A gem of an album
It was the art design on the orange cover that spoke to me. Yes I did judge a book by the cover and am glad I picked it out of a crowd of other needy new musical offerings vying for my attention. The band was Bird Streets. Something sparked. And now I’ve had this gem of an album on repeat for days on end. I can imagine listening to Bird Streets on the PCH in Cali with my arm doing the wave out the window, and not many of the dreary bands of 2018/19 can conjur these types of images, can they?
Bird Streets sees the pairing of John Brodeur, master guitarist and songwriter, and the multi faceted Jason Falkner who produced this project. Bird Streets songs depict the human condition with equal parts sarcasm and humility. This self titled debut earned them a slot in the group of NPR Slingshot artists, and they made quite a few of the top album lists this year. The duo creates jangly power pop of the Big Star/Rundgren vein but stamps enough modern pathos on top to never come off as slavish devotees to any niche era. “Betting on the Sun” ripples with first-day-of-summer gleam, with a set of intriguing lyrics that Chilton himself would have been proud to scribble on the back of a TGI Friday’s napkin. “I remember when we were tighter than Steely Dan/ now the fix is in and you’re breaking up with your friends/betting on the sun to bail you out./in the morning light you will be set free”. Another standout track is “Direction”, a novella of a track depicting a relationship barely hanging on, with questions never asked so the answers won;t have to be revealed. The video for this song is a blatant and fully welcome homage to the classic Godard film, Breathless.
John’s voice is riveting on “Carry Me. “Lets drink a toast my friends to new beginnings and bitter ends” Another song that clasps the hands of life changes morphing into new awakenings. The lyrics speak to you, not over you, and Brodeur and Falkner’s guitar lines are somehow both jangly and crunchy.
“Thanks for Calling”, with its monster hook and crisp, clever lyrics speaks to a cheater, urging said cheat to please shy away from hurtful honesty and cover up their crimes better. “Well the next time you hook with an old friend/ Keep it a secret/Thanks for calling but would ave been off better not knowing.”
“You must be alive because you cashed the check” starts out the slower, contemplative “Stop to Breathe”. Visions of pawn shop rings, full-tilt dysfunction, and reluctant reunions follow on this standout heartbreaker that still manages a hint of swagger, like a kicked-out spouse laughing to themselves as they pick up their clothes from the lawn.
“Bullets” opens with heady synth arrangements that melt into guitar cascades. It is the most somber of the tracks, with the subdued tone barely covering references to emotional vioence, “Keep firing shots until the bullets ricochet”.
The guitar playing on this record is masterful, with John in particular hitting those chiming, clear-as-a-bell Chilton chords that sound easy but are infinitely tough to duplicate.
They are out there playing live in intimate venues. They shot to the top made many “Best Of 2018” lists while getting a fair amount of play on many college run radio stations. The record really brightened up my year last year, and I had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. Brodeur recently from his Brooklyn lair.
Where does this interview find you now? What’s on tap for the rest of your day?
I’m home in Brooklyn right now, unwinding from our Midwest tour and planning for the next one. The work is never done!
How did you and Royston Langdon wind up on the same bill? I know you are both living in New York City.
Royston and I share a booking agent, and we’re basically neighbors. I hope we get to do more dates together in 2019 because he is a wonderful performer and a stand-up gent to boot.
How do you think 2018 has been treating you and your music career? What has been one goal that you have had this year and how close are you to reaching it?
This has been the best year of my career, bar none. Having the Bird Streets album released internationally by a terrific label (Omnivore) and getting such a positive response from all over the world–it’s all miles ahead of anything I’ve experienced with my past releases. In the near future the goal is to continue spreading the word of the Bird. We have a few more music videos in the works and a bunch of touring planned for the new year. The larger goal is to make another album, and for it to be even better than this one.
Tell me about your songwriting process. How do you come up with your material? It feels quite confessional.
My lyrics are often very personal, yes. I write a lot about internal conflict–the latest record has songs that deal with alcoholism, isolation, and social anxiety–but also about relationships and all their fractures. I’ve tried writing “happy” songs and they just don’t feel honest.
I can’t say that I necessarily have a “process.” I wish I could be like Nick Cave and go to an office every day, but I’ve never really given myself that kind of structure. The songs come when they come. Usually it starts with a few lines of a lyric. I’ll play a chord progression on the guitar and try to make a melody. If it’s good, I find it will basically write itself. Once I have a verse and a chorus, I can usually finish the skeleton of the song, even if that means making some revisions later on. If I can’t get past those first few lines in 20-30 minutes, it will languish in my voice memos folder, sometimes never to be heard again.
You’ve been making music since the late ’90s. How and when did you learn to play guitar?
Longer than that, actually. I started performing my original music around the time I went to college, in 1993, and had a series of local bands in upstate NY before my first solo record came out in 2000. I learned to play guitar in the late ‘80s by listening to records and figuring out the chords by ear. First song I learned was “Talk Dirty To Me” by Poison. Did I mention it was the late ’80s?
I dug into your early work before Bird Streets. I was drawn to your sound on Little Hopes. I especially was digging the song “Neil Young.” Is he an inspiration?
Neil Young is my spirit animal. I admire how he always follows his muse, wherever it may take him. Sometimes that means writing an entire album slamming Monsanto; others, it’s freakin’ Harvest Moon. Whatever he does, it’s always pure Neil.
How did you and Jason finally decide to form Bird Streets? You both have impressive resumes. Did you write collectively? And how was the recording process?
It’s been strange promoting this record because a lot of folks think Bird Streets is a duo or a band. Which it is, sometimes, but it’s primarily just the name I’ve chosen for all my original music going forward. It was a product of doing the solo singer-songwriter routine for the better part of a decade–after my last record came and went, I felt like the whole thing needed a fresh coat of paint. That led me to LA in early 2014, where, after being friends for several years, Jason and I finally got around to cutting a song together. It went so well that we just had to go back for more! I had just started using the Bird Streets name for my band in New York around the same time as we got to work on the full LP. Once we had recorded a few more songs, I realized that we were making the first Bird Streets album.
The writing and recording processes were intertwined, in that we didn’t do any pre-production. Most of the songs were only about two-thirds written when I showed up. I’d play a few ideas for Jason, he’d pick one he liked, and we’d bat it back and forth for 30 or 40 minutes until we had a structure. Then we’d jump right into recording it. This didn’t leave a lot of room to second-guess ourselves; we just did what the songs needed and moved on to the next thing. It was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had in the studio.
I am a fan of funky power pop. Big Star is one of my favorite bands. I saw Omnivore Records represented Alex Chilton. I still feel he is an underrated guitar player. Also of course Todd Rundgren. What artists have inspired you?
See the next question.
What artists are you listening to now? Any recommendations, especially any women artists you are following?
Well, since you asked . . Mitski, Courtney Barnett, Sunflower Bean, Janelle Monae, the Breeders, Boygenius, Robyn, Jade Bird, Wye Oak, St. Vincent, Tracey Thorn and Sam Phillips all made wonderful records this year. The new Juliana Hatfield material I’ve heard is some of her best yet. Blondie and Olivia Newton-John were two of my childhood favorites. Aimee Mann and PJ Harvey are two of my favorite artists of all time. I listen to a lot of dudes, too.
Since you did make music before the Social Media explosion, do you feel comfortable with it?
My feelings about social media change day by day. At first it all seemed like a great way to promote projects and keep in touch with fans and friends. And I guess that is still true, to some extent. But it became a way for literally anyone to have a voice, and for that voice to somehow be weighed evenly with all the others. Not everyone should have a platform, you know? The media used to be a set group of educated and informed professionals; now everyone on the planet has a megaphone to say whatever nonsense they want and people take it seriously. Not that there aren’t amazing things happening on social media, but without it we probably wouldn’t be dealing with the orange menace in the White House.
“Thanks for Calling” made me laugh. We’ve all been there at one time or another. Did this happen to you? Reminds me a bit of your song “You Kill Me”: “now you’re digging up this dinosaur” feels like the sequel to “Thanks for Calling.”
“Thanks For Calling” is absolutely a true story. I’m not sure that one is a sequel to the other, per se, but the two songs do share some similarities. I guess I’m old-school in that I like to sing about phone calls instead of instant messages and Snapchat and so forth. There’s a certain sense of longing that I associate with the telephone. The conversation that inspired “Thanks For Calling” came after I hadn’t heard from the girl in two weeks. Two whole weeks! And this took place before the social media boom–there was no way to check her status or scroll her Instagram feed. So the phone call, when it did come, was extra disappointing.
“Direction” is such a fantastic song and the video is exceptional. What prompted you to make a video like this?
Dave Doobinin, the director of the video, came up with the concept. It really was no more complicated than he wanted to make a clip that looked like Breathless. My girlfriend made the Le Monde shirt to mirror the New York Herald Tribune shirt from the film, and my friend Anastasia volunteered to pal around with me for an afternoon. It was very off-the-cuff and relaxed.
Will we be getting more music from Bird Streets?
Yes! I have a bunch of songs in various states of completion, and I’m hoping to get back in the studio with Falkner in the early part of 2019.
What prompted you to go vegan?
Compassion, mostly. For animals, and for other humans.
Could you tell me an interesting fact about you unrelated to music?
I’m a survivor of childhood leukemia! I’m damn lucky to be here.
And we’re lucky to have your here.