Phil Moore and Beth Tacular, the couple at the heart of Bowerbirds, journeyed through intense personal hardships—breakups, breakdowns, brushes with death—and returned with The Clearing (out now on Dead Oceans), their most rhythmically and lyrically complex creation yet. Combining elements of dissonance and darkness with moments of remarkable beauty and wisdom, this 11-song LP is an emotionally and visually evocative sonic cinema from start to finish. Cymbal splashes and rolling layers of clicks-and-claps paint coastal landscapes in "Stitch the Hem," while the varied timbre and rhythmic shifts of "Hush" move erratically and intuitively, like the black-winged flock of birds that dive through the chorus. The stormy tensions that build into frenzied bass clarinet screeches in "Death Wish" flow seamlessly into the tranquil brilliance of the concluding track, "Now We Hurry On," closing the album with nearly two minutes of weightless, sparkling tones. These ethereal flickers are like a final meditation, offering the listener a moment of reflection on each brilliant particle as the album disappears into the atmosphere above.
BUST recently sat down with Beth Tacular to discuss the making of The Clearing, the excitement (and anxiety) of experimentation, and the evolution of Bowerbirds.
Kristina Ensminger: Tell me a little bit about the chronology of events that occurred between Upper Air and The Clearing.
Beth Tacular: While we were recording Upper Air there was a period of about five straight months of me, Phil, and Mark [Paulson] together, with no privacy for me and Phil. There was a lot of really hard work and no alone time, so we started fighting and broke up on that tour. And then we were trapped in Europe on tour after breaking up, which was rough, but having the album and touring was part of what brought us back together. If we hadn’t been involved professionally we might have just gone our separate ways. So the music was what broke us up, but it was also what brought us back together.
KE: Then you ended up in the hospital, right?
BT: I was supposed to go to Brazil with my brother so I got some vaccination shots, and the next day I got really sick. I ended up in the hospital and the doctors were pretty scared because I was having organ failure and they didn’t know what was wrong with me. Phil and I had decided to get back together and work on our relationship, but we still had a lot of lingering anger and frustration. When I got sick it was a turning point for us; we decided to let go of the past and focus on how we love each other and our dreams to create music together and have our homestead out in the country. An experience like that gives you a new perspective and a different attitude.
KE: This was also the same period of time when you found your dog?
BT: Yeah, right before I got sick we were out on our land working on the cabin and writing the album. I was going to the hardware store to get supplies and I ran over the neighbors’ dog, Spice. We kept her and nursed her back to health and now she’s ours. Our other dog can be a little anxious, but Spice is always happy and she was a huge influence on us while we were writing the album; she inspired us to be more positive.
KE: You had a lot more time to write and record this album—how did that affect the overall process?
BT: The process was definitely a roller coaster. It was great to have so much time, but it definitely made it harder in a lot of ways; by the end things were pretty confusing. There would be these "Yes!" moments where the recording came out and it was exactly what we were trying to do, but there were definitely times where we wondered if what we were doing was working. We were also a lot more involved with the production of The Clearing. And it was more experimental, which was kind of scary. We knew we loved it, but we had no idea whether other people would.
KE: What inspired you to experiment so heavily with other instruments and the overall sound?
BT: [While we were writing the album] it felt like we were living in a movie—everything felt really intense. We were watching a lot of movies at the time and we wanted the record to be more epic and dynamic. We were trying to create a sound that was reflective of our life experience.
KE: There is a lot less accordion on this album. Were you focusing more on vocals and other instruments during the writing/recording process?
BT: I love the sound of the accordion. It’s really warm and you get to play it on your chest and it resonates right into your body. But I think sonically the timbre of it wasn’t right for a lot of the songs because we wanted more of a percussive, clanky tone. There are a lot of "ooos"on the album—a ridiculous amount, there could be a drinking game based on it—and a lot of those "ooos" started out with me trying to write an accordion part, but ended up as strings or vocals.
KE: This was your first time singing lead vocals (on "Hush" and "In the Yard"). How did you feel about it—were you apprehensive or excited?
BT: I was really nervous, actually. When we started the band I wasn’t a singer, so the idea of singing at all was really terrifying back then. Now I’m used to it, but it’s going to be a little scary to be the one taking the lead onstage. But I’ve played "In the Yard" a few times live now and it was actually really fun. It’s a totally different experience being the one who has to lead the song and keep it going though.
KE: You wrote the music and the lyrics for "Hush"—what went into that songwriting process?
BT: When I first wrote it, "Hush" sounded more like electronic Beach House or something so Phil helped turn it into something that sounded like a Bowerbirds song. We ended up adding some percussion and some elements that had more of an African influence…although I’m not sure that makes it sound like a Bowerbirds song either [laughs].
KE: You’re touring with a much larger band for this record; who are the new additions?
BT: We have Mark back; he was one of our original members, and he’s been playing music with Phil since they were 11 so they have really great chemistry. And he can sing and play bass, guitar, violin, keyboards, drums, and percussion—he’s amazing. Yan [Westerlund], the drummer we’ve had for the last couple years, is touring with us and also plays on the album. And Leah Gibson, who plays cello, but can also sing and play keys and bass. We knew we needed five people to tour this album, there’s no other way to make it work, and we were really excited to be in a position to make it happen.
KE: So what’s the next step—what are you most looking forward to?
BT: I think we’re the most excited about the tour. It’s going to be really great to hear how this record translates on stage, and to hear how the old songs sound with this new setup. We definitely have some ideas for new songs, but we’re trying to focus on this record for now and not do too many things at once. Phil wrote a new song while we were mixing The Clearing that went in a totally different direction. I’m not sure if it’s something we can make into a Bowerbirds song—people might be too thrown off by how different it is. But that might be fun actually…to just keep mixing it up and confusing people.
Watch their latest video for "Tuck the Darkness In" below and catch Bowerbirds on the road this spring!
March 19 - Charlottesville, VA
March 21 - Washington, D.C.
March 22 - Philadelphia, PA
March 23 - New York, NY
March 24 - Boston, MA
March 26 - Montreal, QC
March 27 - Toronto, ON
March 29 - Chicago, IL
March 30 - Iowa City, IA
March 31 - Minneapolis, MN
April 3 - Seattle, WA
April 4 - Portland, OR
April 6 - San Francisco, CA
April 7 - Los Angeles, CA
April 8 - San Diego, CA
April 11 - Austin, TX
April 12 - Dallas, TX
April 14 - Birmingham, AL
April 15 - Atlanta, GA