Interview: Umbrellabirds

Umbrellabirds

You are from different parts of the world, Chicago and London. How did Umbrellabirds come into being?
Sam: Lewis and I met when we were both doing postgraduate degrees at Oxford. We met in the Wolfson College bar and got to be friends, which then led to talking about how we were both writers and had played in bands.

Lewis: We really hit it off talking about music – Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed, Fleetwood Mac – we just had a lot in common, like we had the exact same musical lexicon. We were both independently writing songs while living in Oxford, and we thought it would be fun to share some demos with each other. I had this little folk song called Georgetown – I recorded a rough demo of it in my bedroom and sent it to Sam via email, and half an hour later she emailed it back to me with this beautiful harmony laid on top. I thought it was spellbinding. We sent it to Alex, who I knew from a previous band – he was in California at the time, I think, listened to it on a bus, and loved it. That was 2013. And that was the genesis of the band, really. That song – Georgetown – eventually ended up on our debut album.

Congratulations on the release of Closing Ceremony, your second album. How do you feel about it?
Sam: Thank you. I think this record, for me at least, has really solidified our status as a band – as a team. We were all living in the UK while making our first record, so could regularly meet up and work on it together, but the entirety of Closing Ceremony was recorded after I’d moved to Chicago, so we had to be really thoughtful about when and how we were going to record. It took a long time, and I think that speaks to how meaningful this collaboration is to all of us. I think the result is really special.

Alex: I feel delighted and relieved! We agreed from the outset to venture into new sonic territory versus the first album, but that decision brought its own logistical and aesthetic challenges. The songs are so intensely personal I felt a fair bit of pressure to get the production right – to expand on the raw material without sacrificing its integrity. I was quite lost for a while but Sam and Lewis were extremely patient and let me iterate my way towards the final sonics. There are always so many variables you can never be sure, but I hope the final result does these beautiful songs justice.

Lewis: We are really proud of Closing Ceremony – I think it is a real step forward for the band. Speaking for myself, the album encapsulates a particular moment in my life. It’s a sombre and dark chapter, for sure, but also weirdly uplifting. There’s a light amidst the gloom. Listening to the album in full has a cathartic effect on me. And we are truly humbled by the reception it’s had. The pinnacle was getting played by Tom Robinson on BBC 6 Music several times in November and December. Tom is a legendary supporter of independent music, and BBC Introducing and Tom’s Fresh On The Net were pivotal for us in reaching a wider audience. It’s a really wonderful initiative.

What are your favourite songs from it?
Alex: When I listened to the album through recently, it was I Remember The Rain. It packed such an emotional punch despite its delicacy and apparent waltz-like innocence. But on the next listen I could easily have a different favourite – all the songs have something beautiful and significant about them, while the range of moods and textures helps keep each one of them fresh. 

Sam: It’s the title track for me. I remember when Lewis sent me the demo I was basically knocked off my chair. I started working on the harmony arrangements immediately. The gothic atmosphere is a perfect way to end the record, it’s like a traditional lullaby in that it’s beautiful and calming but there’s an unsettling quality to the lyrics that belies the comfort of the music. Leaves you wondering what happens next.

Lewis: When Sam first sent me the demo of I Am All, the opening track on the album, I thought, this is timeless – like Joni Mitchell could’ve written this back in 1972 or something. To me, it is a beautiful and perfectly-formed song. And Sam’s vocal speaks for itself – it gives me chills. It’s also the track that Tom Robinson picked up to play on his BBC 6 Music show.

What was the easiest part and challenging part of the writing process?
Lewis: A lot of songs on the album concern grief, which isn’t the easiest thing to write about. Take I Remember The Rain, for example – that song essentially recounts the experience of attending the funeral of a close family member. But when you are going through something as all-consuming as that, it really is the only thing you can write about. Not exactly breezy, but absolutely necessary. And it is one of the canonical genres of musical history – the requiem. So, I see it fitting into that tradition.

Sam: Writing new songs is the most difficult part of the process for me. It’s such a deeply personal process, sharing these small things you’ve created and opening yourself up for critique and interpretation. I’ll sit with ideas for years before I think they’re ‘done’ enough to share with anyone. If Lewis sends me a new song and wants harmonies or a melody idea I find that much easier to approach – a sort of editorial role rather than being responsible for the actual genesis of the idea. I’ve become much more comfortable sharing things that are still in draft form now, but it’s taken some time to get there.

Alex: I’m the lucky one in that I don’t have to start with a blank piece of paper. So the easiest part for me is definitely waiting for the songs to be written! But what then? That’s the hard (but fun) bit: working out how to create a coherent sound-world within which each song has its own identity, and the various atmospheres evoked by the lyrics are amplified rather than obscured. Oh, and deciding on the track order was bizarrely difficult too. That was eventually solved in Excel…

The album was recorded over long distance requiring traveling. What’s your favourite story from the sessions?
Sam: The Closing Ceremony recording sessions were always tacked on to work travel, for which I’m really grateful as we wouldn’t have been able to do this, otherwise. I think my favorite moment from recording Closing Ceremony was working out the end of Polygraph – we’d been going round in circles for a while trying to figure out how to work that one out, and it finally came down to an evening of drinking wine in the studio at Alex’s house and being able to improvise together until we hit on something that felt right. Being long-distance really makes you appreciate the moments you’re able to really compose together.

Alex: I 100% agree with that. My favourite memory is very similar – another late-night session where the arrangement of Rhododendrons started to take shape. Lewis is accompanying his lead vocal on acoustic guitar, I’m figuring out a bass part and then Sam comes in with this perfect harmony line. I’ve still got the recording on my phone and pretty much every element from this jam made it onto the finished track. That was one of those rare occasions we worked really fast and the musical ‘dough’ came together effortlessly.

Lewis: The title track, Closing Ceremony, was difficult to get right. We had recorded this lovely, intimate demo back in 2017, which we were all very close to, but it was challenging to recreate that mood in the studio. We recorded one version in full, but it just wasn’t hitting the same visceral note. We were in a quandary. I remember one evening, Sam’s husband Thomas was in the studio – we played it to him, and he gave us a really helpful outsider’s perspective. He pointed out the things that were so special about the original demo, yet which were missing in the studio version. So, we drank some red wine, changed the key, then recorded the entire song again – and we were able to hit that dark, sombre, intimate mood that we captured in the demo.

COVID-19 has had a serious impact on the creative world at large. How have you kept yourselves motivated?
Sam: I’ll be honest, it hasn’t been easy for me. Like many people, I’ve found working from home very quickly became more like living at work, which has deeply affected my ability to quiet my mind and be creative. There’s a lot of anger there too – COVID has ultimately shown us that a lot of people simply aren’t willing to make changes to their lifestyles to protect others – and I’ve found it hard to channel that anger into art. I’ve been revisiting some classical repertoire instead, and it’s been nice to stretch those muscles again and challenge myself. Hindemith’s Das Marienleben has been a particular joy to revisit.

Lewis: Much like Sam says, it has been difficult keeping any separation between work life and home life. Writing music occupies a strange interstitial space between the two – it is something deeply personal which often starts in the bedroom, but also requires a lot of time, energy, and labour. So it has been challenging to maintain the requisite sacred space for music, while the other two (work and home) are jostling for position all the time. But I also find writing songs to be a meditative process – so, in that sense, it has been a therapeutic antidote to the stress and anxiety that the pandemic has brought into our worlds.

Alex: My main musical goal of 2020 was to improve my piano playing. So the pressure of a fortnightly Zoom lesson with an actual concert pianist was a strong motivating factor!

You’re currently working on your third album, how’s it going?
Lewis: It’s going well, though it is still in a nascent state. We are currently writing songs – it has been fun to play with new ideas, concepts, and sounds. It is taking on a sort of mythological character, so far. Like an amorphous monster beginning to emerge from the primeval swamp, covered in seaweed.

Sam: I’ve been starting from different places in an attempt to take the third record somewhere new and interesting. I wrote the string arrangement for Lou, from our first record, and have been playing around with writing for quartet to get back in that compositional headspace, rather than finding a melody first and writing an accompaniment, so to speak.

Alex: There are already some super-promising songs lined up, and I can sense another evolution in our sound around the corner. 

Recording remotely has its challenges. What software are you using to keep things together?
Alex: I should clarify: we do absolutely no recording remotely, at least as far as the final tracks are concerned. Of course, we are sharing ideas, demos, snippets back and forth across the usual platforms, but ultimately the performances are captured in the same conventional Cubase-powered studio.

Lewis: Even when we are not in the same place, we are constantly, incessantly communicating – via group chats, video calls, audio notes, emails. We send a lot of demos to and fro. In a way, the pandemic has rendered the intercontinental geography of the band obsolete – we could all be in the same neighbourhood of London and still not see each other… 

Sam: Voice memos are standard for sharing demos, just to get ideas out there. The last thing I sent was a voice memo of myself singing a scratch melody over a midi string part. It’s not always pretty, but I think it’s a really effective way to make sure the bones are there for a song. You can’t hide behind production in a voice memo.

What artists are getting you excited at the moment?
Sam: My favorite album of 2020 is Hannah, by Lomelda. I didn’t even hear it until December, but it stopped me in my tracks, it’s brilliant. Other 2020 standouts are Mary Lattimore’s Silver Ladders, Saint Cloud by Waxahatchee, and Moses Sumney’s græ. 

Alex: Milk Carton Kids, for the proper Simon & Garfunkel-style vocals. Laura Marling, for still managing to be unique without remaining static. Vampire Weekend, for the unbelievable production depth of Father Of The Bride. The late Jóhann Jóhannsson, for the textures.

Lewis: I’ve been on a deep PJ Harvey kick lately. She is such a remarkable songwriter and musician, it’s like she inhabits a different universe entirely. The back-to-back mid-90s albums Rid Of Me and To Bring You My Love are just staggering. In terms of more recent stuff, I recently discovered The Lemon Twigs – they are two brothers from Long Island who make weird ‘70s rock in their bedroom. Kinda reminiscent of Cheap Trick or Big Star, with some Stones sleaze thrown in. Check out their recent single The One. As a band, we are huge fans of Big Thief / Adrianne Lenker – they are so prolific, and continue to amaze us.

Your track “I Am All” caused one of our reviewers to get emotional. Your tracks have goosebump moments. What’s one song that has been that for you in your repertoire?
Lewis: The song from our recent album that really takes me to those emotional depths is Sobriquet – something about the combination of the intimate but nuanced lyrics, Sam’s vocal performance, and Alex’s elegiac piano. From the first album, it’s probably Nature Documentary – that’s a pretty moody song, musically and lyrically, and Alex’s string arrangement really stirs up some feelings.

Sam: Sobriquet is pretty hard to listen to, just because of the subject matter I was writing about, but oddly enough The Second Time I Left the Levant (from the first album) hits me hardest, even for a song that on its surface seems quite upbeat. It makes me homesick.

Alex: I guess I already mentioned I Remember The Rain earlier. So I’ll nominate one from the first album: The Book Of The Dead. It’s so intimate and timeless, it’s in no hurry to unfold, and has the most perfect filigree guitar playing. A magical song that takes me right back to the emotional thrill ride of making that first record.

Creativity can hit a brick wall… What do you do to break the deadlock?
Sam: I’ll let you know when I’ve figured it out!

Lewis: My approach to songwriting is just to do it all the time. Ask Sam and Alex – I write far too many songs, it is probably maddening. But if I hit a brick wall, I just write a song about the brick wall. And then bin it, and write another.

Alex: I have to take my mind off the problem and get it doing something else. It could be reading, watching a film, playing other music… Staring at the problem head on is counter-productive; I have to catch an idea out of the corner of my eye.

What are you looking forward to doing next?
Lewis: Continuing to work on our third album – writing, recording demos, concocting ideas, and exploring new sounds. This stage of the process – experimenting with ideas and concepts – is probably the most freeing and wild. Then, we need to start sculpting. We will probably start to record properly towards the end of 2021. We are excited about how this one is going to turn out!

Sam: Easy: being in the same room again.

Alex: All of the above!

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Umbrellabirds - Closing Ceremony album artwork

Del Osei-Owusu

Del is a songwriter, producer, keyboard player arranger and musical nerd from South London, Del comes from a gospel music background but listens to anything, everything and nothing. Read More

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