Magic Fire is an album of firsts for The Stray Birds: their first with an outside producer, their first with venerable guest musicians, and their first truly collaborative songwriting effort. More importantly, perhaps, it's an album of mosts: the most exciting and engaging music they've ever composed paired with their most outspoken and insightful lyrics yet.
Magic Fire builds on the success of The Stray Birds' 2014 Yep Roc debut, Best Medicine, which was hailed by NPR's World Caf? for its "strong harmonies and sharp songwriting" and debuted at #2 on the Billboard Bluegrass chart. Guitar World praised their "heartfelt creativity," while the Philadelphia City Paper called the band "stunning," and Mountain Stage applauded their singular ability to "successfully draw on the rich traditions of American folk music while still sounding modern." It was that unique formula that first brought them national attention and fueled their breakout in 2012, when their self-titled/self-released debut landed amongst NPR's Top Ten Folk/Americana Albums of the Year and earned them major festival performances everywhere from MerleFest to Scotland's Celtic Connections.
When it came time to record Magic Fire, The Stray Birds knew they were ready to take an ambitious step. They retreated to Milan Hill, New York, a small town outside of Woodstock in the Hudson River Valley, and teamed up with Larry Campbell. The three-time GRAMMY Award-winning producer (best known for his work with luminaries like Bob Dylan, Levon Helm, Paul Simon, and Willie Nelson) enlisted his preferred engineer, Justin Guip (another three-time GRAMMY Award-winner who worked closely with the late Helm), and the group spent ten days together joyously exploring and creating the music that would become Magic Fire.
"Though a few of the new songs had been on stage in the past year, we granted most of these songs the opportunity to come to life right there in the studio," says Maya de Vitry, who splits her time between fiddle, guitar, and banjo in addition to singing. "It was intoxicating to go to this place of focus with songs that still felt so fresh and free."
"We'd never worked with anyone other than just an engineer in the studio before," adds Charles Muench, who plays banjo and bass in addition to contributing to the group's lush three-part vocal harmonies. "Larry was on our short list of people who we wanted to work with, and it was clear after a few conversations with him that nothing was off limits for this record. He offered up not only his production and direction, but also his playing to any and all of the music."
"We wanted some direction this time," continues Oliver Craven, who plays fiddle, guitar, and mandolin in addition to singing. "We wanted somebody outside of the music with great taste and vibe who could lend a critically unbiased and impartial ear to what we were doing. Larry is very relaxed and works on feel. I don't think I saw him write down one word the whole time."
Before the band settled into the studio, they headed back to their roots, returning to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. There they spent two intensive days of pre-production with another new collaborator, drummer Shane Leonard.
"We started out as a trio of people who all grew up together in Lancaster County and had known each other for a very long time," says de Vitry. "But it was a slow and deliberate musical courtship, and it took years and a lot of patience for us to actually come together and get into a car and start touring and recording as a trio. When we met Shane, I can't even say that we played music together for more than a song or two before we asked him to join us to make a record. We all instinctually knew he was right for us."
That kind of chemistry can't be bought, and it's readily apparent on tracks like "Third Day In A Row," a laid-back slice of infectious Americana that showcases the band's rich harmonies, and "Fossil," which they performed at Leonard's wedding before they'd ever even recorded it. In addition to the newest Bird's contributions (which stretch beyond percussion throughout the record), the album demonstrates the group's remarkable growth as songwriters and performers, with countless nights on the road across the US and Europe sharpening their senses and honing their keen understanding of each other's strengths.
"There's more collaboration than ever before in the band," says Craven. "This record is unlike any of our previous releases in that it has songs written by the two or three or four of us together. I think we've realized that in this band, we're surrounded by people we trust and who inspire us, so if we want something to be as good as it can be, it's in all of our interests to share in that collaboration."
The fruits of their teamwork come to full blossom on highlights like the toe-tapping, fiddle-led "Sabrina," penned on-the-spot, as a trio in the presence of the titular subject, and "Hands Of Man," a dark, Appalachian-influenced tune completed during the recording sessions in Milan Hill. "Where You Come From" marks Muench's first complete songwriting contribution to an album, while "Shining In The Distance" is a collaboration with fellow songwriter Lindsay Lou that grew out of Maya and Oliver's move to Nashville, and "When I Die" features a verse written by Leonard (live versions of the song have included a variety of additional verses contributed by peers and tourmates like Mandolin Orange, Miss Tess, Jordie Lane, and Cahalen Morrison & Eli West).
Despite the new, more open approach to writing, the songs are as focused and incisive as ever. "All The News" is a reminder of just how lucky so many of us are to live in relative comfort and safety, while the groovy "Sunday Morning" is a call to action, as Craven sings, "You can shout for change and worry about the state of the world / But it's gonna take a little more than praying on a Sunday morning."
"I don't think that this record is overtly politicized," says Craven, "but there is an agreed perspective within the band, and I think that turns up throughout the album. It's not only our opportunity but our obligation to do what we can to help the people around us as best we can."
"This collection of songs honors what connects us as humans," Maya adds. "Being human can be a fast-paced, detached experience at times. I feel like part of what we do as musicians is rewire our connections to each other, and perhaps our connections to our collective memory or dream."
For The Stray Birds, those connections come from filling hearts with love and joy and light each night onstage, setting a Magic Fire and watching it spread everywhere they go. The most exciting thing about an album of firsts? It means The Stray Birds are just getting started.