Bowerbirds Put it Back Together
ABOVE: BETH TACULAR AND PHILIP MOORE. PHOTO COURTESY OF D.L. ANDERSON.
Meeting or even reading about bands is often disillusioning; your personal interpretation of their songs is shattered by the all-too-human personalities of the band members. This is not the case with Bowerbirds, whose lead members, Philip Moore and Beth Tacular, seem to fit their ethereal folk music almost too perfectly. Philip and Beth, who have been dating for seven years, live with their dogs in a wooden cabin they constructed themselves in the woods of North Carolina.
Much has happened to the couple since Bowerbirds released their last album, Upper Air, in 2009. Lead singer Philip and Beth ended their romantic relationship, the band went on an indefinite hiatus, and Tacular became seriously ill. Fortunately, Beth is now better and back with Philip. Perhaps it shouldn’t, but knowing this turbulent history only adds poignancy to Bowerbirds’ new album, The Clearing. There is a fragility to the harmonious folk songs that makes the album feel like both a tale of survival and a fresh start.
Interview recently spoke with lead singer and guitarist, Philip, via phone about The Clearing, the stress of touring, and his beloved dogs.
EMMA BROWN: I wanted to ask you a few questions about your new album. A lot happened to the band since your last album in 2009; can you tell me a little bit about that?
PHILIP MOORE: In 2009, Beth and I broke up. We were in the middle of a European tour, and we had to keep going, give it our best, be friends with each other and still play good shows. We got done with that and took a break from the whole music thing for a while until 2010. That was really difficult, in between tours and records and losing a partner. Beth was living in Raleigh, and I was living out in the country on our land. We got back together, thankfully. We started writing songs eventually, but halfway through that process, as we were recording demos, Beth became ill and had to go the emergency room. We had to put the band on hold again and writing, and reevaluate our lives and figure out what we were doing in this place. That was kind of a turning point for us personally and artistically. We were writing the lyrics around that time, a lot of the music was being written and we were trying to find our voice, trying to figure out what we really cared about. We felt like we were working too hard, too much and just trying to put something out. We just needed to focus on the lyrics and make them more relevant to what we actually care about out here, and make them autobiographical and honest—as honest as possible. Once Beth became better in a couple of months—she ate her iron pills and healed her liver and kidneys—we were able to get back on our feet again.
BROWN: That’s a lot!
BROWN: Did you and Beth begin as a couple or as a bandmates?
MOORE: We began as a couple. We met at Whole Foods Market in North Carolina and started normal relationship. Eventually, two years later, we started a web design business together. [So] we’ve been closely working together and started working together and intertwining our romantic relationship for a while. We’ve been together for about seven years now.
BROWN: How did you end up starting a band together?
MOORE: I was in another band, and we broke up. It was kind of a louder, more experimental band with my best friend from growing up. I had a few different songs that were quieter and a little more lyrically oriented, and I just wanted to do them by myself. It was right at the start of our relationship and Beth encouraged me and started helping me with my own songs—helping me find my voice, editing the songs. She had been a visual artist for years already and is just generally a creative person, and then she picked up the accordion and fell in love with it and Bowerbirds became a reality.
BROWN: Did you think that Bowerbirds was over when you broke up in 2009?
MOORE: There was a long period when we just really didn’t have any hope for getting back together. We thought it was finished for a while there.
BROWN: What changed?
MOORE: Just being apart for long enough we realized all the things that we had taken for granted in each other, just on a personal level. When you go on tour, at least for us, you just get your whole life stripped [away]. We got in this fog of having to play a show every night; our adrenaline was always kicking, we were going to all of these crazy places in Europe and the States, going from club to club and meeting new people every night. It was really difficult to take our relationship as seriously as we needed to; our band and touring trumped our personal relationship. Just being home, and [getting back into] our daily routine, that’s when everything changed for us. We needed the perspective of being normal people again to figure what our actual reality was. Once we figured that out it was really easy to get back together and respect each other.
BROWN: You’re about to go on tour again. Is this your first since 2009?
MOORE: We’ve done shorter tours, this is our first major tour.
BROWN: Are you nervous?
MOORE: I’m always nervous to go out and tour, and lose perspective on what we really care about. I’m a nervous dude. We have more of a plan [this time]. I think just knowing what can happen, what can break down. It’s really good to have that in the back of our minds. [I’m] mostly [nervous about] parking the van. Once we’re at the venue and playing for the fans, I’m not nervous about how they’ll receive us. I’m not really nervous about playing music, I think that’s exciting and fun, just the logistics, the getting around.
BROWN: Do you have a favorite city to play in?
MOORE: I wouldn’t say it’s a favorite. We have amazing audiences in Boston, DC, Portland, and New York.
BROWN: Is there anywhere that is consistently a really tough crowd?
MOORE: Yes, actually. Philadelphia. Every time we play Johnny Brenda’s [in Philadelphia], there’s something about that venue… maybe people are just silently ecstatic about everything.
BROWN: Are you playing there again?
MOORE: Yeah, we’re trying to win them over. This time it’ll work.
BROWN: Oh, do you have a cunning plan?
MOORE: No. [laughs]
BROWN: What do you listen to while you’re on tour?
MOORE: That’s a good question, we should probably figure that out for this tour. We often listen to a lot of This American Life and to this podcast, Uhh Yeah Dude and then our favorite artists. We try and get as few indie artists as possible, at least enough jazz and classical and podcasts and more classic like Neil Young or The Beatles. It’s our job to play indie rock so it’s nice to revisit older music.
BROWN: Do you have a pump-up song before you go on stage?
MOORE:We actually just get in a big huddle and try and make eye contact witheach other. We like to calm down before we go on stage.
BROWN: You mentioned earlier that you had written most of the music for The Clearing before Beth got ill, and then you added the lyrics. Is that normal practice for you, to write the music first and then add lyrics?
MOORE: That’s generally how we do it, with the Bowerbirds at least.
BROWN: Do you know what the song lyrics are going to be about when you’re writing the music?
MOORE: I try to keep that in mind when I’m writing a song but it usually is kind of this amorphous thought in my head and I’ll just start writing some melody over top of chord changes on piano or guitar. It becomes the backbone I guess for the lyrical content—that amorphous thought—sometimes a word will appear, for example with “Tuck the Darkness In” there was that line that came out—”tuck the darkness in.”
BROWN: I’m also really curious about your cabin in the woods… you built it yourselves?
BROWN: How long did that take?
MOORE: A lot longer than we had anticipated.
BROWN: Had you ever built anything before?
MOORE: No, we just researched a lot of techniques on the internet, went to the library a bunch. Just figured it out step by step. We had been mechanically inclined for a long time; I’d fixed things before, cars and whatnot, so it seemed intuitive to make a home. [It’s] a lot easier than people think, just follow the instructions.
BROWN: And I know that you have dogs that you are very fond of. Who is going to take care of them while your touring?
MOORE: About an hour ago we put our dogs in a friend’s car and they’re driving to Memphis, where they’ll meet up with Beth’s brother and then they will go to Boulder, Colorado with Beth’s brother for quite a while. We just had quite an emotional parting with our pups.
BROWN: Have you ever seen Homeward Bound?
MOORE: [laughs] Yes.
BROWN: It would be a long way for them to go…
THE CLEARING IS OUT TOMORROW. FOR MORE ON BOWERBIRDS, VISIT THEIR WEBSITE.