Interview by Scott Preston
Photo by Doug Seymour
The Stray Birds with Jordie Lane
Southgate House Revival, 111 E 6th St, Newport, KY
7pm doors, 8pm show, $10
Two years, hundreds of gigs, and thousands of highway miles after their self-titled debut album was released, the genre-melding acoustic trio prepares to make its Yep Roc Records debut. Known for their songwriting, instrumental virtuosity and gorgeous three-part harmony singing, their most cohesive and ambitious album to date, Best Medicine, is scheduled for release on October 21.
The band – multi-instrumentalists and vocalists Maya de Vitry, Oliver Craven, and Charlie Muench – hails from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. All three are classically trained musicians who’ve been making music of all kinds since childhood (before they reconnected through the local music scene, de Vitry and Muench first met in middle school orchestra); however, they were also all raised with a steady diet of music ranging from pioneers like The Carter Family and Bill Monroe & His Blue Grass Boys to the joyous invention of The Beatles and The Band, to the groundbreaking artistry of Jimi Hendrix.
Following the band’s 2012 highly praised self-titled release, Best Medicine was recorded at Stonebridge Studios in Leesburg, VA and produced by the band and Stuart Martin. (from thestraybirds.com)
Cincy Groove: How did the band first get together?
Maya de Vitry: Charlie and Oliver formed a bluegrass band out in Pennsylvania when they were just out of high school with a few other friends, Nick and Kyle. I happened upon one of their recording sessions, just hanging out. I also have known Charlie since middle school and high school, but we had at that point never played music together outside of school or just jamming at a music festival. They were making a record in Nick’s kitchen about 2 miles from where I grew up. I had just come back from traveling and was really inspired and wrote a bunch of songs. Oliver and I started playing music together that winter and that is how the Borderland EP came about. It really was just Oliver and I playing our music. Very stripped down and not highly arranged. Charlie also played bass on a couple tracks. We all ended up going our separate ways after that. A year or two went by and something just brought us back together and we had a opportunity to play a music festival out in Michigan called Bliss Fest. We all got in Oliver’s Outback and drove out to Michigan. We realized after the fact that hey we just got paid to play music and hang out at a music festival. We should do this more often. The desire to become a full time band really accelerated after that. It took a little time before we all really committed just because we were leaving some things behind. Charlie had graduated college with a teaching degree and decided to not apply for a job, Oliver left his band and I left school. By January of 2012 we all felt we were in a good place to do this full time.
Cincy Groove: Was there a difference in the writing or recording process between your first album in 2012 and your most recent one?
Maya de Vitry: The first record was recorded in isolation , where each of us were in a separate room recording our parts in the studio. We had headphones on so we could hear each other but not see each other. For the most recent record, Best Medicine, we recorded it live, meaning we were all right next to each other in the same room. It was a beautiful space we recorded in and we were able to see each other and react to each others playing a lot better. The recording quality is different because we were trying to replicate that live show feeling in the studio. There is an energy that is there on the most recent album that wasn’t there on the first one. It’s not as sterile, you can’t separate out each instrument or voice because its all blended together.
Cincy Groove: Was it just the three of you on the record or did you have any special guests?
Maya de Vitry: Most of the songs on that record happened in the moment with the three instruments and three voices. The third track, Feather and Bones, I was playing banjo, Charlie was playing bass and Oliver was playing guitar and we were all singing. Oliver then listened to the playback of the song and said “I really think we need some strings”. So he went back into that room and played a violin part and then played a second as well so the 2 parts were almost in harmony with each other. Unless we have a string quartet with us on stage thats never going to happen again (laughing). On a another song, Never For Nothing, I played guitar, Oliver played guitar and Charlie played bass. Oliver and I are singing together. Again once we listened to it again, we decided to add the texture of a piano. There just happens to be this great piano in the room. I went over to the piano and put the headphones on and played along with the song. We are the only three on the record, but you will hear a 4th part on those 2 songs.
Cincy Groove: Do you get any writing done on the road? or is it done at home?
Maya de Vitry: We do write on the road, pretty much because we don’t have a choice. I begin a lot of songs on the road but I have a hard time finishing them on the road. I really need to be alone in the house playing something to finish it. It’s hard to find that kind of privacy and space on the road. A lot of pieces of songs are written almost everytime we go out on the road. I think Oliver is pretty much the same way.
Cincy Groove: The band has had a certain amount of success that takes other bands a little longer to achieve. Can you point to a few things that would explain that?
Maya de Vitry: At the end of 2012 NPR called our first album one of the top folk/americana albums of the year. We really hadn’t done any kind of publicity or promotional campaign. We were still learning how to promote, how to be a band. So it was a really big surprise to us. After that we realized people were paying attention to what we were doing. We felt incredibly lucky because not too many bands get that kind of validation 2 months after releasing their first record. Having had that happen to us, really gave us the extra drive and energy to really push everything forward as much as we could. We also take every show seriously, whether we play in front of 4 people or a couple thousand.
Cincy Groove: You seem to be doing quite well over in Europe, when did you first go over there?
Maya de Vitry: Our first trip was in January of 2013 and we went back twice this year. Its different touring there, people are more concentrated geographically. They are also more connected, meaning its easier to travel. We are from across the ocean so that makes it more unique. People realize we won’t be coming around that often so it makes the experience more valuable. Americana music is really big over there. We were just over in Denmark in August and they were some of the most attentive and appreciative fans we have ever had.
Cincy Groove: I watched your video for “Best Medicine” and really enjoyed it. What was the process like making the video?
Maya de Vitry: We knew we wanted to make a video for that song and it was Charlie who was really excited. It was an insane day of travel, because we had to drive across the state of New York and then drive to a festival in Pennsylvania the next day. Charlie just felt the video needed to be filmed in the town where it was inspired. I felt honored that someone in the band felt so strongly about a song that I had written. Oliver called our friend Jacob Keeler, a videographer from Lancaster County and asked him on very short notice if he would be willing to drive 5 hours that Saturday to meet us at a motel and go film a music video. This all hinged on Kurt the owner of the record store, we had this fantasy that he would be willing to be in the video. He knew a band had written a song about him and his record shop. He isn’t really big on the internet, he is just an old time record shop owner. I called him twice that week trying to prime him. We all showed up and for the first hour or so we just hung out and talked with him. Then we put the song on the cd player for him while he was helping customers. After listening to the song he started to get more excited and so did his customers. It helped that Jacob was really great behind the camera, very non-threatening. It relaxed everyone. We worked from morning until that night, about 12 hours. It turned out great considering how experimental the whole process was.