Q&A: Chris Mills And Bird Of Youth's Beth Wawerna On Collaboration, Long-Simmering Songs And Ideas Of Brooklyn

Categories: Interviews


Tonight two Brooklyn-based acts, Chris Mills and Bird Of Youth, will celebrate the release of their new albums at the Rock Shop. Mills is commemorating the release of The Heavy Years: 2000-2010 (Ernest Jenning), which chronicles the past decade of his resplendent, Americana-tinged pop; Bird Of Youth, which began as the project of Beth Wawerna and blossomed into a band, will honor the release of Defender (Jagjaguwar), a sultry, harmony-rich record full of indelible hooks and whip-smart one-liners. Over oysters at Walter Foods, I spoke to Mills and Wawerna (who, full disclosure, are pals of mine) about their influences, what it's like to look back, and the idea that non-New Yorkers have of Brooklyn.

I like that this show is honoring Chris' retrospective album and Beth's first record.

Chris Mills: It's like Baby New Year and Father Time.

If you wanted to give Beth advice, Chris, what would you tell her?

CM: Tough it out. Don't stop believin'. Entering the music business and being in the music business is not an easy thing to do at any age, or at any time. Honestly, I think the main thing, and it's gonna sound super-cheesy, is to make sure you're having a good time. Make sure you like doing it, because all the business stuff and all of the trying to get shows, working with distributors and labels and agents and managers, at some point that stuff is going to lose its charm, I would say. Music is a really fun thing to do; it's a really awesome thing to do; it's a really important thing for people to do. But it's really easy to forget that and get frustrated by all of the roadblock—no matter what level you're at, there's always going to be shit that comes up that makes you want to pull your hair out and stop doing it. But hopefully you're in it because it's what you want to do, and you have something you want to say, and you understand the value of communicating with people inviting them into your experience and becoming part of their lives.

Beth Wawerna: It took me so long to have the courage to share anything, or even tell people that I was playing music or writing songs at home. In a way, it happened very quickly—I turned 30 and I was like, oh, shit, now I have to do this, I have to jump off the cliff and send people these demos. Lots of my friends were musicians that were pretty successful, and in touring bands. It was pretty scary. In a way, I got very quickly into the stuff that you're talking about, Chris—you need a manager, you need to book a million shows, you need to go on tour. A lot of that stuff was very positive in a way—I got to work in a great studio with a wonderful producer; my first show was with Carl Newman. All of these wonderful things came out of it, but in a way, it was very, "Hey!" And now I'm coming down from that and I have to step back and go, "OK, why am I doing this again? It's because I always wanted to." And I'm not going to worry about what people say on the Internet. Even though I am.

CM: But you always do.

BW: I got to make this record with Will [Sheff], and Matthew from Nada Surf, and these are all longtime friends of mine, over 10 years. I grew up in New York in my 20s watching them all do this stuff, and kind of studying it internally and taking mental notes. I've been here since 1998.

That's a long time to watch the "New York" music scene change, too.

BW: Yeah. It's funny—the whole Brooklyn scene, how I perceive that now, it's something I don't fit into, necessarily. In a way, that can be a little intimidating. I'm not putting myself down—I just think my music is pretty songwriting-based. I don't really wear hot pants and do this and that on stage. It's intimidating, you know?

CM: I do that.

BW: When I first moved here, I was friends with the Mendoza Line and Nada Surf, and that was a very insular scene at that time. So I felt very much a part of that, but I wasn't making music at that time. It's weird to view it now, when the Mendoza Line isn't even a band anymore. It's hard to know where you fit in.

Chris, you've been doing a lot of collaborative work around the city at song clubs and the like. Can you talk about how that fits into the perception of "Brooklyn music" in the popular media, which seems imposed on the borough by extra-Brooklyn factors?

CM: For a long time I was kind of getting fed up with music. The music business can be really frustrating, and while a lot of good things have happened and I've always had a record label and been able to get publishing stuff and tour after a while, especially being a solo artist, you get kind of tired of doing things on your own, and being in charge of steering your own course 100%. Your label, or manager, or booking agent, they have other things as part of their priorities; when you're a solo artist or a bandleader, you're the only one who's thinking about it 24 hours a day. When other people aren't, you get frustrated. It's like, everybody shares in your successes, but you fail alone.

So I got invited to go down to a songwriters' night by Niall Connolly, a pop songwriter from Ireland. All he does is play music, seven nights a week. He runs open mics, and songwriters' clubs. For a long time, I dismissed that avenue for what I do, because I'm a self-important asshole [laughs] and I thought I was better than that. [Laughs] And I met someone who's created a scene that's really super-supportive in a way that I hadn't been exposed to in the New York rock scene, where people really care about what they do and are really focused on being songwriters and sharing their ideas and helping each other write better songs and book tours and get shows. I've met some really great songwriters and really sincere people, and that's really changed the way that I look at a lot of stuff. I've also been collaborating with these well-regarded session guys in Oslo who have been really open and into making things happen.

I came out of Chicago, which is this incredibly collaborative scene, and went to Brooklyn, which didn't really work for me that way at first. I've now found this group of people I really like hanging out with and playing music with. They've helped me become more accepting of the idea that everybody can play, and everybody can do it. I know some people might read that and dismiss it as some hippie version of how music should be, but I would much rather hang out with people who are nice.

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