The two members of Birds of Chicago, Allison Russell and JT Nero, used to cross paths on the road when on tour with their own bands. They joined up musically and then — as these things happen — they became a couple. Their latest album, out now, is called Real Midnight.
The two characterize much of their music as “secular gospel” — earthly tunes that have the power to connect people. They spoke with NPR’s Melissa Block about the inspiration behind some of their songs, and how they balance parenting with touring. Hear the radio version at the audio link and read more of their conversation below.
Melissa Block: You call your music “secular gospel.” I wonder what that means to each of you?
JT Nero: We do take a lot from the gospel world. There’s that very basic sense in gospel where the more beautiful your words and music, the closer you are to God. You know, that’s the mission when it comes down to it, for us, if you want to call it the secular rising of that. It starts with that basic idea: If we can tap into some words and music that have a certain grace and power, then we can get closer to each other. That’s the vehicle that we know to open up those kinds of channels of love that I don’t know how to get at in another way.
That sounds like a really powerful connection that you’re trying to get, there.
Nero: I still have a certain amount of faith in the notion that words tied to melodies … that there’s kind of a collective consciousness in humans, that we connect through song in a way that is not afforded to us in other avenues.
Allison Russell: Yeah, I think there’s just a really visceral, deep, emotional connection that can happen with music. My grandmother had Alzheimer’s, and eventually died of it. But I remember, shortly before her death in 2006 — language was gone, she didn’t know who we were, but if I sang her songs that she had sung to me as a child, songs that were from her childhood as well, she could sing with me. That really struck me. You know, I’m not by any means an expert on the neuroscience of music, but it taps into literally a different part of our brains and psyches. I was so struck by that with my grandma, and that was one way that we could still connect. Everything was fear and confusion for her at that point, but when we sang together she sort of came back to us.
Is that where the song “Barley” came from?
Russell: Definitely, that song is inspired by her and that experience. She had a wealth of traditional British Isles tunes and songs that came out of the oral tradition. “Barely” is definitely influenced by the things that she taught me, the songs. And she was quite an amazing lady.
Let’s shift gears just a little bit and bring this back down to a real carnal level with the song “Estrella Goodbye.” JT, when you’re writing this song — if you’re getting all spiritual and highfalutin in other songs, this must be just pure release, right? Just to write something sexy and fun.
Nero: Well it’s the same deal, it’s just a different take on it. You know, time is the enemy. I have sort of a genre in my head, what I think of as “apocalyptic party jams”: where you’re somewhat aware of time, darkness, shadows encroaching, but that just makes you really dig in on the good times. Exhibit A is Sam Cooke, “Good Times.” You know, “It might be one o’clock, it might be three / Time don’t mean that much to me / I’ve felt this good since I don’t know when / and I might not feel this good again.” You know, like that.
The two of you spend a huge amount of time touring on the road, and I wonder if there are times where you wish you had more separation between your musical life and your home life.
Nero: I think being on the road has become our natural state.
Russell: Our daughter is 2 now, and she’s been on the road her whole life, so it’s her normal and natural rhythm as well. But as she gets older and closer to school age — for me, I would love to knock it back to maybe seven months of the year.
What do you think you are going to do when she does go to school?
Russell: We may delay when she begins school, we might wait until she’s —
Nero: Seventeen. [Laughs]
Russell: No, not that long! But we may home-school until she’s about 6 or 7. I mean, we’re not settled on this yet — we’ll have to play it by ear and see how she feels. But we’re very, very lucky: JT’s mom and dad are very hands-on, loving grandparents, so there may be times where we go out and she stays, or comes to join us on a weekend. We’re going to be sort of playing that by ear and figuring it out as we go.
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