Unlocked: Birdie Busch on hip-hop, live recordings, and what the greatest night in history means to her
There’s something so warm and so likeable about Birdie Busch, West Philly’s whimsical, verse-weaving siren—that hearing her sing is like being greeted with a wave of energy. Her lyrics are quirky, candid, and refreshing, and she infuses each song with a real sentimentality that makes you think she’d make a great listener and a great best friend.
So when she croons—voice breaking like the sun’s rays through the trees—to “settle in for the greatest night in history,” as she does on new tune “Sitgreaves Pass”—one can’t help but wonder exactly what she’s referring to.
“It’s part this extremist idea of what anyone’s greatest night would be individually,” she remarks ponderously, over coffee at G-Ho’s Ultimo. “But then there’s also this idea of getting through a tough time.”
Celebration and struggle are two themes present on Birdie Busch and the Greatest Night, Busch’s fourth record, out now—which also delves into issues like finding time for your passions, staying focused, and staying true to yourself.
But on “Sitgreaves Pass,” Busch is mostly focused on describing a personal “great night”…spent with a friend in the unassuming town of Bisbee, Arizona.
“There was this little trailer park that this couple was restoring…and all of the trailers were set up in a horseshoe,” she remembers, describing the scene for me excitedly. “So it’s kind of like a motel, in the middle of this old copper-mining town. And when you walk into each trailer, there’s a transistor radio playing music from the year the trailer was made, and magazines from that year. It’s kind of like walking into a time machine.”
She continues. “[My friend and I] were in this trailer that was maybe 10 feet long…and there was this little nook at the end, beyond the bed. And so we just sort of sat up all night, and wrote, and listened to old music. And there was a full moon outside… It was one of the most beautiful nights of my life.”
Birdie has always had a way with storytelling. A Jersey native who relocated to the city post-college, she released her first record in early 2006, then quickly established herself as a mainstay on the scene. These days, she boasts 4 full-length records (including Night), plus a handful of singles and collaborations—and an interminable love for making music.
Fans love her for her sweet, whimsical concoctions, which are one part folk, one part pop. Yet oddly enough, Busch reveals she wasn’t really a fan of either growing up. “It sounds funny coming from me,” she admits. “But up until high school, the main music I was listening to was hip-hop. I feel things really rhythmically.” She smiles. “Lyrics have always been of huge importance to me—but I think one of the most powerful things is singing in a way that you really establish your own cadence and rhythm.”
Busch’s easy-going, conversational lilt is without a doubt one characteristic that sets her apart—and which has inspired praise from everyone from Village Voice (who compared her to Syd Barrett) to Vh1. But for Busch, success is multi-faceted, and she credits her continuing creativity partially to her band: Ross Bellenoit, Thomas Bendel, Carl Cheeseman, Todd Erk, and Craig Hendrix.
The six piece has played together for years, and Busch says they’re really more of a family. As such, their chemistry is undeniable…particularly on Greatest Night, which was recorded live.
“We actually scheduled the recording date for right before we knew whether or not we were going to make our goal,” says Busch, who successfully funded the record through Pledge Music, a crowd-funding Web site, which allows musicians to donate a portion of the proceeds to charity. (Busch chose Music and Mentorship, a program based out of the Intercultural Family Services near her home in West Philly). “Trying to line up a large band of people is possibly one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do.” She continues. “It’s like…you want to work with these people because they’re all amazingly talented. But with the really good musicians, they always have like 3 different projects they’re working on at the same time.” She grins.
Luckily, the record was funded in time, and Busch is beyond proud of the result. “When something is recorded live, you can feel it,” she says. “It resonates in this really, really warm way.”
Busch will celebrate Greatest Night with a release party January 18 at Johnny Brenda’s; the show also doubles as the venue’s annual Philly Opry, an event created by Busch and former JB’s booker Brandy Hartley to pay tribute to the idea of the “Grand Old Opry”—“you know, Gram Parsons and sparkly suits.” Busch explains that Hartley was inspired by a similar weekly event in Chicago—but wasn’t sure whether could Philly support a weekly event.
“Philly’s not really a town where very regular things happen,” she says sheepishly, sipping her coffee. “In New York you can host an event every week, and always draw in people. But here I think we’re a little more sleepy, and dormant. So we decided, let’s just do one, and see what it’s like. And it went really well, so we decided to do one each year. Now, people ask about it.”
Preparing for the Opry is no easy task—in addition to readying her own set, Busch is in charge of decorating the venue: a task which in the past has included constructing giant backdrops from cardboard and chicken wire and this year will require crafting large wooden arrows, such as those found on the Greatest Night cover. “We like it to be special,” she explains with a smile. “Everyone in the Philly scene has been to Johnny Brenda’s so many times before, we want this event to stick out in their minds.”
With so many tasks at hand, it’s a wonder Busch manages to stay calm—but she credits her low-key demeanor to the city’s easy-going vibe and comparatively low cost of living. “It’s easy to survive here,” she tells me candidly. “I’ve had the past 10 years to really be able to record. I think if I had lived somewhere else, like LA or San Francisco, the amount of time I would have had to work would have left enough time to make maybe half those records.” She laughs, then pauses, and continues, more seriously.
“I think the biggest challenge is trying to stay afloat as a human. It’s never been easy to make a living in art or music, and now I think it’s harder than ever. It’s trying to balance making a living with dedicating the time and flexibility you want.”
“I’ve been grateful enough to maintain jobs that are really understanding,” she continues, noting kind bosses at the Random Tea Room in Northern Liberties, and the World Café Live, where she works while not writing or performing. “But it has its up and downs. It can become really stressful when, for example, you’re trying to block out huge chunks of time to go on tour or something.”
Busch cites last spring when she played 4 dates with Dr. Dog—“we got the call probably 2 weeks ahead of time, asking ‘do you want to do these dates?’” she remembers. “And it was like, ‘Yes, of course we want to do these dates.’ But then putting your whole life on hold for 4 days is a huge life decision.”
These days though, music is her number one priority. “I’m so obsessed with the idea of making sure I do do it that when I get those calls, I don’t even think twice. There’s always a way to make it work.”
Birdie Busch hosts the Philly Opry with Joy Kills Sorrow and Jason Loughlin at Johnny Brenda’s on Friday, January 18. Tickets for the 21+ show are $12, more information is available here.