The Barn Birds are all about the music. The sound of the music. The feel of the music. Jonathan Byrd and Chris Kokesh may live on opposite sides of the United States but their musical sensibilities reside dead center. This self-titled CD offers a dabbing of various kinds of music—all impeccably played and sung by The Barn Birds. The recording was lovingly recorded. There’s a ton of heart and soul found in each and every track.
For more information about The Barn Birds, check out their website.
Here’s a video of a lovely song called “Hazel Eyes.”
Chris Kokesh was nice enough to answer some questions below despite a very full schedule.
Your self-titled CD is quite remarkable. It sounds like the two of you have been singing and playing together for years. Tell us how The Barn Birds came about.
Jonathan and I met in 2007 at the Americana Song Academy that happens right before the Sisters Folk Festival in Central Oregon. Jonathan was there as a teacher and to play the festival. Around the campfire one night he saw I had a fiddle and asked me to play a tune. The next day we started playing Jonathan’s songs one after another. His music just felt familiar to me; it’s got traditional roots along with some very subtle dynamics that help give the songs their emotional impact.
He asked me to play with him at the festival, and that went well, so then when he came back to the Northwest each spring to tour, we would join forces. I love accompanying his songs, and I also love it when he adds harmonies and lead guitar to my songs. I am not sure if people know what a fine accompanist Jonathan is.
It was especially fun to play songs together that Jonathan had written as duets, such as “Fifth Wheel” and “The Young Slaver.” He started looking back and found a bunch of love songs, mostly co-writes, that he had never recorded, and we started hatching the idea of making an album together.
Is it true that the CD was actually recorded twice? Once in Oregon and once in Texas?
We recorded first in Oregon in a barn with two mics. We were happy with the performances, but could not mix it the way we wanted since we were both singing into the same mic. Also, as we recorded, we were interrupted occasionally by the birds that lived in the barn (hence our duo’s name) and by a rain storm one day. So we decided to record the album again, this time in Texas at the amazing Blue Rock Studio. We reserved the studio for one day (10 hours), but finished in eight and a half. It was a very focused (and magical) day!
There are two Byrd / Kokesh co-writes on the album. Your fiddle is featured prominently in both of them. These two songs “Desert Rose” and “Paint the Town Blue” both have that old-timey feel to them. Was that what you were after when you wrote them?
Those songs were ones that Jonathan had started, and we worked on together as we were touring. I think the old-timey feel of them is part of what drew me to them. We have both played a lot of bluegrass music, and these both have that string-band feel.
Another co-write, the one between Jonathan and Anthony da Costa, is a striking–more contemporary type song–but very effective. Your two voices mesh together so well on this tune and are so evocative. Did this song draw you in as a real possibility to add to the record when you first heard it?
One thing I really love about this song is the musical “edge” that it has. I am not sure what causes it, but I feel like the harmony has some dissonance, or at least is not straight-forward “pretty.”
“Close Enough To Touch” is about as far from the string-band songs as this record goes. I like that we can have such different types of songs, and yet they all still work (in my opinion) within our duo. I think what ties the album together is that we tried to serve each song the best that we could. We did not work to make the songs “go together” in any way, or blur the lines so that a contemporary song would fit with an old-timey song. That integrity makes it a very emotional and interesting record.
Has violin always been your instrument of choice? Did you start playing when you were young?
I started playing violin when I was almost 3 years old. I learned through the Suzuki program, and eventually played in orchestras and chamber groups through high school.
When did you discover that the fiddle was perfect for acoustic / folk music? Or did you always know this? (only mentioning this because many people learn only a classical repertoire and aren’t really aware that the violin is so versatile!)
I did not discover fiddle as a folk instrument until I had graduated from college. I was in Colorado working at a biology field station, and after work, folks would gather in their cabins to jam. I would sing along, but never thought of adding violin until someone put one in my hands. “You play fiddle, right? Why don’t you play along?” But I had absolutely no idea what to play! That is the struggle of many classical players. Luckily, that jam is what planted the seed, and when I moved to Portland, OR in the fall of 1996, I had it in the back of my mind that I might join a band. In 1997, four of us formed Misty River, an acoustic folk and bluegrass band. We learned a ton together, and that was really where I worked out what the fiddle’s role could be.
Was The Bard Birds a one-off or do you think you and Jonathan may want to make some more music together?
I have no idea! I hope that Jonathan and I will continue to play together because I really love his music. I guess we will have to see what happens.