Chosen One: Birds Of Passage
Interview with Alicia Merz, Birds Of Passage.
“Hmm, let’s see … You send the music deep enough into your heart so that it makes your body undergo a kind of a physical shift, and simultaneously the listener’s body also undergoes the same kind of physical shift. It’s giving birth to that kind of shared state.”
(taken from Haruki Murakami’s ‘After Dark’)
Words & Illustration: Craig Carry
Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s dreamlike novel ‘After Dark’ tells the story of various characters whose lives intertwine on one night (between the hours of 11:56 P.M. and 6:52 A.M. to be precise). The central character to the plot is young student Mari Asai, who, in the opening scene (at a nondescript late-night Denny’s), has a chance meeting with Takahashi — an old school acquaintance of Mari’s older sister Eri — who is a passionate trombone player playing in a local jazz band. Takahashi later confides in Mari his frank admission that he is not talented enough for a career in music so he has regretfully decided to study to become a lawyer instead. It is the particular description that Takahashi uses to describe his feelings about what music can potentially do — for both musician and audience — which struck me most while reading Murakami’s nocturnal masterclass.
Both musicians and music audiences can of course appreciate these words. Music can indeed communicate powerfully and resonate indelibly with the lives of others. Forming a shared connection while providing a special bond or connection with a listener is a powerful, precious thing. What’s perhaps most special (and rare) of all is when music can genuinely move somebody. Time and again, this is the effect that the music of Birds Of Passage has for me. Birds Of Passage is the pseudonym for the New Zealand-based composer Alicia Merz, who — since her debut ‘Without The World’ in early 2011 — has been quietly making her own unique blend of wholly engaging and deeply moving music. There is a deep sense of intimacy shared between listener and composer as Merz “truly whispers” to each and every person who is fortunate enough to cross paths with her. Alicia Merz makes music like her life depends on it. In fact, I would imagine music is not simply an extension of her, it simply is her. Over the course of three LP’s (‘Without The World’, ‘Dear and Unfamiliar’ and ‘Winter Lady’) and several EP’s and collaborations, Birds Of Passage has been creating quietly breathtaking worlds for the listener to navigate and experience. In turn, while exploring the dense maze-like patterns of her music we identify our own deepest hopes, fears and dreams — and learn something about ourselves — in the process.
Like a force of nature, ‘Ashes To Ashes’ begins with a brooding, drone and ambient-swept passage, reverberating magnificently in all directions. The highly textured and mightily condensed sequence is perfectly offset by Alicia Merz’s soft whispered vocals. “Will you find me here?” asks Merz in a heavenly vocal — delivered in a similarly magical effect to the vocals of Liz Harris or Julianna Barwick — casting a spell on the listener immediately. Before we know it we are already deep inside the innermost caverns of ‘This Kindly Slumber’s mysterious and complex maze of real and imagined landscapes. Like Guilermo Del Toro’s ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ we have — like the film’s central character, Ofelia, on her journey through the trials of an old labyrinth garden — set afoot on a magical, danger-filled world steeped in both fantasy and reality. “Will you save me here?” calls the angelic voice across the hazy, minimalist backdrop.
“Moonlight come and find me / Hidden behind my closed eyes” sings Merz on ‘Belle de Jour’, where a beautiful (near-childlike) keyboard rhythm opens proceedings, as we dig deeper into slumber, uncovering innermost feelings and deeply personal secrets along our way. Later, a wonderfully pitched guitar line weaves its way through the arrangement (recalling ‘Lampyre Bonne Chère’, Alicia Merz’s majestic collaboration with fellow-label-mates Dale Cooper Quartet) adding a sense of foreboding to the innocent quality possessed by the keyboard and vocal arrangements. “I dreamt I stole your kisses / I stole them while you slumbered” sings Merz on the song’s verse. One of the album’s most precious moments arrives later as Merz sings: “This mask I wear is wounded like the soldier underneath / This heart I hide is delicate and worn”. Interestingly, the lyrics draw a line back to Birds Of Passage’s previous album, ‘Winter Lady’, and ‘Highwaymen in Midnight Masks’, in particular, where a similar aching sense of vulnerability is shared. Unsurprisingly, the night and darkness provides recurring imagery throughout ‘This Kindly Slumber’, as we surrender to the moon and stars above, helpless to the fate they hold in store for us. “My light is almost gone” concludes ‘Belle de Jour’, while any faded embers of light are by now well and truly extinguished.
My current personal favorite is the glorious ‘And All Of Your Dreams’, a dynamic and rhythmic delight. On first listen I was immediately drawn back to witnessing Colleen’s Cécile Schott performing ‘Once Upon a Time There Was a Pretty Fly (Lullaby)’ live in concert (a song she performed on numerous occasions last year). The song — taken from the score to the 1955 Charles Laughton film noir classic ‘The Night Of The Hunter’ — features the following lyrics: “Once upon a time / There was a pretty fly / He had a pretty wife / This pretty fly / But one day / She flew away / Flew away”, creating a beguiling spell upon the audience in the process. A similar timelessness is forever distilled in Jack Clayton’s 1961 gothic horror ‘The Innocents’, where the song ‘O Willow Waly’ (written specifically for the film and wondrously sung by Isla Cameron) serves a critical point to the plot’s arc and to the film’s eventual outcome. During the second verse of ‘And All Of Your Dreams’, Merz chooses to add an excerpt from the fairytale ‘Ladybird, Ladybird’ (sometimes referred to as ‘Ladybug Ladybug’), the english version of the tale dates back to the Eighteenth Century. The song’s chorus begins with the nursery rhyme extract: “Ladybird, ladybird / Fly away home / Your house is on fire / Your children are gone”, proceeded by Merz’s heartfelt lyric: “And all of your dreams, they came true / And all of your dreams / Died with you”, similarly embodying (in an instant) the sense of both hope and fear, light and dark; the contrast which forms the blood-flow throughout ‘This Kindly Slumber’.
The magical ‘Stranger’ stands at the centre of ‘This Kindly Slumber’s seven tracks, the guitar-picked and high-pitched vocal carves out a ray of light on proceedings as Merz’s delicate whisper is now more dominant in the mix, it is as if the album’s central character is now beginning to find her voice (and place) in the world of these dark plains. A sense of comfort and semblance of solace is sought — if not yet attained — as Merz sings “Bestowed your kindness on me” across the thinly veiled sonic layers of voice and guitar in the background as they ebb and flow at their own accord, recalling the ambient flourishes of such labels as Touch or Kranky (or composers such as Kyle Bobby Dunn or Loscil) in the process. There’s something deeply touching about the moment when Merz sings the solitary word “stranger”, it’s like the extent and scale of the darkness is only now being fully realized.
‘Take My Breath’ features a soothing, guitar-picked accompaniment where the repeated harp-like pattern and background harmony-like voices shroud Merz’s vocals in heightened mystery, blurring the lines of reality in the process. ‘Take My Breath’ is repeated like a mantra at the song’s close, merging in a dreamlike fashion with the harmonic ambience in it’s midst. Like all Birds Of Passage’s material to date, the sequencing of any recorded material is painstakingly done like some time-honored craft. ‘Yesterday’s Stains’ begins with the forceful press of piano keys, before the album’s most intimate and vulnerable song begins to take shape. “Suicide child / With life in her veins / Blood for tomorrow / In yesterday’s stains” sings Merz in near-hypnotized fashion recalling the timeless, fear-filled and deeply moving songs of Mark Linkous’s Sparklehorse.
Album closer ‘Lonesome Tame’ opens with the combination of both ambient and field-recording textures, building in momentum while Merz asks: “Will they welcome you?”. It’s the kind of piece that could be augmented by a 12-piece orchestra or choral symphony, but, in doing so, would only lessen the impact made by the impeccable talents of the lone figure of Alicia Merz. The moment Merz sings “Will they welcome you? / mmm mmm mmm” — offset by a series of solitary piano notes in the background — serves to capture the heartbreaking quality of Daniel Johnston’s songbook while conveying the magical otherworldly quality found in music by Belgium’s Christina Vantzou or Iceland’s Jóhann Jóhannsson.
The album culminates in an extended passage of reverie and slumber as Merz’s deeply personal nocturnal voyage comes to a close. It’s a life-affirming journey which finds Merz navigating the darkest of nights while facing her gravest of fears. On the other side of this kindly slumber we realize that even the darkest of shadows lie closest to light: through the sacred and secret songs of Birds Of Passage we learn that in every moment of hopelessness exists hope. For that, we can be eternally grateful.
‘This Kindly Slumber’ is available now on Denovali Records.
Interview with Alicia Merz, Birds Of Passage.
I love how the title ‘This Kindly Slumber’ works so beautifully for the album as a whole. There’s such real emotion and feeling within the album itself and yet these powerful and moving moments almost reveal themselves gradually over time to the listener. I suppose this is partly to do with the ambient and dreamlike textures that create such a heightened atmosphere in your songs. The listening experience is a deeply intimate and genuinely moving one. What does the title of the album mean for you, Alicia?
AM: That is something that I actually would rather not convey. Although there is a reason and meaning in my mind for the title, I really want to leave it up to the listeners to interpret it for themselves, how they want or need to. I would much rather that. 🙂
How did the process for the making of ‘This Kindly Slumber’ differ from ‘Winter Lady’?
AM: I guess the main way it differed was in that I wrote and recorded the songs very spread out, in between a lot of things happening in my personal life. So I think everything was quite disjointed in that way. Not extremely so, just more so than with ‘Winter Lady’. I still always work on a song until it’s finished, and all it needs, in my mind at least, is little fixes which I can go back to later.
I love the more abstract and ambient/drone textures which your songs gravitate towards at times during ‘This Kindly Slumber’ (‘Ashes to Ashes’ and ‘Lonesome Tame’, for example). They set that dreamlike and intimate tone for the album as a whole so wonderfully and recall people like Julianna Barwick’s recent ‘Nepenthe’ or Grouper’s material. In terms of building these songs, how was this process for the album itself? Would they have all been demoed in a similar way or did the process vary for different songs?
AM: If I’m answering your question correctly, I think all of my songs are what they are, first off. I don’t like to re-do things because I really think that the first takes are the most pure and hold the most feeling. I have actually sometimes tried to re-sing a vocal or something, for the release, and always gone back to the original, because it always held something that the “re-sings” didn’t have. ‘Ashes to Ashes’ was impromptu.
I was really struck by the special connection that exists between the nursery rhyme ‘Ladybird, Ladybird’ — which is combined with ‘And All Of Your Dreams’ so powerfully — it adds a beautifully timeless and innocent quality to the song. When did you discover this nursery rhyme?
AM: When I was a child. That rhyme was running through my head for some time, and they just amalgamated themselves into my own lyrics. They worked perfectly with the subject of the song.
Are there other nursery rhymes or children stories that impacted you growing up as a child?
AM: Actually, I just remembered that when I was about 10 I became crazily fascinated with the origins of nursery rhymes and their actual meanings, and I went to the library to get books out on it, and being from this tiny town, they only had 1 little child’s version of their history, but I managed to get hold of some better ones, and yes, I was really interested in that they had hidden meanings and a history attached to them, so I learned a lot about them then. They are really fascinating.
Stories and poems etc. that come to mind are ‘The Selfish Giant’, actually all of Oscar Wilde’s short stories, and ‘Le Petit Prince’, ‘The Lady of Shalott’ and ‘The Highwayman’.
One of the most special moments on the album for me is the lyric: “this mask I wear is wounded like the soldier underneath”. The song is like a close relation to ‘Highwaymen in Midnight Masks’ from your last album ‘Winter Lady’, and is equally just as enriching and powerful for the listener. At what stage of the album was this song written?
AM: You’re very connected. 🙂 This song was actually the first song written, it was written a long time ago, not long after ‘Highwaymen’…I think I wrote it a couple of weeks after I got back from the tour through Europe.
The use of your vocals are so striking across all seven pieces on ‘This Kindly Slumber’ — from the very softly spoken and hushed parts or near spoken-word parts (the verse for ‘Belle de Jour’, for example) to the use of double-tracking on ‘Yesterday’s Stains’ or the stunning rise in your vocals on ‘Stranger’ — your voice creates such a range of tones which elicit so many moods and emotions across the album. Recording your vocal takes must prove challenging at the recording stage of the album?
AM: Well, you may notice some stumbles in my vocals…which, as I mentioned before, I keep because they are the honest emotion, and I don’t want to take that away. Mostly my vocals are the first takes. Thank you so much for your compliments. 🙂
With repeat listens, ‘This Kindly Slumber’ builds almost a labyrinth or maze whereby the listener navigates their own way out, there’s a darkness present – together with much vulnerability – but there’s ultimately light and hope present too. It’s very rare to experience such a personal journey on an album (for both listener and composer) which has the effect of creating such a moving experience.
I suppose ‘Yesterday’s Stains’ would be a darker part to the album, there’s such an openness and honesty here which is in itself so inspiring on so many different levels. I imagine it must be very difficult writing a piece such as ‘Yesterday’s Stains’?
AM: I think maybe writing a very personal song is the easy part, because it’s something that needs to be done. It’s there, and it needs to come out or something. It’s making it public that might be the difficult part, but that is softened by the hope that it will bring some people who will relate to it in some way, it may bring them some sort of kindred feeling, and some sort of hope.
I love the cover artwork for ‘This Kindly Slumber’. Again, it reflects and embodies the album, it’s many moods and textures so wonderfully. Could you tell me how the sleeve came to fruition, Alicia?
AM: I had another idea for the cover and Bruno my brother, is an amazing artist, and he is so kind that he draws for me pretty much whatever I ask him. Well, this time, my idea didn’t quite work out, because there were too many bits in it and various other things. So he listened to the album, and he came up with the idea of the cover and explained it to me, and I thought it sounded absolutely perfect. So he went ahead with what he saw in his head, and I’m so happy it happened that way, because he totally got it right on. He created the perfect cover for ‘This Kindly Slumber’.
What music and reading material did you surround yourself with on the making of ‘This Kindly Slumber’?
AM: If I am in a writing period, I really try to stay away from everything because I need to be in my own space. If I put something on, it’s usually unimposing things like Gregorian chants.
Since the last time we spoke you also added vocals to The Dale Cooper Quartet & The Dictaphones song ‘Lampyre Bonne Chère’ (taken from their current Denovali LP ‘Quatorze Pièces de Menace’). It’s such a magnificent song and your vocals and Dale Cooper Quartet’s distinctive sound (electric guitars, percussion and strings) is a match made in heaven. What was this collaboration and the process like?
AM: Thank you so much. I loved singing on that song.
They sent me the song, asking if I’d like to sing on it, and I was blown away by its beauty when I heard it. I was really excited to be able to do something with it. So I came up with a melody and lyrics, and recorded it.
For your recent mixtape you so kindly compiled for us, you chose two tracks by Molly Drake. Her music — as well as Nick Drake’s of course — is clearly very special for you. How would you describe the impact their music has had on you as a songwriter?
AM: I’d say Nick Drake has been very influential for me, in that he brings me to a place where I want to write. In a particularly hard time of my life, when I was younger, Nick Drake’s music was a huge part of my life and I kind of got through my sadness sharing it with the music. So now when I listen to it, it brings back all of those strong feelings and emotions, I suppose.
I just love the fact that Molly existed unknown for so long, and kept writing and recording her beautiful, sweet and sad songs with those insightful lyrics, without any sort of recognition. Obviously something she needed to do, it was her expression, no matter what anyone else thought, and I think that’s so beautiful. It’s also interesting to see a glimmer of how she must have influenced Nick Drake in his own songs.
What plans do you have in store for 2014, Alicia?
AM: I’m hoping to tour Europe. but it depends on finances…so I don’t know if it will happen yet. And I actually haven’t planned much more, except a few collaborations. 🙂
‘This Kindly Slumber’ is available now on Denovali Records.