John Brodeur of Bird Streets | Full Interview
I interviewed John Brodeur of Bird Streets. We discussed:
The new album, "Lagoon"
How the song "Sleeper Agent" pulled the album together
Songs that deal with heavy subject matter but have an upbeat feel
The artwork for the album cover
Bird Streets website: birdstreetsmusic.com
You can also watch the video of the interview.
(This transcript has been slightly edited for clarity.)
Recording In Multiple Cities
Cris Cohen: One thing I found interesting when I was reading up about the making of “Lagoon” is that it was recorded in multiple cities. You had Memphis. You had Brooklyn. You had Nashville. So first off, does the location influence the feel of a song?
John Brodeur: You know, I didn't think it would so much until listening back to the collected works here, and you really can sense the individual rooms and players and vibes. Like the first stuff I did was in Nashville with Pat Sansone, and one of the first things we did was call in a pedal steel player, like you do in Nashville. Those songs have a little bit of that country weepiness to them.
And then the stuff we did in Memphis, we did in the home of Big Star at Ardent. So it's got that feel and that sound. I don't know that the Brooklyn stuff has a specific feel, other than it's just some Brooklyn guys. But yeah, I guess it kind of does. At least to me. I know, when I'm listening to it, I'm hearing all the things that went into it and it feels kind of like a travel log to me.
Cris Cohen: Yeah. Because I work with various bands. One of the bands I work with is Huey Lewis & The News. A few years back they recorded this album called “Soulsville” with all these deep Soul covers. And they specifically flew out to Ardent Studios in Memphis, because they were like, “We need the vibe, the atmosphere of it all.”
And then, I read how you were influenced by Big Star. Having Jody Stephens available to do drums on those songs, does that put you in a whole different head space once they start rolling tape?
John Brodeur: Especially there. That particular session was with Pat, who I'd been working with. He's from Wilco and I've been a fan of Wilco for 25 years or whatever. And John Davis from Superdrag who I've been friends with for a long time. That's one of my favorite bands from the 90s. And Jody Stephens from Big Star… it was an incredible, incredible time to be in that space with those people making my songs.
Cris Cohen: In the press materials for this album, it said that you had compiled like 20 songs but then you chose 12. And so first off, I'm wondering what was it about those 12 that they made the cut over the other songs?
John Brodeur: Well, 20 might be conservative too. There were probably more than that in various stages. I knew what this record was going to be basically for a couple years, since we started it the spring of 2019. So not too long after the first record came out. And in that time period I was going through a divorce and there were a lot of songs coming from that. So I knew that that was going to be a big component of it. And then there were some other songs that just felt like they sat with those pretty well. But compiling material and stockpiling was just a thing I had to do. Because I had a lot of stuff backed up. <laughs>
And a couple of songs along the way kind of surprised me. “Oh! That has to go on.” Like “Sleeper Agent,” the first song on the record, was a late surprise. I thought the record was basically done and then there was this other thing all of a sudden. And it sort of reshaped it. The pandemic was kind of a bonus because it might have been a little more of a straightforward… I don't know if it would've been more of a power pop record, but it might have been if it had come out a couple years earlier.
The song that made ‘Lagoon’ “feel like a real album”
Cris Cohen: You mentioned “Sleeper Agent,” which as of this recording you just released as the second single. I found this quote where you said, “This is the song that made ‘Lagoon’ feel like a real album.” Which is a lot to say about a particular tune, especially one that appeared so late in the process. So how did “Sleeper Agent” have that much influence over this album?
John Brodeur: I hadn't written a song since the pandemic started. I hadn't written a song and I was just walking around. I was trying to figure out the bridge to another song, but I hadn't written a new song in months and months and months. And then this melody and some lyrics just sort of started coming while I was walking around at night… you know, on one of my four-mile, nightly, peacekeeping walks <laugh>. Like, “Don't lose your brain.” <laugh> “Good luck.”
And that's a song about trying to hold it together basically. So it felt like it sort of summed up the two other major topics that were going on in the record and sort of brought them together in a way that made it feel like a statement, rather than just a bunch of songs.
Cris Cohen: I love when I hear stories like that. Something comes along so late in the process and yet it all kind of ties it together. It makes me wonder about the whole idea that your brain gets in a certain space and then – even when you've stopped physically working on the album – your subconscious is kind of working on it. And I'm wondering if that's kind of part of what brought this song into being.
John Brodeur: Yeah, I guess. It wasn't intentional. It just sort of was. It just sort of manifested itself. It needed to happen <laugh>. I don’t know what else to say about it. It was one of those sorts of bolts from out of the blue that was like, “You’ve got to go after this one.”
Cris Cohen: And you mentioned the whole thing with the pandemic and how that kind of put a halt to your writing process. You said there just wasn't anything to write about, and it was a good six months before a song finally came. You said that when you kind of reconnected with the outside world, you were able to write again. But it's interesting, because so much of this material is this internal struggle. And so how does that work where you had to be able to reconnect externally to access what's going on internally?
John Brodeur: It's sort of an interesting conundrum there. Because this is the most personal record I've put out. I've put out a bunch of records now, but this one is almost entirely first person. This is me talking about me for sure. Not trying to hide behind characters.
So yeah, I guess I could have just holed up in a room and written the songs, but I kind of need to be doing other things to have the creative things. It's almost like an ADHD thing. Like, if I'm at work doing another job, I'll start writing a song and then I'll just be like, “Well, I'm just going to go over there for a few minutes.” <laugh> It will just come.
But if I'm just left to my own devices and staring at the phone or just staring into space for weeks at a time, wondering, “When can I go outside again without having to avoid people?” It's a different kind of thing, where that's all you're thinking about. And yeah, I definitely picked up a guitar every day. I definitely had little bits of things that would come. But nothing really turned into a finished idea for a long time. It was probably the longest drought I've had since I started writing songs. In 25 years or something.
Cris Cohen: Did that fully release once “Sleeper Agent” came along or did you slide back in and out?
John Brodeur: It wasn't like the floodgates opened. A couple of songs came, but they were really good. There's another one that's not on the record that I'm working on with Michael (Lockwood) right now. That came from that time.
But it did get me more motivated to finish some things that I had sitting around and record them. We’re talking about 20 or 25 songs that I was stockpiling. It was a matter of getting through this backlog of material that was always there. So, if anything, I maybe finished more things in that time period and made more of the phone calls and emails to get projects started.
I mentioned this recently on social media. At the beginning of the pandemic, Adam Schlesinger passed away. He was a friend of mine. I'd known him for a while, but I had just finally gotten to the point where I was like, “Hey, would you like to do something?”
And he was like, “Yeah, of course.”
And we were going to do something that spring and it never came. So that was a big kick in the butt to stop sitting on it.
Cris Cohen: And then, in terms of some of the writing choices, specifically “Machine,” which was released as the first single. You mentioned that it's about being haunted by someone who's not around anymore, which is a very heavy kind of thought. However, the song, particularly the chorus, has a very upbeat feel. And it works really well. Was that a conscious choice or was that just the muse whispering in your ear, “This is how this is supposed to go?”
John Brodeur: That's the ultimate thing in my writing. That comes from listening to artists like… I think all my favorites do that. Elliot Smith used to do that a lot. That's the one who is going to come to mind is always Elliot Smith. But there are a lot of other great examples of that, where the lyrics are dark, but the songs are buoyant and melodic. And in this particular case, it's almost kind of a dance song. It's got that vibe. I think that mostly came from playing it with the people that I played with.
Cris Cohen: But, at least for me, I found myself… you would end up singing the chorus. And it's happy and this great earworm. But then you realize, “Oh my God, what am I singing?”
John Brodeur: <Laugh> Yeah. But we all go through it, right? We all ruminate over things. We all get stuck on memories.
It's really about my ex and when you're with somebody for a long time… we were married for more than 10 years and then all of a sudden it's like we moved on to other things. But there are still those things where you turn a corner, you go into a certain room, and you're like, “Oh yeah. This place.” It's those things. It's heavy, but it's not dark to me. It's just life.
Also, this record doesn't have a lot of big, catchy choruses. The first record had a lot more of that. And it needed that. So <laugh>, yeah. This was the one. This got the call.
Cris Cohen: And that is an interesting aspect because, going from the first album to this one, it's like, okay, this is way more contemplative. I'm exercising some demons on this one, but it's got the hooks intermixed with it. It also reminds me… have you ever heard of a song by Elvis Costello called, “This Is Hell”?
John Brodeur: Oh my God. Off of “Brutal Youth.” Yes.
Cris Cohen: Yeah. Same thing. He's singing about these awful things in this world, but it's such a happy song. It made me think of that. And I would also say that speaks to your talent as a songwriter, that you can do this Elvis Costello thing, where it's happy and catchy, and yet you're addressing some darker subject matter.
John Brodeur: Yeah, he was probably the first songwriter I think that I heard… like him and Michael Penn. And although Michael's stuff isn't quite as dark… but those are the guys that, when I first heard them in the late 80s or whatever, I was like, “That's what I want to do.”
But Elvis specifically, he would write about these kind of heavy, miserable things with just like these huge Beatles melodies. And, you know, he's one of my top three probably.
“Things that I didn't hear and want to hear”
Cris Cohen: Yeah. That's the first thing that came to mind with that. And then also I would encourage anyone listening to this album to really listen to it with headphones if you ever get a chance. The first time I went through it was in the car. But then you listen to the songs again with headphones and there are all these little, great percussive moments or string moments that you really tune into. How much of that was your input and how much of that came from the people you hired for the sessions?
John Brodeur: The ear candy. Yeah. It's full of it. A lot of that is the players. A lot of that is the producers and the players. I made a kind of conscious decision going into this record that I wanted to just kind of be the songwriter, be the singer, and just sort of let the things happen around me, and turn more of the control over to the people I was working with. So yeah, a lot of that comes from whoever was in the room and, the stuff I did with Michael, whoever he decided to call that day.
Patrick Warren is on three of the songs. All the string stuff is Patrick. I've been going back to Michael Penn's first record, as a fan of his work, because Patrick Warren's played on… if you're a guy who reads liner notes, he's on SO many records. <Laugh> So many records that you definitely own and love. He's brilliant and he is sort of the secret weapon on this record. <Laugh> Those three songs that he's on are just gorgeous.
And then, there's a lot of Mellotron. Pat Sansone is a big Mellotron guy. So he laid a lot of that in there, and all the pedal steel stuff. It's all these different elements that make it more than just a rock record, I suppose.
Cris Cohen: And so, I would assume then that you're very open to additions and suggestions from the people you get for these sessions. You're not like, “Okay, this is exactly how it's going to go.” I mean the structure is still the same, but you seem very open to “Yeah, all right. Let's try it with that.”
John Brodeur: I definitely grew into that. I mean, when I was younger and making records in the early aughts and whatnot, I definitely went in with more of a set idea of what I wanted the song to be and maybe a little spreadsheet. And the records were good. But when I made the first Bird Streets record with Jason Falkner, that was made entirely in the collaborative spirit. A lot of it is just us tossing ideas back and forth. And that appealed to me so much more than just being Mr. Control Freak. I can do that. And I still do that once in a while, when I'm working at home. But it's just so much more interesting to hear what other people have to offer sometimes. Because they might hear the song differently and hear things that I didn't hear and want to hear.
Cris Cohen: One example. The song “The Document” has what sounds to me like an oboe playing a solo. And I'm like, “Wow. You do not hear oboes that often in any kind of pop / folk / rock kind of thing.” What drove that choice? It was really interesting.
John Brodeur: That was in the first bunch of sessions we did in Nashville with Pat Sansone producing. We cut it with just the bass, the acoustic, and the drums. And then, you know, overdubbed the vocals. And then the second day he called this guy, Jim Hoke, who's a pedal steel player primarily. But he's one of those Nashville guys that just doubles on everything. And yeah, he did pedal steel on two songs and went in the other room and played… it's clarinet and bass flute, I believe.
He played both those parts beautifully. He wrote that little bit and knocked it out in 30 minutes.
Cris Cohen: Oh wow.
John Brodeur: I'm like, “What just happened there?”
Cris Cohen: <Laugh>
John Brodeur: That was Pat's idea and beautifully executed by Jim.
Cris Cohen: And then another thing that really stood out, especially when you do headphones listening, is the song “Ambulance” has all these really interesting percussive elements kind of bouncing around. How did that come about?
John Brodeur: I did that song here in Brooklyn with Zach Jones and Oscar Rodriguez. And Zach's just a percussion genius wizard drummer. He's just all groove. He actually plays with Sting right now, which is a pretty cool gig for a drummer.
Cris Cohen: <Laugh> Definitely.
John Brodeur: Not everybody gets that one.
Cris Cohen: No. And it speaks to not only the solo material, but at some point during that show you're going to be doing Stewart Copeland beats. So, that speaks to a certain talent as well.
John Brodeur: Absolutely. Yeah. So that was all his thing. I can't remember exactly the order of operations there, but we kind of cut the basics all together, and then he just started picking things up and made a little loop basically. And that's what runs throughout the song and gives it all that energy.
It's just a grunge song, basically. But that gives it a whole different thing, you know? It turns it from like the band’s Radiohead song into like maybe a Kid A and Amnesiac Radiohead song.
Screaming In Tune
Cris Cohen: It's funny you bring that up because that one took me by surprise, particularly toward the end of the song when your vocals go into a whole new area not on this album. Very aggressive. Very harsh. Kind of a Chris Cornell style. Was that something planned or was that just a last-minute choice where the emotion kind of overtakes the situation?
John Brodeur: I think I knew I wanted it to get there. We did it a few times, but yeah, once I figured out what it was supposed to be, it was like, okay, just scream it. Just screaming in tune, like all the stuff I grew up on in the early 90s. Chris Cornell obviously is a huge influence on my singing and writing, although you don't hear it most of the time. <Laugh> One of my favorite vocalists.
And Nirvana is probably the thing that got me playing in bands. That was the spark. So yeah, I don't go there that often, and I don't go into that register all that often. <Laugh> Certainly not on this record. But it felt like it needed to be done to bring it home.
Cris Cohen: It works great. It seems like it would be a hell of a strain on anyone's voice to do that for a lengthy amount of time. Is it tricky, especially given your normal register?
John Brodeur: I didn't do too many takes of it. And I haven't had to do it live yet. <laugh> So, we'll see.
But it's not that far off. I have a broader range than might show up on records. I just don't sing in that higher register too much, because it feels more like a character when I go up there.
But I've sung some Chris Cornell (songs). Some buddies of mine used to do a tribute every summer. And God, it's so much fun to sing that stuff. I can only do like four songs in a set <laugh> and then have to lay down. But it's really fun to sing that stuff. And, you know, that song was originally going to be the end of the record. Originally the album was going to open with “Machine” and end with “Ambulance.”
In ambulance, that line is what triggered the chorus in “Machine,” “This is not a victory.” It was supposed to be this sort of pins for the record. And then things changed. But it felt like a real sort of pinnacle line for the whole process of the record and everything that I was going through and talking about.
Cris Cohen: Yeah. And yet it ends on a very… I don’t know if “upbeat” is the correct term, but “Go Free”… it makes the record into this kind of journey. And it's like, okay, finally you come out the other end. And I wouldn't call it a happy ending, but…
John Brodeur: Benevolent
Cris Cohen: Yes. Coming to terms with the situation.
John Brodeur: Yeah. I didn't know what to do with that song for a while. And then it was just like, “Oh, right. This is the logical conclusion of all the self-loathing and crap.”
Cris Cohen: <Laugh>
John Brodeur: Dealing with a breakup, with a divorce, eventually you're just like, “Okay, well, we want the best for each other.” It just means that this is what happens, you know?
And, you know, the person in question, we're still friends.
Sobriety And Songwriting
Cris Cohen: And then in terms of going through challenges, I also read from the notes… putting this together “currently 10 years sober from alcohol.” First, congratulations. That's a tricky thing to do. Secondly, how has sobriety influenced or affected you as a musician, as a songwriter?
John Brodeur: Interesting question. <Laugh> I don't know if I have a good answer for that. Because, you know, some of the songs on this record, like “Burnout”… Sober from alcohol, but then became a huge pothead for many years. Kind of out of that phase now a little bit. But it was a long phase.
Cris Cohen: <Laugh>
John Brodeur: And that's a lot of what the non-divorcy songs on this record are dealing with. You find other things to obsess over and to create addictions to. If anything, I write about that. It's influenced my songwriting in that I've realized that that's a topic, like just the endless cycle.
And I don't know if it's specifically influenced my songwriting, musically or anything like that. That's just still a mystery to me, how that all works.
Cris Cohen: And then, was there any trepidation that maybe your artistic abilities were intertwined with that particular obsession? Just because I think of other people who have either kicked alcohol or drugs and there was that nervousness about it. Like Eddie Van Halen used to use alcohol to relax himself before he could go on stage. And when he finally pushed that aside, he talked about that nervousness of, “Am I still going to be able to relax, be loose.”
John Brodeur: Yeah. I think I convinced myself for a long time, when I was still drinking, that the drinking somehow helped with the relaxing and the performance. There's the chemical relaxation part of it, but I don't think it ever helped with performance. So I wasn't too worried about that. I like performing.
Cris Cohen: And then, switching gears completely, I found the cover art for this album particularly interesting. It has like a Roger Dean feel. There was some element to it that reminded me of all those Yes and Asia covers that he did. What was your input into the creation of the cover?
John Brodeur: This painting is by my friend Ada Langford. She's not even like a professional painter. She just made some paintings, put them up on a site, sold them. I saw this painting six or seven years ago and just loved it. Kind of bookmarked it. And then, when the record came around and I figured out what the title was going to be, it was just like, “Oh yeah. That's the thing.” I've always wanted to use that as album art, mainly because I wanted to do a gate fold, like Yes style. I didn't immediately see that connection, but the more people I showed to, they're like, “It reminds me of a Yes cover.”
I'm like, “Okay. That's perfect.” <laugh>. Because it's just sort of abstract and kind of cavernous. You can kind of like get lost in it. Not quite as surreal necessarily as some of the Roger Dean stuff.
Cris Cohen: Right. Not so much science fictiony as he used to create, but there's still that kind of… I don't know… the deep colors, the kind of the dripping colors.
John Brodeur: Yeah. The second I saw that painting, I was like, “That would look great as album art.”
Cris Cohen: And I don't have a question about this, but I was really impressed that you actually, in the song “Unkind,” actually worked the line, “The end is nigh” into the lyrics. I'm like, “Wow, I've never heard anyone use that line in lyric form before, but it works perfectly here.”
John Brodeur: That was the product of me trying to come up with a lot of rhymes that had the “I” vowel in them. And it was just like, “That's a good one.”
That song was one of the last ones actually finished. That was one of the songs that was super half-finished for like three years. It was one of the ones I was going to take to Adam Schlesinger to try to figure out how to get to the end of it. Then he passed and it was like, “All right, well, I’ve got to do this now.” And I walked around until I figured it out.
But yeah, that one's amazing because Aimee Mann plays bass on it. As I was writing it, I was thinking a lot about how she writes and her rhyming style in lyrics. And it’s just amazing that she ended up on the track.