When national and global happenings upend the status quo, musicians can choose to respond in any number of ways — from cool jadedness to riled protest to blissful avoidance. Troubled by the recent turn toward dehumanizing divisiveness in American social and political discourse, singer-songwriter Sam Lewis and Birds of Chicago, a married duo comprised of Allison Russell and J.T. Nero, found themselves drawn toward poetic openness and humble expressions of idealism on their latest respective albums, Loversity and Love in Wartime.
Nero and Russell play folk-rock with impressionistic flourishes and gospel warmth, lent unexpected extravagance by Russell's singing, while Lewis specializes in lean country-soul, shaped around easeful, guitar-driven grooves and his silky drawl. They're all among the ranks of the bohemian, working artists in the Americana scene and their paths first crossed at last summer at Canada's Edmonton Folk Music Festival, at which point the Birds were residing in Chicago.
"Sam specifically told me in the beer garden that if I moved to Nashville, we would hangout all the time," Nero says with a sly grin. "We would hang out in coffee shops and bars. And you see what's happened?" Lewis is in for a ribbing because Nero and Russell haven't seen much of their fellow Nashvillian since they moved down with their daughter.
In order to do this three-way interview for World Cafe, the couple is sitting on the floor in an East Nashville space of a company that works with independent musicians with an iPhone propped up on a chair in front of them. Lewis, participating via FaceTime from a tour stop in New Jersey, has thought up ways to minimize the distance. "I'm wearing this shirt because this is where I met you guys," he says pointing to the folk festival logo on his chest. He also informs them that the room they presently occupy is where he wrote three of the songs on his new album.
They accumulated plenty of other points of connection as the conversation unfolded.
Jewly Hight: Sam, in other interviews, you've talked about feeling like there were big themes that you'd want to address in your new songs. Allison and J.T., you two actually went into the studio on the day of the inauguration. Could you tell me about the head spaces you were in when you made these albums?
Sam Lewis: You guys can probably relate to picking up on something that was going on. The best way that I dealt with a lot of last year and the year leading up to that was I kind of would disappear into the other room and be away from the TV. I felt like it was getting kind of loud with a lot of redundant stuff. I felt a lot of people who had things to say were saying them to the same people that were just saying it back to them. That kind of got me thinking, 'Maybe we need to talk to the people that we won't be so comfortable with.'
J.T. Nero: The previous record we did, [we made during] a happy time for us because we had our first kid and that was a very joyous thing. But we made a pretty somber, reflective, personal record. We'd already come out of that wanting to do more of a joyous rock and roll record, so we sort of already had that momentum. But as things took a darker turn...
Allison Russell: Darker, more divisive turn...
JTN: It felt even more urgent to do exactly that. We didn't start necessarily writing thematically about a whole bunch of new things. We're always wrestling with love and its anti-matter, the shadows and light. But in the last year and a half, I keep coming back to the artistic concept of high relief. As things get darker around you, if you're doing what you're supposed to be, you've gotta be really digging in in a more tenacious way on the light, and you understand each on a whole new level, ideally.
AR: I [understand] what you were talking about, Sam, that feeling of the echo chamber. I'm Canadian and it was my first time being in the U.S. for a whole primary cycle. I had the exact same reaction as you did: I couldn't listen to it. I couldn't watch the debates. I got so depressed when I did that I had a similar reaction to you, where I'd just get out of there and write and think about other [things]. ... It was that feeling of, 'That's not who we are. That's not who anybody is. It's like a grotesque caricature of our worst characteristics.' And it's not our experience touring around this country and being shown this kindness and love everywhere I go, from people of all different beliefs and sides of the political line.
There was definitely that feeling of trying to hone in on our common humanity. That doesn't go away just because there's a political contest. If we're, as Sam said, talking only to people who share exactly our beliefs, then how can it ever be worked through? I think we were trying to write towards what unites us.
How have you been rethinking the possibilities and limits of what you can accomplish with your music?
SL: The more that I know about, I feel the more I'm responsible for. At times that can be really intimidating. But we have a microphone and we have a stage and we have the ability to get people from all different walks of life in one spot. I constantly find myself questioning, "What more can I do?" I think a lot of that has been poured into this record. I don't know if you guys can relate, man, but a lot of these songs were songs that I guess I needed to hear too.
SL: We forget that, I think, as artists and songwriters. What we're creating, we're gonna be the first set of eyes and ears on it. I was encouraged a long time ago to make music that I wanna listen to. That was some of the best advice that was ever given to me. A lot of this stuff was coming from a really strange place, because I'm not really political and I never intended to be political.
It's a beautiful thing when you see all sorts of different kinds of people there sharing that space [at a show]. ... I hope to get to a point where I have enough people coming to shows that would entertain the idea of having almost like a meet-and-greet, town hall meeting kind of thing. I've entertained the idea of doing something like that in the future and just learn a little bit more about who I'm talking to and performing for. We visit a lot of towns, and I don't really leave there with much information about where the hell I was just at. I'd like to change that.
Even if you don't tend to consider what you do political in nature, you're describing a sense of artistic responsibility.
JTN: I don't want to get over-precious or overestimate the importance of what we do. But if you really step back and ask yourself at this point what avenues are left in our current culture where there actually might be people in the same room who believe vastly different things politically, spiritually... I mean, there's never been that many, because it's a human thing to seek out the like minded. But live music is that kind of righteous place. ... There's a pocket where you can briefly suspend some things and come in as humans.
Part of the way that we've been dealing with this is that when the macro situation gets particularly bewildering and terrifying, we tend to really dig in on the micro. Every song on our record is about love in a very everyday sense —accountability, empathy, basic recognition between humans, little covenants. That basic thing of the small scale is not the small scale. ... We don't wanna overstate the importance of it, but it's better than not doing it. [Laughs]
AR: Last summer, I heard Billy Bragg say something from the stage: "What's our job as musicians?" ... One thing he said that really resonated with me was that our currency isn't songs, it's empathy. That's what happens when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable up there and like you were saying, 'Sam, write the songs that we need to hear, the little rescues for ourselves.' By some mysterious alchemy that somehow connects to someone else's individual story. That's how we build empathy, when we can recognize each other.
JTN: There's all kinds of what you'd call protest music. Straight up, like, Phil Ochs protest can be very, very powerful. That's not what we trade in and I think if we were gonna put on that hat, it would feel a little false.
On Sam's record, when you hear him sing and it's got this great country-soul vibe and a buoyancy in his voice and his melodies, it's not this easy buoyancy. It's a choice. ... That feels defiant to me. And for us, we were trying to make a joyful document of living on this earth in this time, despite everything else. That feels like a kind of defiance to me.
I'm glad you brought up the feel of your new music. In your case, Sam, you relied on players you've turned to in the past, the respected guitarist Kenny Vaughan (of Marty Stuart's band) and bassist J.T. Cure and drummer Derek Mixon (Chris Stapleton's rhythm section). Allison and J.T., you had Luther Dickinson producing this time around. So, you all chose to work with people who'd help you achieve results that felt good. Why did that matter?
SL: I've been fortunate enough to have these musicians. I don't know why they keep coming back, but they do. I'm grateful for that. ... They're just as much of storytellers as I am. They play a massive role in adding all the texture to just a few words and a voice. ... They're the same people that I bounce these songs off of. I [write] these songs and I immediately take them to them and I go, "Hey, this is where I'm at. What am I chasing down here, man? What do you hear?"
In the three records that I've made with them, we've spent a total of, I think, seven days in the studio. We record really quickly. Sometimes it's been to race the clock but other times it's, "We only needed a couple stabs at that." What we're capturing is performance-based [moments]. You can hear it and you can feel it and you don't need to know anything about music.
An artist who thinks differently than you might have decided that this was the time to acknowledge the weight of the world with gravitas.
JTN: I think there's a distinction to be made: When we talk about [making] joyful music, it's not bubblegum joy. ... When you're doing it right, it feels like hard-won joy. You have to feel the shadows that have been walked through to get to that place.
You all have new songs that contain words you invented. Sam came up with "loversity" and J.T. and Allison came up with "superlover" and "superlove." Was that a matter of feeling like you needed expanded language to say what you wanted to say, or were you just being playful?
JTN: I think for me, there's a conscious need to not be overly intellectual and to get back to a pretty raw and somewhat childlike place. "Superlover" just popped out, and it felt...
Like something a kid would say?
JTN: Yeah. Kind of finger painting with words a little bit.
SL: Innocence, it's a beautiful thing, and the older you get, I feel like you get away from it. Of course, you guys are lucky enough to have a little beautiful angel, and that's gotta be a gift.
AR: You're right. It helps you retain the wonder of the world.
SL: It reminds you that it's still there, because you can get caught up living inside your ass as an artist, which I know that I can relate to.
"Loversity," that was a combination of not enough sleep and probably too much caffeine. I saw a sign on the side of the road, saw the back end of it. It said "-ersity," so I said "loversity."
I just happened to have someone riding with me, and they said, "What did you say?" I repeated it and they Googled it immediately. It's not a word. ... I was like, "Man what does that mean?" And it was a puzzle that I had the rest of the trip until I got home and sat with it.
The hardest project that I've had to do, harder than making the record, was when [my publicist] asked me, "Can you give us two-sentence descriptions of each one of your songs?" It was really difficult—really, really difficult.
What sort of balance between realism and idealism feels right to you right now, in life and music?
JTN: For me, it's more like emotional accountability: Whatever you're capturing, is that an accurate snapshot? That's just sort of a moment to moment gut feeling. One of the nice things about songwriting is that you're not writing a thesis. Things don't necessarily have to be connected, you know? There can be kind of an emotional logic.
It's funny because, Sam, you said "loversity" popped up and part of your brain was like, "What does this mean?" Ultimately I feel like it's not on us to answer that question. It's just it popped up and there's sort of an emotional imperative to get it out there. ...Then we sit back and we're in the same position as the listener: [contemplating] "What does it mean?" That's one of the things that I love about songwriting.
To build on your thesis metaphor, you certainly can't include footnotes with a song.
AR: And I wouldn't want to. That's the most amazing thing that I can imagine: that something that we wrote that felt personal to us can feel personal to somebody else, and can be interpreted in a totally different way than I had imagined. That's the gift of our shared humanity: somehow these personal things can be a universal human thing for someone else. ... It's the biggest gift to me when people say that a song that I wrote or [J.T.] wrote helped them through something, was of service, was of use to somebody else. Because like you're talking about, Sam, it can feel very like living up your ass, very self-involved, the act of writing, or being obsessed about writing. ... When you're reminded that your words go out and you're sharing words with the world, and that's creating connection and fostering who knows what, that's the beauty of it. We don't know what the ripples are.