Feathers Flock Together

by Jennifer Kelly


Brattleboro, Vermont, is a town stuck in the late 1960s, a place where you can wander from the organic-favoring Brattleboro Co-Op, with its aisles of beans and bulk grains, to the thrift shop furniture and fair trade brews of Mocha Joe’s, to a politically agitative music venue qua restaurant called The Common Ground, which posts a chart of its horoscope near the cash register. Some days, though not so often now, you can also catch members of Feathers hanging out on the sidewalks of this town, gathering between the used record store and the vintage clothing store, chatting, laughing, hanging out and as much a part of the town’s ambience as its farmers market or frequent peace rallies. They are all much too young to be first-wave hippies—even their parents were born a few years too late for that—but there’s something cooperative, mystical and nonhierarchical about this band that, almost much as its delicate music, links Feathers to the 1960s.

Meara O’Reilly, whose barely breathed vocals lend exquisite, mysterious life to songs like “Ulna”, says that she finds herself drawn to people now in their 60s who participated in the countercultural movement. “From my conversations with them, it seems that there was this freedom and breaking away from their parents, this remaking everything and creating their own world that I really relate to and am excited by,” she says. “So it set the precedent, not for me to necessarily not live the same life as my parents or their friends, but it’s like the same paradigm, to be able to create my own reality and my own fantasy world in which to make music or art or in which to live.”

O’Reilly, who joined the band a few years ago after showing up at an early gig, says that Feathers is, in some ways, the collective effort of eight people to create this same kind of alternative reality. “What’s pretty amazing about Feathers is that there’s all eight of us retreating into something,” says O’Reilly. “I was so taken aback when I met everybody. Because it just clicked immediately. I felt more comfortable with these people than almost anyone else my age. It was like all of the sudden to then be able to have a safe network of being able to do whatever we please.”

The band is unusual for a large ensemble, in that it has no clear leader or front-person. Its configuration shifts from song to song, with different people singing and switching nearly every instrument. You would think, given the variety of voices and instruments, that every song would sound like a different band, and yet there is a common thread that’s woven through the band’s entire gently beautiful body of work.

“I think that there is continuity,” said O’Reilly. “You know, a lot of us will learn an instrument for a song. It’s that same sort of chameleon ability that people have. I get so excited that someone’s written a song that I really like and that I wouldn’t have written myself, but I get to blend into it. We’re all really excited about each other, so there’s a definite incentive to want to mute ourselves into another person for a while. So I think if you do that consistently enough, there comes to be a true alliance.”

Although some members of Feathers have known each other since childhood, they didn’t play music together until about 2003, when Kyle and Kurt met at record store where both worked. They began playing together, putting on low-key shows and the group gradually collected members; O’Reilly said she was doing cartwheels in the hallway outside a show when she was invited to join. “We all sort of fell in together, and just started asking all of our friends, anybody who came to a show, we were like ‘Hey, do you want to be in the band?’” she said.

Today Feathers has eight members, all known by first names: Kyle, Asa, Jordan, Greg, Meara, Ruth, Shana and Ethan. The group started out playing Kyle’s songs, but soon Asa, Ruth and Meara began contributing ideas. Yet though songs might come from different people—each with different musical backgrounds and tastes—they all ended up somehow sounding like Feathers. “I’ve never heard anyone say, ‘Oh, this song doesn’t fit in,’” said O’Reilly. “People resolve whatever you throw at them into one sort of thing. They pull all the similarities together and sort them out and make the music continuous.”

The band’s first year together passed more or less in isolation as they honed songs like “Old Black Hat” and “Ibex Horn” together. O’Reilly explained that, during this period, they were completely oblivious to the free folk scene was that growing up in around Devendra Banhart. Then, they played a show with Vetiver, and everything changed. “It had just been the eight of us hanging out all the time and playing music and not really aware of any other music that was going on, and all the sudden when we met Devendra and Andy [Cabic, of Vetiver], they opened us up to all their friends and all the music that was going on right now.”

After Banhart included Feathers on a 2004 list of music he was listening to in Pitchfork, with his typical exuberance calling them, “the amazing amazing amazing amazing band from north Hampton called FEATHERS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” (Some members of Feathers live in Northampton, others in southern Vermont.) Almost overnight, Feathers was suddenly a certified participant in the psych folk trend, something that made O’Reilly a little uncomfortable. She remembers picking up a copy of Arthur magazine in May 2004 and reading about Banhart, Joanna Newsom, CocoRosie, and other alternative folk artists with mixed feelings. “I was like, ‘What???’ And on one level, I was thinking, ‘That’s not anything like what we’re doing.’ But there’s definitely a reluctance to feel ... ‘Oh, no, we’re part of this scene! Everybody’s doing this!’” she said.

But on the other hand, it meant that the climate for Feather’s gauzy folk music might be improving. “At our first show, people were calling the boys fags and hitting on the girls. It was in a bar. It was terrible,” she remembers. “But lately, but there’s been a slow recognition of what we do. It’s awesome that people are excited about going to shows in churches.” Doors opened for them, too, when Banhart and Cabic became fans. Members of Feathers sang on Banhart’s Cripple Crow, and their first album was released by Banhart and Cabic’s Gnomonsong label.

Many instruments, lots of tuning

Those who venture out to the churches, bookstores and lofts that Feathers tends to play may be surprised at how many instruments the band can fit into tiny spaces, especially considering that these stages are already jammed with eight musicians. The collection currently includes multiple electric and acoustic guitars, a shared bass, a drum set, a dulcimer, harp, a sitar, a toy piano, various percussion, and one very green mandolin. O’Reilly says that this musical menagerie has accumulated gradually, as members bring old instruments in from their collective past and borrow others from friends and family members. O’Reilly remembers wheedling the harp she plays out of her mother early in childhood, alternately begging and fetchingly strumming the rungs of chairs. The green mandolin once belonged to Ethan’s dad. A trombone from Kyle’s school band years hasn’t yet made a Feathers record, but O’Reilly says that doubtless at some point it will.

There are too many instruments for the band to play at any one time, so they sit beguilingly on stands and in corners. When a song ends, there is a brief pause to let the overtones fade, then the members of Feathers begin climbing over chairs and handing across instruments, looking for picks and sticks and mics and tuning, always tuning. In fact, O’Reilly, who is studying to become a piano tuner, stood up during a recent show to announce that she sometimes dreamed about tuning. Unusually, all eight of them tune by ear, rather than with plug-in tuners. “There’s a lot of tuning multiple instruments, and even if it’s just standard tuning, there’s idiosyncrasies between people,” she says, noting that certain not-to-be-named people in the band are usually infinitessimally flat while others might be ever so slightly sharp. “We’ll get all through tuning and I’ll have a head to head with someone going like, ‘No, I’m in tune!’ ‘No I am!”

The discord is brief, though, both interpersonally and musically. When Feathers picks up their instruments again to play, the sound is unified and sweet, their divergent ideas about pitch, like everything else, somehow harmonized into a whole.

Feathers self-titled debut album came out on Gnomonsong in March, though its songs are anything but new to the band. Three of them appeared on an earlier tour-only CD called Gnomozoic and represent the band’s earliest stages. O’Reilly cautioned that the band’s next album may be much different from the first. Already, Feathers has recorded a song for an anti-war compilation put out by Arthur magazine and curated by Josephine Foster, which O’Reilly says has elements of punk and free jazz in it. “That’s what’s fun about this band. If one person gets free rein in the recording studio, it gets pulled in one direction, and then once other people dive in, it’s not like something that just one person’s song,” she said. “So Kyle will write a rock anthem or something and then Kurt will come in and play weird free jazz horns or something. But there’s definitely ... we go through songs so fast that I think that even songs that we wrote after the album are sort of old. We definitely have ... we joke that our second album is going to be a double album. We have lots of good idea. We’re just plowing through stuff all the time.”

The band will be touring this summer—California in July and possibly Europe in August—then regrouping to record its follow-up album. The process, said O’Reilly, will be much like before, a group of good friends dropping by Kyle’s low-key home studio, sitting on the floor in small groups, to play and sing and listen to music. It’s a gentle, low-key, friendly approach to making music, perhaps the secret ingredient that makes Feathers what it is.

multiple tracks [MySpace]

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