The New York Times, April 29 2015 • Jeff Oloizia
In the summer of 2008, MorganEve Swain, a pixie-ish, free-spirited fiddler and singer met David Lamb, a bearded, deeply feeling singer-songwriter, while touring on the East Coast. Just days later, Lamb asked Swain to join his eclectic folk ensemble Brown Bird. The pair fell in love, and over the course of six years — as Brown Bird whittled its lineup down to a duo — they would release four full-length albums, building a faithful following near their home in Warren, Rhode Island. Swaim and Lamb were married in August 2013. On April 5, 2014, Lamb died due to complications from leukemia.
Brown Bird’s final album, “Axis Mundi,” out this week on Supply & Demand Music, is an atypical release in more ways than one. To begin, for the first time in her career, Swain finds herself promoting the band’s work alone. Without Lamb, there are no plans for a tour or even an album release show. And yet, there is little funereal about “Axis Mundi.” The 16 songs, written both in the months leading up to Lamb’s diagnosis and following a bone marrow transplant in September 2013, are among the most lush and complex of Brown Bird’s career. Where the excellent “Aloha Senor Mano” sounds are ripped straight from a ’60s surf rock soundtrack, other tracks borrow from a staggering confluence of influences — from Middle-Eastern psych rock to the blues to the music of the Balkan gypsies. The result is that “Axis Mundi” (a phrase that refers to the place where heaven connects to the earth) sounds far less like an elegy than it does a band just hitting its stride.
That “Axis Mundi” has arrived at all is remarkable. Brown Bird was on tour in Houston in May of 2013 when Lamb fell ill; he was — at that time — without health insurance, and the band needed to find a way home so he would get further treatment. Swain reached out to fans for help online, and within just a few days, she had enough in donations to purchase both insurance and plane tickets back to Rhode Island. Writing and recording the album proved to be yet another challenge. For 100 days following his bone marrow transplant, Lamb was confined to the couple’s apartment without visitors. Making the record, says Swain, became a form of therapy for him. “If Dave was strong enough to be playing music, that’s what he wanted to do,” she says. “It really kept him going for a very long time.”
Even after Lamb’s death following an aggressive relapse last year, Swain gave little thought to abandoning the project. She launched headfirst into finishing the album with her friend and engineer Seth Manchester — Swain’s brother, Spencer, acted as producer — and re-recorded her own parts to match the demos Lamb had left behind. It’s clear that Swain is fiercely proud of the resulting record, which she says is “very obviously my way of keeping Dave going.” Recently, she has entertained the possibility of touring the album with friends, and has even begun dreaming up a nonprofit (“spiritual talks, classes; a bunch of art stuff that’s lacking in the community right now”) in Lamb’s name. For now, however, the singer is just thankful to be able to move on. “It would be really easy for me to stop writing and get a job at a coffee shop and be miserable for the rest of my life,” Swain says. “But now I have this extra drive to continue being the person Dave thought I was and to continue being the musician that he made me. I feel strong in a way that I didn’t expect to, and I think all that strength is from him.”