Typically, the sound of rain is soothing for Boulder singer-songwriter Marie-Juliette Bird. But the forceful rain falling outside Bird’s window in September 2013, brought her little comfort.
Bird and her band, Blackbird and The Storm, were scheduled later that day to mix their song “Black Crow” -- a hard-driving, dark track about natural disasters that features a crow as a harbinger of bad news.
Then came the flood sirens, which sounded frighteningly similar to the sirens she had planned to loop into the song.
“We could not mix the song because the studio was underwater,” Bird says. “It was this amazing converging of art and life.”
The title character in “Black Crow” is one of many birds the band drew inspiration from for its latest album, “The Water is Rising.” It’s an exploration into birdsong as the origin of all music. And the band will perform the bird-inspired tracks at Boulder’s Chautauqua Community House on Friday and at Swallow Hill in Denver on Saturday.
An orchestral backdrop pulled from nature
Yet, using birds as the impetus for musical compositions is not exactly an original idea.
Many famous composers throughout history -- such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Gustav Mahler -- turned to nature’s musicians for inspiration.
Bird felt a bit deflated after realizing she was not the first to tap into nature for her music. However, she believes her project is distinct.
“Being at a different point in history, in which technology is so much more advanced, there was a possibility to use recorded bird calls in a different way,” Bird says.
She and her band mates incorporated the bird calls into the songs as instruments rather than merely ambient sound.
Bird worked with sound archivist Gordon Hempton to collect high-quality bird and other natural sounds, such as lightning, rain and crickets, through a process called binaural recording. This involves a microphone system that resembles a human head to capture three-dimensional sound.
Once she had secured the raw recordings, Bird worked with band mate Todd Ayers to finesse the bird calls.
“Birdsong is beautiful when heard out in nature,” Bird says. “But when taken out of context and mixed with instruments, it gets very tricky because birds don’t adhere by our musical rules.”
Using audio software, Bird and Ayers had to tweak the key and rhythm of the bird calls -- and sometimes take out sounds that may be shrill to the human ear -- before mixing them with instruments and vocal tracks.
Inspired by avian folklore
Besides a crow, songs on the album feature a blackbird, a meadowlark and a loon, to name a few. Bird imbues her lyrics with the folklore of these various creatures. One piece of mythology that particularly stood out to her featured the morning dove.
The Greek myth is about an unhappy chamber maiden, who wishes to be released from her life and be reborn as a dove.
Bird modernizes the tale and makes it the essence of her song “Body of the Dove.”
She weaves in the bird’s haunting call with her own vocals, “Release me, release me.”
Collaboration with Audubon Society
The Colorado concerts are part of a national tour in collaboration with the Audubon Society, a countrywide organization devoted to preserving natural avian and wildlife ecosystems. A percentage of the proceeds from each concert will go to the corresponding city’s local Audubon chapter.
Watch more videos from Blackbird and The Storm's CPR Performance Studio session.