STRAY BIRDS ~ MAGIC FIRE 2016
Magic Fire is an album of firsts for The Stray Birds: their first with an outside producer, their first with venerable guest musicians, and their first truly collaborative songwriting effort. More importantly, perhaps, it’s an album of mosts: the most exciting and engaging music they’ve ever composed paired with their most outspoken and insightful lyrics yet.
Magic Fire builds on the success of The Stray Birds’ 2014 Yep Roc debut, Best Medicine, which was hailed by NPR’s World Café for its “strong harmonies and sharp songwriting” and debuted at #2 on the Billboard Bluegrass chart. Guitar World praised their “heartfelt creativity,” while the Philadelphia City Paper called the band “stunning,” and Mountain Stage applauded their singular ability to “successfully draw on the rich traditions of American folk music while still sounding modern.” It was that unique formula that first brought them national attention and fueled their breakout in 2012, when their self-titled/self-released debut landed amongst NPR‘s Top Ten Folk/Americana Albums of the Year and earned them major festival performances everywhere from MerleFest to Scotland’s Celtic Connections.
When it came time to record Magic Fire, The Stray Birds knew they were ready to take an ambitious step. They retreated to Milan Hill, New York, a small town outside of Woodstock in the Hudson River Valley, and teamed up with Larry Campbell. The three-time GRAMMY Award-winning producer (best known for his work with luminaries like Bob Dylan, Levon Helm, Paul Simon, and Willie Nelson) enlisted his preferred engineer, Justin Guip (another three-time GRAMMY Award-winner who worked closely with the late Helm), and the group spent ten days together joyously exploring and creating the music that would become Magic Fire.
“Though a few of the new songs had been on stage in the past year, we granted most of these songs the opportunity to come to life right there in the studio,” says Maya de Vitry, who splits her time between fiddle, guitar, and banjo in addition to singing. “It was intoxicating to go to this place of focus with songs that still felt so fresh and free.”
“We’d never worked with anyone other than just an engineer in the studio before,” adds Charles Muench, who plays banjo and bass in addition to contributing to the group’s lush three-part vocal harmonies. “Larry was on our short list of people who we wanted to work with, and it was clear after a few conversations with him that nothing was off limits for this record. He offered up not only his production and direction, but also his playing to any and all of the music.”
“We wanted some direction this time,” continues Oliver Craven, who plays fiddle, guitar, and mandolin in addition to singing. “We wanted somebody outside of the music with great taste and vibe who could lend a critically unbiased and impartial ear to what we were doing. Larry is very relaxed and works on feel. I don’t think I saw him write down one word the whole time.”
Before the band settled into the studio, they headed back to their roots, returning to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. There they spent two intensive days of pre-production with another new collaborator, drummer Shane Leonard.
“We started out as a trio of people who all grew up together in Lancaster County and had known each other for a very long time,” says de Vitry. “But it was a slow and deliberate musical courtship, and it took years and a lot of patience for us to actually come together and get into a car and start touring and recording as a trio. When we met Shane, I can’t even say that we played music together for more than a song or two before we asked him to join us to make a record. We all instinctually knew he was right for us.”
That kind of chemistry can’t be bought, and it’s readily apparent on tracks like “Third Day In A Row,” a laid-back slice of infectious Americana that showcases the band’s rich harmonies, and “Fossil,” which they performed at Leonard’s wedding before they’d ever even recorded it. In addition to the newest Bird’s contributions (which stretch beyond percussion throughout the record), the album demonstrates the group’s remarkable growth as songwriters and performers, with countless nights on the road across the US and Europe sharpening their senses and honing their keen understanding of each other’s strengths.
“There’s more collaboration than ever before in the band,” says Craven. “This record is unlike any of our previous releases in that it has songs written by the two or three or four of us together. I think we’ve realized that in this band, we’re surrounded by people we trust and who inspire us, so if we want something to be as good as it can be, it’s in all of our interests to share in that collaboration.”
The fruits of their teamwork come to full blossom on highlights like the toe-tapping, fiddle-led “Sabrina,” penned on-the-spot, as a trio in the presence of the titular subject, and “Hands Of Man,” a dark, Appalachian-influenced tune completed during the recording sessions in Milan Hill. “Where You Come From” marks Muench’s first complete songwriting contribution to an album, while “Shining In The Distance” is a collaboration with fellow songwriter Lindsay Lou that grew out of Maya and Oliver’s move to Nashville, and “When I Die” features a verse written by Leonard (live versions of the song have included a variety of additional verses contributed by peers and tourmates like Mandolin Orange, Miss Tess, Jordie Lane, and Cahalen Morrison & Eli West).
Despite the new, more open approach to writing, the songs are as focused and incisive as ever. “All The News” is a reminder of just how lucky so many of us are to live in relative comfort and safety, while the groovy “Sunday Morning” is a call to action, as Craven sings, “You can shout for change and worry about the state of the world / But it’s gonna take a little more than praying on a Sunday morning.”
“I don’t think that this record is overtly politicized,” says Craven, “but there is an agreed perspective within the band, and I think that turns up throughout the album. It’s not only our opportunity but our obligation to do what we can to help the people around us as best we can.”
“This collection of songs honors what connects us as humans,” Maya adds. “Being human can be a fast-paced, detached experience at times. I feel like part of what we do as musicians is rewire our connections to each other, and perhaps our connections to our collective memory or dream.”
For The Stray Birds, those connections come from filling hearts with love and joy and light each night onstage, setting a Magic Fire and watching it spread everywhere they go. The most exciting thing about an album of firsts? It means The Stray Birds are just getting started.
STRAY BIRDS SIGN WITH YEP ROC LABEL GROUP ~ 2014
The new album, Best Medicine, was released in the US and internationally on October 21, 2014. Recorded at Stonebridge Studios in Leesburg, VA and produced by the band and Stuart Martin, the new album will include ten new Stray Birds songs, and their arrangements of the traditional “Lay Me Down a Pallet on Your Floor”, and “Who’s Gonna Show Your Pretty Little Foot”. Much of the new album has been written on the road, and is the first album to include lead vocals from Charlie, the first song co-written by Maya and Oliver “Feathers & Bone”. Photo credit Doug Seymour.
When The Stray Birds take the stage, the spotlight is shared. Singing into a single microphone, three joyfully blended voices hover above the raw resonance of wood and strings. The Stray Birds are a trio of friends, raised on music within a few miles of farmland from each other in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Songwriters Maya de Vitry and Oliver Craven serve as the creative flames of this group, but it is the trio’s dynamic vocals, collective arranging process, and three-part harmonies that send each song soaring. The arrangements breathe with the subtlety and nuance that introduced their sound on the Borderland EP (2010), but The Stray Birds have both refined and widened their sound on this wholly original debut full-length album. – John Starling (founding member of The Seldom Scene)
Maya de Vitry: vocals, guitar, fiddle, banjo ~ Oliver Craven: vocals, guitar, fiddle ~ Charles Muench: vocals, bass, banjo [photo Jake Jacobsen]
‘Dream in Blue’ opens the album, with a solo by bassist Charles Muench. “I played this song on a porch in Asheville, NC, and one of my friends told me she’d been in this song. I always knew who to sing it for after that,” Maya says. The album has already been enjoyed in unexpected places. “A friend of ours played the recording of ‘25 to Life’ for a room full of inmates at the Florida State Penitentiary. Apparently, the emotional response was unbelievable,” says Oliver. The inmates can’t own CDs, but THE STRAY BIRDS has been added to the prison’s public listening library.
Traveling tends to treat The Stray Birds well. “I had spent a few days sleeping in a tent between the railroad tracks and the Potomac River at DelFest in western Maryland. When I woke up on the last morning of the festival, ‘Railroad Man’ was coming into my head,” Maya remembers. But in some ways, the traveling never ends for those looking for something or someone that may never really be there, and Oliver sings of a particular friend’s longing in ‘Heavy Hands’. “This song is about the determination to persist positively and creatively through negative influence by the people closest to you,” Oliver says, “and the longing that comes in wishing those people were better to themselves and to each other.”
At the heart of the album, a medley of twin fiddle tunes ‘Give That Wildman a Knife/Bellows Falls/Waitin’ on a Hannah’ seems to wink at the setting in which it was recorded—a refurbished barn hayloft in the rolling hills of Virginia. The band’s embrace of three-part harmonies is fully realized on ‘My Brother’s Hill’, Oliver’s homage to Ralph Stanley. “They say you can tell someone’s from Appalachia if they know where they’re going to be buried,” says Oliver. “I find that sentiment really powerful, and I imagine Ralph looking towards the Clinch Mountains to be laid beside his brother.”
‘Harlem’ is a quiet gem nestled in the back half of the album—warmed by Oliver’s haunting resophonic guitar, it is a melody that bows to the simplicity of folk tunes. The song has landed Maya as a finalist in both the Telluride Troubadour showcase and the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival Songwriter Showcase. On the final track, the album gives way to the Virginia night as the frogs and crickets join in harmony on ‘Wind & Rain’. “We can’t help but call this one ‘the closer’,” says Maya.
I first saw The Stray Birds at the Northeast Regional Folk Alliance Conference in November of 2011. Their skills, their chemistry, and their reverence for the choices of original and traditional songs was obvious and undeniable in a 20 minute set, upon which I witnessed them fully enthrall an audience of about 60 people. It is one of those memorable moments you work for and live for in the world of modern popular music. I was fully stunned. We have been meeting and working together since January of 2012, and have released one EP, Borderland, and the band’s debut album, The Stray Birds, to growing acclaim and attention. They are wonderfully amazing.
A year of fantastic radio and press support has been capped with this NPR posting of the Top 10 Best Americana/Folk Recordings for 2012. www.npr.org.
For information and bookings for The Stray Birds in the US and Canada, please contact our friends and agency, John Laird at the Americana Music Agency.
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US and INTERNATIONAL DISTRIBUTION
For information and bookings for The Stray Birds in the UK and Ireland please contact our agency and friend Loudon Temple.
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BOOKING (UK and Ireland):
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