When I’m writing in the office, I listen to a lot of podcasts.
These days, they’re more often than not talk-centred shows, based around personal stories or culture or politics or feminism. I know not everybody can pair that sort of discussion with writing about often complex legal issues, but it’s a groove that works for me – certainly, better than ambient office noise does. But I do still listen to music-centred shows – NPR’s All Songs Considered, and the Edinburgh Man and Song, By Toad podcasts based here in Scotland – and there are few things I love more than being hit between the ears by a song I’d never have come across any other way and instantly fall in love with.
God, I miss music podcasts.
Basically, this is a really rambly, roundabout way of introducing Virgin of the Birds as one of those discoveries and pointing you in the direction of his 2016 album, Secret Kids.
The musical alter-ego of Seattle-based Jon Rooney and a sometime rotating cast of characters and collaborators, Virgin of the Birds came my way through Edinburgh’s Song, By Toad record label, podcast and increasingly occasional music blog. Where mine and Matthew’s tastes intersect seems to be at a combination of sprawling but gorgeous melodies and apocryphal lyrics: Virgin of the Birds first hit me, back in 2014 or so, in the same spot mid-chest as Old Earth, another via-Matthew discovery. Rooney’s compositions are tighter though, and tied more to the often grandiose stories that he tells: I see him as a folk musician in the proper oral tradition meaning, although there’s no indication that the yarns that he spins ever lived anywhere but in him.
Rooney is currently in the UK for a few dates with London’s Storm the Palace, culminating with the Song, By Toad Christmas party/Great Big Meursault EP Launch/Return to Music-Making show at the Happiness Hotel in Leith on Friday night. I won’t be there, as I’ll be in Edinburgh the day after – but if you can be, you should. And if you can’t, you should buy this wonderful album for the person you love the most (yourself) as a Christmas present.
LYG: How did you get started writing music and performing?
JON ROONEY: I was a relatively late bloomer – while I grew up obsessed with music and playing bass in my bedroom along to Lou Reed records, I didn’t play in a band until after university, when I kind of willed myself into a local folk band as the bass player. I always wanted to write songs, and when I co-founded Morning Spy after moving to San Francisco years ago I put myself on the spot to produce. My earliest songs were barely disguised rewrites of Galaxie 500 tunes, but I’ve kept at it.
Three words to describe your sound…
Wordy guitar pop.
There’s something grandiose, almost literary, about your song titles and lyrics. What inspires the songs that you write?
I got very heavily into Bob Dylan when I was really young, then I got into Lou Reed and their connections to the poets Allen Ginsberg and Delmore Schwartz, respectively, hardwired a link between song lyrics and literature for me. That became the bar for me lyrically, which I’ve vainly fumbled for ever since. A lot of inspiration comes from books and films, occasionally something from my actual, rather than imagined, life will find its way into a song. There are a lot of little place names and other references to the Philadelphia area, where I grew up, all over Secret Kids.
You’re based in Seattle, but have been releasing music through Edinburgh’s Song, By Toad records since 2014-odds. How did your relationship with the Scottish label come about?
In 2009, having moved to Seattle from Austin, where I left the first real incarnation of Virgin of the Birds behind, a friend gave me a Pro Tools rig and I decided to teach myself home recording while making a series of EPs. I emailed the first one I finished, Every Rival, to the Song, By Toad blog after reading Matthew’s thoughtful review of a Lord Cut Glass record (I’ve long been a big fan of the Delgados) and he wrote a nice post about it. I made another EP, Dear Furies, almost immediately and Matthew wrote a nice post about that as well. That winter my wife and I were visiting friends in Dublin and we were heading to Edinburgh for New Years, so I emailed Matthew to see if he could help me get a coffee shop gig or anything and I ended up playing in his living room on New Years Eve alongside Broken Records. From there, I kept recording stuff and home that Matthew continue to write about. By the time I had formed a proper band and finished recording Winter Seeds in a real studio, Matthew asked about putting out songs from the EPs on the Song, By Toad 5th Anniversary Box set. That led to both releases coming out in 2014 and the first of my now-annual pilgrimages to Edinburgh to play music, drink a bit and hang around with folks for a few days.
I’m always interested by what come across as solo/songwriter-driven projects where the music isn’t released in that songwriter’s name. What does Virgin of the Birds mean to you?
I stole the concept from the Lilys, Destroyer or Cat Power – just the notion of a musical project that can be a solo performer sitting at a piano or guitar or a bigger band and still be that same entity, playing a set of songs and chasing down an idea or set of ideas. This way, Virgin of the Birds can expand and contract as members move on or other things change. Colin J. Nelson has been both the drummer and engineer/producer going back to the making of Winter Seeds, so it’s been great to have a consistent, dedicated collaborator. But it’s also nice to throw in folks on the fly, like the members of Storm the Palace who will be rounding out Virgin of the Birds while I’m in the UK, and see how that changes the music.
The name comes, I believe, from a Salvador Dali painting, and there’s quite a striking visual element to your releases (the artwork couldn’t belong to anybody else). Is that your own artwork, and what connects the visual and the audio in what you produce?
Yes, it’s been all my artwork since I started making the free EPs. Those EPs were recorded as almost home demos or sketches, so the simple line drawings were meant to mirror that. With the two LPs, I’ve tried to expand the artwork to meet the expanded scope of the recordings, but my illustration skills are limited at this point. I’m working on it though…
Some of the songs on this year’s album, Secret Kids, date back a number of years – “Queen of Sweden” for example. Why have they waited so long for them to see an ‘official’ release, and how have these songs grown since they were initially recorded and put online?
Being reared on Dylan, I’ve always thought of a song and performances or recordings of a song as two totally different things, so I always assumed some of songs from the rough home recordings would get a fuller treatment at some point. The biggest way these songs have grown has come about from being performed live with a band. The version of “The Queen of Sweden” on Secret Kids is very much a band collaboration, which Colin handing the synth brass arrangements and my friend Bart Cameron from the Foghorns on ripping lead guitar and background vocals.
What have you got coming up in terms of touring, other projects etc, going into 2017?
I have shows while I’m over here to promote Secret Kids in London (at Jamboree) on the 30th and Coventry (at Inspire) on the 1st with my friends Storm the Palace. Then we’re headed up Edinburgh for the Song, By Toad Christmas Party with Meursault and Faith Eliott on the 2nd. Afterwards I’m going to hang around for a couple of days and record with Faith and Neil from Meursault in between talking nonsense and listening to records. We have one more Virgin of the Birds show in Seattle on December 22nd before getting into more recording and local gigs in the new year.
And what are you listening to at the moment (bonus points for any ‘best of 2016’ picks!)
My favorite albums of 2016 are: Nap Eyes, Thought Rock Fish Scale; Modern Studies, Swell to Great; Various Artists, Song, By Toad Split 12” Volume 4 (not my songs – my narcissism has limits – the other songs are amazing); Faith Eliott, Insects; Amanda Bergman, Docks.
Other stuff I’ve been listening to a lot at the moment: The Feelies, Crazy Rhythms; Nina Simone, To Love Somebody; The Shivers, More; Miles Davis’ live electric stuff from 1973-75.
Virgin of the Birds on tour:
TONIGHT! LONDON, Jamboree (with Storm the Palace)
01/12 COVENTRY, Inspire (with Storm the Palace)
02/12 EDINBURGH, The Happiness Hotel for the Song, By Toad Christmas Show with Meursault, Faith Eliott.