My first experience seeing Birds of Bellwoods perform live was at a house party in October of 2013. We were all there in celebration of a friend’s birthday when we cleared half the living room, strung up lights and sat on the floor, chairs and mismatched couches in the cramped Eglinton West bungalow for an entirely unplugged set. Giving us what was arguably one of the more intimate musical experiences I’ve had to date, Birds of Bellwoods came prepared with charming folk melodies and impressive harmonies. It’s rare that anyone can get a group of rambunctious, intoxicated twenty-somethings to remain in stunned silence for any amount of time, but the only sounds made from any of us were the cheers between songs. I vaguely remember cheering a little too loud when banjo player, Chris Blades, broke out a solo rendition of one of my favourite David Bowie tunes, “Queen Bitch”.
It’s been nearly a year since that night, and I’ve had the opportunity to attend more of Birds’ shows and watch as they grow into a cohesive and established band of professional musicians. However, the charm that made that living room gig so memorable last October has never dissipated.
“Birds of Bellwoods started in October of last year. Me and [vocalist and guitarist] Adrian’s previous band ‘Stevie Joffe and The Bayonets’ had recently fallen apart (no love lost, it wasn’t really very good anyway),” lead vocalist and mandolin player Stevie Joffe explained. “During that time I went through a pretty rough breakup, threw myself headfirst into music, and started sleeping on Adrian’s couch a lot. We put together a bunch of new material, and finally decided it was time to start taking this stuff more seriously. From there we reached out to the most talented musicians we could find and hit the ground running.”
Those musicians include the aforementioned Adrian Morningstar and Chris Blades, as well as vocalist/upright bassist, Kintaro Akiyama. Each member hails from an impressive and diverse performance background, with Joffe, Morningstar and Blades all having roots in acting and dramatic performance in addition to music. Akiyama himself is a composer.
“I’ve been playing music my whole life. I started off on piano, like all good little boys do. I come from rather artistic stock, so my whole life has always been immersed in music and performance. At this point it’s something that just has to happen,” said Akiyama.
While still a fairly young band, Birds of Bellwoods’ members are seasoned and skilled musicians, with the years behind them to back it up.
“My mom made me learn the recorder when I was 5 or 6. Turns out nobody really likes the recorder unless you’re trying to sound medieval, but I guess it introduces you to scales and intervals at an early age so it was useful in that regard,” said Blades. “When I was 9 I started piano lessons and also started acting; I was Oliver in Oliver! at Netpune Theatre in Halifax. I got into trumpet and guitar in junior high and did that until university, which I got into for electric guitar but I had to switch to trumpet/piano/voice when I seriously injured my left hand. I only got into banjo in my final semester.”
“I have to blame (and applaud) my parents on this one. Since I climbed out of the womb, my mum was strapping me to the piano bench, and my dad was ripping Hendrix and Zeppelin solos on his Telecaster. They got me acting and performing musical theatre at a super young age too,” Morningstar added. “There was a bit of a foggy period when I had to learn recorder, drums, alto sax… Then I got my first real six string in the Fall of ‘06. Or was it the summer of ‘69?”
There is a tangible charisma and comfort when it comes to Birds’ performances. While the music and the content itself is enough to hook you to pay attention, the visible experience and ease with which they perform rounds out the act.
“I’ve been performing since I was five years old. It started with acting, I was lucky enough to be in a bit of film and television as a kid and that continued into my teenage years,” Joffe said. “At some point along the way I started writing, poetry mostly, as a way to kind of process and explore the world around me. And then the more music I listened to, the more that poetry became lyrics. It never really felt like there was anything else I could do.”
Since their formation last year, the band has hit the ground running and made a name for themselves in Toronto’s music scene, and are continuing to build a steady following.
“When it comes to building a following, we rely on our quality of sound and performance for the most part. We play pretty regularly around the city and every time, we’ll have people come up to us saying, ‘I love your sound, I can’t wait to bring my friend to your next show,’” said Morningstar. “We put a lot of work into maintaining our website and our presence on social media, and it seems that every day, someone somewhere is either listening to our tracks on SoundCloud or finding us on Facebook. It’s amazing to know that our music is reaching out and touching all these people.”
It’s easy to see why they’re growing, with eclectic (and sometimes heart-wrenching) songs paired with their gracious and down-to-earth demeanor. They’ve had a residency at Habits Gastropub, performed in the Toronto Fringe Festival, played the ritzy Soho House, and even got up on the Lee’s Palace stage to play for fellow Toronto band UKAE’s recent EP release. Recently back from a stint in Montreal, it’s about continuing to build that foundation and growing as musicians.
“We went on a road trip to Montreal a few months ago to record an EP. It was a great bonding experience. I was like ‘wow, not only can I spend many hours in a car with these guys and not want to kill them, I actually really like them as people.’ And musicians. I wouldn’t play music with people I didn’t respect as musicians,” said Blades.
There is no shortage of respect between the band members, which is brought forth through the music and live performances.
“I think I speak for all of us when I say we have all wanted to be performers our whole lives. Working with these guys has been awe inspiring on stage and off. But what really gets me is when our instruments are down and we’re eating takeout around the kitchen table, we can all share a solid laugh when Chris pauses, and in bewilderment, ‘YOU GUYS ARE IN A BAND!?’ These guys are the brothers I always wanted,” Morningstar explained.
With the growing success, Birds of Bellwoods’ members have still managed their fair share of struggle as musicians. Between making a living and the balancing act of working while still finding the time for practice and performance, it can become difficult at times to persevere, creatively.
Blades, who suffered a hand injury involving a severed tendon, finds physical limitations when it comes to certain chords to play on the banjo.
Limitations can even be found within the scope of the local music scene in Toronto. While the scene itself is vast and rife with talent, it can be difficult to stand out and appeal to a wide range of listeners. Often these struggles lead to some difficult decisions.
“I’d say one of our most difficult decisions was how to break the news about being kicked out of NXNE. The decision to play the charity show was obvious, we’d never turn down an opportunity like that, but navigating the political fallout of explaining that choice to our audience was a bit of a mine-field. We wanted to be clear about what had happened, to voice our disappointment and concern in an honest and fair way, but there was definitely fear on my part about the potential of burning bridges. In the end we just took our time and I think it all worked out for the best,” explained Joffe.
Despite the struggles they face, Birds of Bellwoods have kept themselves going and rising to the next challenge. The next thing in the works is an entirely live EP, due to release later this year.
“I think we chose to do a Live EP because it felt like an honest way to really show what we could do at the time. No frills, no studio magic, just us and our instruments and a couple good microphones. If this was going to be our demo, we wanted it to truthfully demonstrate what we were capable of, not what our producer was capable of,” said Joffe. “Also, we really didn’t have a lot of money to invest at the time and we pretty much took what we could get. We were lucky as hell to work with such a talented recording team, their generosity means the world to us.”
It’s fair to say that their music has a great sort of an unpolished sound to it, making a live EP their main choice to put that skill and sound on display.
“Our music has a rather raw sound to it. Part of this has to do with the connection that we have when we play together. For this style of music I think this is the best way to do it. A couple of wrong notes here and there can easily be over looked if the emotion and honesty is present,” said Akiyama.
The brand new EP isn’t the only thing Birds of Bellwoods have planned this coming year. Playing as many shows in Toronto as possible, they’re still managing to find time to record new songs with “new, progressive material”, according to Joffe.
“A definite goal of ours is to be releasing more and more better content to our fans and new listeners. We’ve got videos, recordings, and a boatload of new songs coming in the very near future, so keep your ears to the ground,” said Morningstar.
Sooner rather than later, Birds of Bellwoods will be gearing up and heading out on a tour in October with pop/rock/R&B artist Jesse Gold for the Nyantende Foundation. The Nyantende Foundation is a grassroots organization dedicated to the empowerment of Congolese youth in the greater Nyantende area and enrolling them in local elementary, secondary and post-secondary schools.
Birds of Bellwoods and Jesse Gold will be making stops throughout Ontario and Quebec – London, Guelph, Montreal, Ottawa, Kingston, and Toronto.
From the humble beginnings in a friend’s living room, to an upcoming tour, Birds of Bellwoods have proven that a lot can happen in just a year.
Or, according to Morningstar, “We’ve been writing all our material together for the past five years. We’ve been super underground and are finally coming to the surface. Who are you going to believe?”
More information about performances, songs, the works, can be found on Birds of Bellwoods’ official website.
You can listen to their newly recorded track, live from Montreal, “The Nevermore”, (and a lot of their other tunes) on their SoundCloud page.
© Megan Rach, Music Vice
Internet Links: Birds of Bellwoods
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