The real magic behind Birds of Chicago is the vocal connection between singers-songwriters JT Nero (nee Jeremy Lindsay) of JT & The Clouds (Chicago) and Allison Russell of Po' Girl (Vancouver, British Columbia).
Nero and Russell have been mutual fans for years and only recently became something more: Birds of Chicago.
Who: Birds of Chicago
When: 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 15
Where: Alex's Plaza Restaurant and Bar, 35 N. Main St., Ashland
The project was formed in 2011, when Russell performed with Nero on his solo album, "Mountains/Forests." The vocal harmonies on this album were so great that they inspired a more permanent collaboration.
"The first time we sang together, there was a real alchemy that you can't really define or put your finger on," Nero says.
After a successful Kickstarter campaign — they raised $23,000 — early in 2012, "a nice, little nudge from fans," the duo, along with members of The Clouds, flocked to the Minbal studio in Chicago to record its self-titled debut, released October 2012 in the U.S.
On the album, the Birds keeps its signature vocals up-close and personal. Russell demonstrates the distinct ability both to manipulate her angelic vocals around Nero's more gritty croon and to "grab hold of a song" with soul.
Nero, a master wordsmith, wrote 10 of the 12 "impressionistic," emotion-driven songs on the album. (Russell contributed "San Souci" and "Before She Goes.") The songs don't begin with a thesis or narrative but are open to personal interpretation, he says.
"I tend to give people the bones or the parameters of a story, so there's room for people to fill in their own lives in between," he says.
And behind all the wordplay and vocals, there's a patchwork of roots sounds, including folk, country, rock, blues and soul. Nero plays guitar, and Russell plays banjo, ukulele and clarinet. The rest of the instrumentation is provided by members of The Clouds.
"We're both believers in mongrel music," Nero says. "Roots music, to us, is not a tradition that has to be dusted off. It's always evolving.
"But whatever different musical influences go into the musical bed, our vocals and the dovetailing of our vocals together are always going to be the centerpiece."
The duo, accompanied by Clouds guitarist Joe Faulhaber, will perform at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 15, at Alex's Plaza Restaurant and Bar, 35 N. Main St., Ashland. Cover is $8. Call 541-482-8818 or see www.birdsofchicago.com.