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I've never felt that sick before: Last Birds recount how COVID-19 changed them as songwriters

Updated: May 16, 2023

by Scott Roos

*photo courtesy of Durr Photography

Launched onto the provincial stage by a brilliant digital performance at the SaskMusic awards night gala this past January, folk/roots/Americana duo Last Birds had seemingly done the impossible through what, for many musicians, was, to put it mildly, a hard year of pandemic frustrations. They had captured momentum. There was some hype and buzz around their music which excited the husband and wife team of Lindsay Arnold and Mike Davis. They were getting ready to launch their first record, a record they had spent months working on and refining together. They had captured a unique sound and vibe. In short, despite COVID, they were ready to take things to the next level and then, unfortunately, shortly before a planned album release show at the Happy Nun Cafe, the unthinkable happened. Mike had been feeling under the weather and went in for a COVID test. It was positive.

In an emotional video post on the group's Facebook page on April 23rd, Arnold had this to say:

“‘Hi friends, just wanted to come on and give you a little update on Last Birds. We released our debut EP last Friday. Thanks everyone for all the positive feedback and for listening. We also earlier this week had to postpone some performances that we’ve had scheduled for months and months and months at the Happy Nun in Forget. Unfortunately, Mike Started feeling ill last weekend on Saturday and he did go for a COVID test on Monday and he did test positive so we are in isolation. Fortunately Mike he’s been feeling definitely under the weather but not really terrible. Myself and our daughter are negative so we’re isolating at home and doing our part to stop the spread. (I) really felt that I should come on here and say something. Our little part of the world here has some conflicting views on this pandemic and we feel really strongly that people need to take it seriously. I’m trying to find some common ground that maybe we can all stand on and the only thing I can come up with is nobody likes to be sick, nobody likes to feel under the weather. So if you feel sick please stay home. Please don’t pass that onto someone else. Let’s just keep ourselves as healthy as possible. That just seems like common sense. So thanks everyone and we’ll be updating you later this week and on the weekend with how Mike’s doing.”

A few days later, it was Arnold’s turn. The band posted an update on their wall on April 26th saying that she had now also tested positive. “We are happy to report Mike is feeling a bit better. He has more energy today and is coughing less. Still can’t taste anything. Unfortunately it looks like it is Lindsay’s turn now. Her symptoms are fairly mild except for a deep fatigue and sore eyes,” the post, in part, read.

It was a journey to be sure, but the couple was able to come out the other side with a renewed outlook on life and also their music. Davis’s isolation was announced to have ended on May 1st with Arnold’s following on May 5th. The ordeal was over but the couple’s shared experience with COVID had evolved the way they write songs.

"As far as COVID goes I do not recommend. It was not very fun at all,” joked Davis in a recent conversation with NSMZ, “Yeah I mean, it was definitely strange. I've never felt that sick before and nothing really seemed to help. You try to go outside thinking that's gonna make you feel better. You get outside and it's like stagger back to the house and maybe watch TV but that sucks. Play guitar a little bit... Nothing seemed to really satisfy. I really missed being able to practice and write and perform but we did wind up with some good nuggets of song ideas out of the experience so that's one positive, I guess. Luckily we had about three weeks where we felt like crap, but we recovered and we're back to our normal lives but also changed. We're a little bit cynical I guess,” Davis recounted in a conversation with NSMZ.

"It's an ordeal. I will say that the whole experience, how it went down, and we're not gonna say too much about how it happened, but I will say that it became a turning point in our lives about how we need to be more vocal about what we think and what we feel. We have written music in response to that and I think that makes you in some ways a better artist if you have something you need to talk about or say. With this whole COVID thing everybody has an opinion, everybody thinks they know what's right, everybody wants you to think what they think, but the power of being songwriters is that when you're on stage and you're singing your song there's 3 and a half minutes when you get to say exactly what you think. And I think we decided at that point, we're gonna keep writing songs and all our songs are not gonna be just nice nice songs. Some of them are gonna be difficult. We did perform at the Happy Nun a few weeks ago and it was hard. The mask mandates were still in place. We had to sing with masks on so that's a difficult thing to do. But we were also playing some of these songs for the first time in front of people and emotionally I think that was difficult for us but also empowering,” added Arnold.

Throughout the pandemic, Arnold and Davis followed the rules as best they could. Their frustrations were that others could not follow in kind. Throughout their experience with the virus, they also worried about whether or not they spread the disease to others in their social bubbles. Fortunately, this was not the case. They stop short of calling their experience "near death" but the ramifications of the entire situation are not lost on them.

"I don't think it was ever that intense but it's scary and it's a pandemic and you've contracted this virus and you don't really know what could happen. Is it going to get worse? Is it going to get better? But for me one of the things was in the time that I got infected until the time that I knew that I was sick with COVID I was wracking my brain thinking 'oh my god could I possibly have infected someone else? Could I have passed it onto my hairdresser or people like that.' So that really bothered me," said Davis.

"Yeah we were following the rules and sometimes that's kind of the clincher is that you followed the rules but not everybody else is. Sometimes the power gets taken away. I felt in some ways that that the power was taken away from us to make decisions about our health and what we wanted to do because of other people's thoughts. And also the ripple effect. So we got COVID but it was also the weekend of our album release. we were going to play at the Happy Nun with the limited capacity and wearing masks and following all the rules but we had to cancel that," Arnold continued.

"So people that had bought tickets had to cancel their plans. The Happy Nun who had purchased the food for the event - they didn't know what to do with all the tuna they had purchased. The ripple effects of that plays on your mind," added Davis.

At the same time, there was a very generous outpouring of support for Last Birds whilst they were sick. Davis felt it important to note that many people in their community lent a hand to them as best they could.

"We got a lot of really great messages within the music and arts community and just the general public. There was a lot of people that were very supportive behind the scenes sending private messages, sending care packages, there was people in town here that made supper and sent it to us. We couldn't taste it (LAUGHS). We just appreciate the people that looked out of for us and sent kind words and that was definitely a bright spot," said Davis.

On July 11th, the government of Saskatchewan officially removed all the remaining COVID restrictions that were in place making life much easier for musicians. The general public keeps saying that live music is back but, in truth, it never really went away. Music continued to find a way to thrive and survive under some of the most soul crushing circumstances in recent memory. There were reduced capacity indoor shows, drive-in shows, small backyard gatherings and also online events but things never stopped moving forward. Arnold and Davis have come out the other side of pandemic restrictions and are ready to recapture the momentum they had before testing positive with the virus that maybe, arguably they never lost. In truth maybe what the pandemic really enabled them to do was slow down and contemplate their true calling and purpose as artists in this province.

"We definitely are working on new material and got a songwriting grant from the Sask Arts Board. So we have until the end of September to finish writing and we're going to demo them out. (The grant) really validated us that we're doing something right and lit a fire under our butts to come up with some more material because sometimes after you release something people can stagnate and I have to tell ya other than COVID knocking us down for a few weeks, musically we have not stagnated as far as writing and practicing and playing and doing everything we can to tighten everything up and come up with material we really like,” explained Davis.

*UPDATE: The duo's show in Prince Albert has been cancelled*

Last Birds will be testing out some of this new material in Prince Albert at Jam Street Shared Arts Space on August 12th. Tickets are still available and can be purchased here:

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