INTERVIEW: Project Blackbird

Hailing from all across the globe, Project Blackbird is an international collective of musicians from equally diverse backgrounds and experiences. 

Formed of vocalist Ming Nagel, guitarist Thure Gade Johansen, drummer Styx, former Specials trumpet player and multi-instrumentalist Jon Read and bassist / keyboard player Jamie Varley, Project Blackbird have just released their debut LP Endurance – an immersive and thought-provoking record intertwining carefully-crafted musicianship with emotive lyricism and themes.

I had a chat to the band to learn more about the project and what drove them to create Endurance… 

How did Project Blackbird form as a musical collective?

Ming: Jon and Styx have known each other for decades and first played together in the late ‘80s. Jon and I have been writing songs together since around 2000, shortly after I moved to the UK from the States, and we contacted Styx when we were looking for a drummer for our band Bluebird Parade.

We met Thure (who is from Denmark) seven years ago when he depped on guitar for our ska band Kingsize, and slowly but persistently wooed him to join Bluebird Parade. But it’s hard work keeping a seven-piece going, so in 2017 Project Blackbird emerged organically as a darker, pared-down, and supposedly more portable sibling.

We brought Jamie in [bass guitar, keyboards, backing vocals] – as a friend with a mutual interest in motorbikes and wildlife ponds – for live gigs. Our musical family tree is deep-rooted and quite incestuous.

Each band member seems to have quite a different musical background. How does that influence your sound?

Ming: Through some lovely synergy our individual musical backgrounds, tastes, and influences are really diverse. As an example, Jon – one of the music writers and a multi-instrumentalist – grew up listening to Johnny Cash and heavy metal before discovering ska, reggae, and Hugh Masekela; he studied music with the composer Gavin Bryars.  

I think this open-mindedness is reflected in the eclecticism of the album – where from one track to the next you may hear hints of jazz, folk, blues, pop, trip-hop, and so on. We bring our own stories and learn from each other. All this means that, increasingly, we’re not afraid to experiment and take the sound in unexpected directions.  

You recently released your debut album Endurance. Can you tell me about the story behind the record and how it was made?

Jon: Thure’s experiments with sounds and loops, along with his super funky guitar playing and my interests in a minimal but layered sound, formed the basis of the album.  Moving on from the Bluebird Parade track Corvids, we started playing around with a more cinematic style of writing and some spoken word.

Ming: I think Jon and Thure have a kind of mutual muse thing going on when they jam. For over a year they’d get together regularly; one or the other of them would start with a riff, melody, or rhythm, and then they would just see where it took them. We worked a bit on vocals during this time, but I’m a terrible procrastinator and wrote most of the lyrics in the week before we were due to go into the studio.

Your single Elevation explores some thought-provoking political / social themes. Is that an important element of your songwriting?

Ming: Thank you! I don’t set out to write lyrics that are political as such, but I think one of the reasons we connect as individuals as well as a band is that we share some core socio-political values – equality, social justice, anti-discrimination, empathy. These values are part of who we are as people and influence how we try to live our lives, so they’re bound to affect the songwriting too.

In fact, Elevation originally featured a sample that Jon had found of Michelle Obama giving a speech to the Democratic National Convention during the 2016 US presidential election campaign. Eventually I wrote some spoken word lyrics to replace the sample but used the speech, the Windrush scandal, and some of our own experiences of multi-generational immigration as a jumping-off point.

What’s your favourite song(s) from the album and why?

Jon: My favourite song usually depends on my mood…I like Endurance; it has one of the first synth sounds that I developed myself and I like the message in the lyrics.

Jamie: I heard the album before having any idea that I’d be playing on the songs live. The House That You Blew Down completely transfixed me; every instrument has its own pivotal part to play whilst all complement each other, there’s so much going on. I love the space between lines that allows you to ponder each lyric before the next kicks in, it’s such an unusual structure with no obvious chorus and a great chord sequence. I think it’s a song that you can’t compare to anyone else’s.

Lighthouse also makes me quite emotional and as an instrumental conjures up strong imagery for me – I often have to skip this track if I’m listening whilst driving as it sends me into a transcendental state!

Thure: Nearest Relative – because it is a journey and has lots of space for the listener, lyrically and musically.

Ming: Although I’m proud of them all, my favourite has also pretty consistently been Nearest Relative.  I think it’s epic. I love the way the vocal harmonies with Kevin Hewick (a friend, Leicester music scene stalwart, and former Factory Records artist) evolved. I love the enigmatic darkness of the track, the sparseness, the tension, the way space gives way to something layered and complex and thrilling.

I think Styx’s response would be Elevation – before Ming replaced Michelle Obama”!

Styx: Elevation

What’s been your favourite musical experience to date?

Jon: With this band it was the first listen in vinyl when it arrived. In general, playing the main stage with The Specials at Glastonbury…maybe one day with Project Blackbird.

Jamie: There’s two highlights for me. The audience’s reaction to playing the album’s title track Endurance live at the launch gig at The Musician in Leicester – there was a slight delay followed by rapturous applause…and then at a different gig when the audience fell silent as an ad-lib version of Aurora Borealis took shape, and the mood in the room changed completely.

Ming: It’s the ongoing process of creating music with people I love; and then actually being able to hold, look at, listen to and share what we’ve done.  A roomful of 300 12” double vinyl copies of Endurance isn’t practical, but there is something absolutely magical about it.

Thure: Walking into a record shop in Leicester (Beat Route Records) where they were playing Selde.

If you could collaborate with anyone in the world, who would it be?

Styx: Peter Gabriel.

Jon: I think right now with The Dandy Warhols (since I’m out on tour with them playing trumpet), we could get a real big sonic sound going…

Thure: Tom Waits maybe. Or Brian Eno and Harold Budd.

Ming: That’s a really tough one!  I’d love to collaborate with a smart, feminist filmmaker – maybe Phoebe Waller-Bridge would like some tracks for the next series of Killing Eve.

What’s coming up for Project Blackbird this year?

Jon: Gigs, hopefully a tour in Europe later in the year, writing and releasing some new material.

Ming: Creativity, joy, and fortitude.

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