About a month ago I accidentally came upon a record called Penny Arcade by Philadelphia folk siren Birdie Busch. Like any easily distracted, sonic-rabbit-hole tumbler, I clicked on a few songs and let them play in the background. I had seen her stuff before; she knew some cool Philly bands I liked but I hadn’t really checked her out in depth.
Again I let myself forget about her. A few days later I was intrigued by Birdie’s newer record Pattern of Saturn. The dreamy guitars and playful vocal mirroring were kind of sexy and they felt good. I took a chance, bought her two latest records. Let them play over and over. Shit, it was really good. Birdie’s atmospheric folk, which often aches with strains of country-blues, jumps out with a rockabilly swagger and blushes with whimsical pretty-girl-telling-you-a-secret lilt that’s all her own, and doesn’t really fit any category or genre.
And what is it? Sharp, sweet acoustic music that’s too loud for a living room and too smart for the charts. It’s weird and winding: she sings about magic, luck, the universe, the human heart speeding off on dangerous missions like Inspector Gadget. An intimate partnership with long time bandmates Todd Erk (liquid, dancing bass) and Ross Bellenoit (trippy and delicate lap-steel and guitar), has assured that her records are cohesive and remarkably mature, a dreamy Americana too warm to be made in this decade but too grounded and aware to be made anytime else.
Birdie Busch, also known as Emily, is smart, odd and sweet and likes to talk and not just about herself—she’ll talk about anything: how she snagged a prized new vinyl of theramin-virtuoso Clara Rockmore at a Philly thrift store the other day (she doesn’t own an iPod), her love of Haitian and Cuban parades and how she can’t play a “straight rhythm” on her guitar to save her life.
One of her fantasies, she says, almost giggling, is to suddenly take off and move to Arizona and live in a tiny bungalow under the stars. And make soundtracks for cool movies like Simon and Garfunkel did for The Graduate.
She’s kind of a late bloomer—though she majored in creative writing, Emily didn’t write songs, sing or play guitar until after she graduated college at 22. As a child one day, she quit violin because, as she said in a cheerful, girlish voice, “I would rather play kickball.”
Listening to her tunes, I instantly think of alt-country pioneers Gillian Welch, Wilco and Jenny Lewis with moody, rootsy string work reminiscent of John Fahey or Norman Blake. Asked what she is inspired by, she says Caribbean ska, do-wop and old school reggae. Despite releasing three wonderful discs now issued on the ever-tasteful Bar-None label (Hoboken, NJ) touring from east to west and packing shows locally thanks to great radio play from WXPN and other adoring stations, she still works weekly at a Philly restaurant to pay the rent and books all her shows herself.
But sometimes there’s a blessing in keeping things small. Coming out of what could be called a veritable roots-rock renaissance that has put Philadelphia back at the top of list of America’s music capitals, she joins other talented locals and partners in crime like Hoots and Hellmouth, Dr. Dog, Bloodfeathers and Amos Lee in creating a tight-knit community that seeks to make great music, inspire people and see what happens.
Preparing to journey down to DC for a show with her three-piece group, I caught up with Birdie to talk about ghost stories, existential lyrics, jamming to Young MC and how Miami is more than just tans and techno.
Splice Today: What’s the weirdest artist you’ve been compared to?
Birdie Busch: The weirdest comparisons are always much more image based, I think. I've gotten Jewel, which I guess has to do with the hair color. I've also gotten Taylor Swift, which was from a family member, which made it especially odd. I also got compared to Leon Redbone, which I totally embrace. Also, we played a show last year in Cali where a middle-aged man leaned over to a friend of mine and said it was like watching Jesus! I always appreciate the comparisons where people can step outside of gender and compare you to a male or vice/versa.
ST: Sounds like you came to music and songwriting a little later than most, working several other jobs along the way. What made the little lightbulb pop over your head?
BB: I have always loved music but yes, I didn't start really playing and making songs until adulthood. But I’ve always believed strongly in imagination, creative fancy, and love of life. I put as much faith in stories as anything else and melody and rhythm along with it seem like the most beautiful trifecta. I think that I was listening and listening, getting enraptured with those that believed in themselves so much and transmitted their own thing, that I felt it a natural progression for myself to reveal to the world what I was feeling. From there, I couldn't stop. I feel fortunate to have gone through some things first before deciding to sit down and make the music, ‘cause I needed time to distill them and take them in and end up with the best of my feelings on it all.
ST: Where do you see yourself and your music in 10 years? Seems like so many sweet sounding folkies have a little blip and then fade out … eventually going back to real jobs or getting louder and wading into the mainstream shark pool. Give me your best and worst case scenarios.
BB: I guess I've always believed in life in all its progressions that I haven't seen it ending. I have observed people, like Gil-Scott Heron, Odetta, Tom Waits, people who are always in tune with living. I think that it’s hard to make even a basic living now strictly playing, so maybe that's what you're referring to when you see these blips. Culture now does seem to be processed now much more in blips and it's hard for even great songwriters and musicians to sustain themselves enough to tour and record.
You see, I can't really sit and write about a worst-case scenario. You must be a believer in the music.
ST: What equipment do you use when writing? Same as when you perform live?
BB: At home I just need a guitar and a notebook. I play a 1958 hollow body natural wood finish Kay guitar. It's not a big wide hollow body like some Kays; it's skinny and has really great carvings. My amp is a 1960s Guild Thunder 1. It's got a reverb/tremolo pedal I love and was a Christmas gift.
ST: It seems like you have a deep affection for vintage rock, Americana, blues (or as the tune “Passwords” mentions, some sweet LPs from 1979)—which dead guys inspire you most?
BB: A while ago I started getting records from the year I was born, and my affinity for old music and vinyl records is a huge part of my life. I think that while I’m a contemporary person, I love the combination of record art with music and liner notes. It is a magical combination that can't be denied by the digital world (in my opinion)! I also love the recording techniques and the analog sound. I have a deep affection for musicians who were more about making music not maintaining a Twitter site.
I gotta whole bunch of dead guys/girls I love. Mississippi John Hurt, Louis Armstrong, Nina Simone, Nick Drake, Judee Sill. Again, folks that love life and encourage you to jump out and be yourself. Do you know that Nick Drake's music was described as "An awkward mix of folk and cocktail jazz" in a review back when he alive and recording? WTF?
ST: I’m continually impressed by the lilting, almost conversational guitar work in your last two records Penny Arcade and Pattern of Saturn. How does the collaboration with you and the talented Ross Bellenoit work? Seems like that cool call and response between you and the twang has become your “thing.”
BB: I’ve always appreciated musicianship where the character of that person was captured. Why do all of us love The Band? It's because of how unique each member was, which combined for a grand sound. I remember when I first got into a studio and the producer presented the possibility of using a click track to play along to. I tried it once and got so freaked out that I would sit and play along to this flimsy sounding percussive beat to maintain rhythm and that was the last of that. So my recordings have been built around that wandering sound. And Ross, by instinct and skill, understands my wandering and plays off and into melodies and not over them. Same with Todd, the bass player.
I don’t pretend to have as much technical skill as either of them but I spent a lot of time in the last few years listening to jazz. Mingus, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Cannonball Adderley's Country Preacher, tons of Afro-Cuban jazz and Cuban folk. I was in Miami and the university there has a huge vinyl record library. It's crazy, a record head's dream. So if you're ever headed to Miami, which people seem to think is all techno and tans, I could do a whole article about alternative activities to knock your socks off. Right around the same time I was also hearing John Prine and Townes Van Zandt for the first time. After listening to all that, you’re inspired to be yourself, right?
ST: Describe how you wanted to make Pattern of Saturn different than Penny Arcade. Or did you want a unified sound?
BB: I wanted Pattern of Saturn to have more of a continuous flow between songs, sonically and melodically. There are actually reoccurring melodies in a bunch of songs, but it's subtle, and we included some more instrumental meanderings. I have a friend who rekindled a flame under instrumental music for me, so I’ve been listening to a lot of that when I'm in my house having what she and I call "decompression sessions." I've gotten really into instrumental guitar workings, Fahey, James Blackshaw, Segovia. [Check out this pair of Segovia videos—ed]
Go Go Gadget Heart, from Penny Arcade
ST: You quietly yet persistently keep asking rather existential/moral questions in many of your lyrics—“Hometown Boredom” off Pattern of Saturn seems to nail it on the head for me—“Hometown boredom and a world of a wars / lifetime struggles and daily chores, what’s gonna help me figure out what this all is for? And then the main refrain: “ … we reap what we sow” casts a faintly ominous light, though your voice still sounds soft and sweet, as if to comfort us. Tracks off your previous record like “Mystical” also seem to be reaching out for the great beyond. Thoughts?
Hometown Boredom, from Pattern of Saturn
BB: Well, I don't know how people can’t be feeling these questions; maybe some are just shyer about talking about it. It's hard for me to avoid, not that I would want to, which I guess is why I do what I do. But you can really trip out on it sometimes. I'll be sitting at my desk, and I'll look at an old border on a postcard on the wall and think, "Hmm, someone just made that pattern to look nice, now it exists, all those shapes." And then I'll turn to the pencil holder and think, "Someone's whole life is wrapped around selling these pencil holders to people like me." I think the things I sing about in “Hometown Boredom” and “Mystical,” are all timeless feelings.
ST: Do you believe in ghosts?
BB: You know, I wouldn't have given this question much thought but a few years back, someone I was really close with and I were lying in separate beds in a room and heard a voice at the same time. We were both kind of terrified because we revealed it at the same time to each other; it was obvious we heard the same thing and the same words spoken from the voice. The next morning we woke and found out that his grandfather had passed away and it all made sense; the voice was his grandfather's deceased wife. I haven't had any experiences with a "haunting" but I think that if you form very close relationships with people and they die, they come to you in ways throughout time.
ST: What did you listen to as a kid? Any stuff that you hated then but grew on you later?
BB: I wouldn't call my parents music freaks. They’re conservative, but my dad is a huge Willie Nelson fan, which is kind of funny and awesome, so I listened to a lot of old Willie, and I think that I've always loved and been influenced by his laid back vocal style and pace. Neil Diamond's Hot August Night was one I didn't really dig so much but I've learned to appreciate the energy he put into his shows. Patsy Cline was a big one too.
ST: What’s next for you? Any plans to visit the West Coast? We have sun year round, you know. And good taco trucks.
BB: I love the west coast and am totally ruled by the sun (and tacos)! Can we get someone to sponsor me to truck around the west coast? Right now I'm bouncing between Philly, New York, and D.C. I have plans to play some shows in Virginia and North Carolina in April.