It's kinda like having a song scrapyard: North Portal's Last Birds Discuss Songwriting Process
by Scott Roos
*photo courtesy Last Birds
Back in January a pretty cool thing happened. A little known husband and wife duo from North Portal called Last Birds, with their intimate, folksy vibe burst onto the Saskatchewan music scene thanks to the virtual SaskMusic award show. The fact that they could stand alongside many of the best live acts that were presenting digital content that night was no surprise to many who truly know of Mike Davis and Lindsay Arnold, though, as they had, in the past, been members of folk trio Hook & Nail.
"We actually started the Last Birds before the pandemic because we had some songs that we had written that didn't fit with Hook & Nail. With Hook & Nail, everybody should be on board with what it is. Sometimes somebody would bring in a song, and for whatever reason, not necessarily because it's bad or good, it just didn't work for what we were doing," said Arnold in a recent interview with NSMZ.
“Also our friend and bandmate Jeff D. Michel, he has a collection of songs that he's been working on that he wants to put out and it's 100% him and he wanted to do his own thing as well. So once the pandemic hit we wanted to do our stuff that we had written on our own but that ball was already rolling," added Davis.
So thus, Last Birds was born out of the yearning for Hook & Nail to branch out and do things on their own as separate entities. It’s given Arnold, who is mostly known for her work within the visual arts world around Estevan and North Portal, a chance to flex her musical chops.
"We were ten years into our marriage when we started writing together,” recounts Arnold.
"I had been playing guitar since I was a teenager but Lindsay was relatively new. She always liked to write lyrics and things but I had never heard her sing." explained Davis.
Since joining Hook & Nail, Arnold has worked hard at learning the guitar. She played and practiced and played and practiced. In her youth, she had learned piano and also sang in community choirs. So there was some background in music before she took up the guitar. Last Birds has given her the chance to further hone her craft as a songwriter and guitar player.
"I was a visual artist. That was my focus. I was painting and exhibiting, making little films. I always had heard Mike playing. One day I suggested we try writing songs together. And it wasn't until we kinda just had some fun with our friend Jeff and started working as a trio that I actually started seriously pursuing music. It started out as writing lyrics and then I sang. The guys were so patient with me because I had a lot to learn," said Arnold.
"I'm astonished at how quickly she's grown as a musician,” added Davis on the progress that Arnold has made musically since working with him in Hook & Nail and now obviously Last Birds.
When asked how the Last Birds vibe is different, especially without the third person involved, Arnold was quick to add her take on how things have been working out.
"It's been nice. (Mike and I) can still work together. We can rehearse all the time. We can have a band meeting and discuss the business and it doesn't have to be over a zoom call or something awkward. That's been a real benefit for us,” stated Arnold.
"When your spouse brings a song idea. Never use the word tacky when you're giving feedback,” advises Davis when talking about the process of writing with Arnold.
"Lesson learned,” laughs Arnold.
“We're a good team. We've accomplished many things together,” says Davis.
At the end of the day, the vibe of the six song self-titled debut by Last Birds is very organic. Obviously the couple has been able to further perfect their process of writing together in the down time that COVID has provided. It’s sort of been a variation on a theme for many artists and musicians in the quarantine/lockdown era. There's been more time to sit and reflect and with that reflection comes inevitable improvement.
"I usually come up with the full lyric idea and Mike helps with the editing afterwards," explains Arnold of the Last Birds process.
"Generally, Lindsay will bring some lyrics and some chord progressions to the table and we'll sort of jam it out together. She also comes up with a lot of the melody as well. I'll add some of the sprinkles on guitar and some of the riffy parts and harmonies. That's one of the more important things we're trying to do is called close harmony where we're both singing a lot of the time. A lot of thought goes into the harmony as well,” states Davis
"There's an expression about painting that says 'a painting is never really done it just stops in an interesting place'. So I think maybe that can be said for songs too. Quite often you'll write a song and you'll get it prepared a certain way and you'll record it and then down the road you'll say 'maybe we could have done this instead'. With a song you could pick up that thread and keep knitting. A lot of the times when we're writing I'd say for every five songs that are written there's one that's like 'yup that's a good one' the other ones aren't quite there or the other person isn't quite into it yet so it sort of just sits on the shelf and sometimes they emerge later on,” adds Arnold.
"It's kinda like having a song scrapyard. Where you can take bits and pieces sometimes. Sometimes you can restore one completely but other times you're taking a hood or a fender from it,” explains Davis.
It’s something that is becoming a tried and true method for Last Birds. Their debut ep just dropped on April 16th. It’s chock full of vibey, folksy, Americana style songs that just may be an early favourite to top many best of 2021 lists. In the meantime, check out Arnold and Davis’s website for more info on their comings and goings (lastbirds.com). It was recently announced via their social media that they had both tested positive for COVID-19. We here at NSMZ wish them a speedy recovery.