Interview: Newport Folk Festival’s Brown Bird

Brown BirdIf it’s August, it’s time for the annual Newport Folk Festival, which draws 10,000 attendees and scores of musicians, staff and volunteers to modestly-sized Fort Adams State Park to enjoy legendary acts whose styles often soar beyond “folk” and occasionally even beyond definition.

For the first time in NFF’s 52-year history, both days of the 2011 festival sold out in advance. If you don’t already have tickets in your hot little hand, you might be out of luck, but at least you can cheer on some of your fellow Rhode Islanders who’ll be playing there this weekend. I e-interviewed one such performer, MorganEve Swain of Brown Bird, for a scoop on the rootsy duo’s performances, recordings, and a few of their favorite things.

AM: This year’s Newport Folk Festival includes several bands you’ve shared stages with before, such as David Wax Museum (playing Sunday) and of course The Low Anthem (playing Saturday’s BBQ benefit for the Newport Festivals Foundation) plus familiar faces like feisty What Cheer? Brigade and Deer Tick‘s John McCauley (playing Saturday and Sunday night benefit shows plus performing on Saturday with his band Middle Brother). Do you feel any pressure to perform even better when you’re on “home turf,” or are you out to have fun no matter what?

MES: We’re always out to have fun. There aren’t any shows that we’d want to perform better than others. We always have the same goal: to have fun, play well, and hopefully help other people have fun, too.

AM: In just the couple of years that I’ve followed Brown Bird, your lineup has changed from five to now two members. Yet you and David Lamb still commanded the stage while opening for The Low Anthem at the Old Porino’s Pasta Sauce Factory in March, despite that being one of the largest physical spaces you could have performed in Rhode Island. You and Dave manage to cover guitar, banjo, fiddle, cello, (kick) drum, tambourine, and upright bass during your shows–usually several of these at the same time. Are you happy with Brown Bird’s sound production right now as a multi-instrumental dynamic duo, or are you considering additional musicians in the future?

MES: It was a pretty natural decision for Dave and I to start playing as a duo. Ever since we moved in together, writing music together has been unavoidable, and we quickly found that we were writing music for our specific instruments. The nature of our band and our relationship makes it easy to be a duo, and we intend to remain as such, but we’re certainly open to collaborations and guest musicians in the future.

AM: Speaking of crazy venues, you’ve run the gamut from clubs to house parties to Providence’s own Avon Cinema and playing in front of the fountain in Burnside Park. I’m sure audiences and jet lag have their impacts on any venue, but what has been your favorite place to play and why?

MES: That pasta sauce factory show was pretty cool. I have to admit I had my doubts when we first drove up to this big, kinda sketchy-looking building in Central Falls, but the show went off without a hitch and I love the idea of using big empty spaces as venues. Kudos to The Low Anthem for making that happen!

AM: I can’t stop listening to your current EP, “The Sound of Ghosts.” In addition to the upbeat rhythms and folksy storytelling, I love how your clear-as-water voice plays against David’s almost smoky vocals in “Bilgewater.” I remember how the entire venue went silent last year when the two of you performed “Lake Bed” (probably my favorite song on “Devil Dancing”) the night The ‘Mericans curated a Rhode Island musicians show at Narrows Center for the Arts. Have such duets been happy accidents to date, or are you actively planning (please please please) to record more in the future?

MES: When we wrote Lakebed we’d only been living together for a few months and were still trying to feel each other out as far as what our writing and work styles were. In that sense I guess Lakebed was a happy accident, where we basically just sat down and started writing. We liked how that went, though, so we’re definitely planning on writing more vocal-heavy stuff in the future.

AM: Brown Bird’s fifth album, “Salt for Salt,” will be out in October. If the songs you’ve released sneak peeks of (“Fingers to the Bone,” “Blood of Angels”, “Cast No Shadow,” and “Bilgewater”) are any indication, it could be your best album yet. Have you seen yourself maturing as a band and as individuals since your earlier albums? Do you ever compare and contrast?

MES: I can really only speak to the last three releases (since I’ve been part of the band), but there’s definitely been an evolution, both personally and musically. “The Devil Dancing” was a pretty transitional album for us, as we were just meeting and flushing out who and what Brown Bird would be. But that’s sort of happened in each album. Writing music is always evolutionary, I think. We wouldn’t be playing and writing what we do now if Dave hadn’t written “Tautology” eight years ago. I can definitely say for myself that I’ve grown as a musician (taking up cello and upright bass in the last 2 years) and hope to continue to do so. There are always things to improve upon!

AM: You’ve toured a lot, from the big European trip with The Low Anthem early last year to a number of gigs in the Northeast between now and the release of “Salt for Salt, — at which point you’ll kick off even more out-of-town shows. Can you share with Dose readers Brown Bird’s most memorable moment on tour?

MES: We played in Brazil this past April at their Virada Cultural festival in Sao Paulo. Everything about the trip was amazing – the food, the people, the culture. We played at 5 a.m. (the festival ran 24 hours non-stop in the streets of the city) to a crowd of cheering Brazilians, and afterwards met the most gracious fan we’ve ever met. She was actually in tears, and very shy, and she absolutely moved us. We even met up the next day before we left, and still keep in touch!

AM: Although you have sort of a dual residency thing going on with Maine, you’re considered a Rhode Island band. Specifically, I’ve seen Brown Bird proudly announce at several shows that they’re from Warren. Since moving here, I’ve been referred to Warren for some RI “bests” like cabinets (Delekta Pharmacy), Portuguese sweet bread (Elsie’s Bakery), and music (In Your Ear). Can you share some other Warren hidden gems?

MES: I think it’s safe to say we’re all Rhode Island now. We’ve lived in Warren for three years! We love the bacon-gorgonzola burgers from Tom’s Market, and the gorgonzola burgers at The Admiral and blue-cheese burgers at Stella Blue’s. (Do you see a trend here?) When we’re not looking for burgers, we’re big fans of BeBop Burrito. We eat a lot. When we’re not looking for food, though, we love The Wooden Midshipman. It’s a little shop down the street from us and it’s a great spot for local-made jewelry, quirky gifts, cookbooks and handmade items. Personal favorite! We also love the newly-made Discover Warren website!

Lucky Newport Folk Festival ticket holders can catch Brown Bird this Sunday, July 31st at 11:30 a.m. on the Harbor Stage. The rest of us will have to wait until Brown Bird’s next local show on August 13th at Lupo’s. They’ll share that bill with ZOX, which features MorganEve’s brother Spencer on violin.

Photo by Mikael Kennedy

1 thought on “Interview: Newport Folk Festival’s Brown Bird”

  1. Hands down the best performance all weekend at Newport this year. Completely blew me away… amazing!

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