Sleepover Shows, November 21 2014 • Rob Ribera
Christmas songs mean different things to different people. Whether you love them or hate them, you cannot deny their power. They are joyous and melancholy. They help keep us warm in the coldest of winters. They remind us to love our friends and our family. They are about human connections and bonds that cannot be broken. At the heart of it all, they are about love.
This year, we lost an incredible person. Whether you met him once or went to every show, it was instantly apparent that Dave Lamb of Brown Bird was not only a talented musician, but a kind and warm man. His stage presence was matched by his broad smile, his songs were able to connect to an audience the way few can. He will be missed. Nobody knows this more than MorganEve Swain, the other half of Brown Bird. Watching them play together on stage was a beautiful thing, and they shared with us over the last year both their joys and sorrows as Dave’s illness finally took him away from us.
Now, MorganEve is giving us another gift. A collection of Christmas songs that were given out to friends and family over the years is shared with us. Gathering together some classics and their own songs, it is a document of their love for each other, which is palpable in the raw recordings. So, as the days get a little shorter and a little colder, may these songs remind us about the joy and love that we find with one another. They are a fitting tribute to Dave Lamb’s legacy, and we can only thank MorganEve for sharing them with us.
I caught up with her to ask a little bit about their creation, Dave’s legacy, and what might be next for Brown Bird.
First, how are you doing? I saw you playing with The Devil Makes Three over the summer at Newport—have you been working with any other bands lately?
I’m doing ok. My standard answer is “not too bad”, which is the most truthful answer I can give without going into much. There are ups and downs, and there will be for a very long time- maybe forever- but staying busy and creative seem to be the key to survival. I’ve been playing only a little bit- some short tours with The Devil Makes Three and Joe Fletcher, and studio work at Dirt Floor Recording Studios in Chester, CT. I’ve been slowly working on a body of solo material under the name “The Huntress”, but my priority has been on keeping Brown Bird and Dave’s legacy going.
This collection is really beautiful, but bittersweet to hear. What made you want to release them now?
Thanks. I feel the same way. These songs are projects we just did for fun. They are the most raw recordings we’ve ever done, and the most relaxed. Writing and performing music for a living is incredible, but also a lot of work. These songs were just pure fun- no pressure, no expectation, no work. We always intended to release them at some point, and now seemed appropriate to me. First off, it’s immensely important to me to keep Brown Bird alive as long as I can. Music was the most important thing in Dave’s life, and now it’s my responsibility to keep it going for him. I wanted to get something out into the world before people started to forget us, or assume that they’d heard the last from Brown Bird. Second, it’s obviously been an incredibly difficult year. Our fans and friends were amazing throughout, though, and I wanted to be able to offer something in return that was on the lighter side, that showed how much fun Dave and I had together, and gave a little glimpse into our private world when things were great. We always tried to keep our relationship out of the public eye, but after his diagnosis, we allowed an intimacy between us and our fans that I think was very special. I feel like our fans are family now, and I wanted to remind them of the healthy Dave, and not let him become defined by his illness and fate.
What was it like to write that first song “The Old Church Bell” together?
It was absurd. We’d known each other for 5 months, lived together for 4, and were completely in love. We wrote that song in the kitchen of our first apartment. We’d been drinking, and we were literally dressed up in each other’s clothing, just goofing off and enjoying being silly.
Did you ever think a Christmas song would be the start of your songwriting together?
Definitely not. We never took that song seriously; it was just too goofy. But it DID show us that we could work together in that way, and it began our Christmas tradition of recording music for our families.
Did the process for recording these stay the same—late night home recordings?
Pretty much, yeah. We’d start thinking about what songs we wanted to do and once we had the idea, we’d delve into it, always with that no-pressure-this-is-just-for-fun feeling that was really crucial to the process.
Did you have any favorite classic Christmas albums growing up?
There’s a collection called “New England Christmastide” that I love. It’s all traditional folk songs, and I grew up hearing it. (I stole my version of “Christmas in the Morning” from it) After living in Warren RI for three years, I discovered that it was actually recorded there, and performed by people still in the community.
Aside from that, my dad has always been the king of mix-tapes and the Christmas songs I heard and loved growing up kind of ran the gamut. “Rockin around the Christmas Tree” by Brenda Lee is one of the best “modern” Christmas songs ever written, as is “Blue Christmas”. But I’ll always have soft spots for The Beach Boy’s “Little Saint Nick” and The Waitresses’ “Christmas Wrapping”. (Dave hated that one.)
You have a great mix here, from old English songs and Louis Armstrong to Jethro Tull and Tom Waits–how did you go about picking which ones to record?
I got the mix-tape bug from my dad, and I search for good Christmas music every year. I think it drove Dave a little nuts. The Louis Armstrong tune was one of Dave’s favorites and I’d never heard it. It blew my mind! I couldn’t believe I hadn’t had it on heavy rotation for the last 20 years. “Merry Christmas, Baby” was a no-brainer. We chose that one the year after Dave really did give me a diamond ring for Christmas…That Tom Waits song in particular is one of my favorites. For some reason, Auld Lang Syne makes me tear up in any incarnation, and this version was no different.
Same here. What IS it about that song??
These songs all seem to perfectly fit in with any other Brown Bird recording, with a recognizable sound.
Thanks. Yeah, I think “our sound” was unavoidable. It’s just what we did. Dave and I agreed too, that “Seraphim and Stone” was one of the best songs we ever wrote. We toyed with putting it on an album several times, but couldn’t get past the fact that it really is a Christmas song. I think it really showcases Dave’s incredible way with words, though. It’s one I’m particularly proud of. “Chimney smoke stack, aviator with a laugh, bridles beasts in the sky, heavy leather whip crack” is one of the best poetic descriptions of Santa Claus I’ve ever heard, and I loved that we were able to keep the song dark and Brown Bird-y, even while singing about Christmas cheer.
Can you tell me a little about Ryan McLennan’s album artwork?
Isn’t it incredible? Ryan is someone Dave’s known for quite a while- he used to live in Richmond VA and there’s a little group down there—Jonathan Vassar, Homemade Knives, Triple Stamp Press—who are dear friends and proficient creators. We played at a release party for Ryan’s collection of work titled “The Cost of Comfort”, which is all illustrations of animals and birds with various bones and states of decay that are both eerie and comical. We bought one of the collections and showed it off to every houseguest we ever had. The piece I used for the cover is called “Departure” and is part of that collection. Ryan generously allowed me to use it, and I think it’s really perfect.
Can you let me know about the future of any other Brown Bird recordings?
Absolutely. I’ll be releasing a brand new and very important full-length in early 2015. It’s the record Dave and I were writing during the year of his illness, and I’m overwhelmingly proud of it and anxious to get it out there. But we can talk about that later…
The Brown Bird Christmas Album is only available at brownbird.bandcamp.com for a limited time.