By Keith Sharp
The rain was sheeting down as Toronto quartet Birds Of Bellwoods took to a Montreal stage for an outdoor festival being executed in a very hostile environment. So hostile that only five people gathered together in a protective tent constituted their audience.
Yet Messer’s Stephen Joffe (vocals/mandolin), Adrian Morningstar (vocals/guitar), Kintaro Akiyama (vocals/stand-up bass) and Chris Blades (banjo) performed as though they were playing to a capacity crowd. An attitude which impressed their audience of five who turned out to be members of the influential Evenko Music Group who were so taken by the group’s attitude that they proceeded to book the band onto a number of other key area festivals like Quebec City’s Festival D Etè and Montreal’s trendy Osheaga event.
These lead to other prestigious festivals like Boots And Hearts, TURF and the Hillside Festival proving the band had the live chops to earn a major recording contract which has come in the form of a signing with eOne Entertainment.
On the phone from his Toronto residence, vocalist and chief songwriter Joffe is celebrating the release of the band’s debut album, `Victoria’ and a high profile club tour through November and December which underlines the band’s gradual transformation from a folk-rock unit to a more expansive alt-rock outfit.
Initially drawing favourable comparisons to bands like Mumford And Sons and Kings Of Leon, Birds of Bellwoods (named after Trinity-Bellwoods Park – a downtown Toronto stretch of parkland), Birds Of Bellwoods now find themselves compared to the likes of the Arkells and Wintersleep with their writing catalogue expanding into a more pop music oriented material.
“It’s been a work in progress for a long time,” explained Joffe. “Work on this album started even before the band was formed some five years ago. I think I wrote “Melatonin” when I was 16. We’ve had the album finished for about a year but we held on until we had negotiated our contract with eOne because we wanted to get it out the right way.”
The band’s genesis goes back to when Joffe met Morningstar when they were nine years old and performing together in a play at Toronto’s Elgin Theatre. They then hooked up again at Earl Haig High School after Morningstar had met Akiyama at middle school, leading to all three connecting together.
“Kintaro was the only one at the time who played a musical instrument, he was a bass music major,” Joffe reflected. “Then Adrian and I went off to theatre school together, we returned to Toronto three years later and started to write material together.”
“I was going through a breakup with my (then) girlfriend, I ended up on Adrian’s couch for a bit and one day he says `You can choose to either get your shit together or I guess we can start a band,” Joffe noted. “Well, realistically, I wasn’t going to get my shit together so I guess we go with Option B and start a band.”
With banjo player Chris Blades joining Joffe, Morningstar and Akiyama (“We won Chris in a poker game” jokes Joffe) the quartet started life as a folk-rock unit but slowly gravitated in a more alt-rock direction as they hit the road to perform live. “We recorded our first two EP’s (“Livewire and `The Fifth) because we were hitting the road and we said “Shit, we should have something to sell so we can buy gas,” laughs Joffe.
But as they crisscrossed Canada and even ventured into the U.S, Birds Of Bellwoods began to road-test the material which eventually made it on to their debut album release. “It was a matter of building up confidence in the album. It represents a time capsule of who we were then, years of love, fear, hope and doubts that we made into a celebration and it definitely represents our live show and the direction we are moving in, we are already set for album No 2,” Joffe mused.
He acknowledges that several of the album’s nine tracks reflect back to that initial romantic break-up; “Yes, I wish I could write happy songs,” laughs Joffe but then notes there are some happy songs on the track list.” He does concur that the band writes lyrics that fans can relate too whether it’s living beyond their means or being stuck in traffic on the 404 and there’s a strong pop hook to their arrangements, especially the album’s first single “Let You Go” which is a personal favourite of his.
“There’s nothing wrong with a good pop song,” Joffe declares. “Our material has been developed on the road in response to our fans. We’ll work on an idea that becomes a song, we test it out with our audience and allow them to become a feedback group. That way we know what is working and what isn’t.”
Canadian fans who wish to participate in the group’s feedback group can do so as the band launches a 13-date club tour this month beginning at Edmonton’s Temple venue November 27th and concluding at Hamilton’s Mills Hardware location December 16th with plans to hit the festival circuit hard next summer. “Yeah, we plan to expand our scope beyond Canada next summer,” predicts Joffe. “The band is growing in confidence all the time and I think this will be reflective on future albums and future live performances.”
For complete tour information and more information about The Birds Of Bellwood, please link to www.birdsofbelwoods.