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PROFILE: Bowerbirds

Cabin in the Woods:

The Haunting and Intimate Bowerbirds

Somewhere around 2004, Phil Moore and a couple of boyhood buddies moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, from their home state of Iowa to form a band called Ticonderoga. The trio set out to create a brand of experimental post-rock that attempted to use just about anything imaginable to create a unique soundscape. Justin Vernon of Bon Iver even joined the band for a short time before going off to his cabin in the woods to record his debut album. Despite the bold musical territory Ticonderoga was exploring, Moore felt the need to take a step away toward a simpler, stripped-down sonic palette.

Enter Beth Tacular. Moore and Tacular met in Raleigh while they were both working at Whole Foods (Ticonderoga wasn’t paying all Moore’s bills), and eventually they fell in love. They formed a band along with Ticonderoga member Mark Paulson and started making indie-folk music under the name Bowerbirds. “We started with just accordion, nylon-string, guitar, and a bass drum, and then added violin a few months later, but that was it,” Tacular says of those early days.

Bowerbirds self-released their debut, the Danger at Sea EP, in 2006 followed by a proper full-length, Hymns for a Dark Horse, a year later. Both recordings were largely written while the couple lived for a while in the wilderness of South Carolina, where Moore had moved, with Taculr, to track birds for a museum’s conservation program. Hymns was well received, and a series of tour dates followed. It seemed as if all was right in the world for the lovers and their music. They purchased a beautiful plot of land nestled away in the woods near Raleigh and started building a home together. Until the cabin reached a habitable state, the couple toured and lived on the land in a small Airstream trailer where they wrote their second album, Upper Air.

southern music bowerbirds

The music on Upper Air paints love in its prime: full of a passion which is at times oblivious to the rest of the world. The couple seems to be singing only for each other, as if no one else will ever hear their lovers’ serenade. Of course every relationship, whether between band mates or lovers, undergoes its share of trials.

The years of touring and constantly writing music, not to mention the stress of building their cabin, began to push on the couple. Suddenly, the Airstream trailer that had served reliably as their home no longer felt cozy or quaint, but just tiny. “We hadn't had running water for three years, either, and while our lives were on the one hand pretty romantic, they also wore on us, and we started to crumble from all the constant movement and work and constantly being broke,” Tacular says. Eventually, the duo decided to separate, at least romantically. They continued with Bowerbirds, but the experience was understandably difficult. They made their decision in the middle of a three-month tour in Europe, miles away from home, and stuck in yet another tiny vehicle (a minivan).

“That was a really bittersweet time, because our shows were going really well, and musically we were very inspired and happy,” she says, “but we had been in a relationship for five years, living and working together, so it felt like a divorce.” Back in Raleigh, Tacular decided to move to an apartment while Moore continued living on their land with the half-finished cabin. Over the next year, the couple toured in support of Upper Air and slowly worked toward reclaiming what they had lost, or at least some sort of manageable relationship. It must have been difficult for them to stand on the stage together, pouring out their hearts for each other, not to mention an audience, about a love that now seemed to elude them.

It was around this time that Bowerbirds performed at the University of Arkansas where I was a college student. I was unfamiliar with the band, but a friend dragged me to the show assuring me I would love it. The concert was in a small theater in the Student Union that I’m fairly certain I hadn’t entered before (or since), and many of the seats remained empty throughout the performance. But the show was intimate and moving. Since there were so few in the audience, the band spoke directly to us, making it feel like we were listening to our friends play in a living room rather than witnessing an actual touring band.

I had recently decided it was my dream to become a music journalist, and I came to the show carrying a notebook and pen. I spent the concert scribbling away what I’m sure were rubbishy notes about Moore’s laid-back attitude or Tacular’s shy smile. But I don’t need to revisit the notebook to remember that they ended the show by inviting the small crowd into the Union’s stairwell to hear a stripped-down rendition of “Bur Oak,” a beautiful number off Hymns. If I wasn’t already convinced, the sound of their harmonies and Moore’s nylon-stringed acoustic echoing up the walls made me realize I would be caring about this band for a while.

After the show, my friends and I approached the band at their merch table and invited them to come hang out at our favorite bar, even though we were fairly certain they wouldn’t come. But they showed up. It wasn’t until much later that I found out Moore and Tacular were a couple, or at least, had been at one time. It never occurred to me at the time that Moore and Tacular had been romantically involved: They mostly sat on opposite sides of the bar while a few of us talked to one and a few to the other. I think back to that night, and I wonder what they were feeling. Did they steal glances at each other while we drunkenly surrounded them, throwing out our praise? Did they have any solid predictions about their fate?

After a period of touring and rebuilding their relationship, Tacular and Moore came to the conclusion that they would never be able to find a better match for themselves than they already had. “When things are good, we have a really magical connection,” Tacular says, “and we realized we would have to give up on that, as well as on all the dreams we had come up with together—dreams about starting a band, homesteading in the country, building a tiny dream house.” They spent almost an entire year just getting back into what Tacular calls “the rhythms of the seasons,” doing the things that a normal couple does, which can often be difficult to find time for when you’re on tour. Simple activities like cooking meals together or spending an evening watching a movie suddenly reminded them why they fell in love in the first place.

But just as their life together started to return to normal, Tacular fell abruptly and deathly ill. The doctors were never able to diagnose her exact condition, but as a result of her sickness, she was unable to eat for three weeks and began to suffer organ failure.

“It was really scary, and there was a moment in the hospital where Phil and I looked at each other and kind of made a silent pact to not let things get us down anymore,” Tacular remembers. “We would come back from this, and just shut out all the voices telling us what sort of album to make or what sort of life we were supposed to be living. We would just make our life, and our new album, exactly the way we wanted it, and we would try to make it all really beautiful.” Luckily, Tacular recovered and the couple set out to make good on their pact.

When they finally felt ready to begin work on another record, The Clearing, which was released in March, they had almost too much experience to draw on. “A lot of the lyrics started being about appreciating what you have, accepting the things that happen to you that you can't control, or even accepting your own mistakes, Tacular says. “We were really reveling in the beauty of the land where we live, and in the peaceful feelings that being out there elicits in us. The album, lyrically, is written from a very personal and honest place, very much about our lives together, and how we cope with the stress of touring, and the stress of just living in a world that has gone wrong in a lot of ways, from our perspective.”

The Clearing explores the darkness and horrors we all face in life, but there is also a significant focus on the sheer amount of wonder in the world, and “letting that wonder overtake the darkness.”

Bowerbirds felt that after a few years of restraining themselves sonically, it was finally time to branch out and embrace a more dynamic sound. Moore had begun to miss the experimentation from those days with Ticonderoga and wanted to bring those elements to the new band. Tacular says, “We wanted to see what Bowerbirds songs would sound like if we animated them more and paid intense attention to detail, in an attempt to emphasize certain parts of the songs, or of the album.”

The band decided to record part of their new LP at their pal Justin Vernon’s April Base Studios in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, with the help of engineer Brian Joseph, who also worked on the most recent Bon Iver album. The sessions didn’t prove as fruitful as the band had hoped, so after getting some advice from Joseph about microphones and preamps, the group returned home to record the album themselves.

They spent the next few months in the summer working almost nonstop on the new collection of songs. For fifteen hours each day, the group, along with a few session musicians (and instruments, and equipment), crammed into a ramshackle rent-house up the hill from Moore and Tacular’s still unfinished cabin to record the album. Since there was only one air-conditioning unit (which couldn’t even be kept on during recording because of the noise), temperatures in the house would reach over one hundred degrees. Tacular says, “We would do twenty takes of a cello part, and by the end of it, you could tell our cellist, Leah, was about to keel over. We even had to keep one of those freezer-pack things under the computer to keep it from crashing from the heat.”

The band finished recording and headed up to New York to mix the album, finally releasing it in the spring. The result is the group’s most polished and strikingly beautiful record to date. Listening to the hope and optimism in the lyrics, combined with the heartfelt sincerity of the vocals and the gorgeous arrangements, it’s difficult to believe Tacular and Moore ever doubted their feelings for each other. And it seems like the couple is still holding on to what they learned from the experience. As Tacular says, “We are more gentle now with each other and more forgiving, and we are trying to maintain the positive feelings during all this touring we have started to do again. We know how easily things can go wrong, so we are just really aware and careful to keep things positive.”

Before too long, the couple will finally finish their dream cabin. Tacular mentions all the plans they have for the property, including a roof deck, a wood-fired hot tub, and a zip line. Music lovers can be grateful for their endurance.

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