I N T E R V I E W
birds of passage
By Arpie Shirehorse
HUP caught up with Alicia Merz a.k.a. birds of passage ahead of their show at Clarence Street Theatre this coming Friday. Alicia gives fascinating insights into where birds of passage delicate music comes from and also looks forward to playing the Further Future festival in Las Vegas alongside the likes of Four Tet, Caribou and Leftfield.
Please tell us how birds of passage came to be - what made you start to write songs and record albums? Had you been in bands before birds of passage?
In my teens and after, I wrote a lot of poetry….. and I found it hard to find music that I liked to listen to because what was available was limited as the internet at first wasn’t there and then was only just sort of starting, I didn’t have access to really anything outside of what was really popular etc. which I wasn’t connecting to.. I started writing my own songs at first just for myself because it was feeding some sort of musical need in me that I didn’t seem to be able to find anywhere at the time.
So I wrote songs using a piano and guitar, and then one day when I was about 16 or 17 I rented some equipment, like a mic and a synth, and recorded a few of them on a weekend. That was the first time I recorded anything and from there I started to get my own sort of stuff together so I didn’t need to hire things and could create a sound closer to what I was wanting. after a few years (maybe 6), my husband at the time convinced me to put some of the songs up on Myspace and I then discovered a whole world of people making music coming from a similar place as mine, and who actually liked what I was doing and I was really surprised, even more surprised when I was asked to join a label in the U.S. and through them the label I’m on now (Denovali records) heard my stuff and invited me to join, and so that’s how the albums came about. And I’m still surprised.
Your music is extremely fragile and very evocative. Is there a particular mood or frame of mind that you find more conducive to writing, or do songs just come to you from nowhere? Or both?
Sometimes a song comes from nowhere, but more often there is some sort of trigger…it’s often the seasons which conjure up feelings, memories etc., often it’s an experience...vast spaces…sometimes it’s just things I’ve been thinking about… often love, wild love, quiet love, unrequited love, highwaymen… people I know become characters. Lots of songs are about people I’ve met, maybe conjured up some stories about them…
How does the recording process work for you - do you hole up in a studio for days/weeks or is it more fractured than that, perhaps some home recording in there somewhere?
Actually all of it is home recorded, and I hole up in the sense that every night I’ll be up pretty much all night… the days are out as I have two young boys...I remember nights working on recording, mixing, etc., with baby at my breast…Lady Madonna....
You are shortly jetting off overseas to play some fairly big festivals - what can you tell us about that? Are there any favourite bands playing that you’re looking forward to seeing live?
The festival I’m playing at, with Gareth Schott (sink\sink, Ancient Tapes) - who very kindly and patiently learnt all the songs and agreed to come along to add his sound, which makes everything so much better - is called Further Future, it's similar to Burning Man, and it’s held annually in the Nevada desert. It’s predominantly a music festival where "each artist is deliberately chosen to transcend genre, trends, and time." As well as music acts there will be speakers and wellness programs. Further Future's founder Robert Scott said this about it: A Further Future event aspires to be a gathering of people with the common goal to spend time together celebrating the infinite possibilities of the future, without necessarily being shackled to the dictates of the past or the cycles of present-day society. We want to combine the connective power of music and art to bring people together in a place where they can shed their anxieties and fears, and touch a natural state of happiness.”
I just also want to say how lucky I feel that I crossed paths with Gareth Schott...I don’t think its common, especially in these parts, to find someone willing to play such minimalist (and amazing) stuff on their guitar, and so willing to accommodate someone else’s music. I’m really grateful to him and what he has brought to birds of passage live.
I’m particularly looking forward to seeing Hauschka, Still corners, Pedro Aguiar, and Elderbrook perform live, and there are some interesting talks and other things on as well.
Have you found being based in Hamilton has helped or hindered you in any way? Along with so many other experiences in life, the experience of growing up in Hamilton, New Zealand, has a big effect on the music I make, its sound, content, atmosphere; helping and hindering in different ways.
What can we expect at the show on Friday - will it be a warm up of sorts for the overseas shows involving the same songs?
Yes, the songs we’ll be doing are some of those we will be doing at the festival. I generally try not to perform in front of people, id rather be hiding somewhere, but this gig at the Clarence Street Theatre will be a really good experience, I’m looking forward to it :) my music is mostly about atmosphere…and minimalism I feel makes it more possible to touch with the essence of a song…so maybe expect something like that.
Some quick-fire questions...If you could curate a gig anywhere in the world with three bands of your choice, who would play and where would it be held?
I wouldn’t mind where, but Nina Simone, Nick Drake and Leonard Cohen would be who I would choose :)
What is the most rock and roll thing birds of passage has done?
I think I probably shouldn’t disclose it if there was one….. :)
Kim Deal or Kim Gordon?
Courtney Barnett or Courtney Love?
Auckland or Wellington?
birds of passage play Clarence Street Theatre this coming Friday, March 11th, with The Unseen Mechanised Eye, as part of the Hamilton Fringe. Doors are at 7.30pm, $10 entry, $5 concessions.