In the spotlight – Umbrellabirds

In the spotlight – Umbrellabirds

I have a confession to make. I like, no, I love, the Umbrellabirds. They make well crafted timeless folk songs, with sublime lyrics. Sometimes fragile, sometimes quite dark. Most songs are growers, just the way I like it.

Umbrellabirds is the musical project of Sam Blickhan, Lewis Daly, and Alex Hunt. Their debut album ‘Umbrellabirds‘ was released in 2016. Their second album ‘Closing Ceremony‘ was released in March 2020. I spoke to Sam, Alex and Lewis about how the band started and their songwriting process.

Lewis and Alex are based in the UK and Sam in the USA. How did you meet?

Sam: “Lewis and I met in Oxford in 2011, when we were both studying at Wolfson College. We met in the bar and started talking about what music we liked, which then turned into talking about how we were both writers and had played in bands. We began sharing stuff we’d written in other projects or just solo recordings we’d made at home, which then turned into collaborating on music together. We were all mostly UK-based about 5 years, before I moved back to Chicago in 2016.”

Umbrellabirds began as a long-distance recording project when Sam and Lewis started exchanging original songs via email in 2013. How did that come about?

Lewis: “As Sam says, we really hit it off talking about music in our college bar – Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed, Fleetwood Mac – we just had a lot in common. Like we spoke the exact same musical lexicon. We were both independently writing songs while living in Oxford, and we thought it would be fun to share some demos with each other. I had this little folk song called ‘Georgetown’. I recorded a rough demo of it in my bedroom and sent it to Sam via email. Half an hour later she emailed it back to me with this beautiful harmony on top. I thought it was spellbinding. We sent it to Alex, who I knew from a previous band. He was in California at the time, I think, and he listened to it on a bus, and loved it. That was in 2013. Then, I think, I went back to South America for another stretch, then Sam moved to London, but we all stayed in touch, sharing demos, lyrics, ideas. That was the genesis of the band, really. That song ‘Georgetown‘ eventually ended up on our debut album.”

When did Alex join the band?

Alex: “I knew Lewis from another band, then in October 2013 he sent me a demo of a duet with Sam [the aforementioned Georgetown demo], and I fell in love with the sound. I was thrilled to get the chance to produce and engineer the first album, and somehow emerged from that process in 2015 as a member of the band.”

Sam: “Alex will try to downplay his contribution, but he’s an incredibly gifted multi-instrumentalist, as well as a great producer, and he took what we’d been working on to the next level, right from the start.”

Lewis: “Alex is the mastermind.”

What’s your (long distance) songwriting and recording process like?

Sam: “I usually travel to the UK for work at least once a year, so I’ll build in an extra weekend whenever I can so we can camp out at Alex’s house and write and record. This is the first year since we’ve been a band that I think we’ll have gone an entire year without being able to be in the same room together. It’s requiring some changes, slowing the process a bit, but we do what we can.”

Alex: “Technology is an indispensable ally, in that recording quiet music well is now possible without a vast budget. We are not bound by finite studio time, which suits both our schedules and our experimental process. On the other hand, this is intensely personal music, and we do absolutely no recording remotely. We meet, talk, listen, improvise, and will record core parts live before building arrangements around them. For example, Lewis recorded the main guitar and vocal for Everything Is Still in one simultaneous take (a feat which still blows my mind), and the rest of the instrumentation and vocal layering followed. Likewise, Sam and I tracked the piano-led tracks June (from the first record) and Sobriquet as live performances: if you start overdubbing parts right from the start, the music itself dissolves. You have to be able to breathe together; then the music breathes too.”

Lewis: “Recording for us is a pretty immersive experience, we tend to lock ourselves in Alex’s house for a week at a time… things get weird. We all move around the world quite a lot, but the spirit of the band lives in the attic (i.e. recording studio) of Alex’s house, for sure.”

Is there a story behind the band name? A lot of your lyrics mention animals, even the album art of both albums features animals, is that a theme or is there a story behind that?

Lewis: “Oh gosh… how to explain. I spent a couple of years living in the Amazon rainforest back in 2011-2013, doing research. There is an extraordinary species of bird there called the umbrella bird which is this sort of gothic weirdo with a black Elvis hairdo and a fancy feather boa like Zsa Zsa Gabor. I used to see them sometimes in the rain forest, dancing up in the canopy—quite a sight! Anyhow, once we eventually formed the band in 2014 or so, we went through the usual turmoil of trying to find a unique and representative band name. My memory of this is a little hazy… Actually, I do recall, when I was out there, I wrote a song called Umbrellabirds, which was ostensibly about the bird, not in the strict ornithological sense, but sort of. When I got back to the UK I recorded a demo, and sent it to Alex. He thought the song was “boring”… but liked the name. So that was it, we lifted the name from the song. It just seemed like it had always been our name, a perfect fit. And that is the genealogy of the band name. In terms of the fixation with animals and plants, I grew up on a farm and am just very drawn to the living world—to zoology, botany, natural history, and so on—so those themes always seem to make their way into my lyrics. Alex jokingly calls my songs “botanical folk”.”

The artwork really fits the music. Who creates the album art?

Sam: “We had such a hard time nailing down the album art for Umbrellabirds, but in the end wallpaper turned out to be the answer. We were recording at Alex’s house in London and had been around and around with ideas, and at a certain point we got so frustrated that one of us suggested we just take a photograph of the wallpaper in one of the rooms of the house. We’d always thought the wallpaper was gorgeous and we’d recorded a bunch of stuff for the album in that room, so it was already part of the album’s creation, in a sense. Plus, it was full of birds. He’s since re-done that room, but kept a piece of the wallpaper, it’s now framed and hanging up.” 

Lewis: “Deciding on an album cover is traditionally a torturous process for us! For ‘Closing Ceremony‘ we spent months discussing, researching, and deliberating. We needed to find something that really suited the sombre, but otherworldly feel of the album. We’ve always been into old natural history illustrations, and I suppose there’s a certain continuity there with the first album cover. The concept was that the album cover could mimic a plate from an old zoology or botany book. I was looking through some on an online archive, and I found these beautiful collages of butterflies by the French entomologist Eugène Séguy from the 1920’s. There was something captivating about them, beautiful and ornate, but also strange and a little unsettling. Sam’s husband Thomas is an artist, so we sent the original to him and he used that as the basis for the album cover. Thomas came up with some brilliant designs based on Séguy’s illustrations, and one in particular was very striking—and we selected it as the cover. We love it!”

You’ve released 2 albums. The first one was released in 2016, the second one in 2020. Why did it take so long to release the successor? When can we expect the third? 🙂

Alex: “To begin with, the process is quite a long and painstaking one, building up from demos and sonic concepts to full-blown arrangements, and then finding enough overlapping windows in our schedules to get the recording done. With Sam being US based these days, these can be quite rare occasions! Then the others have to be incredibly patient while I mix the tracks. Being largely self-taught I can’t get a result I’m happy with in 12 hours per song like the seasoned pros do—it’s a lot more iterative, while I try to sculpt the sound. And then we all need a breather! That said, we’ve already started work on album number three, and are very keen to get it out sooner than 2024…”

Lewis: “We are all perfectionists of different kinds, so we spend a long time working on every minute detail, writing, recording, producing, mixing, etc. We are currently writing songs for the third album. It is a fun stage, concocting concepts and experimenting with ideas. We are hoping to start recording some time in the new year.”

Some of your lyrics are quite dark. What inspires your lyrics?

Lewis: “For me, writing lyrics is the most sacred thing of all. The lyrics tend to take precedence over the music. I suppose writing lyrics, as with music, can be a therapeutic way to channel and make sense of complex inner feelings and struggles, the kind of things that aren’t always in touch with the surface in everyday life. I suppose that’s where a lot of the darkness comes from. I like to use imagery as well, drawing on natural history, mythology, literature. Not so much fully formed narratives or stories, but imagistic fragments floating around which constellate to form a meaningful picture, especially so over the course of a whole album. And I think Sam’s lyrics are a wonderful counterpoint to mine. In fact, I’ve been inspired by her lyrics since we started sharing songs back in 2013. It’s like a conversation through time, but in mixed up directions. For instance, the song Ophelia Among The Flowers on our first album has the refrain “I don’t wanna take you there, the location of your nightmares”. I wrote that line after I heard the original demo of Sobriquet, which is on the second album, which has this incredible line which really hooked me, I couldn’t get it out of my head “It’s not fair, I won’t pay for your nightmares.” So my line was sort of a riposte to that. In reverse. Even though the songs are about quite different (nightmarish) things. I don’t know if Sam knows that. “

On your Facebook page I noticed this photo showing the chords to ‘Sobriquet‘. It was posted in 2016, the same year your debut album was released. Was this song a leftover from the first album that wasn’t good enough at the time or do you continuously write? Do you have any ‘leftovers’ from the previous albums?

Sam: “I started writing Sobriquet early on in the process of making the first record, but by the time it was fully formed, we were far enough along into the process that including it wasn’t ever really an option. When I shared the demo with Lewis & Alex we all knew we wanted it on an album, so really we started writing the second album even as we were recording the first. Lewis is incredibly prolific, so we already had a few we knew we wanted for a second album, and Sobriquet seemed like a natural fit. He’s just constantly writing, it’s amazing. I’m much slower – I’ll write maybe half a dozen songs in a good year – so we’ll typically have a pool of demos we’re working on, and then at a certain point when it gets to a place where we have enough material that we think feels like a good balance of songs for an album, we’ll start to hone in, work on arrangements, think about song order, etc. We’re very album-oriented, but are also constantly writing.”

Lewis: “That is an incredibly perceptive question, by the way!”

More on Sobriquet, do you have nicknames for each other?

Sam: “….yes. A few, actually.”

Lewis: “And they would make absolutely no sense if we told you. But let’s just say we have an alter-ego band that may one day take the world by storm.”

Your song ‘Rhododendrons’ is currently (week 46) #6 in our Cool Top 20 chart. What’s it about?

Lewis: “There is an old photo in my parents’ house of my sister as a little girl standing in front of a rhododendron bush with these vibrant magenta flowers. It was taken somewhere in the south of France. That song is about struggling with grief, as an adult and how memories of childhood become contorted with time, as part of that process. Even old photos and home videos start to fade and distort, not just materially but also mnemonically. It becomes harder to place them, you gradually feel distanced, more remote. But there is always something that just…carries on regardless. Time, I guess. And that is quite terrifying. That sense of existential unease is the soul of Rhododendrons.”

How do you come up with your song titles?

Lewis: “This is one of my favourite pastimes! I write a lot of lyrical fragments in notebooks and on my phone… walking about, on the bus, on the train. If I find them interesting, they stick around and might end up in songs, or sometimes as song titles. The song titles on Closing Ceremony tend to have a deeper meaning, though, they are quite sombre; many relate to complex emotions and memories which are difficult to articulate in normal speech. I suppose the title ‘Closing Ceremony’ itself is a synonym for “funeral”. That song is about trying to come to terms with an overwhelming loss, channeled through some quite surreal imagery. As is much of the album, in fact. The titles of the songs I’ve been writing for the next album are weirder, and longer… It has been fun to play with form a little more this time around.”

Sam: “I have the opposite reaction to writing song titles. I hate it so much, the idea of wrapping an entire song up in a few words or a short phrase. I typically just start referring to the songs in a colloquial way during the writing process and that usually ends up being what sticks as a title. They tend to be quite simple. But then that strikes a nice balance against Lewis’s loquaciousness, so it works.”

Do you have a personal favourite song on Closing Ceremony? If so, which one and why?

Alex: “When I listened to the album through recently, it was ‘I Remember The Rain‘. It packed such an emotional punch despite its delicacy and apparent waltz-like innocence. But on the next listen I could easily have a different favourite. All the songs have something beautiful and significant about them, while the range of moods and textures helps keep each one of them fresh.”

Sam: “It’s the title track for me. I remember when Lewis sent me the demo I was basically knocked off my chair. I started working on the harmony arrangements immediately. The gothic atmosphere is a perfect way to end the record, it’s like a traditional lullaby in that it’s beautiful and calming but there’s an unsettling quality to the lyrics that belies the comfort of the music. Leaves you wondering what happens next.”

Lewis: “I remember when Sam first sent me a demo of I Am All, the opening track on the album, and I thought, this is timeless—like Joni Mitchell must’ve written this back in 1973 or something. To me, that is a really beautiful and perfectly formed song. And the vocal harmonies, oh my!”

Is there any chance we might see Umbrellabirds live?

Sam: “Probably not any time soon, given current travel restrictions, but I would love the opportunity if it ever came up. At the same time, I find it really thrilling to write for the studio, without the boundary of ‘How do we recreate this live?’ Being able to take a song to this wonderful place without having to worry how you’re going to find a chamber orchestra for your live show.”

Lewis: “Yeah, I think we have quite naturally tended to focus on writing and recording, partly because of the geographical peculiarities of the band, being all over the place, but also because it is what we really love and enjoy crafting albums together, it is a really rewarding process. But now that we have two albums in the bank, we’d love to play them live at some point. I’m will happen, eventually. Probably at someone’s wedding. Or funeral.”

What’s your favourite song from the Cool Top 20?

Sam: I’m a big fan of ‘Sunset Kids’ by HOL — it takes me right back to my early ‘90s childhood, but with a modern touch that reminds me of Alvvays. 

Lewis: I really like GHST MDRN, he makes these cinematic post-rock soundscapes. And ‘The Depths’ is one of his most glacial and beautiful tracks.

Alex: I’m enjoying Jack Francis’s track ‘A Little Love’. The combination of old-skool guitar styles with modern vocal and bass production is fresh and tasty.

Want to learn more about the Umbrellabirds?