Taking Flight: Indie folk band Birdtalker returns to the Wheeler
When the Nashville-based indie-folk band Birdtalker first played Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House, in January 2018, they had one massive hit song under their belt but hadn’t yet released an album and, co-lead singers Zack and Dani Green admit now, were still figuring out the band’s identity.
Three-plus years and one concert industry-shattering pandemic later, Birdtalker is still asking a lot of big questions and still figuring things out, but the five-piece band fronted by the husband-and-wife Greens are a lot more comfortable doing it.
They return to headline the Wheeler on Friday, touring in support of their new self-titled album “Birdtalker.”
The surprise hit status of the 2017 song “Heavy” changed everything for the band, which had only been together two years when that song took off and racked up tens of millions of streams and a national following.
“It made something that was really just a passion project for everybody, with no real direction, into into some kind of viable enterprise that was supporting us,” Dani said in a phone interview from Nashville before the tour launch. “Up to that point, we didn’t know if that was our trajectory.”
“Heavy” is an bittersweet anthem, opening with booming drums, following by a soaring piano line, with a downbeat “we’re all lonely together” mood but a stirring message typified by its “Leave what’s heavy behind” refrain.
They followed the hit with the spring 2018 debut album “One” and toured clubs and theaters. But the mega success of “Heavy” created challenges for the band as songwriters, so by the end of 2019 they resolved to take off 2020 from touring and to focus on writing and recording.
“We made the decision that 2020 was just going to be a year of no touring, and of writing and recording before we knew anything about COVID,” Zack explained. “So it was strangely aligned.”
It proved to be fortuitous timing, as the coronavirus shutdown of the live music industry soon sent everybody home anyway.
The couple spent the first half of 2020 making demos in a spare bedroom in their home, then brought the songs into the studio and bubbled up with the band.
“It was a really beautiful and magical time to both to work on this songs and have to hole up with a safe group,” Zack said.
One of their goals was to break the creative spell that “Heavy” had cast on them. They wanted to write more great songs that people loved, like “Heavy,” but Zach found himself constrained by it as well.
“Not intentionally, but I allowed that to affect me quite a bit,” he said of the song’s hit status. “When we made our first EP that ‘Heavy’ was on, we released it with zero expectations, and really zero experience of sharing music with the world. Nobody been in a band before except for our drummer.”
He and his bandmates hadn’t even thought about a mass audience.
“The success took us all by surprise,” he explained, “and I lived inside that paradigm of, like, ‘Oh, so this is what is going to propel the story of Birdtalker forward, this kind of song. So every time I sat down to write for a long time, I was majorly affected by that.”
It was stifling by late 2019.
“It felt so shitty to sit down and feel a bit shackled to an idea of what a successful song is,” Zach said.
One of the big goals of 2020 was to loosen up. For a band that asks the big existential questions, founded by a couple who broke from devout Christian upbringings relatively recently, that took some work.
“Birdtalker got really serious really fast,” Dani said, “and then I think we took it really seriously really fast because of that.”
So last year as they started working on new material, the Greens focused on the sounds and rhythms that made them happy, starting with the smallest of building blocks, bits of piano that Dani said “made my heart beat a little faster, put a smile on my face.”
The result is the new self-titled 12-song release, which showcases the band’s knack for anthemic folk songs (“Better Days”) and the dual vocalists in gorgeous tandem (“Tides”) while breaking what Zack describes as their more “melodramatic” habits.
“This just feels more fun and playful,” he said. “The music, the arrangements feel a little bit more lively and creative.”
The new song “Old Sob Story,” for example, shows the band injecting some distorted guitar and crafting a witty and subversive thumb in the eye of folk purists to a rollicking Johnny Cash rhythm.
“I hope people like it,” Zack said. “But, you know, if they don’t, then the band dies and crashes and burns and we find something else to to. But we like what we did, right?”
The fall tour, hitting 22 cities in the west, marks Birdtalker’s first live shows since the pandemic hit. This weekend includes three Colorado tour stops — Globe Hall in Denver and the Fox Theater in Boulder as well as the Wheeler here in Aspen.
“This is the first live thing we’ve done in front of other people in like 18 months,” Dani said. “We’ve been rehearsing weekly for about eight months in the studio, but no live performances. So it’s going to be very shocking, I imagine, to be back in a room with people staring at me.”
Anderson Ranch Arts Center’s new fall lecture series will run weekly from Oct. 20 through Dec. 6. The lineup consists of artists nationwide who will be spending one to three weeks at the ranch completing projects within their area of expertise and exploring new work in the studios.