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Interview: Stephen Joffe and Adrian Morningstar of Birds of Bellwoods

On October 19, Birds of Bellwoods is finally releasing their highly anticipated album, Victoria. The alt-rock band made quite an impact with their strong harmonies and style this year during an impressive tour and performances at large name festivals in Canada. The band members include Stephen Joffe (lead vocals, mandolin), Adrian Morningstar (guitar, vocals), Chris Blades (banjo, vocals) and Kintaro Akiyama (upright bass, vocals). Fun ensued when I caught up with Joffe and Morningstar to talk about their instruments, theatre background, and the new album.

Which instruments does your band use? 

Joffe: It kinda started with me and Adrian playing mandolin and guitar together. We also have an upright bass and a banjo. Working into the live show now we have, as well as the drums, there’s SPD trigger pads and some electric guitars.

How did you two pick mandolin and guitar?

Joffe: Honestly, I think I saw a video from Blogothèque of Mumford & Sons playing “The Banjolin Song” live in a little alleyway in France. I heard mandolin to my knowledge for the first time then. It was pretty late in the game. I was like, “Oh, that’s the sound I’ve been looking for.” Because to me, there’s truly nothing on the earth quite like a mandolin. It has a particular tone that I’m absolutely in love with. I taught myself to play it and now, here I am.

Morningstar: As for myself, I don’t think necessarily I chose to play acoustic guitar. It was just something I had been playing for some time. As an instrumentalist, you just sort of find the instruments that work best with the songs you’re writing. The time we started writing music together was definitely heavily influenced by love songs. And what makes a love song other than an acoustic guitar? A lonely dude with an acoustic guitar!

Joffe: In our work now, Adrian is moving into playing a lot of other instruments. I think we’re all branching out that way. The mandolin and the acoustic were a staple of the original live shows. They’ll always be around!

Where does your band name come from?

Joffe: Bellwoods is the name of a park in Toronto, Trinity Bellwoods Park. It has to do with that. It has to do with having a little bit of something rural in the middle of an urban center. Bellwoods was a place that we would all hang out, drink, and play music.

You have bold choices when it comes to cover songs: Radiohead, Neil Young, Portugal the Man. What’s your approach with taking on a cover song?

Morningstar: I think when we first started, even just the idea of playing a cover, we were sort of like, “What’s the wildest, most outlandish songs that we could turn acoustic?” It just happened to be this Radiohead [song] “Idioteque,” you know, a quite electronic-sounding song that we transformed entirely, in my opinion.

Joffe: (laughs) Yeah, I think one of the main goals was that if we’re going to cover a song, then there has to be a reason that we’re covering it. It shouldn’t just sound like a worse version of the original song. We want to reveal something in it that was there all along, but with a different instrumentation or a different composition.

Having both been through the National Theatre School, how would you say those skills carry over to your music and performance?

Joffe: I think the skills we learned at the National Theatre School and as an actor are translatable almost into any profession. With music, it really helps me like a feedback loop where they influenced each other. Music, in a lot of ways, made me a better actor. When you play live music, you come to realize that everyone is there to have a good time. No one goes to a show with the intention of having a bad night. You have them behind you out of the gate. Then you have to take that energy and magnify it. Acting teaches you to engage better with an audience, to tell a story, and to speak clearly and from the heart. Also, to be flexible (laughs) physically and in terms of what can happen at any time on a stage.

Morningstar: I would say you pretty much covered most, if not all, of the bases there. (laughs)

Joffe: Yeah. (laughs) Emotional availability of an actor is what I would say is the biggest thing. As an actor, you have a responsibility to connect honestly with your audience. Once you’ve used that technical prowess, that’s when you create a really spectacular show.

Birds of Bellwoods band membersWe’ll let Adrian start this one off. If you could pick, which actor or actress would you like to have on one of your music videos?

Morningstar: Ewan McGregor!

Joffe: Yeah!

Morningstar: I think [he] would be a fun representation of our band in a weird way. (laughs)

Joffe: Or a young Leonardo DiCaprio. (laughs) I worked on a TV show called Alias Grace here in Canada with an actress named Sarah Gadon. [She] is doing amazing things. I think it would be really cool to collaborate with her again on a project.

How would you characterize your development since your EP The Fifth to this upcoming release, Victoria?

Morningstar: I think our process has sorta changed entirely when it comes to songwriting and creating the live show. When we started, we didn’t really have a process other than, “Here’s a song. Let’s make it better.” Now, we have a pretty strict regiment of how we approach something, build on it, take pieces away, and transform something that until then, never existed. Also, the instrumentation has changed. The subject matter has evolved.

Joffe: It’s interesting because the finished version [of] this project is something we’ve been sitting on for about a year now because it’s a process. We got signed by eOne, and then the release strategy was pushed back to do it the long way, but the right way. It’s a time capsule at this point, like any album is. It’s cool now to be releasing it from a place where we’re all looking back at the content. We’ve changed since then, so we can see who we were a year ago.

From our early work, it’s definitely more of an expansion than a departure, if that makes sense. It’s still focused on songwriting and earnest storytelling. It’s interesting to me that “My Heart Is Yours” is one of the songs that latched on for you. because in a lot of ways that song is most reminiscent of our old stuff. We’ve expanded our sound to include a lot more, to get a little heavier, more reminiscent of our very energetic live shows.

Could you go into more about the theme of the album?

Joffe: We were joking around a little while ago that another name for the album would have been I Love You, But Also I’m Getting Older. A lot of these songs are about romantic love in the context of being in your twenties and watching purportedly the most ambitious years passing by. It’s also your successes and shames for the way that you’re growing: I loved you, I’m sorry, I’m leaving, I’m here, [and] the hopes, doubts, and fears. It’s all that good first album shit. (laughs)

Morningstar: (laughs)

Was there a track in particular you weren’t sure about at first, but the fans really embraced it?

Joffe: All of them!

Morningstar: All of them is a good answer! I would say “Something Good” is the one I’m sorta most terrified about –

Joffe: Yeah!

Morningstar: – because I think pretty blatantly that it’s the least like our old music.

Joffe: We always have based what our recorded work is going to be on audience response in a way. We always let our shows lead the way. The biggest response we get at our live show, I think at this point, is [for] a song called, “A Year Ago.” That went through the most change in terms of a feedback loop of performing it with the audience. Do you think that’s fair, Adrian?

Morningstar: Yeah.

Having just wrapped up your tour, how was the overall experience for you both?

Joffe: Oh, it’s the best. The road is a wonderful place full of hilarious stories, stupid decisions, and wonderful new friends and old friends. I love it very much. At the same time, then you get home. You know, you have to adapt –

Morningstar: So depressed!

Joffe: Yes, real bad, man! I have a cat and my cat does not give a f*** about how many people I’ve played for. (laughs) She’s not going to s*** any more or less just because I’ve played Osheaga.

Morningstar: Or care about you anymore?

Joffe: (laughs) No! She has no idea I’m in a band.

Morningstar: I would say one the best things about being on the road for me, is that you can have some of the best times with your best friends like at a gas station. In the weirdest of places, your eyes just open and you’re having the time of your life with some of the most monotonous stuff ever. Like, “I want an ice cream. Wow this is going to be the best time of my life.”

Joffe: It’s like, “Where am I? Playing music got me here. I am so lucky to be alive right now.” We love the road very much. Some of the festivals we played, like Festival D’ete, Osheaga, and Hillside, are festivals we’ve been aware of since we started playing. To finally put our name on that lineup meant a lot.

Whose idea was it to start your own carpool karaoke videos? 

Joffe: Adrian, was that you or Kintaro?

Morningstar: I think it was more Kintaro. We started that on our first tour. I think we decided that on tour, we would all wear onesies when we were driving the car.

Joffe: Yeah, that fell away.

Morningstar: It fell away almost immediately after the first day. Those are great! It was something between the onesies and driving in the car [ideas] where we were like, “We need to film this.” It just so happened that we started our little 15-second covers.

Joffe: The thing that really inspired the 15-second covers was being in a car for 16 hours. Eventually, you’re going to make a carpool karaoke.

Morningstar: I also think it was one of the ways we would be able to highlight the harmonies that we work into our music. Sometimes at a live show depending on the sound in the hall or whatever, some things get lost. In a car with only four vocals, it really shines through. It’s another way to share that with our audience.

Joffe: Also for practicing.

Morningstar: And practicing. Gotta get better somehow, right?

What’s next for Birds of Bellwoods?

Morningstar: We get to drop the album!

Joffe: We are looking to do some dates in Canada in the fall once we release the album. We are also looking into winter dates and getting on the road for that. We are back in the studio working on new music. When the time comes to deliver a follow-up to Victoria, we’ll be ready. Honestly, let’s release this album and then we’ll see. It’s been so long leading up to this. We’re ready to let it off and watch it go.

Well, I’m looking forward to seeing how much the fans love the new album. 

Joffe: Thanks for taking the time to chat with us!

Morningstar: Thank you so much!

About Pat Cuadros

Pat Cuadros earned a B.A. in Art History on a full scholarship at the University of Virginia. Pat is a frequent reviewer of all things Washington, D.C., but she's also covered events in Canada and London. Highlights in her work include articles on Ian McKellen and Mark Rylance, as well as memorable interviews with Lawrence Gowan of Styx, Tony Bennett, and Kiefer Sutherland. At Awesome Con 2017, Pat moderated a Q&A for voice actors Sean Schemmel and Christopher Sabat.

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