After years of building chemistry and developing their musicianship, The Stray Birds have found something very special with their upcoming album Magic Fire.
And that’s saying something, considering they’ve already received bountiful critical praise since their 2014 breakthrough album, “Best Medicine.”
The upcoming record is their fourth career release and second on label Yep Roc Records. It’s also a big step forward in every way. The Stray Birds enlisted legendary Larry Campbell to produce. Campbell’s career includes stints touring with Bob Dylan and production work with artists like Levon Helm.
The result is captivating. But more on that later.
First, check out our exclusive acoustic video for “Somehow,” which they performed live in a chapel in Hillsborough, N.C., the home of their label. The bare bones performance exemplifies their gorgeous harmonies and string band arrangement.
Oliver Craven told Wide Open Country “Somehow” has a few different inspirations. “The first seed was firmly planted when I was at a party in East Nashville and two relatively popular country musicians didn’t really do much justice to a Dolly Parton & Porter Wagoner song,” says Craven. “Everyone continued to fawn over the two that day and it made me feel just awkward enough to want to write and perform a lovelorn country duet of my own. Then one day it hit me that “some” was the start to a lot of really good words, and I enjoyed using that wordplay to start to organize the chorus.”
Bandmate Maya de Vitry stepped in to help with the rest. Craven notes the song eventually took on more of an Everly Brothers vibe as opposed to Dolly and Porter.
They also began collaborating with a percussionist named Shane Leonard, who dove into the trio’s new tunes with them in an intense pre-production session. The result led to an entirely new dynamic for the string band, and a clear injection of energy into the group’s already award-winning sound.
Craven says it’s an obvious growth the exemplifies a less obvious one. ” I think the more definitive ways that we have evolved in the life of our band have been in the way that we’ve really opened ourselves up to creative collaboration with each other, and in the way we have grown increasingly musically tighter, finding the ability through non-verbal language to communicate with each other when we play together,” he says. “We are more of a singular unit now than we’ve ever been.”
The Pennsylvania-based but also kind of Nashville-based trio has its performing roots dating back to 2010. That’s when Maya and Oliver first took a shot at open mic nights. They also set up some crates and performed at the local farmers market.
“We would go in, and there’s a market master who we would get permission from to play at one of the empty stands at the market,” de Vitry told The Bluegrass Situation. “We’d just play for tips, buy a couple of Italian subs, and call it a day. That was how I started feeling comfortable singing my own songs and coming out of that shell.”
Eventually, Charles Muench joined the two, rounding out the trio. They’re all multi-instrumentalists, and they all sing. It allows great flexibility in their arrangements and harmonies. They rotate through guitars, fiddles, banjos and upright bass with ease. They maintain their tight vocal chemistry by freeing each other up instrumentally.
On Magic Fire, the addition of drums adds a pop to all of it. Songs like “Sunday Morning” pluck along with confident, cheery swing. And then, immediately after, “Mississippi Pearl” waltzes in with a breezy, bluesy melancholy.
Album opener “Shining In The Distance” is a triumphant collaboration with Lindsay Lou. The two had coincidentally packed their bags for Nashville in 2015. They found kindred spirits in each other. And in their quest to dig deeper into their new city. In the song, a soaring refrain of, “Is it not time?” feels practically religious.
But every time you think you know what The Stray Birds are about, they give you something just a little different next. Clearly, their time with Larry Campbell was well spent.
Craven says they hope it all just leads to something inspiring. “I hope when listening to Magic Fire, regardless of whether its to do something as simple and enjoyable as dancing and singing along, or if it’s something as challenging and difficult as facing the uglier realities that we’re confronted with in life with hope and positive action, that people find themselves inspired by this music,” he says. “That’s what our favorite music does for us, and we hope that ours can do as much for others.”
The Stray Birds’ Magic Fire is out today, Aug. 19. Currently, they’re on the road in parts of the Northeast and Midwest. You can find a full list of tour dates at their official website.