For those unaware, Virgin Of The Birds is the brainchild of Seattle musician and Abandoned Love Records label head Jon Rooney. Virgin Of The Birds has a new album on the way late this month called Winter Seeds. I recently sat down with Rooney, with whom I’ve been acquainted since my discovery of The Lovely Sparrows back in 2006, to discuss the new release and what he’s been up to these days.
Fense: I’ve been following your path with Virgin of the Birds since the release of Mixed Choir well over half a decade ago. How would you describe the project’s evolution over the years?
Jon: Virgin of the Birds expands and contracts depending on where I am and whether or not I’m playing with anyone else. It started in San Francisco when Morning Spy was at its relative peak as a means to make music in a dictatorship.
When I lived in Austin, I was able to lean on some of the Lovely Sparrows and my friend Jeb to flesh out the band both for recording Mixed Choir and live. The first handful of shows we played, including a session at KVRX, was with that lineup of really talented, skilled musicians. Stephen Piece, who was in the Sparrows at the time and leads a band called Zest of Yore, would pull these amazing guitar solos out of nowhere. It was great but short-lived, as I was short-timing it in Texas.
When I moved to Seattle I was on my own, having suffered through a few failed attempts to find folks via craigslist. Levi Fuller was really the only local musician I knew before moving to Seattle, which was fortuitous since he’s extremely nice, extremely tapped into things and extremely prodigious in terms of projects. He put me on the first dozen bills I played on in Seattle, which I mostly played solo. That’s when I decided to hunker down and teach myself some basic recording stuff and started making the free EPs.
The reception for the first couple of EPs, especially from Matthew Young at Song, By Toad in Edinburgh, was strong enough that I kept at it. That encouragement coupled with some rudimentary recording capabilities enabled me to really get a handle on what I wanted Virgin of the Birds to be in terms of lyrics, sounds, arrangements, even visually.
By the time I decided to make a proper LP, I had a couple dozen new songs to choose from as well as a solid command over my writing. When I first mentioned to Matthew at Song, By Toad that I was going to make a real record, he expressed an interest in reissuing a sort of “best of” from the free EPs at some point, which led to the Abandoned Love disc being included in his label’s recent 5 Year Anniversary Box Set. Song, By Toad is putting out Winter Seeds in the UK, which I’m thrilled about since I love so many of the records they’ve put out (Meursault, Yusuf Azak, Rob St. John, the Sparrow and the Workshop) and their support will be invaluable. They’ve already helped Virgin of the Birds get mentions in the proper UK press and plays on BBC6, making me bizarrely bigger in Scotland than in Seattle.
Fense: Many of the songs we hear on Winter Seeds we’ve heard before, but have been fleshed out with more instrumentation. How did you approach re-recording them for this LP, and is it all Jon Rooney or were others involved in the recording process? In addition, I am particularly interested in the distant, meandering saxophone in “Nine Sisters”.
Jon: I finished recording Fugitive Works right before my son was born – my wife needed me to clear out the office/studio for the nursery. It was a pretty symbolic transition for Virgin of the Birds, potentially into the abyss of responsible adulthood.
I assumed I’d put Virgin of the Birds on ice for a while, maybe contribute to Ball of Wax Quarterly now and again, but Bart Cameron of the Foghorns was really encouraging and suggested I go into a studio to re-record some of the songs from the free EPs. He pointed me to Colin J. Nelson, who runs a studio called Her Car in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood.
For the first few songs, Colin played drums and added some back-up vocals while I layered everything else – not terribly unlike what I was doing at home but with better gear and an engineer who knew what he was doing. I’d given Colin a few records for reference in terms of sound and feel, including John Cale’s Vintage Violence and Big Star’s Third/Sister Lovers, prompting him to introduce me to his new next-door neighbor, a bass player and fellow native Philadelphian named Marc Laurick. Marc was making a record of his own at Her Car and playing a lot those same artists for Colin.
Before long, Marc was playing bass and we tracked about half of the record, including “They Wake”, “Let Me Be Your Bride”, “Every Revelry” and “Love Comes from Centaurs”, live as a trio. Unlike with the EPs, where I layered all sorts of MIDI strings and noise tracks on the songs, the sessions for Winter Seeds were leaner and meaner, in many cases eschewing basic ornaments like guitar solos and chorus-thickening synth parts.
As far as “Nine Sisters” goes – growing up in the 80’s, I was constantly bombarded by terrible saxophone on the radio and MTV. Glenn Frey’s “You Belong to the City” put hate in my heart for the saxophone.
When I later heard stuff like John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Albert Ayers, Roxy Music and the crazy sax on the Stooges’ Fun House, I realized I’d been duped.
Sax is one of those instruments that more musicians than you’d think secretly know how to play (thanks to high school Jazz band programs I guess). Shawn Jones of the Lovely Sparrows is one of those musicians, and he added a skronky sax break to “Love Song for the Silver Age Having Past” from Mixed Choir at my request.
We originally tracked “Nine Sisters” live as a trio but it wasn’t what I was looking for in terms of feel. I decided to give “Nine Sisters” a sparse, acoustic arrangement and thought I might layer in ebow or organ for color. I asked if anyone played sax and it turned out one Casey Ruff, who’s tied into the whole Foghorns/Levi Fuller/Ballard scene, did and lived nearby. A couple of hours later, Casey was at the studio playing over my acoustic guitar and vocal tracks while I berated him to get free and play more out. The world needs no more tasteful saxophone parts. Not a single one.
Fense: “Every Revelry” is the early single, to be released digitally later this month. Are there any other standout or focal tracks that may see a push upon the release of Winter Seeds?
Jon: “Love Comes from Centaurs” is going to be the next feature track, hopefully with a video as well if I can pull something together. “They Wake” and “Let Me Be Your Bride” are sort of the focal points of the record aesthetically, which is why they open the first side. I went through a period when I felt that “The Serpent Plume” was the best thing I’d ever written, and maybe ever would, but we don’t even play that one live right now.
Listen to “Every Revelry” via Soundcloud and watch the video below, then jump down for the rest of the interview.
Fense: One thing I admire about Virgin of the Birds is the songwriting. It’s much more literary than you typically find in music, no matter the genre. From where do you draw inspiration when you write a new song?
Jon: A lot of the inspiration comes from other music, stuff like Pavement, Television, Bowie, Frog Eyes, Yo La Tengo, Destroyer, the Delgados, T. Rex and Luna that I’ve loved over the years. Musically, Virgin of the Birds really doesn’t digress much from the lineage of bands using the third Velvet Underground record as a template, though my primary songwriting influence is (or should be) the same as everyone else’s: Bob Dylan. Dylan’s less-heralded period around Street Legal, Shot of Love, Infidels, even the Christian records, in particular, holds a central place for me.
I do care a lot about lyrics, which take up the bulk of the time it takes me to finish a song. There are a handful of authors whose work I really love and reread pretty regularly: Beckett, Joyce, Pynchon, Anais Nin, Nabakov, Denis Johnson. I’m late to the party with Flannery O’Connor and regret being so. I occasionally end up in weird nonfiction jags where I’ll jump into something like the Russian front in WWII or Catholic heresy and emerge relatively unscathed. I love rock writers like Greil Marcus, Victor Bockris and Lester Bangs, but it bums me out that they seem to have no real heirs. Process-wise, I scribble phrases and ideas on scrap paper I use as bookmarks while I read and return to them when it’s time to hammer out a song.
Movies often help get me into a mood where I can write. I can’t say they impact content much, though “Ilona, You Should Still Be My Vampire Attendant” is about a Belgian horror movie called Daughters of Darkness.
Fense: Over the past several years, you’ve released a number of digital demo EPs, each with consistently distinctive artwork. Who’s the sketch artist and how did you/they approach the change from the demo art to that for the cover of Winter Seeds?
Jon: The artwork for Mixed Choir was done by Julie Hill, whose poster work I’d seen and really liked.
I did the all of the simple drawings for the digital EPs.
For Winter Seeds, I stayed with the casual line drawing idea but, in keeping with the more fully-formed nature of the music, wanted a fuller visual concept. I’ve been trying to work up some design chops by making show posters for Virgin of the Birds and a few other folks, so I wasn’t totally helpless in Photoshop.
Even though the drawings were mine, a talented Seattle designer named McKenna Haley helped with the layout, typography and overall quality control.
Fense: Switching over to Abandoned Love Records. Any other releases slated for 2014?
Jon: Nothing set, but I’ve started writing for the next Virgin of the Birds release and we’ve already tracked a couple of songs, so if things move quickly and Winter Seeds is well received, maybe we’ll put something else out by the end of 2014.
Also, the beloved Lovely Sparrows have something new in the works and I’m always up for helping them out in any way, though they deserve much more push and support than ALR can offer. Shawn Jones (lead Sparrow) and I have traded some emails recently and I believe he’s gotten a new band together and fleshed out a new bunch of songs in the studio. I’ve had rough demos for a mythical 2nd Lovely Sparrows LP in my possession for a couple of years now and the songs are fantastic.