Birds of Bellwoods are releasing their debut album, Victoria, on October 20. Photo by: Samantha Hurley
Beauty still persists among the hate and madness of the world, and it has the power to counteract hate. This was apparent when the audience all stood up to cheer for the Birds of Bellwoods the moment they jumped on stage.
Birds of Bellwoods is a Toronto-based modern folk quartet comprised of longtime pals Stephen Joffe (mandolin and lead vocals) and Adrian Morningstar (guitar and vocals), as well as Kintaro Akiyama (upright bass and vocals) and Chris Blades (banjo and vocals). All four members have a strong background in the world of music and have been playing classical instruments from a very young age, which is evident in their masterful composition of melodies and their seemingly effortless synchrony in vocal harmonies.
Their background in acting really showed through in their live performance on the last day of the Hillside Festival at Guelph Lake Conservation Area. Their energetic set was accompanied by a choreography that was complementary rather than unnecessarily complicated. In fact, it was downright beautiful. When all four members of Birds of Bellwoods step up to the mic, something amazing happens. Their voices play off each other and the audience is reminded of all the beauty in the world left to fight for. AJ’s Karin Lee sat down with the band to ask them about their music and this year’s Hillside theme: countering hate with beauty - something the Birds of Bellwoods clearly know a lot about.
Is this your first time at Hillside?
How are you enjoying it so far?
Kintaro: So far so good. We’ve been here for about an hour but we’ve seen some interesting people, the vibe seems really nice. A good mix of families and elder people, younger people.
Stephen: It’s cool to see the lineup and how much to look forward to this year. A lot of bands from Canada that we’ve looked forward to seeing play for quite some time who are playing in the next two days and we’re gonna try to catch as much as we can.
Who are you most excited to see perform?
Kintaro: I’m super excited to see Rhye. I really enjoy their music.
Stephen: Rhye, obviously, I’m also looking forward to. He’s our label mate, so it’d be cool to see someone from inside of the family. Also for me personally, I saw Anemone at CMW this year. She blew my mind, I can’t wait to see that again. And then Partner. I think I missed Iskwé, which is really unfortunate. But our pal Mappe Of is also playing, and he’s got old-timey spelling so you know it’s good. Oh, and Cadence Weapon too. [And] Chad van Gaalen.
Chris: I’m excited to see Plants and Animals tomorrow. They’re my cousin brothers. I have older siblings and they were their favorite band for a long time. I’ve heard about them forever.
The four-man band consists of Kintaro Akiyama, Stephen Joffe, Adrian Morningstar, and Chris Blades (from left to right). Photo: Markian Lozochuk
The theme for Hillside this year is Counter Hate with Beauty. How do you guys see your music fitting in with this theme?
Adrian: I mean have you seen Kintaro’s hair? It’s gorgeous.
Kintaro: Unfortunately hair can’t do much to counter hate.
Adrian: It’s kind of a dark, crazy time in the world right now with all the politics and the wars and everything going on and we don’t have to get into the specifics about that, but I mean it can make people cynical if they don’t think that there’s any beauty in the world. They think that we’re just living in an ashtray that’s going way downhill every month and I think really beautiful art and things that make us feel really cathartic and keep it real, make us remember that we’re alive, can really counteract that cynicism.
... it can make people cynical if they don’t think that there’s any beauty in the world. They think that we’re just living in an ashtray that’s going way downhill every month and I think really beautiful art and things that make us feel really cathartic and keep it real, make us remember that we’re alive, can really counteract that cynicism.
Truth and honesty seem to be a recurring theme in your music from what I’ve read online about your stuff. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
Kintaro: I think it’s not only our music but kind of how we choose to live our lives. I know it’s a very hard concept to grasp, it’s easier said than done. But I think in a kind of everyday and everything we do, we try to be truthful to ourselves and how we envision ourselves, what we wanna portray to the rest of the people. I think as musicians, if you can get other people on board, being truthful to themselves, you might try to in the same way to spread that love.
Adrian: I think in the very fundamental level, if you can just stop lying altogether, it’ll vastly improve your life, you know? To yourself and to others.
What is your collective focus or goal as a band?
Adrian: I would say a big one is to reach as many people as possible and to create a community as large and inviting as we can.
Stephen: And to create cathartic and unique experiences that people take home and that can kind of guide them through moments of difficulty and personal doubt.
Kintaro: I think as musicians you are given this crazy opportunity to make people reflect on who they are and kind of be a guiding light in a certain way. That’s not to say we’re the only ones but as musicians and artists and people in general. But as a performer you have the ability to try and do that. It’s not easy but someone’s gotta do it.
Can you walk me through how you make music in general?
Stephen: Every song really finds its way very differently. Some songs come more from specific musical licks or words that someone has in their mind and sometimes they’ll arrive kind of cohesively out of a jam session. Depending on the song, it’s a very different process. We try to maintain that to a certain degree. We try to make sure that we don’t turn the magic into science.
Adrian: Also just realizing that one of our ideas or songs isn’t a song until everyone has introduced their voice to it.
Chris: At the end of the day, whatever works. Chris Thile once said that it’s what makes everyone go, “Duh, of course that’s what we’re gonna do with the song!” that makes everyone go on board with it.
Stephen: Yeah, there’s a luxury in collaborating with people who you trust and you love, because even if there are moments of uncertainty personally, you can go like, “Hey, let’s roll with this!” And most of the time when you go down the road a little bit, everyone knows if it’s hot or not.
I think as musicians you are given this crazy opportunity to make people reflect on who they are and kind of be a guiding light in a certain way.
How do you feel like music has affected your acting or vice versa, if at all?
Stephen: For me, music has allowed me to be a lot more honest and direct. I think I learned through music that no one comes to a show hoping to have a bad time. Everyone comes there, from the gate they’re on your side.
Chris: Except for critics.
Stephen: Yeah, except for critics, that’s why you never trust a critic. Yeah, everyone’s just there to have a good time and to have a cathartic experience, right? So music has allowed me to relax a lot in my acting. And also this is advice that I’m now comfortable giving to any actor is when you’re auditioning, say, for film and television or for theater. The way I say it is that it makes your palms sweaty. And when you shake someone’s hand and their palm is sweaty, it can be a little off-putting and it can create this really effortful acting that can be very dishonest. So music has allowed me to, in a way, I guess care less, and therefore be able to give more.
Adrian: It’s like, “I’m good, I don’t need this.”
Stephen: “I don’t need you. But I am available.”
Birds of Bellwoods performed Melatonin, a single they will be releasing shortly following their HIllside performance. Photo by: Karin Lee
What do you wish was different about the music industry?
Kintaro: About the music industry? That’s a really big question, which is also interesting because it’s changing so rapidly, so just trying to kind of identify the trends of how things are actually shifting is the biggest part of the music industry, ‘cause how it is today is not how it is tomorrow. It would be nice to get paid.
Adrian: I guess a good way to put it is I wish music was valued as much as any other product, like a sandwich or a garment or something like that, [like] a beer that people pay for, that people respect and admire and realize the value of.
Stephen: Yeah. How many times do you hear, “I don’t have money for a CD,” and then that person goes and buys six beers?
Aside from the Victoria LP, which I hear is released at the end of 2018, are you working on anything else?
Stephen: Yeah, I mean we’re always working on new music ‘cause we finished recording Victoria a little while ago and we can’t really sit on our hands so we’ve got easily another 10, 20 songs that we’re cooking on for down the road. At the show at Hillside we’re gonna play a song that’s written well after the album was finished recording. It’s a song called Walking in Circles that I think we’ve all come to love a lot. We should say one exciting thing that’s coming at the end of the month is we have a song called Melatonin, which will be I think one of the first ones we’ll play at the festival tomorrow, and that’s the single we’re gonna be releasing very shortly. It’s gonna be our next one off the album.
So I was listening to your music yesterday. I really like this one song called A Year Ago. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Stephen: I can tell you a little bit just like where the chorus started. I have a very good friend, his name is Connor, and when we went out west and we played Jasper Folk Music Festival, one year he came and met us there and we were all young and fresh and we partied till the sun came up. And I hadn’t seen him in a little while so it was great to catch up with him. And then we went our separate ways and he was out west and I was back in Toronto. When it came time for us to come back out west to play again the next year, I called him up to see if he wanted to meet us again, with his truck and his dog. He’s like, “I can’t.” I said, “Why?” and he goes, “I’m married and I have a kid.” And it’s like, “What? I saw you a year ago.” And he’s like, “That’s all it takes.” That kind of became our chorus. But the way that song became a song as we kind of said earlier as we were talking about songwriting is we all came together and kind of jammed on it for I think six to eight hours.
Adrian: If you wanna know too, that’s kind of part of the broader themes of the album is growing up and getting older and realizing that life is fading fast. And we have another song there called Catching Up. “It’s all catching up to me.” Everyone’s youth fades.
Birds of Bellwoods performed at Hillside Festival 2018 at Guelph Lake Conservation Area. Photo by: Karin Lee
Below is the chorus taken from A Year Ago, a track which will be featured in Birds of Bellwoods’ upcoming debut album. Victoria LP will be self-released this year on October 20.
We were young a year ago
That's all it takes
That's all it takes
We were young a year ago
Is it too late?
Is it too late?
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