Stephanie Seymour swears it was just a bizarre coincidence that two of the bands she played and sang with had bird-related titles. “One was Psychic Penguin and the other was Birdy, when I really became a singer-songwriter on my own,” she explains. “But it was before I was even a birdwatcher. Weird.” Weird indeed.
Now, a few decades later, she has recorded and released an album that’s all about birds. There Are Birds features songs such as “Northern Mockingbird,” “Black-throated Blue Warbler,” “Ruby-crowned Kinglet,” and nine other bird-centric titles. Released on her own label, the album was produced by her husband, guitarist Bob Perry, who was in the alternative rock band Winter Hours, and also features keyboardist and accordionist Charlie Giordano, who played with Pat Benatar and has been touring with Bruce Springsteen since the death of Danny Federici.
Over the years, there have been plenty of songs inspired by birds – Lennon-McCartney’s “Blackbird,” Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark” and Joni Mitchell’s “Black Crow” come readily to mind – but few reveal as much detail and devotion to the real essence of birds and birding as Seymour’s collection. On her website, Seymour says There Are Birds is “an album about birds, nature, the passage of time, and my relationship with these things and more. It’s my story told from a bird’s perspective and the birds’ stories revealed through my worldview.”
You would expect that the songs’ acute attention to detail reflects a lifetime’s interest in birds. However, Seymour was a musician and singer way before she was a birder. She grew up listening to the New Wave and post-punk bands of the ’80s. “Seeing the Go-Gos and the Police on MTV did it for me,” she recalls. “Then when I saw the Go-Gos live and saw [drummer] Gina Shock play live that was over the top for me. I asked my dad for a drum set right after that. That’s when I started playing and getting into music.”
She began playing with various groups including the all-female band, The Aquanettas, beginning in 1989 and later with two bands with perhaps prescient names: Psychic Penguin and Birdy. Yet, as she explained, she was not even a birdwatcher then, much less a birder. A musician with plenty of common sense, she eventually transitioned to a career behind the scenes of the music business, working as a promotion person for major labels like Island and Virgin Records.
Her entry into the world of birding happened when she thought she could contribute to the Christmas Bird Count. Why not? She had been birdwatching in her own backyard and neighborhood since she moved with her husband from New York City to a more bucolic setting in New Jersey. “I was Googling something one day and the Christmas Bird Count popped up,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘I’ll go try and look at birds in my neighborhood.’ I took a cheapo pair of binoculars and went out. I was like, ‘I can’t even ID a House Sparrow.’ I was so upset that I couldn’t identify the birds, that the next day I went and got a Peterson Guide and I studied the House Sparrow. The next day I went out and ID’ed the House Sparrow and then I was totally hooked. The House Sparrow was my spark bird, really.”
So began her life list and her devotion to birding. Like many a modern birder, she uses eBird. “Since 2004, I’ve been using eBird and I’ve only ever been using eBird to keep track of my list. I think my list is 500 and something. I also make yard lists for places I live. I keep a hard copy of a journal when I’m out in the field and then I transfer it every night into eBird online. I’m a hardcore lister, but I don’t go out of my way to chase many birds. I’m not like, ‘I must see EVERY bird.’”
‘I’m writing a bird album’
Birding had indeed become her passion. And music had been her passion. Yet the two obsessions were on a parallel path until a year and a half ago. “In early 2018, I was just sitting on the couch and the first line of ‘Ruby-crowned Kinglet’ came to me. I then heard the large chorus that’s an answer to it: ‘That eye, that eye, that eye.’ I heard it, a fully formed chorus, in my head. That’s a funny lyric to me. Why does it look so scared? Because it’s got a giant eye. But the lyrics kept coming to me and they turned a little darker, because that song is actually about my own anxiety and depression. In about 45 minutes or an hour, I really had that song fully formed in my head as if I pulled it out of the air. I could hear the instrumentation. I could hear everything, and it was done. I heard it like it was on the radio. That was the moment. I said, ‘I’m writing a bird album.’”
From then on, the songs came to her almost as in a dream. “This whole album truly was that experience,” she explains. “I didn’t belabor the songs. If they came to me within a few weeks, that was what was going to happen. But if I was working too hard at it, then it didn’t happen. There are rejects. ‘American Robin’ never happened. I decided that I’d just move on if it wasn’t happening, because something else is going to come.”
Inspiration aside, Seymour had to rely heavily on Perry’s skills, experience and patience to make the album. “I play the drums,” she notes. “I don’t really play an instrument, so I had to sing everything to my husband so he could translate it out of my head and onto tape or a recording. It was a very long process. He did everything — played guitar, produced, mixed, engineered… There would be no record without Bob.”
Understanding bird songs is a key component of serious birding. Of course, mastery of bird song should have come easily to a birder like Seymour, who was a lifelong musician, right? Well, no. “I thought it would be a natural thing for me, but not so,” she says. “All of a sudden one year, it just clicked in and I started knowing what the birds were by sound. I don’t know every single bird, but I know quite a few. I can ID them by ear pretty well now.”
Nowadays, Seymour isn’t particularly interested in touring and performing her songs live. In part because she loves birding so much. And in part because of some physical challenges around her vocal cords. “I don’t really want to play out,” she says. “I have a partially paralyzed vocal cord and I almost had to relearn to sing when I did this album. I also have Eagle Syndrome, yes, Eagle Syndrome. My voice doesn’t always do what I want it to do.” The name of her condition is yet another strange coincidence.
A passion for birding
For now, Seymour is content to let the music find its way to birders and even a wider audience, while she continues to explore her passion for birding. For the most part, she has stuck to birding near her home in northern New Jersey. “Some of the places around here where I like to bird are Ringwood Manor and Skylands Manor, which is the New Jersey Botanical Gardens, so you’ve got amazing grounds there. I go to Sterling Forest [State Park] a lot in Tuxedo, New York. There are Golden-winged Warblers and Cerulean Warblers there.”
She confesses to being more of a patch birder, and as it happens, her patch is focused on birds of prey. “I’m not as hardcore as the Big Year people, but every spring and fall I take six weeks off for migration,” Seymour explains. “My yard is now an official hawk watch, so I do that in the fall mostly. I’m happy to see warblers as well, but I’ve become a real hawk watcher. If you told me five years ago that I’d be a hawk watcher, I would have whacked you in the face, but for some reason I’ve gotten sort of obsessed with hawks.”
Hawk obsession aside, birding offers Seymour a retreat from her own inner life, as she appreciates the unique beauty of birds. “I get to see these beautiful birds and their fascinating behavior,” she says. “It’s really a Zen thing. I am such an anxious person and so tense. When I am birdwatching, that is not happening. I get to relax. I mean, really relax. My mind focuses on that, sort of like with music, where you don’t think about anything else.”
Beyond her own very intimate connection to birds, she also sees the real value of the birding community. “I like to bird alone, but I also like to go out with a group, where you can talk about other things or not,” notes Seymour. “I learned so much from people who were so giving about birds. It’s almost overwhelming how the birdwatching community is such a great group of people.”
You can listen to selections from There Are Birds at Seymour’s website or on her Bandcamp page.
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