Birdsong at Morning is a trio of talented artists who formed under said moniker and began making music together in 2008. The power behind their sound nudged them to release a 4CD box set as a debut in 2011, entitled Annals of My Glass House. Led by singer/songwriter Alan Williams, the band is also comprised of guitarist Darleen Wilson and bassist Greg Porter, among a round up of other contributors. We were able to catch up with Alan as the band preps for their next release, a Blue-ray CD/DVD set entitled A Slight Departure.
Where did the moniker Birdsong At Morning come from?
The PG answer is that the phrase comes from a stanza in a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson – “Of birdsong at morning, and star-shine at night…” The R-rated answer is that it’s an entry in the 1970s classic, The Joy of Sex, used to describe the beauty of orgasmic cries. Not saying where I first encountered it…
What’s the story behind the creation of this band?
Birdsong began as a conscious attempt to reclaim our musical identities after putting away the instruments to pursue other careers. Darleen, Greg, and myself, along with a few other like-minded friends began to gather in our living room to shake off the cobwebs in a safe, encouraging environment. It was great to make music again, but we found it difficult to move beyond pulling out old Beatles songs to play. Then, while vacationing in Hawaii, I rented a guitar that had been left in a slack-key tuning, forcing me to explore the instrument from a new perspective. From that came the first song I had written in over a dozen years. So, at the next living room gathering, I proudly put forward my new song. As luck would have it, only Greg and Darleen bothered to show up that day, and while running the song down for them, they spontaneously harmonized on the chorus, and the sound of a band was born.
Your latest album, “A Slight Departure”, is full of mid tempo pop tunes. Which track was your favorite to create? What was the story behind that?
Ah, the Sophie’s Choice question… Of course, I love them all equally, yada, yada, yada. I’ll mention three for different reasons. I had a total blast writing the string part for “Devil’s Stomping Ground.” I purposely left a long section at the end that might normally be filled by a guitar solo, and instead imagined what might happen if the orchestra somehow performed a totally coherent solo of its own. And when we finally recorded the strings, the whole song just leapt to another level. “Down In The Hole” has a heartbreakingly gorgeous guitar solo from our friend Thomas Juliano, and the moment he played it in the studio, I forgot to breathe it was so beautiful and powerful. He’s such a gifted, in-the-moment player, and that was certainly a moment worth recording. And lastly, I’ll vote for “Midnight Vespers,” a song that took a long time to reveal itself. I was having a difficult time figuring out how to sing it, when I realized that we could craft it more as a chorale with constant harmony from Greg and Darleen. We arranged the parts on the fly in the studio, and it was only after I put it together in the editing stage that I realized how well it all had come together. So I asked Greg to add a bass part, and he ended up finding something that suggested a stronger rhythmic groove than I would have imagined. That then inspired me to add some percussion and other instrument sounds that really give the song much more dimension. It’s the song that perhaps best illustrates what Greg and Darleen bring to the table as musicians, and why this is a band and not a solo project.
Why did you name the album “A Slight Departure?”
I began looking through the lyrics of the songs to see if any unifying themes might emerge. And while there are some images and words that appear in multiple songs (by design, I will admit), it turned out that nearly every song had a character contemplating or actually leaving some place or someone, or planning to meet or follow someone. So the notion of “leaving” seemed to be common, and I just thought “departure” left that idea a little more open ended.
The full title phrase is also a comment on the musical trajectory of the band. Our debut, the four-CD box set Annals of My Glasshouse was predominantly quiet, moody ballads, partly as a result of my embrace of the acoustic guitar, and a conscious attempt to not try to force a rock energy that I no longer seemed to possess. As Frank Zappa once posited, “Must we rock?”
But as I did more performing, both as a band and solo, I realized having some material with more energy was really useful in putting together a set that kept the audience’s attention, and yet would still highlight the beauty of the ballads and other more reserved songs. I began to throw in a few songs that I had written prior to Birdsong that had a much more pronounced energy, and these songs were always well-received. So, I began thinking that I would allow that side of myself back into the Birdsong aesthetic and ended up writing songs with more energy, yet which still were written from the perspective of a wiser middle-age man, than from the naïve/angry young man stance of my earlier work.
In turn, this meant that the new album would sound a little different from our previous work, and thus the “slight” added to the title. I like to work in as many different/simultaneous readings as possible into a lyric, and the album title is yet another example of that.
The album cover art is super cool. Tell me about it.
Once I had decided on an album title, I began to think about imagery that would convey that. Actually, one element of the cover came to me early on in the recording process when I realized how we had created an extended family of musicians who while not members of the band, still made ongoing contributions – our drummer Ben Wittman, and many of the string players have appeared on all the records and performed with us as well. I had an image of all of us gathered around a park bench, maybe even having a few strangers who just happened by to join us – a hodge podge, Sgt. Pepper kind of thing. But the practicalities of having everyone’s schedule line up for the photo shoot posed too much of a challenge, and the idea was scrapped, though the bench itself held on in my mind.
So, I thought we could have us sit on a bench, and have some movement, some element of people leaving the frame that would convey “departure.” I then contacted an old friend, Coleman Rogers, an extremely talented photographer who also happens to be equally gifted as a recording engineer – in fact, he recorded the albums I did in my old band, Knots and Crosses, and had engineered many albums that Darleen had produced. Come to think of it, he introduced me to Darleen, and helped me get my first teaching assignment at UMass Lowell, where I am now chair of the music department. So, much gratitude to Coleman!
Anyway, he told me he had been working with a larger frame camera that yielded somewhat unpredictable results depending upon the length of the exposure, and we both realized that blurred figures in motion would really speak to the content of the music. So, on a horribly cold day, we gathered to take the photo, doing our best to pry the frozen blocks of ice and snow from a bench. Coleman’s partner Margarida offered to walk behind the three of us on the bench – an image that is used in the lyric booklet – but in the end, the bench itself seemed particularly striking, and we chose a shot where I am walking behind the otherwise empty scene. We did the same thing at the train station, carefully calculating when the train would arrive, and hoping we got something good on the one chance we would have. That’s the shot of me sitting on a different bench with the train in motion blur. Really great photo session, and we ended up with images we could work into the whole album package.
If you could describe your music in one word, what would it be and why?
Detailed. I like to think the music rewards repeated listenings, that there are sounds one might have missed the first few times around, or perhaps a lyric that reveals deeper meanings when contemplated over time. I work to create songs that are fully considered, hoping to avoid throwaway lines or easy clichés. Likewise, we take a lot of care in structuring the arrangements and recording – every sound should be there for a reason. Hopefully, the music doesn’t demand complete attention to be entertaining, but I do want to reward the listener who devotes the time and effort into engaging with the music.
If you were a beverage, what beverage would you be and why?
Ha! Darleen would probably respond with a good beer, and Greg probably knows some obscure concoction that the more hip among us imbibe. But since you’re asking me, I’ll choose something called the “Dirty Ashtray.” Evidently, there’s some alcoholic drink out there by that name, but that’s not what I’m thinking of. There was a diner-type place in Tucson that served the most incredibly thick chocolate milkshake with ground espresso beans. I was there for a conference for four days, and had at least one every day I was in Tucson. Haven’t found one like it anywhere else. Sadly, I was there again this year and the diner is gone, so my ideal “Dirty Ashtray” will never be found. But the memory only grows stronger with time…
What’s up next for Birdsong At Morning?
All three of us are now engaged in other careers that make full-time commitments to a band difficult to maintain. For example, it’s nearly impossible for us to find the time to go out and tour. Instead, we’re working on launching a monthly webcast from a fantastic coffeehouse venue located in an old mill building here in Lowell, Massachusetts. That should hopefully start this fall. And I’ve got a new batch of songs coming together, so I anticipate starting the follow-up album next summer, and aiming for a release the following year. At least that’s the vague plan for now. I also found the process of creating the videos for some of the songs on “A Slight Departure” to be incredibly rewarding – challenging, but in a good way. So the next album will likely have some sort of video/visual component for each song. If Beyonce can do it, so can we. Even if we have but a fraction of a fraction of fraction of her budget…
New Blu-ray CD/DVD A Slight Departure is out August 26th. It is available for preorder now.