Two Dark Birds

Two Dark Birds


Steve Koester moves from the Lower East Side in Manhattan to the side of a mountain in the Catskills. There he writes his personal masterpiece. Two Dark Birds’ Songs for the New will be released September 6, 2011 by the Riot Bear Recording Co.


Whether you subscribe to the Big Bang Theory, or believe the world was made by an omniscient deity in seven days, there are a lot of myths about creation. Nowhere is this more evident than in rock and roll. As easy as it may be to romanticize the lives of Elliott Smith, Tim Buckley, and Kurt Cobain, the reality is that a musician need not live in constant state of emotional extremes, wrestling with demons while working in a dimly lit, fifth-floor walkup, to forge songs imbued with emotional resonance. Au contraire. A true talent can respond to almost any environment or circumstances. Want proof? Take a listen to Songs for the New, the sophomore full-length from Two Dark Birds.

TDB front man Steve Koester is no stranger to the realms of twilights and lowlifes. “I look back at the first Two Dark Birds album, and my solo records, and I hear the seduction of the dark side, the pull of oblivion,” he admits. Flashes of that world can still be glimpsed on Songs for the New; that’s not Coca-Cola they’re drinking around the bonfire in “Lake Algonquin,” nor did the narrator of “Pie Eyed” blacken both his eyes by walking into a door. But the overarching themes uniting Songs for the New literally sprang from a different place: Koester moved from the confines of New York City, where he’d lived for over a decade, to Pakatakan Mountain in the Catskills.

Part of the impetus to relocate was a reaction against the shadowy impulses that shape those aforementioned rock and roll myths. “I was feeling very fried, like I’d reached the end of something. I was unhealthy: Mentally, physically, spiritually.” On a much brighter note, Koester and his wife had welcomed the arrival of their first child. “So we just headed for the hills.” The combination of these two forces—a change of zip code and becoming a parent—yielded new avenues of inspiration. “This whole album is, in a sense, about being born… or being reborn,” he observes, wary of sounding too corny. “I spend a lot of time in the big hemlock forests on our mountain, and that’s reawakened me to nature. I spend a lot of time with my little girl, and that’s reawakened me to love and touch and kindness, all those elemental things. It’s an old story, really, but a new one to me.”

The album opens with one of its strongest evocations of that natural world, “Closer to Water,” a song animated by a cascading chorus and dancing string parts that underscores Koester’s ability to fashion a catchy melody without resorting to the rudiments of rote Top 40 fare. “I was out on the mountain in springtime and watching how water comes down the mountain,” he recalls. “Rain into stream, stream into pond, pond into river, and so on. It is neither created nor destroyed, it just changes shapes or vessels.” He sat down and hammered out a rough version quickly, then added and subtracted bits until it was just right. Much of the album was written in similar bursts of feverish inspiration during his first year on Pakatakan: “Black Blessed Night,” “Comfort,” “Song for the New,” “Ill Wind Again.”

“After I realized where this was all headed, I decided I wanted to put together a series of songs about family that was not schmaltzy or overly sentimental, but also not bleak or hostile.” Starting a family induced its share of emotional turmoil, but not of the solipsistic, depressed-teenager variety. “I wanted to present the dark and the light, the trials and the joys.” Towards achieving that balance, Songs for the New includes some of the most radiant offerings in Koester’s catalog, most notably “Song for Clementine,” which simply begs to be heard while cruising down a highway carefree on a warm summer’s night.

The album’s overall sound is much fuller and more vibrant than its self-titled 2008 predecessor, too. Less Neil Young’s On The Beach, more energetic and multi-hued. “It’s not Pet Sounds, but it might be as close as we’ll get to that sort of record.” There are string arrangements courtesy of Chris Carmichael, who took Koester’s original ideas—including his affinity for Robert Kirby’s work with Nick Drake—and realized them in his own splendid fashion. Jonathan Powell’s horn parts sometimes sprang from snippets keyboard player Benjamin Wildenhaus had tried out in band practice, other times from spontaneous improvisation. “This album was very much a band effort,” Koester reiterates. “Even though I write the songs, we all work together in arranging and recording.” The album was tracked in the studios of lap-steel player Don Piper and drummer Jason Mills, who also shares production credits with Koester.

Koester wanted the album to reflect not just the natural beauty of the Catskills, but its musical history, too: The Band and Bob Dylan, Van Morrison’s early solo work and Karen Dalton’s 1971 cult classic In My Own Time. “I feel an affinity for all those artists because even though they use roots and country elements, they are coming from a very different, more urban, more complex place musically.


Closer to Water

Written By: Steve Koester

I once was a raindrop
I fell from the sky
I once was a dewdrop
On a leaf I did lie
I once was a cold stream
Over smooth stones I’d slide
I once was an ocean
Felt the pull of the tide

We move on, we move on, we move on
Like wind through the trees
Like waves on the sea
Something like sunlight
But closer to water

I once was a Great Lake
My shores choked with ice
I pounded the beaches
Under gunmetal skies
The snow fell like lashes
And the waves stacked up high
When the spring floes broke open
I felt the sun like a sigh

I once had a good friend
A mind like a knife
Dug deep into me
The words carved inside
The summer after that long year
Smoke and talk and drink some beer
I once had a good friend
He’s no longer here

Ryder Hollow

Written By: Steve Koester

Bright white morning sunlight
Steam rises from river
The flocks and the farmers
The takers, the givers

It’s just beat-up old farmland
I ride down this same road
They offered me nothing
I took what I felt I was owed

Way back in my childhood
Before the days knew their names
My father, he did some bad things
I guess they still hold their sway

Oh my sisters, my brothers
This is no cry for help
We hide ourselves from each other
We hide ourselves from ourselves

Now I’ve got my own family
I’ve got my own little house
Got my own precious daughter
With her sweet little mouth

And she blows me sweet kisses
And she whispers sweet jokes
Her mother, a stranger
I keep myself closed

Oh my sisters, my brothers
This is no cry for help
We hide ourselves from each other
We hide ourselves from ourselves

The sons and the daughters
Abraham and the alter

Bright white morning sunlight
Steam rises from river
The flocks and the farmers
The takers, the givers

Song for Clementine

Written By: Steve Koester

Beautiful girl
Beautiful babe
Open your eyes
To the light of the day

The leaves on the trees
All flutter your name
The snap-cold fall air
And the sun’s distant flame

Keep us in this higher place
Please keep us in this higher place

Beautiful babe
Beautiful child
Open your eyes
To the ways of the wild

The concrete street corner
Shadows whisper “hey kid”
The things that we dreamed of
And the things that we did

Keep us in this higher place
Please keep us in this higher place

I loved you before I knew you
And I knew you before you were born
And when we leave this strangered plane for good someday, baby
I’ll love you there some more
When we leave this strangered plane

Black Blessed Night

Written By: Steve Koester

It was a black blessed night
I was feeling all right
And the owls hoot-hoot in the trees
I was deep in my home
Feeling not so alone
And the dark seeped in through the screens
I left my body behind
And I went for a ride
On the back of some kind winged beast
The night like ink in my hair
And the stars filled the air
For a moment I felt I was free

I was free
The night made me free
I was free
Oh night, set us free

I flew high over pines
Their branches like spines
And their needles like hands reaching forth
The blue wind in my mouth
And the stars blowing south
But a trail of lights leading me north
I left that birdy behind
And I still flew on fine
With my arms like sails in the breeze
The night blew me along
And then it gave me this song
And for a moment I felt I was free

I returned to my room
By the light of the moon
And by the grace of others before
Laid my head on my pillow
As the whispering willows
Cried on right outside my door
With their tears in my ears
And my head empty fears
And the pine-chill still deep in my knees
I slipped back into dream
And the night split it seams
For a moment, I felt I was free


"Two Dark Birds" 2008

"Songs For The New" out October 4th, 2011