eliza berkon is a journalist and musician based in washington d.c. 

The Musicians Of Birds For Eyes Are Drowning In Their Sorrows, And They Like It That Way

It’s a couple of hours till sunset on a mild Sunday evening in Fairfax and the members of Birds for Eyes are gathered around a firepit in the driveway of a modest red-brick home. The setting mirrors their vibe: cozy and chill—yet charged with a smoldering energy.

The emo-meets-classical band, opening for Taciturn on Thursday at Velvet Lounge and headlining a show at Gypsy Sally’s on Aug. 15, is at once cerebral and sentimental. In conversation, the unguarded, mostly 20-something musicians based in Northern Virginia—Case Graham (lead vocals, rhythm guitar), Sarah “Sunshine” Foote (viola, backup vocals), Josh Rickwald (keyboard) and Jordan Dache (drums, trumpet, lead guitar, backup vocals)—analyze their work in great detail, but in rehearsal all of that intellectual discourse evaporates as they fall prey to raw emotion.

The band formed in early 2016 after Graham approached Foote at Epicure in Fairfax and asked her to collaborate on a new music project. Within a few months, Graham’s childhood friends Rickwald and Dache were on board. And by the fall, Birds for Eyes (borrowing their name from an early Graham song) were developing some of the songs for their first album during a retreat along Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

“A lot of organic things happened there,” Graham says.

The vocalist, who points to Daughter and Phox (but “a sad version”) as key band influences, wrote all of the lyrics for the album, No Man Is an Island. Full songs typically come to her with all their components at once, Graham says, but she also gets ideas in snippets, sometimes finding herself “singing into my voice memos next to the peas” in the grocery store. She then chats with each band member about how to best translate her ideas to their instruments.

“It’s a lot like group sculpting,” Dache says. Graham "will come to us with a slab of marble and say, ‘This is a song.’ And then we all kind of chip away at it in tandem with each other.”

No Man Is an Island, released in January, is filled with musings about isolation and desperation. The album’s title and opening track, “The Bell Tolls,” both derive from an oft-quoted devotional writing by English poet and cleric John Donne, “Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions.” For Graham, the work bears a message of shared humanity that reflects the band’s music.

“There’s a lot about being alone, left alone, feeling alone, singularity,” Graham says. “We’re playing really sad stuff. But the point is we can recognize that sadness in each other. And maybe that could kind of help us.”

Foote characterizes the dirge-like opening song as “a doorbell into the cavern of the album.” And what a cavernous, sorrowful album it is. With “All I Ask,” Graham says she wanted to twist the idea of leaving a personal legacy. She sings in her clear soprano, “So that my heart would give out, forget me slowly.” “Blue,” which opens with a single, evocative note intoned on the viola, transforms from a sort of incantation into a bit of a banger.

And, perhaps as an illustration of music’s ability to communicate sans words, the album’s most exceptional piece is “Half Awake,” written during the Eastern Shore retreat. With a simple but deftly played piano intro, the instrumental work showcases the sensitivity of Rickwald, Dache and Foote as each one enters decidedly dramatic and melancholy terrain.

Yet for all their intense emotional exploration, Birds for Eyes also knows how to keep things light. To limit intraband disputes, the band employs a “talking water bottle,” with members reaching for whatever bottle might be lying around and brandishing it in the air before taking their turn to speak. And when that doesn't work, they have other methods.

“Sometimes instead of practice we’ll come out here, we’ll light a fire and we’ll sit under the stars for a couple hours and just tell each other why we’re feeling miserable,” Dache says. His bandmates note that no argument lasts long.

The band has a five-song EP in the works for the late fall, featuring a few pieces Graham says she wrote to address personal tragedies. Its members are also hoping to tour this winter (Dache is actively looking for a van but has the solar panels on hand) and say they would love to make Birds for Eyes a full-time operation.

“We are chaos. We are complete chaos individually.” Rickwald says, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a large, straight-faced emoji. “But together we bring clarity.”

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