Phil Moore was a biology major in college. He named his band after an Australian songbird known to build elaborate mating nests. A few years ago, he took to living in an Airstream trailer in rural North Carolina.
So it's no surprise that the Bowerbirds' pastoral folk rock brims with nature metaphors. Bodies are recast as landscapes on the love song "Ghost Life," a track from the band's 2009 album Upper Air: "At the margins of the land I get to know your skin / Where the sand dunes slope into a wild ocean / Where the great plain heaps into a jagged mountain."
"I like the concept behind 'Ghost Life,'" Moore, 31, told me during a recent phone interview. "It's the most distilled version of what we were trying to say."
The Bowerbirds' work is more than a musical version of Thoreau. It's a sonic quest to explore how human emotion fits into the grand order of nature. On the group's 2007 debut, Hymns for a Dark Horse, Moore contrasts the "hate in the grip of our human hands" to the "darkest cloud" of a thunderstorm that bears "no ill intent."
Throughout Upper Air, Moore strives to pinpoint the intersection of physical and spiritual. "Blood, ocean blood, salty blood, flows like torrents through our hearts and knows just what it wants," he sings on "Ghost Life."
"Lyrically, Upper Air is quite a bit more personal than our first record," says Moore. "It's slightly darker and musically more exploratory. There's more diversity of instrumentation."
The Bowerbirds have a Wisconsin connection. When Moore moved to North Carolina, he befriended the Eau Claire natives who once formed Raleigh's DeYarmond Edison and later became Bon Iver and Megafaun. Dan Westerlund, whose brother Joe plays in Megafaun, is drumming with the Bowerbirds on this tour.
The Bowerbirds' sound is supported by Beth Tacular on accordion. Moore and Tacular are a couple, and they're building a cabin together on the rural North Carolina land where he lived in the trailer.
"It's become very clear that that is the best place for me to be creative," says Moore.