A Nashville Conversation with JT Nero of Birds of Chicago

JT Nero and Allison Russell, husband-wife members of the Americana/indie folk band Birds of Chicago, took their daughter out on the road touring just a month after she was born four years ago, and the pace has remained staggering ever since. You may have heard their single “Barley,” or “Cannonball,” but on the brand-new album, “Love in Wartime,” audiences can hear and feel the joyous angst they’ve captured in response to divided political times.

Now based in Nashville, we caught up with Nero after they’d returned home from touring in Europe for five weeks, where they’d also brought their daughter. “We had the whole family circus,” he says laughing, before revealing the name of the band’s favorite coffee shop in America, which happens to be in St. Louis: The Mud House. “We love it so much. We’ll go 60 miles out of our way to go there. And those sweethearts give 20 percent off to touring bands,” he says. “Now how about that?”

You spend much of your time on the road touring all over the world. What do you do when you’re exhausted from the grind?
Thankfully, we have not lost our excitement. Touring is something that’s in your blood, or it isn’t. Something changed a few years back when I realized that the motion of being on the road was my home state. Being home, off the road, felt more like a vacation. So to some degree, that’s become our natural rhythm. Even if you’re lucky enough to have a job that you love, there’s no doubt that there are times where it feels like a grind. People often ask me, “How do you keep going when you’re only 11 days in and you’re exhausted, and you have 29 more shows to go?” We don’t look at it like that—rather, we’ve accepted touring as our default state.

Then when we have those times that feel pressurized, it’s important to look at what you’re doing in that particular moment to decompress and take some of the pressure off. That basic state of motion is not going away for us, and we’re not the first human nomads. People are like, “You took your daughter on the road with you, that’s amazing!” I’m always willing to accept praise, but we didn’t really have a choice. We’re her mother and father [laughs]. The motion is near constant, so it’s about finding those moments of peace.

The description for the new album, “Love in Wartime,” discusses how it was recorded in Chicago “against a backdrop of bewilderment, deep-divide and dread.” Can you elaborate?
Well, without putting too fine a point on it, our first day of recording was Inauguration Day last year. Even if you haven’t taken a particular political stance, it would be hard for anyone not to recognize that the state of our culture felt perilous at that time. I felt in what I’d call a free-floating cloud of dread and worry. We felt the need to make a kind of joyful document of life on this earth. That felt like the most defiant thing we could do, and one that we were capable of doing.

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You do the bulk of the writing for Birds of Chicago. What does your writing process look like, and how do you manage to get in writing time while on tour?
When I first started writing songs, I was bartending and living in Chicago. I’d get up, go for a jog, get coffee and write from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. in my kitchen, and then go to work. It’s been more of a practical adjustment, learning how to write on the road; you have to pick your spots. I’ve found different ways to do it; I do most of the driving, so sometimes I sit my iPhone on my lap and hum melodies I have in my head, hoping I don’t sound like an idiot. As far as transforming moments of inspiration into a song, it’s really a mixed bag. Sometimes it feels like they just tumble out. And sometimes it’s like the tip of a great white whale that surfaces for a second and disappears, and you spend a long time trying to get it back.

Do you have any favorite songs on this new album?
We do have some songs where it really feels like everything just came together in a really intuitive way, where everyone’s playing in a way that feels like it’s evoking everything that we need to get at. The title track “Love in Wartime” does that for sure. The song “Baton Rouge” does that. And Allie, before she was my wife, was one of my favorite singers in the world. I feel the way about her singing that I do about Ella Fitzgerald and Dolly Parton—people whose phrasing and intonation can add four or five shades to the lyrics and music. On the song “Love in Wartime,” in particular, her singing has so much restraint and emotive force. It busts me up every time I listen to it.

I read that your first album was actually funded with a Kickstarter campaign, correct?
Yes! In the early days of crowdfunding back in 2012. At the time, we didn’t even have a band name yet. We knew we wanted to do something together, and I had a buddy who was helping us, and he kept going on and on about this Kickstarter thing. We were shocked that we were able to raise the money we needed to make the album. When I hear that first record now, it feels so young to me.

What led you to relocate to Nashville?
Nashville is one of the music-world epicenters. I’ve been getting into production and writing for other artists, and if you want to be doing that, this is the town for it. Chicago has my heart, I love it so much, but it’s not nearly as kid-friendly for those who don’t have a ton of money. Nashville is very kid-friendly, and it’s been really great for our daughter, who’s four now. Her name is Ida Maeve. We found out we were pregnant in Ireland, so we had to give her a proper Irish name.

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How did you and Allison originally meet and start playing together?
We had mutual friends. I was living in San Francisco, and she was part of a band called Po’Girl, an offshoot of a very successful indie-folk band called The Be Good Tanyas, from Vancouver. There was a back-and-forth music scene between Vancouver and San Francisco at the time, and a member of The Be Good Tanyas was telling me about Allie. I ended up singing with her at a late-night music conference, and a bell just went off. It took some years after that for us to form Birds of Chicago, but we made excuses to work together until we finally got wise and stopped fighting the energy that was there. We officially formed Birds of Chicago in 2012, and we did everything fast: got a band together, went on the road, had a baby, got married.

It was this very absurd, classic situation of two musicians falling in love and thinking we were being really slick about not letting anyone else know. We did that for a minute, and to be honest, we were feeling this really great musical connection and getting into a relationship really freaked us out. Amongst musicians, it’s generally understood that a true musical partnership is even rarer than a romantic one, so we were both afraid of screwing that up. But after a while, we realized it was taking more energy to push against it than to just accept what it was.

What do you feel are the traits of a great singer?
Allie is a fascinating person. She was in a rough foster-care situation and had an abusive stepfather, and ended up running away from home when she was 15. When she was 17, she moved with her uncle to Vancouver, and that’s where she started her music career. Part of being an artist is finding joy, bringing out meaning in those dark moments. When you go through really hard things like that, you’d be quite justified in becoming a vindictive person. But you can choose joy and see the good in people—that’s Allie; you can hear it in her singing. There’s a difference between easy joy and joy that’s hard-won. With great singers, you hear that choice being made. You can feel the sun and the shadows in equal measure.

All images courtesy of Birds of Chicago.

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