Analogue Music | Birds of Chicago

Birds of Chicago

By Matt Conner

The most common descriptor for Birds of Chicago's music in years past has been boiled down to "secular gospel," a two-word phrase intended to distill down the band's musical blend and substantive, spirited (Spirited?) approach.

Categorization can be a frustrating exercise for a band like Birds of Chicago, however, so it's understandable if such a label is unsettling. After all, a banner should be clear, a label easily applied. Instead the music of JT Nero and Allison Russell defies any such attempts at classification. Love in Wartime, the duo's latest, is their "rock and roll record," yet if you swear that it's also soul, funk, gospel, country and more, you'd not be mistaken.

By now, of course, it should be clear that boxes are made to be thrown away and the music is simply to be enjoyed. Birds of Chicago's latest set of songs are a salve in these chaotic times, a bit of musical joy amid the confusion and frustration. Their appeal to roll away the stones around us is a needed clarion call, one we're happy to receive, as we dance in the face of forces intent on stealing our capacity to do so. 

We recently sat down with JT to discuss the band's mission, so to speak, and how it feels before heading out for a long European stretch of tour dates.

Analogue: When you realize the music has gone global, is there some amazement at what’s happened with this whole enterprise?

JT Nero: To be honest, we could probably use a bit more of that. Everybody, I think, struggles with it, not just in our line of work, with the forest for the trees type equation. Sometimes you’re so in it and you’re grinding and that makes it is easy to not step back and take a measure of progress. You forget the basic fact that, as you say, you’re able to travel all over the world and do the thing you love. We are very appreciative, but sometimes we have to jar ourselves out of the daily grind.

The interesting thing with musicians on our level is there's a constant barrage to be on socially all the outlets that you’re supposed to be maintaining now; it seems like there’s a new one that’s added every week that you’re told is crucial. So it’s sort of like a constant, 'Hey, look at me, look at me, look at me.' Which can be a little bit spiritually exhausting. So we try to be really careful not to let that bleed over and remember which part is the gift, the reward, which is actually getting to go play for people and have this exchange. So yeah, it’s interesting you bring that up because that’s something we were just talking about and have to remind ourselves of.

Analogue: So you're in a current season where you feel, as you mentioned, spiritually empty?

JT: Oh, you know, not empty. But there can be sometimes be a perfect storm of just being at a low end physically, maybe a bunch of dry days in a row. I have to say that the weeks prior to an album release can’t help but be kind of fraught. It’s just the nature of the beast. We’ve done it a couple of times, so we’re mindful of it, and if somebody’s in kind of a low ebb day, you kind of like give them their little cocoon. That’s one great thing being on the road with a band, people that you intuitively trust and love, is that everybody has that sixth sense of if one person’s having a rough day, you either do that extra nurturing or you stay the hell out of their way. 

So what it does mean sometimes is that constant exercise of having to tell people, yourself, over and over, 'Hey, we’re worth it. Check us out! We’re worth it!' If you’re not careful, that can kind of jaundice you. I know this has not happened to us, but I’ve seen it happen to other people, but that can be the thief of joy in general for the one thing that always brought you incredible joy, which is the actual performing the music. So I’m grateful, because we always know what the carrot is, dangling. When we get to that stage, we’re always thankful.

Analogue: You kind of brought up what I was going to ask about. That's such an interesting juxtaposition that the one thing that gives you joy can be become the monster that robs you of it. 

JT: Yeah, I mean there are a few leaps I think that artists make. The very first one, which gets me early on, is this thing that I do that is my sort of escape hatch for everything, is this about to become my craft and the way that I sustain myself and someday the way I sustain my family? So that’s the first hurdle that plenty of people don’t get over. I don’t know if that’s the right terminology, because that implies failure. A lot of people are just not willing to make that, to negotiate that. 

For us, we always try to remind ourselves that all the hustle, at the end of the day... yes, you’re trying to keep a roof above your head, but at the end of the day, it’s not just about you. Besides all those considerations, for us, the business side of it, and the money that is attached to that, is still just a means to have maximum freedom to make the kind of art we want to make. For us that’s always been the goal. And I don’t think any of us ever lose sight of that. You might lose sight of it for a few hours, but it comes back.

The choice to be loving is one of the purest acts of bravery, really.

Analogue: Is the music, for you, a salve for the times?

JT: A hundred percent. And perhaps it might be an obvious thing to say, but it always has been. The fact that there is kind of a free-floating cloud of dread in our culture right now, and sort of what feels like an intensification of a lot of the things that ail us, there was perhaps an extra sense of urgency. The lucky thing about it is, the more powerfully you throw yourself a life raft, the more people you’re going to end up connecting with, that it’s fairly certain we are wrestling, and always have been, the same demons as other folks. In short, there’s no doubt that kind of the intensification and the kind of senses of real emotional and spiritual distress—we were definitely letting that be the pressure cooker that this music came out of. 

But at the same time, I want to stress that for us, while we are definitely wrestling with some themes, the directive was not to make a downer of a record. The directive was to make a joyful rock and roll record, one that has some scope and some arc. Interestingly enough, I think our last record that we put out, Real Midnight, which was produced by Joe Henry... when we put that out, it was on paper the happiest year of our lives. We'd had our daughter, but mostly that record was the most melancholy, depressing suite of songs we’d ever done. So it was interesting. 

Coming out of that, we already wanted to make a rock 'n' roll record that felt dynamically true to the band live. Where we were at as things took the turn they did, the whole country, it just felt all the more like that was the fun path that we needed to be on. 

Analogue: Does it almost feel like a protest, in a way? Like a stand with us as we stand for something, or—

Lovein Wartime Cover
Lovein Wartime Cover

JT: You know, actually, no. It doesn’t feel like a protest, because it’s really an invitation, an open invitation, to kind of emotionally engage in a way that is very inquisitive. I feel like we’re going to ask you to reckon with some things, but it is definitely not meant to be a politically divisive record. We don’t shy away from things as they come, but... it’s easy to overstate this or talk about this in too-precious terms, but for me, I can never really get away from the basic fact that if you stop and think about the divisions in this country, for people who see differently and think differently to actually come together and have kind of a communal experience, rock and roll has always been that. It still is. And lately, the divisions are deeper, the disaffection is deeper, so the idea that you can bring folks together in sort of a space where they can engage in an open, unguarded way feels pretty important. 

Analogue: I agree and that’s what I meant by protest. That the act of coming together—

JT: Yeah, that in and of itself is a protest, and I feel you. In fact, one of the things that had been sort of the theme that led to the concept of the Love in Wartime thing is love as an act of bravery. The choice to be loving is one of the purest acts of bravery, really. This is a moment in history where those truths are shown in high relief. So, yes.

Analogue: Have you had a good chance to sing some of these songs in a live setting? I'm thinking of lines from this album when you encourage a whole room to roll away the stone, to allow maybe joy to shine through in these times, how that is coming across?

JT: The quick answer is yes. We’ve been laughing about it. It’s been a revival-ly feeling, and you definitely have the sense that people need to come and wring it out, whatever it is. If that’s doing it for them, that feels really, really good, because kind of back to what I was saying earlier, where being a musician in our artist world can feel like a pretty intens self-involved exercise, just day to day. So it’s really nice to kind of be reminded of the vocational aspect of it, like you’re getting out there and you’re giving people something they can eat. That feels really, really good.