Leading up the release of Brown Bird’s final album, Axis Mundi, MorganEve Swain spoke with us about the process of finishing the record without Dave Lamb, what their fans mean to her and how she’s getting by one year after Dave’s passing.
How long after Dave's passing did you resume work on the album? How did you cope with the challenge of completing the album without him?
I got to work on it pretty immediately. I went on tour with The Devil Makes Three and Joe Fletcher in April/May right after Dave passed (they are family to me and though that tour was a blur and I was in shock, getting away from home and back on the road was great therapy for me, and still is) and when I returned, got right to work on the album. Obviously, it was a big challenge. Some of the songs brought me to tears immediately and I would power through my parts with tears streaming onto my instruments. Other songs made me smile and filled me with a sense of power. Throughout it, I had the profound sense that I was doing something of utmost importance – this record would keep him alive. I was fortunate with this record, not only to know exactly what Dave had wanted it to sound like, but to also have the incredible friendship, support and patience of Seth Manchester, who recorded and engineered it, and that of my brother Spencer who acted as producer. Without them both, this record wouldn’t be possible.
How much, if any, of this record was written before Dave became sick?
Only about a third of it was written before Dave’s diagnosis. We’d been working on “Bannermen”, “Aloha Señor Mano” and “Smoke Rising” during the last tour and were excited about the direction we were going in. We’d talked about bringing a drummer with us on the next tour and really focusing on beefing up our sound.
How did writing/recording change after he was diagnosed?
The only real change was that lyrically, Dave was clearly influenced by his experience. He did a lot of reading and writing about spirituality, facing his mortality, and the struggle of waiting for his body to heal.
In what state were Dave's contributions to the record when he passed? Are his parts demos or had you both sat down to record what would become the album?
Technically, Dave’s parts were demos. Our plan had been to record the album at home, with Seth Manchester from Machines with Magnets engineering once Dave was well again. The demos we recorded were our writing process. Dave would write and record parts and I would listen and put my own parts on. Then we’d discuss it and play around with it, and the songs would morph into their final states. So, Dave’s parts were all self-recorded in Garageband, at home, by him. I remember wondering why he was being so meticulous with his parts- recording them over and over until they were as close to perfect as he could get them, when we knew we’d be rerecording them with Seth later. It was his therapy. He loved the writing process, and he loved practicing. It may sound cheesy, but music really did keep him going. We even had his guitar and my electric bass set up with little practice amps in his hospital rooms when he was going through chemotherapy and recovering from his transplant. It was our life. So, although his parts were demos, the finished product is what he and I had discussed and planned on. I added only minimal extras, and am confident that Dave would have agreed with those choices.
In your post on Facebook about this record you describe it as "...the album we always wanted to make..." Was the idea to make a louder, more rock-inspired album settled on before Dave became sick or did circumstances after the fact factor into the direction you took things?
Brown Bird was always trying to become louder and fuller and more rock-inspired than we were. I think you can hear the progression from The Devil Dancing to Fits of Reason. We never intended to be referred to as a “folk band”, although we agreed philosophically that all bands who bring in the influences of their experiences and what they hear are intrinsically “folk”. Dave and I listened to a lot of different music at home, and we truly strove to bring all those influences out in our own music. Some of those influences are more evident than others- Dave’s love for Roger Miller’s way with words, our deep appreciation for Romani music, the blues influence that is unavoidable in all American music… This album brings in our love for rock a little more, and specifically our love for surf-rock, post-rock, metal, and bands like Queens of the Stone Age, Mastodon, and Secret Chiefs 3.
After Dave got sick, the desire to make a louder album became even more pronounced. We didn’t want to make an album that was about his illness, or how hard the year was. We didn’t want an album that came across as “woe is me”, look how painful our journey has been. We wanted to come back with a bang. We received so much love and support from fans and friends and family, we wanted to make an album that showed them how much they’d helped us. This was meant to be a victory record, and it still is.
You also mention in that post that you had written "Tortured Boy" for Dave earlier in your relationship. Was it a song you ever intended to record and release or, when you say you wrote it for him, was it originally something shared privately between the two of you?
There’s a phenomenon that happens after you lose someone, where meaning pops up in things that you didn’t see before. Maybe you’re searching for signs from them, maybe they somehow knew their fate, maybe there is a cosmic plan…whatever it is, “Tortured Boy” and it’s placement on this record has become one of those things for me.
I wrote “Tortured Boy” for Dave within the first few months of knowing him. We were already in love, but he was going through a divorce, had ended a relationship with a woman he was dating in order to be with me, and was having a bit of an existential crisis about whether or not he was worthy of love. He felt that he’d become someone he didn’t want to be, he resented that he’d hurt the women in his life, and he wanted to be a better man. He took a soul-searching trip to Maine to get his head on straight and figure out his next move, and I wrote “Tortured Boy” and sent it to him. The rest of the love story is history.
While we were choosing the songs for this album, he asked if we could put “Tortured Boy” on it. I was surprised. I hadn’t revisited the song in 5 years, and never had any intention of it become a Brown Bird song. We played around with it a little- he played some eerie guitar parts and I re-sang it and added harmonies. He was adamant about it being on the record, and I was honored he wanted it there. The version that is on the album is the demo we made together.
Were you ever surprised by the show of support you received from fans and strangers?
I don’t know if “surprised” is the right word. When Dave was first diagnosed and we reached out to fans for help, it’s hard to explain the feeling I had when so much money and love came pouring in. I wasn’t “surprised” so much as I was literally filled up with this overwhelming feeling of gratitude. It was like all my love for Dave was being validated by the fact that all these other people recognized how special he was. I wasn’t surprised because I knew he deserved it. I knew first hand how incredible he was, not only as an artist but as a man. The support literally buoyed us through this journey, and continues to do so for me. Every time a fan reaches out wanting to share a piece of art they’ve made inspired by Dave, or a stranger hands me a note telling me how my strength has given them strength, or someone buys our music through our Bandcamp and leaves a message about how much it’s meant to them, I am lifted up, enveloped and propelled forward.
As this is Brown Bird's final record what are you hoping fans will take away from it?
I hope fans will continue to be inspired by what Dave created. I hope that this record is seen as his legacy, and that it continues to be listened to, and passed around for years to come. I hope that he is remembered for his incredible talent as a songwriter and lyricist. And I hope he is remembered for his strength and perseverance.
What, if anything, have you taken away from it?
Working on and completing this album has given me a sense of purpose, and a sense of self. It would be easy for me to give up music and lead some mundane life without it, but having this album to work on and to finish has reminded me of who I am, and of who Dave fell in love with, and I always want to be that woman. I am beyond proud of the legacy that Dave leaves behind, and my place in it. There’s also a saying that Dave had wanted to tattoo on his chest when he got well: “waste not your suffering”. After he passed, I got it tattooed on mine, in his honor. Those words embody what this record is about. He and I both, in different ways and at different times, used our suffering to create this record, and that is what art is about. I want to continue to live my life that way, and that’s because of him.
Is there anything you'd like to say about The Huntress?
The Huntress is my attempt of continuing Dave’s legacy with my own work. He is the reason I’m the musician I am today. I feel like I would be letting him down if I didn’t continue writing and playing. I’m not sure what The Huntress will become. For now it’s just a recording project and a source of therapy for me. Hopefully someday it’ll be more than that.
Given everything you've gone through this past year--how are you?
This is the hardest question of this whole interview. I’m ok. I’m getting by. Sometimes I’m even enjoying myself. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have the friendship and support of some incredible people. I’ve just returned from a month-long tour playing fiddle and cello with The Devil Makes Three. Currently I’m driving around the country with my dog in my diesel VW Golf and trying to get my head on straight. And in March I’ll be joining The Devil Makes Three for a European tour. I’ve been reading a lot of Patti Smith lately. She has a line where she says “in movement is blessing”. So that’s what I’m doing for now. Keeping moving.