Americanagrams: The Stray Birds
The Stray Birds are used to things happening fast. The acoustic Americana trio out of Lancaster County, Penn., formalized as a touring band near the end of 2011 and recorded their self-titled debut in July 2012. Three months later, Jay Moberg at WUMV in Boston submitted the track “Dream in Blue” to NPR’s Heavy Rotation, a series that features staff favorites from public radio stations across the country. By the end of the year, The Stray Birds found a place on many 2012 Albums of the Year lists and the band was being hailed as one of the best on the folk circuit.
So it came as no surprise that my interview with Oliver Craven, Maya de Vitry and Charles Muench unfolded in a flurry. We met as they climbed out of a large, recently-acquired white touring van near the artist entrance of The Station Inn in Nashville during the Americana Music Fest. With Boston string band Joy Kills Sorrow beginning their soundcheck inside, we quickly ducked into a small room near the back. Surrounded by instruments, filing cabinets and bags of unpopped popcorn, Craven, De Vitry and Muench helped me cover a lot of ground in a short time just before their first-ever performance at The Station Inn.
How big was it for the band when you were featured on Heavy Rotation last year?
De Vitry: That was huge. I remember having a really significant boost in attendance at shows. We headed south for the first time in a long time and we got to put “sold out” by a lot of shows. I mean, they were still small-capacity kinds of places. But it was fun and it felt like momentum.
Craven: It was a pleasant surprise; it wasn’t something we were expecting. I think the make or break for what we do happens in what we do every day. You know, like standing here in this back room talking to you at The Station Inn. And just playing our music. It helps when people who have a lot of attention mention you and say they appreciate what you’re doing.
Muench: There’s also somewhat of a difference between our recordings and what we do live. So it was cool that our studio recording could sort of feed our live audience; that was one of the boosts that we got from the NPR spot.
DeVitry: It was a really fortunate kind of validation that not a lot of people get after one year of traveling around and doing this. Plenty of people are doing this day-in and day-out for a really long time before anything on a national scale is noticed. We felt really lucky. But we put a lot of miles in to get there, too! (Laughs)
What have you been listening to lately?
Muench: That’s a great question. (Pauses) We don’t listen to any music. (Everyone laughs)
DeVitry: We don’t have a way to listen to music in our van right now because we’re getting a new sound system installed.
Muench: Although, Joy Kills Sorrow is sounding pretty fantastic in the background right now. (Laughs) Let’s see, what else … we’ve been listening to the Tedeschi Trucks Band album that just came out. The Wood Brothers, who we just saw. We’ve been listening to John Fullbright for the whole last year.
Craven: A lot of people who are here (at the Americana Music Fest).
De Vitry: We’re fans of a lot of people who are here right now.
Muench: I’ve also been listening to a lot of old Willie Nelson, like really old Willie Nelson, before he had pigtails or anything.
De Vitry: I’ve been listening to Blood on the Tracks a lot.
Muench: Oh, the new Jason Isbell album.
De Vitry: Oh yeah, we’ve been wearing that one out. We love Southeastern.
Muench: (To Craven) Come on, what else you got? What about that one John Fullbright told you to listen to? (Singing) Elvis and Maaarilyn!
Craven: Yeah, Leon Russell.
De Vitry: We’ve been listening to Little Feat a lot too.
Can you tell me a little bit about how you handle songwriting and the creative process within the band?
Craven: I’m trying to figure out how to handle songwriting right now. There are so many of them that just get away. With this band, we do some of my original material and some of Maya’s original material. We write as individuals for the most part. There is a song on the next record that’s a collaborative effort, but those are kind of rare. We just kind of do things alone and when they’re done or close to done, we bring them to the group. Then we collaborate as a group on the arranging and putting it together. What you see and hear is ultimately a product of everyone’s creativity. But the original material generally starts with one person.
De Vitry: We were playing trivia at this breakfast place earlier today and I saw this Bob Dylan quote. He was talking about how he felt he was the mailman; he just picked them up and delivered them. He didn’t really know where the songs come from. I think that’s kind of how I feel. Not the whole song, but there’s usually a line or a cluster of words that comes to mind. And I feel like, “Wow, I have no idea where those words just came from.” Then I actually have to sit down and craft the rest of it. That initial moment can kind of be like, “Thanks for that.” Then the rest of it … I can spend hours and days doing the rest of it. It’s like a really fun logic puzzle and I just want to be happy with the way it ends.
How do you expect the new album you’re working on to be different than last year’s?
De Vitry: We’ve already made a list of 25 ways that it’s different from the last album. (Laughs) One of those is that Charlie is singing lead on a song. We all sing lead in the band, which we feature in live shows but that didn’t really come across as much on the last album. Oliver mentioned the co-written song. And we recorded it live; the vocal takes are completely live. We’re all singing together at the same time, under the same ceiling. There’s no separation, the vocal blend is what it is. On the last album, we had some isolation booths so we were behind glass and listening through headphones to do the singing. Which is totally different than what we do on stage, because we sing, like, two inches from each other. I’m usually touching their shoulders when we’re singing.
Muench: Yeah, we all get sick at the same time.
De Vitry: (Laughs) If one of us is sick, we all get sick. But I feel like this album is a little more raw, maybe it has a little more urgency.
Is there a release date yet?
De Vitry: I think it’s going to be out in March. It has been completely recorded; we finished the last song right before we drove down here. Now it just has to be mixed and we’ll figure out how to present it with artwork and all those kinds of things.
Does it have a name?
De Vitry: Yes … but we can’t say. (Laughs)
Muench: (Whispers) It’s a secret.
De Vitry: Yes, a secret working title. But we’re all really excited about the songs and the album.
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