Birdsong At Morning knows the rules, then breaks them
If you’re a music fan worth his or her salt, the idea of a band releasing a four CD boxset as their debut isn’t just admirable; it’s one that deserves a shout or two — or ten — from the rooftops.
“We thought, ‘This is really nuts,’” said Alan Williams, frontman for Lowell, Massachusetts’ Birdsong At Morning. “But why not do something nuts?”
Why not indeed, and thankfully, that 2011 release, Annals of My Glass House, wasn’t a collection of a few quality songs and a bunch of filler. Instead, it was a set of tightly constructed tunes backed up by stellar musicianship and melodies.
“Once I started writing songs, I had 10–15 years of pent-up stuff (between his previous project, Knots and Crosses, and Birdsong at Morning), so I ended up writing a lot of songs, and it just felt like I’d rather put this thing out and let it stand for that moment in time,” Williams said. “It is, in my mind, meant to be thought of as a single piece. And then I can let that go because I really didn’t want to hold on to songs for four or five years. It was a bit of a data dump in some ways.”
It was a risky move by Williams, but if music isn’t risky, it’s boring. So that makes the punch line even better, as Williams’ day job is as an Associate Professor of Music at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. So someone in a job that many would assume is very rigid and by the books is actually more of a rebel than his peers. Yet, as he explains, this isn’t a case of “do what I say, not what I do.”
“I think what we probably say here is, ‘Don’t necessarily do what anybody does,’” he said. “So breaking some rules is actually part of our educational outreach here. It would be, ‘Maybe this was how it was done in the past, there are reasons for why it worked, and reasons for why aspects of it didn’t work. What can you do as a student to do something different that will work better?’ So in some ways, my project is an example of trying some alternative paths.”
Williams and company (guitarist Darleen Wilson and bassist Greg Porter, along with several contributors) have kept it relatively pithy on their latest release, A Slight Departure, as it’s only one CD (or a CD / Blu-ray combo). The songwriting quality is as strong as ever though, and it remains not just a vehicle for Williams’ art, but a teaching lesson as well. Not many professors can claim that kind of practical knowledge and experience.
“I think a lot of music educators may have at some point in their lives had that part of their world that was out there, but it is true in academia that eventually you become focused on the teaching, so you don’t end up maintaining what you had done in the past as a performer or writer,” Williams said. “I think it is a little unique for someone in my place to be doing it simultaneously, and that is really encouraging to students. I feel some measure of respect, or they’ll take what I say somewhat seriously because they at least feel that I might know what I’m talking about because I’m out there trying it and doing it. And on another level, it makes it easier to relate to the challenges that they’re facing.”
As for Williams’ own challenges, some of popular music’s best moments have been born from happy accidents. Yet knowing the rules means that the tendency is subconsciously there to fix those accidents. He’s faced those issues, but he’s getting better with letting everything go in its natural direction.
“That temptation is always there, and the more experience you have with things, the harder it is to be open to something unexpected,” he said. “Back when I was a kid, I was a piano player, and all through my undergraduate days in college, I played keyboards. Now I play guitar, and I play it in altered tunings, so that’s really helpful to me because I’ll set up a tuning and I’ll let my fingers find sounds that sound good to my ear. I don’t immediately know what I’m doing, so instead of being formulaic, I don’t know. I let my fingers tell me, and that’s led to some interesting things. It’s a difference of being able to analyze after the fact rather than letting that prescribe what you’re supposed to do. I think that’s where things get stale.
“I also tend to think like a producer, so as I’m writing the songs, the whole sonic spectrum and final mix is kind of in my head pretty early on, and that can be difficult for musicians that I want to work with,” Williams continues. “I’ve been learning to not finish the full arrangement in my head quite so much and to be more open to what somebody throws in and even make some significant changes based on somebody’s feedback.”
See, even professors can still learn things. That’s good news for Alan Williams’ students, and for all of us hearing Birdsong At Morning.
“What I teach in music is not the mechanics of it,” he said. “It’s not the ‘What is this?’ It’s more ‘Why is this?’ And it doesn’t kill the music, it actually makes it richer.”