MORRISBURG – “One thing that I value is that you have to create your art, your music, honestly and with fervour,” said JT Nero, who with Allison Russell forms the unique and exciting band, Birds of Chicago. “ And I believe in the magic this group weaves together.”
On Saturday, March 2, at 7 p.m., the St. Lawrence Acoustic Stage will welcome “two of the most compelling new voices in North American roots music,” (Sandra Whitworth, president of the SLAS), when Birds of Chicago comes to Upper Canada Playhouse.
Opening for Birds of Chicago, is London based singer/songwriter, Ken Yates, winner of two 2017 Canadian Folk Music Awards, who Whitworth describes as an “engaging songwriter with stunning melodies.”
I caught up with JT Nero on the road in Texas.
Nero is a Midwesterner, originally of JT and The Clouds. Allison Russell, from Montreal, performed with the Canadian band Po’ Girl. (Po’ Girl actually performed to audience kudos at the SLAS about 10 years ago.)
Birds of Chicago, a powerful musical collaboration between the two, was founded in 2012.
“Allison and I were both writers,” JT explained. “We come from different backgrounds, but we’re both interested in ‘mongrel’ music, roots, folk, rock and roll, country, all of it,” he added with a laugh. “Allie was one of my favourite singers, and I loved writing for her. We began working together, and musically things have gone really well.”
I asked JT to talk about Birds of Chicago’s unique music.
“Some call our music secular gospel,” JT said. “Actually, that’s a phrase people used to call rock and roll. Some used to say, take out ‘Jesus’ and slot in ‘baby’ and you’d have a rock and roll hit.
The truth is, rock and roll has its roots in gospel. What we try to do is tap into that raw feeling, that fervour that really good gospel provides. In beautiful music we can grow closer to each other.
Music creates elevated, ‘feel better’ human connections.”
Music also has the ability to bring people together.
“Our society today encourages a real disconnect among people. I think that live music might be the last bastion of connecting. You can have a room full of people with different beliefs and ideas, but still, through music, we can all find a link.”
JT and Allison seek to “write honestly.”
They find inspiration in the big things and the tiny things that everyone, everywhere, struggles with.
“You wake up one morning and the walls are closing in,” JT said. “Or one morning, you wake up with a surge of hope. We try to be honest and take snapshots of those moments as artists. We want people to see themselves in our songs. We don’t preach. We reveal and hold the mirror up to ourselves and others. I think people will find their way to our music if that’s what they are meant to do.”
Birds of Chicago connects powerfully with audiences, particularly with live audiences during their extensive concert tours.
“We’ve played everything from big folk festivals to living rooms in people’s homes,” JT said. “We love that intimacy with our audiences. We are on the road a lot, and we make those strong connections in our travels. It was B.B. King who once said, ‘They don’t pay me to play music, they pay me to travel,” he added laughing.
Birds of Chicago’s latest release, 2018’s Love in Wartime, has struck a strong chord with audiences.
While their second studio album Real Midnight (2016) garnered critical and fan acclaim, JT explained that, with Love in Wartime, “We basically set out to write a more joyous document.”
He feels that there have been some “darker turns in my country” in recent days.
“You can deal with this in two ways: you can respond by making protest music, or you can make a loving document with people acting out lovingly. We wanted to sing about people doing right by each other. Kindness can have a ripple effect. Music itself can be an act of bravery.”
Ken Yates, winner of the Songwriter of the Year and Emerging Artist of the Year at the 2017 Canadian Folk Music Awards, “will be a lovely start to this show,” said Sandra Whitworth.
“I always just describe myself as a singer/songwriter,” Ken said. “Maybe a little country, maybe a little folk: but what it really comes down to is what the song itself is saying.”
An accomplished guitarist, and a graduate of Berklee College of Music, Ken has been winning critical and fan praise for over a decade.
His music has sometimes been described as Canadiana, and while he doesn’t want to be labelled, “I feel great about being described as ‘Canadiana’. Canada is such a picturesque place that it’s no wonder it inspires songwriters. That beauty certainly finds its way into my songs.”
His album Huntsville (2016) actually drew on aspects of his home town for its inspiration.
“Early on in my career I told mostly stories,” Ken explained. “I was on the road a lot, enjoying meeting people, exploring my country. But with my third album (as yet untitled), I feel that I am changing my themes, becoming more personal. I am dealing with family and with actual life experiences. My music has a more personal approach. Real life has a way of creeping into your music.”
Ken didn’t actually start out to be a ‘troubadour’. He admits that his life often involves finding a balance between home and touring. This April he leaves for his first European tour.
“I originally began as a song writer and I thought others would actually sing my songs,” he said. “But I began to sing, to raise my own voice in my own music and then,” he laughed, “I hit the road.”
As his personal style developed, his connection with audiences grew stronger. “That immediate response you receive from the audience is powerful and wonderful. You see your songs in action. All shows are different, but good shows are completely fulfilling.”
At the SLAS concert, Ken said that his performance will be a mix of “intimate songs and some light-hearted stories”, some taken from his new album.
Birds of Chicago, with Ken Yates opening, will be at Upper Canada Playhouse for one show only, March 2, at 7 p.m. Tickets are $25 in advance or $30 at the door. To add to the audience’s pleasure, Stone Crop Acres will be offering a wine tasting before the concert and at intermission.