The day President Trump was sworn into office was a dark day for a lot of Americans. But husband-and-wife duo Birds of Chicago spent that day in the studio recording Love in Wartime, an uplifting and emotive album that drifts beyond the traditional folk they’re known for into rock ’n’ roll and gospel territory.
“That was a relief, to be able to do something that felt joyful and something good that we could control on a day that felt very much the opposite,” says singer/guitarist JT Nero. “It felt like cheating to have our own personal little bubble for a while. It was nice to shut the doors.”
But the record wasn’t meant to exist in a vacuum. It very much deals with the process of finding joy and expressing love in the midst of difficult times. The title track in particular is a touching ballad that reminds the listener of the humanity all around us that’s easy to ignore, but powerful to focus on.
“It’s that kind of basic recognition of someone else’s soul. That’s the crucial DNA for a more loving culture in general,” Nero says. “It starts with those basic little covenants between people. ‘I see you, I got you.’ Wartime being a metaphor for any condition that negates love. The antimatter to love.”
The album’s title and general mood suggests the duality of trying to find joy and peace in our turbulent political times. But at the same time, it’s about something much more than the Trump era. In fact, the duo was writing the songs before Trump got the nomination.
“Political realities are emblematic of deeper wounds,” Nero says. “While initially, they didn’t feel explicitly political, certainly not partisan, I would say the need for a suite of songs that dealt with love in all its kind of practical and celestial applications felt pretty crucial. It felt like we’ve been operating at a love-and-empathy deficit in a way that has felt particularly urgent as of late.”
Much of this realization is something came to Nero well after recording the songs. As he and partner Allison Russell were writing the songs, they had no idea why.
“As a matter of course, I almost try to never be clear about what I’m writing,” Nero says. “You’re out with your guitar trying to catch butterflies, and you see what you come up with. A phrase will pop out, and I will be singing it a certain way. Then it’s more like a detective: Why does that phrase not want to let go?”
They wrote some songs during the initial songwriting process that had a melancholy folksy sound to them, but set those aside for an EP called American Flowers, which they released a few months prior to Love in Wartime. The title track from that EP has become a show closer for the duo. It’s a front-porch sing-along that acknowledges the sadness and strife of the country, but pairs it with a message of hope. (“I have seen American flowers all across this land/From the banks of the Shenandoah, along the Rio Grande/Do not fear the winter blowing in the hearts of men/I have seen American flowers they will bloom again.”)
“That song I wrote to remind myself that good people in this country are the rule, and not the exception to the rule,” Nero says. “No matter how up in arms any of us are about what is going on politically, deep down we know we’re going to have to figure out a way to talk to each other and not demonize the other side. The only way you talk to each other is if you remember that we’re all humans.”
Birds of Chicago plays at 9 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 24, at Moe’s Alley, 1535 Commercial Way, Santa Cruz. $15/adv, $20/door. 479-1854.