Top: Two Dark Birds, with front man Steve Koester in center.
Above: Video for "Song for Clementine."
It's been a month since the band Two Dark Birds released its second album, Songs for the New. Steve Koester, the group's front man, is from Milwaukee, but you wouldn't know it: the new album is all about the Catskills. Koester cut his teeth performing in mutliple groups in the Midwest and has spent most of the last decade living in New York City. But like many a burned-out flatlander, he decided a few years back to say goodbye to all that.
He now lives with his wife and daughter in a house on top of Pakatakan Mountain near Arkville, and Two Dark Birds is following in his city-fleeing footsteps, playing thoughtfully imagined tunes that run the gamut of American influences from country to rock to soul. (Curious about the band's influences? They just made a mix tape for MAGNET Magazine of 12 songs that inspired Songs for the New. Listen here.)
A single from Songs for the New is "Song for Clementine," which is an ode to Koester's daughter, Iris, and his new mountain life. Erica Hill, an artist and director from Andes, shot a music video for the single out in the Catskills woods earlier this year -- you can watch it above.
We emailed with Koester this week about the new album -- you can read our conversation below.
Q: You pulled up stakes in NYC to settle in the mountains, and this new album reflects that transition. What about the Catskills has been distilled into your songs?
A: We live on Pakatakan Mountain and I spend a lot of time wandering (and sometimes chopping) the woods. I'd been pretty much a city boy my entire adult life, so to be out amongst the hemlocks and animals and -- maybe most significantly -- the quiet again was a radical transition for me. Without the noise, you are able to hear what Burroughs called the "still, small voice of the soul." I think most people would just say that I could hear myself think again. The new album isn't particularly quiet or still, but there's definitely more of it in there -- the songs are more centered than my previous work.
Plus, a lot of the songs are set on the mountain -- there's a lot of nature in the lyrics and whatnot. In short, I'm hoping that when you put on the CD you can smell the pine & woodsmoke.
Q: You've talked about engaging with a "Catskills sound." What do you mean?
A: I think this area has, historically, a sound to it. It's a mix of folk and soul and country and rock. An intermingling of acoustic and electric instruments. It's a little bit hillbilly and a little bit urban. I'm thinking a lot in particular of the great records that were made around Woodstock in the late '60s and early '70s. The Band's first couple records. Dylan's output from that period. Van Morrison's Tupelo Honey & Moondance. And, maybe my favorite of the lot, Karen Dalton's In My Own Time. They all have this loose American soulfulness that centers around folk-rock but isn't limited to it. It's roots music, but filtered through a more urbane viewpoint. Not that that's any better (or worse) than pure country music - that's just where these guys were all coming from, and where we're coming from too. . . You still hear those sounds in a lot of bands around here. And, with Songs for the New we were definitely feeding off of it, but trying to bring it to a current place, and put our own stamp on it.
Q: The video for "Song for Clementine" features your band out in the woods with your daughter. How'd you get the idea for the video? Where was it shot and who shot it?
A: Erica Hill is a director from Delancey. It's actually her daughter Coco who is the star of the video. My daughter Iris is in there in a cameo (she's a little young to hold down a lead role at this point). The song is, in essence, trying to communicate the spiritual re-birth that I felt, and I know a lot of people feel, when they first have a kid. I have not written many "up" songs in my career, so -- being a dude and somewhat morose one at that-- this one kinda embarrassed me a bit at first. Then I just decided to embrace it and make the song as joyful as we could -- we added that ascending “triumphant” trumpet arrangement at the end with that in mind. . . Erica has two daughters so she could relate. And we shot it up in their woods and worked on the loose concept together, but the details were all Erica. Like the song, and the album for that matter, there is joy and beauty in it, but some darkness too.
By the way, we just shot another video this past weekend for the song "Black Blessed Night." This features grown men dressed as birds dancing in a field just off of Bull Run. Sound appealing? Yes, we thought so too.
Q: You had a release party for the new album in Woodstock last week. How did it go?
A: It went great. I love playing Woodstock -- attentive crowds that really know their music. We like it when the audience really zeros in. There's a lot of subtlety in our music (we hope) that might get lost in some places. . . We'll be back in the area very soon, I'm sure. We love playing in the Catskills.
Bottom: Shooting "Song for Clementine" in June 2011. Photo via the Two Dark Birds Facebook page.