It’s clear within moments of our meeting at Icehouse that Siri Undlin is a calmer person than I am. Though in all fairness (to me) Undlin probably seems calmer than you as well.
In a chic pale-green jumpsuit and violet Adidas, the singer/songwriter greets early arrivers to the second installment of Humbird’s Wednesday residency at the Whittier restaurant with a placid but welcoming vibe that’s unchilled by Minnesotan reserve or evasion. You can hear those same traits in Undlin’s voice on Still Life, the latest album from her group, Humbird. Heartbreak, fear, loss—all those unruly emotions that art’s got to process—simmer and sharpen into focus, but they’re managed, soothed, and beautified till it ain’t all that bad.
We settle upstairs in the cozy storage area that doubles as the Icehouse green room with drummer Pete Quirsfeld and bassist Pat Keen, the group’s other two-thirds, while cellist Hillary James of bathtub cig, who’s performing with the band as an auxiliary member tonight, watches without participating from the corner. “I’m just sitting in here because it’s warm,” she says.
Humbird is what Undlin calls “a fluid scenario”: ideally a trio, though, as Keen notes, “If we can’t make enough money, Siri will do it solo,” even if that requires, ugh, touring alone with her guitar. (“It’s harder to play hacky sack by yourself,” Quirsfeld says of the downsides of band-less touring.) At Icehouse, Humbird has been performing as a five-piece, in what Undlin calls “our largest evolution,” after which she and Keen add a unison “yet.”
“We can’t tour super-hard in support of the album until 2022 when things are a little more … ‘COVID chill’? Is that a term people use?” Undlin says, and the band didn’t want to settle for the “one night and it’s over” affair of a record release show. Since a previous Icehouse residency in January 2020, “The Humdinger,” lived up to its name, they hopped on the chance for a second stay. The residency, Quirsfeld says, offers a chance “to experiment week by week and rearrange things,” and, even more importantly, says Keen, “is also inaugurating a fun new fourth member into Humbird, which is Addie, who produced Still Life.”
Not long after, the fun new Addie Strei herself enters the room, damp and amused, with a cautionary tale to share about the danger of pouring sparkling water into sealed containers. “I was just sitting in my car listening to Enya, cracking LeCroixs,” is how Strei sets the idyllic scene. But filling the thermos was one thing, drinking from it a whole ’nother. “When I opened it, it shot up like a whale spout.”
Though Strei and Undlin are roommates, the creation of Still Life began in October through a series of intra-house text messages, like prisoners communicating between cells. “Our bedrooms are separated by a wall, and I would be tinkering around and Addie would text me and say, ‘That’s a cool sounding melody,’” Undlin recalls.
But an album wasn’t yet in the works. “We didn’t start working together right away and even when we did it was like, let’s just start experimenting with a demo and have fun,” Undlin says. “And then I loved what Addie was doing. It’s our whoopsie baby. We were like, ‘We’re accidentally making a record.’”
After five weeks of recording, Undlin called in Quirsfeld and Keen, who were pleasantly startled that a new Humbird album was practically finished, and now had the tricky task of fitting rhythm tracks to near-complete recordings. The drums were added last, which is really just not how it’s done, with Quirsfeld whipping through five songs in eight hours. Additional musicians (cellist James, Clifton Nesseth, Dave Power, Rachel Reis, Luke Callen, Elliot Heinz, and Holly Hansen) contributed to an album that’s layered with synths and woodwinds and horns, a mighty transformation from the guitar-bass-drums of Humbird’s 2019 debut, Pharmakon.
Still Life is an album to lose yourself in during certain moods, or in others to find comforting details to grasp onto. The opening instrumental “Hymn for Whom” sets the electropastoral tone, with overlaid washes and patterns, guitar plucking crisply in the foreground, woodwinds fluttering an overture, a few high end piano notes plink toward the middle. The rhythm section often wraps in from below, and there’s a fully three-dimensional sense of space and depth, so a saxophone solo might feel overheard from the distance.
Undlin’s lyrics often express best wishes, hopes, and reassurance, addressing injuries either flatly stated or subtly implied. They can be as grand as a spiritual on the closing “On the Day We Are Together Again” or as plainspoken as “Today I was not as kind as I set out to be.” Yet even at their simplest there’s an enticing structure at play, as when “Charlotte” rhymes and half-rhymes with “doin’ it” and “moment.” Vocally, Undlin draws from the past without imitating it. The rounding of a vowel may recall Joni Mitchell on moment, the grazing of a consonant might suggest Bonnie Raitt another (especially on “Standing in Your Way,” with hints of her guitar to match), and “Pink Moon for John Prine” bounds with the energy of its late namesake.
Oh, and that Irish New Age queen mentioned earlier? “We were kind of ironically listening to Enya at the beginning of the pandemic, thinking, ‘Is this gonna help us calm down? We’ll try anything at this point,’” Undlin recalls. “And then we were like, ‘Enya is so cool. No one sounds like Enya.’”
As for contemporaries, Undlin cites Montreal’s Thanya Iyer and Scandinavian electronic pop singer-songwriters like Norway’s Susanne Sundfør and Iceland’s Emilíana Torrini. “We were really influenced by how epic and strange those artists can get,” Undlin says. “And they have amazing synth tones.”
“And we listened to ‘Mr. Bojangles’ everyday,” Strei adds, which sparks an exchange with Undlin. “That wasn’t by choice.” “One of our roommates plays ‘Mr. Bojangles’ every day.” “He is truly committed to that song.”
After the whirlwind recording of Still Life, Humbird is looking to loosen the tautly arranged songs live rather than sticking with the recordings. “We’re not really a ‘sticking with it’ kind of band,” Undlin says. The album stands alone as its own artifact, which, carefully crafted as it is, has a particular kind of spontaneity.
“It’s such a perfect time capsule of this two-month period,” she says. “There was also so much else going on around us that it felt kind of dumb to get too dragged down by details. We were like, ‘That’s a decision we made. We’re not gonna pick it apart.’ Just stay light on our feet. Just move on to the next thing.”
With: Faith Boblett, Laura Hugo
When: Wednesday, Nov. 17, 8 p.m.
Tickets: All ages; $12/$15; more info here.