died in a plane crash in 1999. It is what I imagine him saying to my grandmother, who was left behind to grapple with living without him so suddenly. That idea of flight, and of freedom, really inspired me. It also played into the naming of the band in a way. Oliver and I knew we wanted to be "Birds" in one way or another.
Oliver: We had some trouble naming the group. “The Birds” was out of the question for obvious reasons. I was reading one afternoon and came across the word stray. I really liked what that adjective could imply about birds. I don’t think people really imagine birds as stray but rather as free. I suppose it could be seen as possibly some deep social commentary about the real meaning of freedom. What it means on an everyday basis, however, is that we get around a lot and sing, most of the time.
What was your most memorable experience from the process?
Maya: I remember Oliver showing "My Horses Ain´t Hungry” to me on this picnic table at a lake, and I loved it immediately. Our approach to the harmonies on that one, which I guess I would describe as pretty delicate and definitely full of intent, really began to define our approach and our obsession with harmonies in general. Also the sparseness to the arrangement is important.
Oliver: Despite the fact that Maya was headed to Boston, and that this wouldn’t be a serious band for more than a year, realizing that we had such similar musical intent and ability was a really promising connection.
How did making Borderland and your subsequent touring, etc. prepare you for beginning work on what would become your new self-titled album? Did you have a set plan for the next record?
Charlie: We fell into a rhythm of arranging music after Borderland. We planned a recording in January/February/March of 2012 and worked toward that date mostly at my house in what we call “the blue room.” Maya and Oliver had some songs on the back-burner that we worked on together for a recording. It was an exciting and productive time.
Oliver: I had worked with Stuart Martin of Stonebridge Studios in Leesburg, VA a bit with The Steel Wheels in 2011. He had a wealth of knowledge about sound and how to capture it. We were all really glad when he agreed to work with us on this record.
Please describe your experiences writing and making The Stray Birds? What changed this time around?
Oliver: I had a lot more original material that I was ready to contribute to the self-titled record. I’d been writing a lot that winter and we’d begun to work up the songs. Maya too had been busy writing and we were very excited with the selection of material we had to choose from between the two of us. We were ready to be in the studio.
We spent several nights on several occasions down in Leesburg working on the record. I believe we were in the studio for about 8 days to actually record this. There are several really nice instruments on the record that we don’t actually own (thanks Stuart Martin). Also, Stuart got a due co-producer credit on the record. He shared some good ideas and really helped to shape the sound of the project.
Charlie: I personally think it was “Dream in Blue.” Maya and I recorded it together in what I believe was the second take. It felt like a special recording and it ended up being the first track on the record.
Oliver: We decided to place “Dream In Blue” first in the track listing. I don’t know that it set the course for the record while we were actually in the studio, but it seems to have set some course for the record after the fact. We’re so grateful it’s been so well received.
Can you describe your songwriting process (both lyrically and musically)?
Maya: Traditional music, specifically old-time music, tends to have really strong melodies, melodies that can stand alone, without complicated chord changes underneath, and melodies that can support a story. I came to songwriting after growing up around the rhythms and melodies of fiddle tunes at old-time festivals, and after loving the rhythm and imagery of poetry for as long as I can remember.
When songs come into my head, at least at the initial spark, it feels like the words are already riding on the melody. I know that was true for ¨Dream in Blue¨, for example. The shape of that melody has everything to do with the words. I never tried a different melody, because it felt inseparable to me.
Oliver: I have so many song ideas that go unfinished I should be punished for creative negligence. I’ll jot down a lyrical chorus or quickly record a melody when it strikes me. I’ll fool around with it for a while without making any progress until further inspiration strikes. Sometimes I’ll go three months without writing one song, and other times I’ll write three songs in one day. I finished “Heavy Hands” a year after I started it. Pathetic, or worth the wait? Either way it made the cut.
Was there a tune(s) that was particularly challenging and/ or came together unexpectedly?
Maya: "Wind and Rain" was a really spontaneous addition to the album, and I feel it occupies an almost sacred space now. It was the last song I played with one of the best teachers I could have ever hoped to have, named John McGann. He was teaching at Berklee during my time there. He was a humble genius, and his encouragement and passion was empowering. He passed away suddenly this past April, leaving behind an incredible legacy.
We spontaneously recorded “Wind and Rain” in the middle of the night just a few weeks before John passed away. The fact that he was still alive in this world at the time of the recording feels really special to me. The recording is just three voices, a guitar, some late night frogs and crickets, a spring breeze. His love for teaching and for selflessly passing along inspiration is something I really aspire to carry on in his memory.
What are some of your non-musical sources of inspiration?
Charlie: I get inspired by people’s character. We travel so much so I get to meet all kinds of strangers mostly in The U.S. Sometimes I try to act like other people or put on a voice that isn’t my natural one. People’s personality, expressions, voices, and stories inspire my music.
Maya: I am really inspired by traveling, or just seeing new places and witnessing all of these intersecting lives. I am inspired by the potential of communication and listening in working towards understanding. I am inspired by poetry, and paintings, and colors, and memories. I am inspired by what happens right in between anticipating something, and remembering something. These differences usually surprise me, and inspire me.
Oliver: I’m inspired by the people who can display original character, I’m moved by the places that won’t leave my mind and I’m held captive by the stories that keep me from sleeping at night. If I can meaningfully relay any of that to the people listening, I’m doing something worth my time. Communication.
What would you say are your most memorable and/ or rewarding aspects of the new record?
Charlie: It is just the three of us singing and playing. Also I played a banjo track on “My Brother’s Hill.” I am fairly new to the banjo so I was glad that I could play it on the record!
Oliver: We did all of the writing, arranging, and recording. There are no guest musicians or cover songs. It is original.
What would you say sets The Stray Birds apart?
Charlie: I am singing on the full-length. Three-part harmony has become a staple of our sound. I don’t sing once on our EP.
Oliver: We expanded on the same musical direction. We gave it more attention in the studio than the first one. We were all in this one together as arrangers and producers. It’s got an even split of original material, whereas Borderland was mostly Maya’s tunes.
Maya: I am writing from an internet cafe in Guatemala right now, and they just played “Brokedown Palace” by the Grateful Dead on the radio. I have also been listening to a lot of the Spanish language, because I am in Spanish school for this part of January! On the plane I listened to Billie Holiday. Last night I listened to The Mammals and Victor Jara before I went to sleep.
Oliver: Lots of Little Feat. Lots. Also, Caleb Klauder, The Wood Brothers, Derek Trucks, The Everly Brothers, Jackson Browne, JJ Cale, and John Fullbright. Oh, and Tupac.
What's next for you in 2013?
Oliver: Well, we’re starting with a brief vacation. We spent nearly all of our time last year committed to this band. We still love each other, but we’re trying to keep the sanity. We’ll be back at it soon and there is a new set of goals for the band. We accomplished much of what we set out to do in ’12, and ’13 looks to have a lot of potential.
In some ways, we’re still getting the act off the ground and our team continues to grow all along. I’m excited about the increased number of festivals we’ll be doing this year. We’ve also blocked out a window of time to get back into the studio, which is important. The material is there, and we’re going to press record again soon.
Charlie: We are playing so much in the first three months of this new year. Tennessee and Philly in January. Then we will be in Chicago for my birthday in February. March is all over the place. There is also talk of an album in the near future. We have all of our upcoming dates on our website: www.thestraybirds.com
Here are our upcoming shows in January:
1/23 Ashland Coffee & Tea, Ashland, VA
1/24 The Down Home, Johnson City, TN
1/25 Blue Sister House Concert, Jackson, TN
1/26 Memphis Acoustic Music Association, Memphis, TN
1/27 Bluebird Cafe, Nashville, TN
1/28 Tennessee Shines WDVX, Knoxville, TN
1/28 Barley's Taproom, Knoxville, TN
1/31 WXPN Presents @ World Cafe Live, Philadelphia, PA
Chris Mateer is a freelance music writer living in Portland, OR. He is the founder and writer of the Uprooted Music Revue and has been contributing regularly to No Depression. In addition to music writing, Chris teaches visual art and plays the mandolin, banjo, and drums.
As a player and music writer, Chris is always excited to share and learn more. He believes a community thrives on participation and enthusiasm, and he's thrilled to contribute.
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