Around 2003 or 2004, JT Nero was assembling a rough-edged, soulful band called JT & The Clouds in Chicago. At the same time, Allison Russell and Awna Teixeira were teaming up in Vancouver, British Columbia, to form the wailing folk duo Po’Girl.
Through serendipity and circumstance, the two musicians eventually crossed paths.
“We had mutual friends and were mutual fans of each other’s music, and we would put on shows with them when they came through our part of the world,” Nero said.
They started doing more and more music together, with Nero and Russell collaborating on a full album of music under Nero’s solo name in 2011.
“We joke about it a little bit because Allison sang and played on the whole record, and the guys from The Clouds played on it, so it was very much not a solo record,” Nero said. “And that’s where we minted what would go on. That was the moment where we knew we wanted to make space for our collaboration, focus on it, give it its own name and space and time. From that point on, we knew we were really going to develop that thing.”
The new project was dubbed Birds of Chicago and has been Nero and Russell’s main focus since the new band’s self-titled debut studio album was released in 2012. What began as a musical bond has grown into more.
“We actually just got married,” Nero said. “We were musical kindred spirits before we were aligned in any other way. I think just on a basic level, I appreciate her as a singer.”
Nero said it’s rare when a vocalist has the ability to sing really delicately when needed and also really belt it out when it’s required. He said Russell can sing R&B or a country waltz and still make it her own sound.
“That’s a huge attraction is to write for that powerful and nuanced of a voice,” he said. “From a writer’s standpoint, that’s incredibly exciting.”
Russell and Nero split the writing for Birds of Chicago, with the majority of songs coming from Nero — “she doesn’t spit them out as fast as I do — and the balance from Russell’s hand.
“We both have the same gypsy spirit,” Nero said. “We’re both strangely, weirdly happy being on the road 10 to 11 months of the year. We have a baby on the way, so we might cut back when the baby comes, but it’s very much in our blood. We approach music in the same way: We love, it; it’s an incredibly mystical thing, but it’s also our job — you do your job every day.”
One big family
Despite the success of Birds of Chicago, Nero and Russell’s original bands are still intact.
“On my side of it, the guys from JT & The Clouds are also Birds, they are the band that you hear on the record, and our musical collective, they are our band,” Nero said.
Nero said Russell’s partner in Po’Girl, Teixeira, is very much a part of the Birds of Chicago, too.
“Awna just made her first solo record at the studio where we played,” he said. “It’s all very incestuous and will stay that way. There’s not a definite timetable for a Po’Girls and JT & The Clouds record because we’re so focused on this project. And it’s caught a bit of momentum more quickly than we would have expected. Our focus is on Birds of Chicago right now, but those two projects still exist.”
Nero was reluctant to say what makes Birds of Chicago stand out from its contemporaries in the vast pool of folk acts currently touring Colorado.
“That’s not really for me to say, whether we rise above or not,” he said. “I try not to think of it that way — that will end up driving you crazy — but I think that there is something pretty special with what happened between Ali and me on stage and all of our musicians.”
The Birds of Chicago are a family and love playing together, Nero said.
“It’s our church,” he said. “We’re not typically very religious people, but that’s our communion up there, and we don’t take that part of it lightly. There’s a difference between bands that make music in the studio and put it out and bands that really do tours and get it out. The difference for us is that interaction with people and having those moments with a new group of people. We don’t take that transaction lightly.”