Analogue Music | Humbird


By Matt Conner

Love and loss. Strength and weakness. Remedy and poison.

Siri Undlin, the songstress at the center of the Minneapolis-based band Humbird, chose to title their new album Pharmakon for its ability to encapsulate those extremes. The Greek word can mean both the hurt and the healing, and those themes take various forms on Humbird's lovely new release.

Consider the couplet on "Sea Shells" when Siri sings, 'I'm coming back to hallowed ground, to the place where I burned it down." These songs are dialed-in yet distant, authentic yet at arms-length. There's mystery and poetry surrounding Pharmakon's nine songs, but these are largely grounded tunes, an interesting mix of layers revealed through multiple listens.

We recently sat down with Siri to hear more about her journey to forming Humbird, her home in Minneapolis and how these themes all run together.

Analogue: The album is called Pharmakon and I'm curious to start there because I took Greek in college. Where did that come from as a banner for this set of songs?

Siri Undlin: I was taking a class and the word came up. It was maybe five years ago, but it hit me like a bolt of lightning. The concept, it feels like there's so much there that I don't really know where to start.

Fast forward four-ish years, I was touring a lot in a different band than Humbird and learning a lot about who I was playing and exploring what it meant to make music as a livelihood—if that was even possible or probable or any of those things. I was writing music throughout that period. After recording it and reflecting intentionally on the themes that bring it all together, I thought it was such an exploration of extremes in how something can be so great yet can also really wear you down, I thought "pharmakon" was the perfect conceptual name as a whole.

The songs are about all of these different things, but they're all conversational experiments with lyrics on finding the extremes and how you want to exist between the two. It felt really fitting.

Analogue: How much of that was about a songwriting exercise and how much of that was just organic?

Siri: It's definitely the latter. I don't really set out to write songs about things, and when I do, they usually suck. [Laughs] I try to get out of my own way and write music when I am feeling strong emotions one way or the other. Then I play them live for months and months and experiment with the format and melody and hone in on how the song seems to fit well with me and with audiences. So the reflection period asking "what are these songs about?" actually came much later than when I wrote them.

Analogue: That's so interesting because it's so backwards from the normal approach of recording it once it's first written and cementing that initial form, then finding later live cuts veer far from the original.

Siri: I love giving songs space. Every song is different, too. Sometimes you write a song in a minute and it stays that way for the next 10 years and nothing really needs to change. Then there are other songs where I'll play them for months at a time before setting them down because I'm just not feeling them. Then they'll resurface months or even years later and you'll realize the song has finally found its home or finally found where it belongs.

I think it's about not trying to control things too much when it comes to the songs. I also have two bandmates who are incredible improvisers, and we are always experimenting with little changes. I think it's to their credit as well as we tour as a trio. It's very spontaneous and fun and we try to keep the shows as fresh as possible, so it's good to create room for that.

Analogue: You mentioned the learning curve with another band. What was the band and what tangible lessons did you take away?

Siri: Yeah, I played in a band called Undlin & Wolfe. It was a folk duo with me and another songwriter named Dexter Wolfe. We started the band back in Minneapolis, and it was very collaborative, very 50-50. We played on each other's songs and learned a lot from each other. The project grew from a folk duo to a band and we were touring. It was my first experience wih any of that—music as a business, being on the road for weeks at a time, etc. It's just a lot of learning in a very condensed space—whether that's the van or just the calendar. It was a very instructive period about how I wanted to move through life and music.

Ultimately I felt like the Undlin & Wolfe project was a great place to start, but I didn't know if I was ever going to last too long because everyone involved had different ideas of what they wanted to happen. It all just organically evolved into different things. Now I'm doing Humbird and I'm excited about that.

I try to get out of my own way and write music when I am feeling strong emotions one way or the other.

Analogue: How far back does the impulse to make a living as a musician go back for you?

Siri: I grew up wanting to be a singer and a songwriter. I was always noodling around on guitar and piano. I don't remember when the idea made its way into my brain that I could try to do this as a job, but I'm fortunate to have a family supportive of the music I make. Even when I've had jobs—full-time or side jobs—I've had family ask me, 'You're not going to stop making music, are you? You're going to keep going, right?' I've been lucky.

Analogue: How is the scene in Minneapolis for you and the band?

Siri: I'm from this part of the country so I'm very close to family and the community I know. It keeps me grounded in the midst of touring, and there's a strong community of ttalented musicians here. I think of Minneapolis as less of a market and more of an incubator, because when I'm home, I get to see so many friends doing incredible music and work and art. It's inspiring.

Analogue: What are the expectations for Pharmakon for you?

Siri: Having released music before, the experience was this extreme gratitude for the community that supported it and also learning that just because you put the album out doesn't mean the world stops. You can invest so much time and energy, but that doesn't mean people will care unless you know them or have a presence in the world they move around in. That was my first experience and I think it was an accurate one.

With this new album, I think it's really great and the people I collaborated with are some of the very best, in my opinion. I'm so excited for it to be in the world. I really hope the communities that i am part of love it and that we also find new listeners. I also think I have an understanding of what an indepenent release means and you just hope for the best without expecting anything. That seems like a healthy place to be.

VISIT: Humbird