Several months ago, I was given a stack of music local to Portland, ME. It's easy to keep track of the musicians that comprise Maine's mini city scene, as many constantly play out, collaborate, and hang out at (or work at) the local shops. It struck me as strange when I stumbled upon Brown Bird amidst the other locals, having never seen or even heard of them playing any live shows in Portland since I had arrived a year ago. Interest piqued, I decided to put The Devil Dancing, the group's latest effort into my stereo first, and unfair as it may be for the other CD's in my stack, Brown Bird has seldom left that stereo since.
One listen to the group's poetic tales of sins and salvation makes it easy to tell why Portland would want to promote Brown Bird as a local entity. But realistically, the group is far from local in the traditional sense. Brown Bird creator and songwriter David Lamb has bounced around Seattle, Boston, and Portland (not to mention his country wide touring), before settling down (at least for now) in Rhode Island. Though two Brown Bird members, multi-instrumentalist Jeremy Robinson and cellist Jerusha Robinson, are Portland residents, Lamb's constant traveling and work ethic has lead Brown Bird to function as a clan of nomads.
These nomadic traits cater to Lamb's modern take on traditional Americana themes such as religion. One can feel a traveler's restlessness in Devil Dancing's narratives about a man whose sins weigh him down like a cross on his back. "Lord knows that everybody's got a cross to bear, and I see no use in trying to contrast and compare. There's always someone being slaughtered by a bigger stack of splinters somewhere," Lamb sings on "Danger and Dread." Lamb's imagery is often fictional, but the brilliance of great fiction is that it can be more telling than literal facts. By embodying fictional characters, Lamb is able to address his own thoughts from a creative perspective, offering autobiography by way of fiction.
"[The music is] all based in somewhere where I'm from," Lamb says. "My dad was a minister and a lot of those religious themes are very much based on being raised with the whole thought of heaven and hell, salvation and damnation, as a constant theme in your mind. Every day you're sort of wondering, are you on the right path and are you saved?" Though Lamb left his parents' church after high school, those questions still weigh heavy on his mind, and recur throughout Devil Dancing, often posed without a clear answer. "I really like songs that present an idea, that maybe you hadn't thought of in this particular way before, but it's not exactly telling you how to feel or how to think about it," Lamb says. "It's just presenting the idea and then you think about it on your own and come to your own conclusion."
This presentation of ideas is engaging in and of itself, as Lamb found success touring alone in support of The Bottom of the Sea, a solo effort recorded under the Brown Bird name. With just a guitar, a banjo and his thoughts, Lamb succeeds as a folk poet in his own right, but what sets Brown Bird apart from solo folk artists is the wealth of talent and diverse styles that the group's other four members bring to the studio and stage. Banjos, cellos, violins, lap steel, upright basses, foot stomps, hand claps and vocal harmonies bring depth and create an orchestral framework within which Lamb's country and folk narratives are all the more stunning. Though it's special when all five group members do get together, Jeremy and Jerusha Robinson are often back in Maine, performing their own songs with the group South China. It's unfortunate that Brown Bird can't always function as a quintet, but Lamb strives to compose his music with a strong core melody that will sound fully fleshed out even if he's playing a show with just MorganEve Swain, whose group duties include backing vocals, violin, viola, cello and ukelele. "Every once in a while we play shows that none of the other members can make, and I think it works out pretty well," Lamb said. "More recently, MorganEve and I have been working out some of the [song] structures, so a lot of times we focus on making a song where even if it were just the two of us, it would sound full enough, there would be enough there to really carry it."
Many artists toss a bunch of extra instruments and styles into their songs to try and distinguish themselves from the pack, but with Lamb and Brown Bird, the reasoning is more genuine. Lamb's songs are able to consistently thrive despite group fluctuation, because the songs are crafted with care at every level. The metaphors and lyrical detail are never sacrificed for catchy shortcuts, and neither are the multifaceted arrangements. "As a songwriter you're trying to keep all the elements together. You want each song to be new and fresh, and as interesting and well thought out and well written as possible, while at the same time making sure that the music is as good as it can be," Lamb says. "It can be easy to cut corners, and just go 'oh these words sound good together lets just use that.' But it's definitely a lot more satisfying when you have a product where you feel you've done a lot to make to try and make a good product all around."
The result is never contrived; instead it's a rare collaboration of artists who play musical chairs with their instruments because they share so much passion for so many different musical styles. The group's humble nature is refreshing in a multi-instrumentalist realm where so much is done simply to show off. "Personally in my approach to songwriting, I definitely try to keep it as diverse as possible," Lamb said "I've always enjoyed bands that have a lot of influences, and those influences come through. There's a lot of bands that do that and don't necessarily do it very tactfully, but I try to write good songs where everything still feels natural and feels like it's meant to be there, but still draws from all these different genres, or different styles of music…We won't write a song and say 'oh this sounds a little too country, so lets throw a little Eastern European in,' we don't discuss it. It's a feeling that's there."
The countless styles and song aspects Lamb juggles might be hard for the average mind to balance, but it's a passion that consumes him -- he's been able to write and record four Brown Bird albums in as many years, amongst extensive touring, day jobs and all of life's day to day challenges. "It's sort of a fever. I really love to write and it's something I constantly do," Lamb said. "I work a full time job, but all day long at work, while I'm working I've got ideas going through my head, and sometimes I think it even helps, doing something with my hands, but in my head I'm focusing on lyrics and melodies and stuff like that. Then when I get home, I write them down or pick up a guitar and try to make it all work out. I sort of have a songwriting addiction…One of my favorite parts of playing music is creating it." Though he has to make time for a day job installing electrical systems into ships, his inner songwriter still prevails, allowing him to not only balance songwriting with physical labor, but also to draw inspiration from his surroundings. "There are definitely times in a day when I can do those more menial tasks and work on some melodies in my head, even sometimes out loud," Lamb said. "There's a really nice reverb in some parts of these boats, so it's fun to just sing out, belt out an idea, and it sounds really nice in there. In some ways it's been an inspiration." Apart from testing out sounds, Lamb also says his day job has given his newest batch of unrecorded material a work oriented theme, further proof of Lamb's ability to vividly portray what he knows and what's in his heart.
As for his perpetually moving group, the three Rhode Island members of Brown Bird are touring Europe with the Low Anthem, while the Robinsons tour with South China. And despite nomadic tendencies, Lamb sounds as though he may actually settle down -- when he's not touring that is. "Right now we've got, MorganEve and Mike [Samos] and I, we've got some good things going on here in Rhode Island. All of our jobs, we're all really happy with them. So as long as we still need to be working, we'll probably stay here for a while," he said. "I'm used to moving around every two years, and I always get that urge, but I'm trying to stay where it makes sense." The passion and talent heard on Devil Dancing doesn't come along every day, and Lamb seems to know and appreciate it. If playing the music that embodies you with the people you love isn't worth sticking around for, what is?