Q&A: Chris Mills And Bird Of Youth’s Beth Wawerna On Collaboration, Long-Simmering Songs And Ideas Of Brooklyn


Tonight two Brooklyn-based acts, Chris Mills and Bird Of Youth, will celebrate the release of their new albums at the Rock Shop. Mills is commemorating the release of The Heavy Years: 2000-2010 (Ernest Jenning), which chronicles the past decade of his resplendent, Americana-tinged pop; Bird Of Youth, which began as the project of Beth Wawerna and blossomed into a band, will honor the release of Defender (Jagjaguwar), a sultry, harmony-rich record full of indelible hooks and whip-smart one-liners. Over oysters at Walter Foods, I spoke to Mills and Wawerna (who, full disclosure, are pals of mine) about their influences, what it’s like to look back, and the idea that non-New Yorkers have of Brooklyn.

I like that this show is honoring Chris’ retrospective album and Beth’s first record.

Chris Mills: It’s like Baby New Year and Father Time.

If you wanted to give Beth advice, Chris, what would you tell her?

CM: Tough it out. Don’t stop believin’. Entering the music business and being in the music business is not an easy thing to do at any age, or at any time. Honestly, I think the main thing, and it’s gonna sound super-cheesy, is to make sure you’re having a good time. Make sure you like doing it, because all the business stuff and all of the trying to get shows, working with distributors and labels and agents and managers, at some point that stuff is going to lose its charm, I would say. Music is a really fun thing to do; it’s a really awesome thing to do; it’s a really important thing for people to do. But it’s really easy to forget that and get frustrated by all of the roadblock—no matter what level you’re at, there’s always going to be shit that comes up that makes you want to pull your hair out and stop doing it. But hopefully you’re in it because it’s what you want to do, and you have something you want to say, and you understand the value of communicating with people inviting them into your experience and becoming part of their lives.

Beth Wawerna: It took me so long to have the courage to share anything, or even tell people that I was playing music or writing songs at home. In a way, it happened very quickly—I turned 30 and I was like, oh, shit, now I have to do this, I have to jump off the cliff and send people these demos. Lots of my friends were musicians that were pretty successful, and in touring bands. It was pretty scary. In a way, I got very quickly into the stuff that you’re talking about, Chris—you need a manager, you need to book a million shows, you need to go on tour. A lot of that stuff was very positive in a way—I got to work in a great studio with a wonderful producer; my first show was with Carl Newman. All of these wonderful things came out of it, but in a way, it was very, “Hey!” And now I’m coming down from that and I have to step back and go, “OK, why am I doing this again? It’s because I always wanted to.” And I’m not going to worry about what people say on the Internet. Even though I am.

CM: But you always do.

BW: I got to make this record with Will [Sheff], and Matthew from Nada Surf, and these are all longtime friends of mine, over 10 years. I grew up in New York in my 20s watching them all do this stuff, and kind of studying it internally and taking mental notes. I’ve been here since 1998.

That’s a long time to watch the “New York” music scene change, too.

BW: Yeah. It’s funny—the whole Brooklyn scene, how I perceive that now, it’s something I don’t fit into, necessarily. In a way, that can be a little intimidating. I’m not putting myself down—I just think my music is pretty songwriting-based. I don’t really wear hot pants and do this and that on stage. It’s intimidating, you know?

CM: I do that.

BW: When I first moved here, I was friends with the Mendoza Line and Nada Surf, and that was a very insular scene at that time. So I felt very much a part of that, but I wasn’t making music at that time. It’s weird to view it now, when the Mendoza Line isn’t even a band anymore. It’s hard to know where you fit in.

Chris, you’ve been doing a lot of collaborative work around the city at song clubs and the like. Can you talk about how that fits into the perception of “Brooklyn music” in the popular media, which seems imposed on the borough by extra-Brooklyn factors?

CM: For a long time I was kind of getting fed up with music. The music business can be really frustrating, and while a lot of good things have happened and I’ve always had a record label and been able to get publishing stuff and tour after a while, especially being a solo artist, you get kind of tired of doing things on your own, and being in charge of steering your own course 100%. Your label, or manager, or booking agent, they have other things as part of their priorities; when you’re a solo artist or a bandleader, you’re the only one who’s thinking about it 24 hours a day. When other people aren’t, you get frustrated. It’s like, everybody shares in your successes, but you fail alone.

So I got invited to go down to a songwriters’ night by Niall Connolly, a pop songwriter from Ireland. All he does is play music, seven nights a week. He runs open mics, and songwriters’ clubs. For a long time, I dismissed that avenue for what I do, because I’m a self-important asshole [laughs] and I thought I was better than that. [Laughs] And I met someone who’s created a scene that’s really super-supportive in a way that I hadn’t been exposed to in the New York rock scene, where people really care about what they do and are really focused on being songwriters and sharing their ideas and helping each other write better songs and book tours and get shows. I’ve met some really great songwriters and really sincere people, and that’s really changed the way that I look at a lot of stuff. I’ve also been collaborating with these well-regarded session guys in Oslo who have been really open and into making things happen.

I came out of Chicago, which is this incredibly collaborative scene, and went to Brooklyn, which didn’t really work for me that way at first. I’ve now found this group of people I really like hanging out with and playing music with. They’ve helped me become more accepting of the idea that everybody can play, and everybody can do it. I know some people might read that and dismiss it as some hippie version of how music should be, but I would much rather hang out with people who are nice.

Chris Mills, “A Farewell To Arms”

Do you think the two of you would work together at all?

BW: I would!

CM: We’ve worked together on Thanksgiving dinner.

BW: I did this show recently with Jennifer O’Connor, who does that Tower of Song series at the Rock Shop. It was collaborative in a sense—each person plays three of their own songs, and you have to write a new one based on a theme for that night. It was good to jog my creative juices. This record took three years to put out.

When did you start writing the songs for Defender?

BW: I started writing when I moved to New York, when I was 22 or so. I’d play guitar. At that time, there was a scene I was in, but I wouldn’t necessarily participate in the creative part of it; it was more like we’d all hang out and stay up until 4 a.m. singing Neutral Milk Hotel songs, and then I would quietly go home and write songs. When I decided to make this record and really do it for real, I hunkered down.

I went back through a lot of old stuff I recorded, demos and stuff, and I pulled a little bit from some of those recordings. I’m definitely not saying the songs on the record are from 10 years ago, but there are interesting little snippets—a part of a melody, a lyric—from then. These songs are really cool, in a way, because of the molting process they went through. I’ll never have that again. It’s exciting to move forward and have different ideas about what I want to do, but the first album is very personal and chronicles 10 years of my life.

And Chris’ record chronicles 10 years!

BW: It’s a theme!

Chris, did you have a narrative in mind for your retrospective?

CM: It’s a combination of songs that I’ve always kind of liked and the crowd-pleasers. I just wanted to give people a taste of what they would see if they came to see a show where I played something from every single one of my records. It was really fun to do; it was really weird to think about where I was and who I was back then. I’m glad that I’m not that person now, but I’m glad that I was that person then because I really love those songs. Like, the songs from The Wall To Wall Sessions make me think of the best three days of my life, with Kelly Hogan and Nora O’Connor. But that happened for all the songs, when I was looking back and thinking about what it was like when I started working with Brian Deck, or when Andrew Bird came in and played violin. It made me appreciate all the great people I’ve gotten to work with, and all the things I’ve figured out along the way. It reminded me that I’m really lucky. People write to you and tell you that this song helped them, or that this song was played at their wedding.

BW: I look forward to that!

CM: It’ll happen—I think if you do something creative and have that be your profession, you’re really lucky. I know I sound really sappy and sentimental in this whole thing. But I just watched these kids that I taught.

How long have you been teaching? Do you think that’s affected the way you make your music at all?

CM: I don’t know if it’s affected the way I make it, but it’s affected the way I view the purpose of writing and making songs. We all grew up with bands that changed our lives and made us believe in ourselves and reminded us we weren’t the only people going through the things we were going through. If you’re a musician, and especially if you’re a songwriter, your job is to remember that and to try and be that person for other people.

Bird Of Youth, “Spearfish”

Beth, what bands did that for you?

BW: I had a brother who was 14 years older than me. We weren’t living in the same house for very long—by the time I was 3, he was off in college. When I became an adolescent I started going through his old LPs; he had a box in the attic I would go through. I would go to whatever apartemnt he was living in, and I was 12 and he was in his 20s. He was a big influence on me, introduced me to like Elvis Costello and the Reaplcements—those were his two big ones, and they became my big ones. The Pixies, Squeeze.

CM: We went to see Squeeze together last summer with Cheap Trick!

Do you think your aesthetic has changed over the 10 years of you working on the record?

BW: To be honest, I’m not sure that it has. That may sound strange—obviously there are current, contemporary bands that I love. But I always go back to the touchstones in my life and hold those up.

Did any of your experiences as a music writer inform the making of your record?

My foray into music journalism was a little different. I was an assistant at Spin—I was an assistant, and that went on for about a year. My first real job was getting hired by the web site. Andy Greenwald and I got money and a digital camera and were told, “Go!” Nobody was policing us or anything. So my experience as a music “writer” was different, because I could do whatever I wanted to do. Not to paint myself as an idealist, but I think Andy would agree that we did mostly everything out of love. We were doing a lot of video features at that time, of performances in our conference room. I remember that time really fondly.

CM: I was one of those people!

BW: But we really only covered bands that we cared about and wanted to help.

CM: Awww.

BW: No, I’m serious! I never really was comfortable criticizing people who were trying to make art, and I think that’s partially because I knew deep down that I wnated to do the same thing. I was like, “Who am I to tell this person what they’re doing?” That’s not to say that I won’t say anything negative, because I probably did.

Well, there’s a difference between criticism of things that you want to see better and the sort of LOL-culture snark that’s so prominent online.

BW: Right. There’s a place for music criticism in journalism. I just got to a point where I didn’t feel comfortable, especially when I started really writing. But how it informed me; it’s how I met most of the people currently in my life, like Chris. I got to investigate things that I was curious about, and it was a really great time. I still have a lot of good friends who are musicians or other people in the industry who are now in my world. It’s a nice sort of cyclical thing.

Bird Of Youth and Chris Mills play The Rock Shop with Niall Connolly tonight at 7:30 p.m.