Life on the road as touring musicians can be demanding. But long days driving and late nights on stage aren’t the only enduring requirements for the husband-and-wife-fronted Birds of Chicago. JT Nero and Allison Russell decided to bring their 3-year-old daughter along for the ride. The pair started touring with their daughter before she turned 1 and say her presence has caused them to tour smarter.
“She’s taught us to say no to some things,” Nero says. “If someone said, ‘Hey, I know you have this show in Albuquerque, New Mexico, but there’s a cool radio thing that happens the next morning in Austin, Texas, so if you drive through the night after your show you can make it just in time,’ we would just do it.” Instead, the couple finds themselves taking detours to parks and playgrounds.
Birds of Chicago
The Southern Café and Music Hall
Nero and Russell initially met through mutual musician friends and reconnected when Russell was in Po’ Girl and Nero in JT & the Clouds. After crossing paths frequently, they decided to get serious about their own musical collaborations, as well as their personal life. The duo released the album Birds of Chicago in 2012 and married in 2013. Although initially just an album title, the name stuck as the collective’s form of identification. “I kind of like it because the idea was that it’s a collective,” says Nero. “It’s built around Allison and me, but there’s a kind of tribe of conspirators that are involved and the name hints at that a bit. But the shorter answer could have been: We really like birds and we’re from Chicago.”
Birds pop up as symbols in the band’s lyrics—take “Pelicans” and “Sparrow” from their 2016 album, Real Midnight. Listeners get touches of soulful gospel-tinged rock, but there’s a deeper melancholy vibe with several tracks touching on mortality. Nero says a large portion of the record was inspired by the birth of their daughter.
“In some ways it was the happiest year of our lives but I think when you experience that kind of happiness you’re also really aware of how easy it can get ripped away and how fragile everything is,” he says. “You’re that much more aware of the shadows creeping in.”
Just as they share an equal role in parenting, Russell and Nero also share vocals on the album. Nero is intuitive, knowing that certain songs he writes are meant for Russell to sing.
“Sparrow” and “Barley,” on Real Midnight were written by Russell, who drew inspiration from her Scottish-Canadian heritage.
“Her grandma grew up singing her a lot of the really old Scottish and Irish folk tunes and weird old murder ballads and things like that,” Nero says. “On ‘Barley’ she was really tapping into those old traditions.”
Birds of Chicago just finished recording Love in Wartime, produced by Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars. Nero believes it has a more rock ’n’ roll feel and less melancholy elements, while thematically, it revolves around love.
“I think it’s the idea that there’s always wartime. There’s always forces out there trying to extinguish love. It’s just a weird self-destructive gene that humans have in them,” says Nero. “We wanted to write a record about love. I feel like people could use some good news more than ever right now with a good rock ’n’ roll beat behind it.”