B&L: What animal do you associate yourself with (given our ties to oxen)?
JT Nero: Has to be a bird – we’re true to our name and we certainly don’t skimp on bird imagery in our songs… we probably swing back and forth between the falcon and the sparrow, depending how the day is going.
B&L: Why music? Why do you seek it? Why do you create it? How’d it come calling to you?
Nero: “Why music” feels as bout as easy to answer as “why water?” I live for it and by it… By the same token, it’s hard to say how/why it is that way.
B&L: Was there a moment or experience that led you to try your hand at making this your life? What keeps you inspired to keep going?
Nero: I am not sure there was a single moment – but I am thankful that I had a family that never tried to block or thwart the growing sense of inevitability that this was what I was gonna do… it’s also self-fulfilling – the longer I focused on music, the more any other skill set I possessed that would be of any value to society whatsoever has completely eroded, so this is what I got!
B&L: What are the pros and/or cons of being in a band with your significant other and having the whole family out on the road?
Nero: Cons? Of living out of a van with your wife, two-year-old child and 3 other adults? There are no cons! That’s an absurd question (laughs)… Uh, seriously whatever cons there are inherent in that arrangement – lack of personal space, personal time… they are so outweighed by the positives of keeping our family together – it’s not even close.
B&L: Let’s talk about your latest record, “Real Midnight.” What were the goals behind this record? How was it working with Joe Henry?
Nero: The goals were to capture a certain time – a time filled with a lot of new joy, but also shadowed with new fears and new loss – as honestly as we could. Joe was the only man for that Job, when it came to production. We were fans going in and we felt like family by the end of our time together. He is a true wonder of an artist and human.
B&L: You guys deal a lot with vocal harmonies. What got you interested in them? Were there any voices in particular that influenced the way you guys present your music?
Nero: Harmony singing is big for us, certainly… I always gravitated towards older gospel groups – like the staple singers – where the blend, as tight as it was, never came at the expense of the individual character/timber of each voice… we’ve strived to hit that balance.
B&L: Let’s talk about songs as they pertain to the act of actually writing them. Is that an easy or arduous task for you? How do tunes come to fruition? Do you bounce ideas off of each other? Or do you bring full tunes to the table and hash out instrumentation with a goal of getting ‘em recorded?
Nero: Some of ‘em seem to fall out on you completely pristine and whole. Some take great amounts of chiseling, stretching, recalibrating. For me, songs almost always start with a fragment of a melody – tied to a fragment of a phrase… that works itself into my head and won’t let go. However the song grows from there – my only rule is that the original fragment stays – no matter what else it’s eventually adorned with.
B&L: Let’s trace the roots for a moment… How’d you two come to meet? How was Birds of Chicago born?
Nero: We had mutual pals, and Alli’s (Allison Russell) first band Po’ Girl, who was based out of Vancouver came through Chicago in 2004 on their first US tour. my band at the time, JT and the Clouds, put on a show for them. We hit it off and from there on out, we just made more and more excuses to collaborate… we didn’t get around to actually starting this band until the end of 2012, though.
B&L: What’s the making of a great show? What do you look or hope for as you step foot on that stage?
Nero: A great show is like the great version of any other human interaction… you aren’t thinking about what will or won’t happen – you are acting and reacting, entirely present, giving and receiving energy from folks in the crowd, and your band mates on stage.
B&L: What’s one tune (or, heck, a couple) that exists out there in the ether that blows you away that you kind of wish you had written yourself?
Nero: Nels Andrews: “Wisteria” from his 2012 album “Scrimshaw.” I can’t think of a better love song. Nels is one the best poets going, period. More folks should know that guy.
Anais Mitchell: “Young Man in America.” I feel that way about the whole record. Epic light/shadow balancing work… wondrous.
B&L: What can folks expect when they come out to see you perform at the Word Barn on Saturday, November 25th?
Nero: A communion of spirits – if they’re game and we get it right…
B&L: Question number 12. If you could have a dozen of anything, what would that dozen of something be?
Nero: Mornings in a row with a book, a good cup of coffee, a window with some degree of sunlight and an hour to myself!
Birds of Chicago will land gracefully into Exeter for a show at the Word Barn on Friday, November 25th. Tickets are available here.