It’s a hard path we walk as musicians today. Maybe it’s a measure of the current times that we have to carve our creative place out of a world full of labor that has no interest in the songs we want to sing. Or maybe that’s the way it’s always been. The challenge is to beat the labyrinth of obstacles placed in front of us year after year and earn our right to be heard, our right to fully and completely identify ourselves and be known as musicians.
The story of Brown Bird and the story of their album Salt For Salt is about earning that passage. It’s akin to the story of a seedling pushing through the concrete to greet the Sun it’s been chasing as the tree it was always meant to be. In the case of songwriter David Lamb, the seedling was the collection of lyrics and melodies that swirled around his head while he passed the long hours at the shipyard where he worked. Day-by-day, week-by-week, he’d trudge home at night to sit with his partner MorganEve Swain and try to make something grow. MorganEve, still with the dust of her own hard day’s work at a coffee roasting plant, watered each and every idea with her enchanting playing on the upright bass, fiddle or cello. The rhythm and thoughts that weave themselves through the working week, weave themselves equally through Brown Bird’s music.
Through the rigors of day jobs, teaching music lessons and finding the time to rest in between, Brown Bird somehow managed to add in three to four performances a weekend, all while developing and recording a great record. Hard work. It must have been worth it, because here they are. They’re free. They did it. They’ve managed to shake off the shackles of the working world and lift themselves into the life of full-time music. But how?
The most immediate answer is that they have remarkable talent. Listening to the new album is a transportive experience. In songs like “Ebb and Flow” and “Fingers to the Bone” you can hear the grease and dirt in David Lamb’s banjo as he fingerpicks away underneath the smokey hum of his voice. MorganEve’s vocal harmonies lend a warm feminine authority to his words of the workingman’s existence. Her rich bass playing adds an authority that goes even deeper.
MorganEve was introduced to music at a young age through a private instructor who taught her the ways of the violin through the Suzuki method, an approach to teaching that seeks to create generations of students capable of a high level of musical achievement while maintaining a ‘noble heart.’ One of the core values of this method is the importance of saturating a young student with experiences in a musical community. As a result, MorganEve found herself venturing beyond her home state of Connecticut at an early age to play fiddle amidst the vibrant folk scene in Nova Scotia. It wasn’t until convening with David Lamb in Rhode Island that she added the cello and double bass to her arsenal, providing the bottom to Brown Bird. As new to the larger stringed instruments as she may be, her sense of melody and rhythm are so strong that her thumping notes become the very thunder in the beat of the up-tempo ‘whistle while you work’ tunes that permeate Salt For Salt.
It’s natural to listen to Salt For Salt and ask MorganEve and David how many overdubs or musicians they needed to capture the sound of the record. This is where the most remarkable side of Brown Bird comes in. Those flawless takes of soulfully picked guitar and banjo, perfectly cracked vocals, smooth string playing and surly percussion? That’s all recorded live and it’s just the two of them playing it.
As it turns out, David Lamb started his journey into music through the drum kit, living in Rhode Island and taking lessons from family friend and Berklee professor, Joe Galeota. Through the years of living and working in Boston and Seattle, David nurtured a collection of songs that eventually became Brown Bird, a band that at one point boasted five members. At first sight, he offers a lot to study and wonder about. His beard adds age to a youthful and exuberant face, but it feels like it belongs underneath his dark, pondering eyes, permanently fixed in a slight squint. A sleeve tattoo on his right arm leads down to his hands where he has the letters to the words ‘Come Home’ tattooed to his fingers. It’s hard not to wonder what home he thinks of when he looks down at those hands every day.
The imagery of his lyrics evokes the poetry of the Biblical writings that have inspired him. That sentiment, combined with his exhausted experience of working at a shipyard, makes for timeless verses that are as pained as they are proud. In “Fingers to the Bone” he writes,
I work my fingers to the bone
Not a pretty little penny have I got to show
I ain’t lookin’ for much, just a little bit of rest by the side of the road
I lift my voice to the forces above
To the Lords of Labor and the Goddess of Love
Ain’t I been a good, hard-working, faithful, serving son?
So it was that Brown Bird marched across the country, armed with a catalog of songs that tied the conditions of our present times to the great American Folk tradition. They hit the stage almost every weekend night channeling songs from the Anthology of American Folk Music, Johnny Cash, Howlin’ Wolf, and Muddy Waters. When they earned a spot at the Newport Folk Festival, they were seasoned enough and ready to capture the audience in front of them. Through the sales of their EP at the festival and the support system they garnered through their tireless gigging, they were able to scrap together the money that eventually funded Salt For Salt and their ticket out of the working world.
They’ll spend the next few months hitting venues in northern Vermont, upstate New York, Massachusetts and Maine. There’s no set CD Release Party and they’re not too concerned about that. This whole leg of a potentially endless tour is their personal release party and they’ll keep on doing it until, well, until it stops.
There’s not a clear end to the next chapter in the history of Brown Bird. They’re running from something more than running to anything. They’re leaving the struggling balancing act of work and music behind and hitting the road with a record so brilliantly simple and authentic that it bypasses any and all cynicism and heads straight to the heart. After all, how many readers of this very magazine greet every morning as a new day in an endless fight to claw their way through the concrete of the working world? David and MorganEve have been there and they’ve gotten to the other side. In a way, perhaps they themselves are the Lord of Labor and the Goddess of Love, setting out to spread the Gospel that you too can actually make it happen.