By Jim Schutze
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If an instrument requires a plug for operation, you're likely to never hear it played on a Bowerbirds recording.
Indeed, the music of Bowerbirds keeps with the lifestyle that founding members (and couple) Phil Moore and Beth Tacular (great name, right?) have chosen for themselves, living off the power grid in an Airstream in the woods of North Carolina.
But don't let the couple's lifestyle and their occasional nü-folk pigeonholing by the music press fool you: The members of Bowerbirds are not hippies, and their music has much more to do with the Americana roots of Bonnie "Prince" Billy or Elvis Perkins than Devendra Banhart. Pared down but melodic instrumentation, delicate harmonies and earnest lyrics make for beautiful and thoughtful music. As such, the band's 2006 release, Hymns for a Dark Horse, and the newly released Upper Air have each received high critical praise.
The lifestyle satisfies longtime musician (and degreed biologist) Moore's lifelong goal to live and work outdoors, which has included a stint working for the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences tracking birds. At that time, then-girlfriend Tacular joined him in his remote cabin so that she could focus on her work as a visual artist—and, in the process, she taught herself how to play the accordion and the keyboards. Now, the two maintain their Spartan lifestyle for "both its aesthetic appeal as well as a way to stay debt-free while focusing on music," guitarist and vocalist Moore says.
And, true enough, living without electricity has helped Bowerbirds form its sound.
"Being off the grid forces me to write very basic song structures," Moore says. With no recording tools or effects pedals to work with, each song starts with him "playing with melodies on my guitar until I have something I can share with Beth." The songs then get reworked with Beth's instrumental contributions, before lyrics are developed and vocals are added. Given the relative isolation of the duo's home in the woods, it's not surprising that lyrics tend to focus on the tension between man and nature, and the interconnected lives of men and women.
But the simple structures of the band's music does come with some headaches, Moore admits. With touring member Mark Paulson (violin, percussion) on the road with Bowerbirds, the band has been forced to refine its songs a bit.
"Mark is a very talented musician," Moore says, "and limiting him to basic drumming was frustrating. So we've been playing with arrangements to get the best performance for us and the audience. It's been an interesting process seeing what works the best."
Live, the band is also joined onstage by Brad Cook of show opener Megafaun, playing stand-up bass. And though the band avoids reading reviews "to keep a level of sanity on the road," its members would no doubt be pleased with the great reviews it's been earning on this, its current tour, which recently included a stop at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago.
Surely, such recognition has led to a lifestyle different from what Paulson and Tacular anticipated when they first set up house in the woods.