Aspen Songwriters Fest: Inara George and the power of song

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
Autumn DeWildeThe Bird and the Bee - Inara George and Greg Kurstin - make their Aspen debut Thursday at 7908: The Aspen Songwriters Festival.

ASPEN – At various points in her life, Inara George has been an up-close witness to the power of a song.When George was 5, her father Lowell George, the leader of Little Feat and the writer of a few memorable tunes in his own right, died. Jackson Browne, a member of the same Los Angeles scene that produced Little Feat, responded by writing a song, “Of Missing Persons,” that presumably provided the younger George much comfort as she grew older.”He’s right there inside you each time you want to sing,” Browne wrote on a song that was released on his hit 1980 album, “Hold Out.”Despite the accomplishments of her father, and despite having sung in choir and played piano as a child, George had little serious interest in music. “I guess because of my dad, I didn’t want to pursue that. It seemed like I had other interests,” she said from her home in Los Angeles.But the music wouldn’t leave her alone that easily. While studying theater at Emerson College, in Boston, George wrote her first song – “one silly song,” she said – and played it for a friend. That song became the impetus to start a band, Lode, which landed a deal with Geffen Records and prompted George to quit college.But that one song didn’t create an instant love affair with music. George calls Lode “a stupid band,” and she became dissatisfied enough that, at one point, she “hated music.” “The idea of playing the same songs for two years seemed crazy to me,” George said. “And I wasn’t comfortable with the music we made.”Lode disbanded quickly enough, but George was apparently hooked on music. She formed a duo, Merrick, with Bryony Atkinson, and found that music-making could be enjoyable. “It was fun to write music, fun to play the music,” the 36-year-old said. “I had a whole new perspective.”After Merrick finished its run, George formed another duo, The Bird and the Bee, with producer and multi-instrumentalist Greg Kurstin. The twosome’s first EP, “Again and Again and Again and Again,” featured a song, “Fucking Boyfriend,” that garnered attention – and not just for the title. A catchy, and oddly polite piece of modern electro-pop, it hit No. 1 on the dance-music charts. The Bird and the Bee followed with a full-length, self-titled album that earned positive reviews, then another handful of EPs and albums.Over that span, George has developed a new perspective on her songwriting. “Before, I felt like I was writing music to play it,” she said. “Now, I’ve graduated a little bit. I feel more like a songwriter now than I ever have.”Part of that maturation process has been recognizing that a song can be for an audience to hear, not just for her to sing. Her earlier efforts, she said, were “exercises in songwriting.””Now I’m making something that appeals to more people. It’s not as defiant,” continued George, who is also a member of the modern-day girl group the Living Sisters. “I want to write a song that would fit into a musical historical society. There’s something to writing a song that you can hum along to. I’m coming at it more Brill Building style than a music-school style.”The Bird and the Bee utilize a process that is probably unique in songwriting history. The two divide the work neatly – George comes up with the lyrics; Kurstin the music – except that Kurstin is given the assignment of adding one word or line to each album.He was the one who provided the “F” word to their first hit: “And it was ingenious,” George said.On last year’s “Ray Guns Are Not Just the Future,” Kurstin contributed an entire line: “Hey boy, won’t you take me out tonight,” from the song, “My Love.”For their last album, neither George not Kurstin did much writing. The album, “Interpreting the Masters, Vol. 1,” was a tribute to the music of Hall & Oates, with covers of such hits as “Sara Smile,” “Rich Girl” and “One on One.” But it did open with an original tune, “Heard It On the Radio,” a nostalgic remembrance of the effect Hall & Oates’ music had on her. George said the “Interpreting the Masters” series was a way to get inspired by the music of other artists, and it deepened her appreciation of Hall & Oates.”Both Greg and I think they’re incredible,” she said. “We’re fans of pop songs, songs that stick in your head. And they’re one of the best at that, getting an infectious lyric or melody. My appreciation for Daryl Hall doubled or tripled. We both came out bigger fans than we were before.”George and Kurstin get the chance to come even closer to at least half of Hall & Oates this weekend. The Bird and the Bee make their Aspen debut at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in 7908: The Aspen Songwriters Festival, a new event hosted by John Oates, and co-produced by Oates with the Wheeler Opera House. Oates has two scheduled appearances: On Friday, Sept. 17, in a concert with acoustic pickers Sam Bush and David Bromberg; and on Sunday, Sept. 19, in a festival-closing appearance with Nashville songwriter Jimmy Wayne. Oates said he anticipated numerous unbilled collaborations through the