In today’s time, we know that true Americana is far from dead and gone, in large part because of the many incredible artists and bands not only keeping it alive, but also pushing it to continually new, beautiful heights with musical and artistic innovation.
The Stray Birds, from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, are one of those bands. Founded in 2012 with a self-titled album, the Stray Birds truly burst onto the scene, making numerous top folk and Americana lists and getting invited early on to festivals like MerleFest, GreyFox and even the Cambridge Folk festival (amidst one of two European tours).
Their latest album, Magic Fire, is some of their nicest work yet, showing even further growth in artistic maturity, as the band impressively masters a spread of new sounds and styles from country to indie folk to gospel.
But with a magnificently rich sound, immaculate chops on a bevy of instruments, and most of all their unmatchable harmonies, on stage is where The Stray Birds truly shine.
On Thursday they rocked the walls of Northampton, Massachussetts’ Iron Horse Music Hall, to the delight of the absolute mob of fans that filled into every corner of the music bar. Folk singer Anthony da Costa, a Stray Birds friend and music collaborator, opened the show with his own heartfelt set and then lent some cool electric guitar buzz to a couple of the Birds’ newer tunes, like “Third Day in a Row” and “When I Die.”
Stray Birds member Maya de Vitry took some Q&A time with Miles Hurley of The Poke Around, talking about the group’s new record, the places her band has been, and what sort of musical challenges they’re hoping to tackle next.
So your new album. It’s definitely new from your previous work…but can I start by asking about the title, ‘Magic Fire’, and the meaning behind that?
Sure! Well, we got the title because I was hanging out with Oliver and his dad. After we made the record we were back in Pennsylvania in our kitchen. My ears were open to any words that we could possibly use for a title. We were making nachos, and his dad made some comment like, “All you have to do to make these nachos is wave the magic fire stick!” And we listened to the rough mixes of everything that night, at like 3 in the morning, and we just had those words, “Magic Fire,” in our minds as we listened to everything. And we started to connect fire to all of the songs in different ways. To the sun, to actual fire, to chemistry between people…and the artwork was inspired by the idea of holding something so powerful in your hands…and I had made the album cover as well, that’s a linoleum carving that I printed and then painted.
Wow, well it is an amazing album cover, for sure. The burning question I have, though, is how working with Larry Campbell (as a producer and collaborator) came about? And what that process was like?
Well, at least for me, I can trace what inspired me to work with Larry back to…it must have been 2011, when I went to see Levon Helm playing a Ramble at his barn in Woodstock, New York.
Larry Campbell was the musical director for those nights and I went twice…and Larry was such a leader of that group without being showy. You know, he’d give the spotlight to different people. And it was just kind of like, a seamless musical presentation, and all the songs just felt so powerful. However they were arranged, whatever instruments they were using…whatever was happening, it was always powerful, and I was just really emotionally affected by those concerts.
A couple of years later, The Stray Birds were opening for Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams, and it was the first chance we had to be close by him…And when we were looking for a producer to help us start to bridge the gap between the acoustic, string band world and working with other sounds like percussion and keys, I think Oliver suggested working with Larry, and it was a pretty obvious choice to us because of his attention to the feel of the music. And it really worked out. But I remember driving up there, and it just didn’t feel real. I was like, “Okay, we’re pulling into this studio and I think Larry Campbell is going to be there…and I think we’re gonna make a record.” It was all really surreal.
He just elevated everyone’s spirit so much, and elevated everybody’s musical performances so much. He was a really wonderful presence to have in the studio.
Well that’s awesome then, wow. I also have to ask about Marco Benevento, I know I’ve seen him credited on some other folk album from that area, and he’s on yours. How did that happen? He’s a big musical figure for me.
(Laughter) Well, he’s kind of like a myth to us, because we never even met him. He lived down the road from where we recorded, and after we made most of the record, after we had the vocals and most of the instruments, we were thinking of putting some organ and some keys on it, and Marco did some of that work, and Kai Welch did some of it from Nashville…So I don’t have any good stories about Marco, he’s a mystery to me. I love how it all turned out, all the keys and stuff is so new to have for us on our songs. But we just kind of trusted Larry on that one. They met up with Marco one day, and put that together.
Okay, well that’s pretty cool, and good that you liked how it came out. So I was reading that this new album was the first time that you guys really collaborated writing-wise on most of the material? Can you tell me about that?
Yeah, it’s been kind of another stepping stone for us, in the direction of really being a collaborative band, from the beginning of a song to the performance. In times before, I had a completed song, or Oliver had a completed song, and while the band would arrange it, the lyrics and the chords, and the melodies were all pretty non-negotiable at that point. There’s the song, and then the band would just figure out how to perform it.
For this record, there were a few songs that were our first try at unlocking what we could do if we worked together on something. Like “Sabrina” is something that we wrote the lyrics to totally collaboratively. We sat down at a table in Nashville and had a common inspiration, because that song is about Sabrina and Christina, two characters in our lives that we all know…and there’s some more co-writing between Oliver and I, and Charlie’s also got a song that he wrote for the first time on a Stray Birds record, “Where You Come From.”
What I would like to see is this band, is for us to be more and more of…you don’t know who’s going to sing lead next, because it could be anyone of us at any time. I think it can move in the direction of being more a surprise of who’s singing lead. You know, I’d like to sing lyrics that I didn’t write, or Charlie to sing lyrics that I came up with. So this album is like a stepping stone in that direction, I think.
I really, really like stuff like Lennon and McCartney, people who work so close together that it’s kind of indistinguishable as to what their contributions have been in a certain space. And I think it really takes awhile to get to that place. For us, we’re still not completely there, it’d be nice to…well we’ve got a lot of nice ideas about the next record (laughter). We’re always thinking about the next record.
But Magic Fire was a big stepping stone for a lot of things, like incorporating instruments, working with a producer, arranging songs with percussion and drums. And now we’re touring with a drummer, which is really exciting, and which is giving us a lot of inspiration on stage, and a heightened awareness, musically and rhythmically, of what we could do as a band.
So it’s definitely our most collaborative record, but I doubt it’s going to be the most collaborative record in this band, because we’ve still got more collaborations that we could do than ever before.
Cool news to hear. I imagine songwriting to so often be such a personal thing, and that there must be a sense of trust, and a sense of time, as you said, needed to let someone into that space and collaborate on art that you’ve personally made.
Yeah, it’d be cool to get to the point where we’re like “That’s a Stray Birds song.” When I think about people covering our music already…I think they don’t dig into it too deeply to find something like, “this was co-written by Maya and Oliver, or this is a Maya de Vitry song…” That’s never what this band has ever been about, and that’s what I want to really feel, like our songs are Stray Birds songs. That’s what I’m excited to try and do.
Well Magic Fire has so many different sounds, in the sense of all the different genres of Americana you reach throughout the songs…but do you feel like you are closer to honing in on a Stray Birds sound as well?
I think the sound of the Stray Birds is our voices singing together. And that’s really the only common part, as far as…even those songs are in different settings, and if we worked with a different producer, we might find slightly different tones, and attitudes…
But I think just that sound of the three of us singing together, like at the beginning of “When I Die,” singing a cappella and there’s no instruments at all. That, to me, is the unmistakable quality of the band. And from there, it’s all just the groove, and the instruments we decided to use.
Well, let me say I’ve seen you guys only once so far, last year at Grey Fox Music Festival…
Oh, nice! We were talking about that today, we always think of Grey Fox when we’re in upstate New York.
Neat, that’s a festival I’ve been going to for at least fifteen years now.
No way man, we probably crossed paths, at like the Grillbillies site or something (laughter). Charlie and I went there when we were in high school, camping there with some friends from Lancaster. And Oliver’s been there playing with a couple of different bands. Yeah, that’s a really beloved festival to us.
It’s a special place, for sure. There are a number of performances from Grey Fox, across the years, that have been impactful and that still resonate, and your set last year at the Creekside Stage was one of them. That was a special set.
Well, that means a lot. I know the kind of feeling, when you know you’re at the right place at the right time, when the energy is just right…we felt that way too, that set.
So you guys relocated to Nashville recently? But then you recorded your album in New York…do you have multiple places you call home?
(Laughter) We haven’t thought too hard about any of those towns, and what they mean for our music…We’re from Pennsylvania, that’s always home, that’s where our parents and siblings live. And Oliver moved to Nashville, and then I moved to Nashville, and our drummer Dominic Billett, who is a different drummer than Shane, the drummer on the record, he also lives in Nashville. And Charlie lives in Philadelphia…
But of course we recorded in New York because that’s where Larry was comfortable…and it was nice because we were so isolated from everything else, it was nice to make a record in the woods! (laughter) One of my friends is making a record right now in Nashville, and there’s so much construction downtown there, that they actually can’t start the session until 5pm everyday, the street noise is so bad! And this is in a really legit studio! We didn’t have to deal with any of that in Myland, New York.
But it would be fun, I would love to make a record in Nashville. I live there, and I know the kind of inspiration I feel when I’m there, as far as writing with people. I reach out to my friends, and try to get together to write with people a lot, when I’m home. I think Nashville when Guy and Susanna Clark and Townes Van Zandt were hanging out there, but it’s still got this buzz when you’re there. And people gather there, you can’t deny that. So that’s definitely high on my list for where I want to record, in the future.
Interview and photos by Miles Hurley