Birds of Chicago, a folk/pop/rock duo that features singer-songwriters Allison Russell and JT Nero, began assembling the songs for its most recent album, Love in Wartime
, while on tour a couple of years ago. Since the band had just teamed up with producer Joe Henry for 2106’s somber Real Midnight
, it wanted to go in a different musical direction.
“We knew that after Real Midnight
was done, we had a gut feeling that we wanted to make more of a rock ’n’ roll record to capture the scope of what we do live,” says Nero via phone from a Grand Forks, ND, tour stop. The group performs with Anthony da Costa at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 6, at the Music Box Supper Club
. “It was in that space that the songs started to come together.”
The band recruited good friend Luther Dickinson (North Mississippi Allstars) to help with production duties.
“Luther and I are good buds, and I’ve been getting into more production work,” says Nero. “For me, it’s always important to have an outside presence. It’s great to have a set of ears and someone who brings musical wisdom you trust but isn’t embroiled too deeply.”
The resulting album, Love in Wartime
, finds the band adopting more of a roots rock vibe in songs such as “Never Go Back,” a track that features husky harmony vocals and a perky organ riff.
“I use the phrase rock ’n’ roll [to describe our music] but in the broadest sense of the word,” says Nero. “For me, it just means that it’s that ongoing pressure cooker of all these roots musics from all over the world. We try not to intellectualize that process too much before doing it. One of the reasons that this tribe of musicians has gravitated to each other is because we’re mongrel music makers and mongrel music lovers. You want someone who is fluid in the different languages instead of stuck in these iron-clad brackets. You can draw on all those influences, but the test is that when you’re done, it needs to sound like you.”
On the title track, another highlight from the album, Nero adopts a nasally Dylan-like drawl while Russell's plaintive vocals keep the song from sounding too dark and menacing.
“I don’t think that we literally mean ‘war’ in the sense of declared war,” says Nero when asked about the tune. “It’s just the anti-matter of love. There’s a sense of foreboding and perilousness, and so for us, digging in on the notion of love as kind of a sense of high relief is important. It’s like ‘the darker the shadow, the more intense the light.’ We wanted to dig in on the idea of love and how the smallest everyday acts of love are acts of bravery — ever more so right now."
In the song “Baton Rouge,” the band addresses the conflict between law enforcement and African-American citizens that’s taken place in the Louisiana city.
“[The song is] very much about the news with the unrest in the police community, and that’s something close to my heart being a Chicagoan,” says Nero. “[After all the unrest], they then got hit with that 100-year flood. [The song is] about the complicated humanity of that town and seeing the parallels between my town of Chicago and Baton Rouge and dealing with the way Northerners like to keep an arm’s length when certain ugly things happen down South.”
The album concludes with the funky “Derecho,” an atmospheric tune that recalls Kiko
-era Los Lobos with its Latin-tinged guitar tones.
“It’s about the fairly new-fangled Weather Channel kind of name," says Nero. "It’s what you call a flash summer storm. It’s a violent but quickly ending summer storm. It’s calm and serene one minute, and then, you have Armageddon, and it’s gone. Chicago got hit with a couple of those a couple of years back. We watched that happen and then the sun would come back, and it was complete serenity even though there were uprooted trees all over the place. I like to close albums on a loose note.”
While Nero says the band loves to make records, the live show is where it’s at. Expect the band to cut loose a bit more than it does in the studio.
“I don’t know if there were that many forums where people who think differently can come together,” he says. “Live music has always been that, but I feel the goodness of that and appreciate it even more the last couple of years. Every live show is a communion of folks, and we want to be able to walk through some shadowed emotional places and then get light really quickly and be in it together and come out the other side feeling altered and a little bit better. That’s what we chase every single night.”