In an interview some years ago, pianist Liz Story said she called the genre new age, the label often used to describe her music, the “not” category: It was not jazz, it was not pop, it was not vocal, it was not folk. It was basically all that was left.
Songwriter and multi-instrumentalist JT Nero, a.k.a. Jeremy Lindsay, kind of feels the same way about his band Birds of Chicago. The group based around him and his wife, vocalist Allison Russell, touches on a number of genres, from soul to country to blues. But Nero refuses to define his own sound. “If you intellectualize it too much you’re hemming yourself in,” he says when reached by phone just outside of El Paso, Texas, while the couple was on their way to Silver City, New Mexico.
“I’ve seen other people use a lot of hyphens,” he continued. “Secular gospel to roots-blues-soul-folk. The genre we are in, Americana, is built on those hyphens. All those hyphens used to mean rock and roll.”
While no one will ever confuse Birds of Chicago with the likes of Journey or U2, his point is valid. The band doesn’t rely on the big beat of rock, but its soul remains embedded in the approach of borrowing from all that have gone before it to create something new that appeals to the heart, the feet and the mind.
It’s perhaps more correct to dub Birds of Chicago, which performs at Freshwater Art Gallery May 12, a collective rather than a band. Centered around the husband and wife couple, various members come and go both in the studio and on the road. Nero (guitars and vocals) and Russell (lead vocals, clarinet, penny whistle, banjo and guitar) are the constants. “There are six or seven people who are mainstays in our recording,” Nero says. “On the road there are as few as three or a full Cadillac version of six, with a rhythm section and keyboards. It’s built to breathe. Even as an acoustic trio it represents the music in a true way.”
The group’s genesis came in the form of the twosome’s previous bands, JT and the Clouds and Po’ Girl, which kept running into one another while touring. They also accompanied one another on the road and in the studio. Nero found himself writing more and more for Russell’s voice, and what started as a musical duo eventually became a romantic one as well. Today they are married and accompanied on tour by their 3-year-old daughter Ida.
How has the group’s approach and music changed since he and Russell first began making music together in 2012? “In a couple ways. The point of the (band’s) birth was finding myself writing songs for Allison’s voice. It’s become more intuitive. Keys and tempos—we don’t need those discussions. There’s a comfort level,” Nero says.
Birds of Chicago has just finished a new recording, which they will be drawing from in their performance in Boyne City. Nero said the upcoming Love in Wartime, produced by Luther Dickinson, is more upbeat than the previous Real Midnight. “The first record was a little more melancholy and spare,” he says. “We knew we wanted to come back and make a grooving rock and roll record.”
Nero says the fragmentation of the music industry has been both a blessing and a curse. It’s easier to make recordings these days, but few acts now have the muscle of a major label behind them. “Grass roots bands like us aim to do what we always aim to do. We go town to town, building an audience a couple hundred folks at a time. That doesn’t get you an audience overnight, but the audience becomes lifers.
“There are a lot of clichés that are damn true. For us, it’s the journey, not the destination.”
Catch the Show: Freshwater Gallery in Boyne City at 8 p.m. on Friday, May 12. Tickets are $30. Call 231-582-2588.