To make an honest and heartfelt record is no simple task.
And as expected, the pandemic has given birth to countless lockdown-inspired songs and albums with no shortage on the way. But how does one make them stand out among the crowd? How does one tap into something deeper without being tacky or obvious?
That’s where the more gifted songwriters emerge.
One such artist that fits the bill is Minneapolis folk trio Humbird, pioneered by singer-songwriter Siri Undlin. And as of today, October 15th, Humbird has released their highly anticipated sophomore album, Still Life.
A record born from circumstance, moreover an unforeseen and traumatic circumstance, Still Life offers ten deeply personal and philosophical songs from Undlin and her bandmates.
Undlin and her roommate, Adelyn Strei, who also happens to be the producer of the new album with multi-instrumental credits to her name, bore first-hand witness to the uprising and unrest in Minneapolis last year. The two were at the epicenter of the military surge, the fires, the violence, the tension, and the overall chaos that ravaged that part of the city in the wake of the George Floyd murder. Coupled with the hysteria of the early portion of the pandemic, inspiration took hold and genuine music was made.
“We were experimenting with how to use the music to re-cultivate the sense of safety, connectedness, and healing. So a lot of the songs – while not explicitly political – are written in response to the uprising in South Minneapolis and how it felt to be there and move forward from that event in the context of the pandemic. A lot more of my songwriting in the past has been more direct and literal, and this album is more abstract and meditative, because that was just the coping mechanism,” Undlin told us.
“This record is in many ways a surprise; an act of survival and coping, which I didn’t expect. It wouldn’t exist without the circumstances.”
While some artists might choose to fight fire with fire and match the intensity of such an event with equally intense music, Humbird does the complete opposite with Still Life.
The record opens with “Hymn For Whom,” which is a gentle instrumentation which could very well be heard at a spa, a massage parlor, or perhaps a Chinese buffet. It elicits warmth, comfort, and a sense of peace. It’s atmospheric and ethereal, and triggers thoughts of nature- maybe a butterfly landing on a dandelion somewhere deep in a meadow.
“Summer Storm For Charlotte” follows, again with a delicate acoustic instrumentation, this time introducing Undlin’s soothing vocals. With it’s mellow almost jazz-folk feel, the song is about expressing concern and wishing well for a neighbor’s child.
“Charlotte is my next door neighbor, and she’s five. Ultimately that song is a reflection on how the uprising and state of violence impacted kids in my neighborhood, and how they were living through a war zone. I mean there was tear gas so thick that we couldn’t really breathe. Charlotte and her siblings are all under the age of ten and were living through that as well,” Undlin said.
“She was learning how to ride her bike the week the National Guard was deployed to our neighborhood. So I just had this image of these giant tanks and guns, and then five-year-old Charlotte learning how to ride a pink bike.”
The next two songs, “May” and “Plum Sky,” were released as singles in August and September respectively.
“May” continues the theme of fluid delicacy in the instrumentation and tender gentleness within the vocals. The lyrics offer something of a prayer, wishing the listener strength and wisdom to carry on. “May you find your river / May it take you all the way / May it whisper all the little things / I couldn’t say.” Undlin’s angelic vocals wrap you in a bubble, providing safety and comfort.
“Plum Sky” kicks in with a more pop-rock percussion, and the band finds more of a groove on this track. There’s a thread of country weaved within the song, and put all together, “Plum Sky” sounds like it could very well be a Kacey Musgraves track.
But fret not- the blissful massage parlor instrumentation comes back with the next track, “Heavy.” Despite the soft violins and tinkling piano, the lyrics paint a “heavier” picture.
When asked about the feelings and messages she hopes the listeners receive while listening to the album, Undlin told us, “I hope that people hear a gentle but stubborn strength in them. They’re not songs about acute trauma or acute grief, it’s more after those initial big waves hit- then what?”
She went on to say, “These are the lyrics I say to myself to continue to function. I feel very tied to survival, which maybe sounds dramatic, but at the time of writing them, that’s absolutely where I was at. A lot of forgiveness of self and others is another big theme.”
The eighth track on the album, “Pink Moon For John Prine,” is another that caught my eye by name alone.
“I wrote that song the day that John Prine passed away. And there just happened to be a pink moon in the sky that night. Two of my personal, most profound teachers are John Prine and Nick Drake, and the fact that John passed away on a night where there was a pink moon, it just felt like this really profoundly sad and powerful moment of how songs change the world, and how there are these artists who can capture our human experience. So I was thinking of John and Nick and how artists die, but their art lives on, and within the context of the pandemic it all felt so close and so real,” she said.
The album ends with, “On The Day We Are Together Again,” which opens with Undlin’s beautifully soaring a capella vocals. The song slowly builds with the tasteful and atmospheric instrumentation, again having an almost gospel, hymnal-like feel, offering a sense of hope and anticipation for brighter days ahead.
When asked what success as a musician or songwriter means to her, Undlin answered, “Ultimately, if I write a song that helps me- that’s a success. If I write a song that someone else hears and they feel seen and understood and empowered- that’s a success. And putting out music in a way that’s collaborative- it’s all about the network and community of musicians and artists that makes a record possible, so it’s a success if you’re able to put out music that uplifts the people around you that help make it.”
Still Life offers a delicate balance – a yin and yang – with soothing, meditative instrumentation paired with more pressing, thought-provoking lyrics sung over top. Each song on the album melts into the next seamlessly, and captures your attention in a most gentle and reassuring way.
From the cello (Hilary James) to the fiddle (Clifton Nesseth) to the woodwinds (Adelyn Strei), the ambient, percussive sounds meld together to perfectly match Undlin’s strong, lullaby-like vocals. The album offers a sense of tranquility and a simultaneous sense of change and urgency. Still Life forces you to listen and really hear.
Humbird will have a release residency at Ice House in Minneapolis every Wednesday in November, and plans to do a release tour in 2022.