Taking flight with a new partner

JT Nero tells Gerry Quinn how his Birds Of Chicago project has caused quite a stir in the American roots music scene

BIRDS OF CHICAGO, a collective based around the musical partnership of JT Nero and Alison Russell, release their self-titled debut album this month. Released in the US in October, the record has attracted some positive reviews for the duo. For example, the Chicago Sun-Times hailed them as “two of the most compelling new voices in American roots music”.

Nero explains the genesis of the group thus: “We’ve been collaborating in increasing regularity over the last several years with our respective bands — Alison in Po’ Girl and me with JT and the Clouds. We’ve been mutual fans of each other’s music, played at each other’s shows and on each other’s records. So it reached a point to give the thing between us its own space and its own name. Initially we were going to use our own names and the title of the record was going to be Birds of Chicago. But we ended up calling ourselves that as well. It seems to stick in people’s consciousness.”

The debut album features 12 beguiling songs, 10 penned by Nero and two by Russell. Though definitely in the rootsy folk category, it’s got a pop sensibility that should appeal to music fans way outside any limiting or genre defining boundaries. In fact there’s a discernible 1960s British pop-rock sound to the album. Nero agrees.

“I think at this stage there’s been such a back and forth exchange. Van Morrison is a huge influence, not just in his music but in his lyric-writing. The thing that Van does and other English, Irish and Scottish artists have done — you know the ones that grew up being fascinated by blues and soul music — they took the love of that influence with them and created their own style. I believe you got to take all the things you loved as a kid — you got to honour that — but you got to find some way to put your own imprint on it. You want to respect the tradition but you also want to find a way to find your own sound.”

Birds of Chicago actually formed in 2011 to record Nero’s last solo album, Mountains/Forests. It featured both Nero and Russell singing together for the entire recording. “As that progressed, we knew that it was something distinct,” says Nero. “In a lot of ways we think of the Mountains/Forest record as an unofficial first Birds of Chicago record.”

Since their formation they’ve maintained a busy gigging itinerary and there are plans to do some touring in the UK and Ireland throughout April and into May next. “We love that side of the water,” says Nero. “We’re really excited about it. It will be our first proper Irish tour. Alison, with Po’ Girl has played in Ireland before and in my limited experiences of Irish audiences I’ve noticed a level of connoisseurship that is wonderful. At the same time you are very much aware that you need to bring your A game. There can’t be any messing around,” he laughs.

With such a busy touring schedule what does he do to unwind? “We’ve learned to really maximise how to relax aggressively when we get a very short window of time off,” he says. “For Christmas we were up in northern Wisconsin in a cabin doing a whole lot of nothing. It doesn’t take too much to recharge the batteries. That’s partly because we love doing what we do. It can grind you down a bit but when it comes down to it we love doing it.”

Nero admits that despite all the touring he and his partner still manage to write material on a regular basis. “We’re writing all the time,” he says. “That’s one thing we’ve got good at, is writing on the road. When we come back from the UK and Ireland we’ll be into the summer festival season in the States. We haven’t set an exact date yet to get back into the studio but it won’t be too long before we’re thinking of our next album,” he says.

“In fact we are always thinking of it. The weird thing about music making is that you’re thinking about it pretty much as soon as you’re actually done recording. With one album, you listen to that record so many times to make sure that it comes out okay that you are very much ready to be on to the next thing.”

Right now Russell and Nero are furtively traversing the vast North American continent to promote Birds of Chicago.

City after city they’re picking up new fans along the way. By the time they get to Ireland in April it’s a certainty that the Birds’ star will have risen considerably.

*Birds of Chicago’s debut album is released in Ireland on Jan 28. www.birdsofchicago.com

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