— From the pages of FLL#23 (August 2012) • Written by Alissa Cox | Photos by Bianca Cordova
The Stray Birds have been spreading their wings. Finishing up their second mini tour and releasing their first full-length album in July, it becomes apparent that this avian trio is ready to take the world by storm. The Stray Birds are an Americana-inspired group, formed in 2010 by Oliver Craven (vocals/ guitar/mandolin), Maya deVitry (vocals/guitar/ banjo/fiddle), and Charlie Muench (vocals/ bass). They released their first EP, Borderland, in December 2010 with both original songs as well as a few traditional songs. As far as their “sound” is concerned, it’s almost impossible to pigeonhole them into one category of music. From Dixie-inspired folk to melodic lullabies, their music transcends all audiences and bridges generational gaps. Their new full-length album The Stray Birds, released in July 2012, features three-part harmonies as well as a more collaborative lyrical effort. The album still captures the birds’ haunting musical arrangements beautifully, though this time the compositions have more depth and collective harmonies. The best way to get to know the birds is to ask them a few questions.
FLL: How did the three of you meet and discover that you’d make a great trio?
Oliver: Charlie and I were playing in a bluegrass band making a record in the beginning of 2010 when his friend from high school, Maya, started hanging out at some of the recording sessions. She and I started sharing our songs and singing together then, and it was just a matter of time before the three of us had the opportunity to perform together and realized what we could do as a trio.
FLL: Is there a common theme in the lyrics of your songs?
Oliver: One thing that is unique about this band is that there are two individuals who write original material. With two writers and three arrangers, we are lucky to have a pretty wide scope of originality. I like to write and relate the human experience— be it my own or one that I’ve observed. I like translations about things that have happened or things that could.
Maya: When you’re traveling, one of the only certainties is that you’ll be doing a lot of leaving. Life has a transient nature anyway, and traveling forces me to process this a little more immediately sometimes. That experience is a theme I find running through my songs.
FLL: Who are some of your major influences?
Maya: My family is a primary musical influence simply because of the music they played while I was growing up. My parents took us to Clifftop, an Appalachian music festival in West Virginia, pretty much every single summer. My dad played fiddle and guitar in a few bands, and I remember my parents singing Beatles’ songs at the kitchen table at night. My violin teacher during high school, Carol Taleff, was a major influence on my physical violin technique and love of classical music. There are a lot of musicians who really define what I love, but an easy three would be Billie Holiday’s voice and sense of timing, Townes Van Zandt’s poetry, and the Beatles’ arrangements and vocal harmonies.
Oliver: I grew up playing acoustic roots music with my family. I was around a lot of Old Time and Bluegrass music. My past musical influences have come in phases. What I continue to find powerful over and over again is the Blues. To me, a lot of those old recordings, some nearly as old as the art of recording itself, are the most tangible access to what I consider “roots” music.
Charlie: I’ve always listened to bass players who were doing something different with their instrument. From the beginning, I really liked Victor Wooten and Bela Fleck and the Flecktones because they were all playing their instruments in ways I’d never heard before. That can also be applied to Edgar Meyer. Personally, I was also influenced by my teacher at West Chester University, Peter Paulsen. He showed me the many ways a bass can fit into an ensemble and was an example of someone making a living as a professional musician—something I’d not considered until then.
FLL: Where do you draw inspiration from?
Maya: I am inspired by all these different lives that are being lived at the same time. And by the places I go, and the potential of words and language. I’m also inspired by songs, stories, and art from past generations and millenniums that still manage to be effortlessly relevant.
Charlie: I draw inspiration from any music that gives me goosebumps. It is my personal version of the “Holy Spirit.” I think I also draw inspiration from playing with Maya and Oliver every night. It inspires me to be as focused and creative as I can be.
Oliver: I draw inspiration from people getting together to make harmony—musically, and in their lives. I am also inspired by the desperate and problematic scenarios that I find people enduring—and the sometimes reassuring positive outcomes thereafter. To perform, my inspiration comes from a desire to relate to people I hardly know in a way that can mean something to them—something more than a passing moment.
FLL: How does the new album differ from the previously released EP?
Oliver: On the first release, Borderland, there were originals in addition to a few traditional songs. The new record will feature entirely original material with the authorship split pretty evenly between Maya and me. We are also excited because Charlie is now a full-time member of the group, and unlike Borderland, the new record will have three instead of two-part harmonies and the bass will be at the bottom of it all.
FLL: All musicians are role models for at least one person; what message do you hope to spread to your fans?
Charlie: Music, like most things, is a lifetime learning experience, and you can never really be done exploring and learning new things. I believe it is best, as a performer, when it becomes an expression of a feeling. Performing is an output of feeling and love. It’s a release of life’s tension.
Maya: Someone recently observed that The Stray Birds play with empathy for each other. I love that. I hope people feel invited into our music. I hope to spread the message that music is not a competitive sport. Music is just another way to really enjoy someone’s company.
Oliver: Music is one of the most invaluable forms of communication and can be the saving grace of a lousy day and at the same time a reality check for the unreal.
FLL: How would you describe your sound?
Charlie: The Stray Birds’ sound is acoustic and rooted in the traditions of Old-time, Bluegrass, and Folk music. It has been described as ‘tight’ and ‘well-arranged.’ Really, we just take a melody and chords and sift, knead, roll, sauté, stir-fry, season, bake, and sometimes even deep fry the music. Then, every night we feed our audience and ourselves.
Oliver: While we spend a lot of time working on writing, arranging, instrumentation, and harmonies, I like to think that our sound is still pretty simple and straightforward. We leave a lot of space in the sound we create, and what we do is, at times, as much about what people don’t hear, as it is about what they actually do. It’s acoustic, it’s intricate, it’s soulful, and it’s Americana.
FLL: Are you all classically trained on your instruments versus self-taught?
Maya: I am classically trained on the violin, as is Oliver, and Charlie is classically trained on the bass. Since we are all able to play “by ear” as well, all these other string instruments have become pretty accessible to us. We currently travel with seven instruments, including a banjo, a resonator guitar, and a mandolin.
FLL: How much did the music programs in schools help influence your decisions to become professional musicians?
Oliver: I enjoyed being in the orchestra in public school between the 3rd and 12th grades. I never did really want to be a professional classical musician, but being in the music wing of the school and playing songs and singing with and for some of my friends probably had a bit to do with me formulating a desire to play on stage. Charlie: School music programs are a great way to get students physically used to playing music. There are things that I learned in elementary school (again talking about posture and technique) that allow my music making to happen. It’s like learning another language in that it is much easier to do at a younger age. Beyond that, having students playing in ensembles and solo help develop performing skills. These skills also teach character, confidence, and esteem, all imperative to healthy individuals. My decision to become a professional musician didn’t come until my college years. School music programs had laid the groundwork for this to ever be possible.
Maya: I started the violin in elementary school in the Hempfield School District, and I am still so grateful for that opportunity. Public school music programs are essential—and not simply because they can be influential in choosing music as a profession, but because the arts are the heart and soul of a culture, and they should inhabit an irreplaceable place in education. That schools are cutting programs that foster and advance creative thinking is really, really troubling. I participated in a lot of schoolsponsored orchestra festivals during high school, and that certainly secured my love of performing. My decision to become a professional musician, however, was really inspired by love of traveling. I learned how well these two loves could go together. Music is an intimately creative endeavor; it is something I couldn’t have been forced into doing. It has to come from somewhere within—I think you have to love it more than food sometimes.
Their music is food for the soul and should be enjoyed as such.