Music: Secular Gospel

Folk duo Birds of Chicago flocks to Novato

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Songwriter JT Nero and multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Allison Russell merged their talents to form the folk duo Birds of Chicago. Photo courtesy of Birds of Chicago.

By Charlie Swanson

Songwriter JT Nero was living in San Francisco, fronting a soul-rock band and hanging out with members of The Be Good Tanyas in the early 2000s when he first heard about multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Allison Russell. After Nero moved to Chicago, he and Russell kept finding time and reasons to collaborate on music for nearly a decade before they officially formed the richly resonant folk duo Birds of Chicago in 2012.

“I was writing a lot of songs that felt like they were Allie’s songs,” Nero says. “We realized we needed to carve out space and time for the thing we had together.”

Now a project that plays on the road some 200 nights a year, Birds of Chicago hits the stage at HopMonk Tavern in Novato on Friday, March 3. The band is built on Nero’s soulful writing and Russell’s striking tones, in a style that is self-described as “secular Gospel.”

Last year, Birds of Chicago released their most impactful album yet, Real Midnight—a mix of melancholy and wistful beauty. And though Real Midnight is a softer side of the band, Nero prides their ability to offer acoustic moments and bring heavier grooves when the moment calls for it. “We try to have our cake and eat it, too,” he says with a laugh. “The project was conceived to ebb and flow on that front.”

The music came first, but Nero and Russell’s chemistry soon blossomed into romance, and the couple was married in 2013. The following year, they welcomed their daughter into the world. Now a family unit on the road, Birds of Chicago has refined a touring life that feels normal, whether it’s as a duo or a quintet.

“Something flipped a few years back; [touring] became the natural state,” Nero says. “The road life is a lot more square for us than people would imagine. But, I like the rhythm.”

Nero knows that they’ll have to cut down on travel when their daughter starts going to school, so he’s embracing his time with his tribe. “It’s a good circus,” he says.

Playing in the North Bay is a lot like a homecoming for the band, not only because of Nero’s time living in San Francisco, but for the fact that Birds of Chicago found their first large fan base locally, playing big stages at the High Sierra Music Fest and the Strawberry Music Festival.

“People don’t mess around with their music [in Northern California],” Nero says with a laugh. “You’ve got to bring your A-game.”

Birds of Chicago, Friday, March 3 at HopMonk Tavern, 224 Vintage Way, Novato; 9pm; $18-$23; 415/892-6200.

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