I might be hanging out in the London fog -- and light rain and chill but my heart is in the hills and this week in the Catskill Mountain News I got to write about Steve Koester and his fine music as frontman of Two Dark Birds...
Moving to Arkville was a conversion experience of sorts for singer-songwriter Steve Koester. He found himself in nature and got a sense of peace. He’s also well aware that he’s hardly the only person to have that experience.
“A lot of people come from the city and get a chain saw and get one with nature,” he laughs. He is also, though, prone to such life-changing moments. One even happened in a grocery store when he heard Crosby Stills & Nash’s ‘Guinnevere’ anew. “I was standing in the aisle and just floored by the song. The harmony and structure is amazing,” he says, “but as a kid I’d have thought it ridiculous.”
Koester is the frontman of the band “Two Dark Birds.” Their second album has been praised by everyone from fashion magazines like Nylon and Men’s Vogue to the influential CMJ (College Music Journal) as well as on the blogs where indie rock idols are now birthed.
This morning he’s sitting in his kitchen nestled into the side of Pakatakan Mountain. The snow hasn’t melted yet, and he’s wearing an orange ski vest, gesturing wide with his arms as if embracing a globe as he talks. A turntable (yes, a turntable in 2011) spins on the counter next to him as he describes his move and his new record. “Moving here,” he says, “had a profound impact on me and on the music. The album’s subtext is about going from the city and feeling cut off and burnt out to reconnecting with the natural world again.”
“Two Dark Birds” has, as he puts it, “That kind of Catskills sound—Dylan, “The Band” and early Van Morrison. It’s that combination of acoustic, folk and soul. Using those elements just makes sense up here, but we didn’t want it to seem like it’s 1971.”
His bluesy voice gives a roots’ feel to the music. It could be described as part Glen Campbell countrypolitan with a dash of “REM” and even Waylon Jennings. (“Pie-eyed,” Koester says of the album’s third track, “is my Waylon song.”)
Paid his dues
He has toiled long in the trenches of indie rock from punk bands in his youth to self-fronted ones, and his music has been in Nike ads, movies like Sidney Lumet’s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” even on TV on Bravo this fall.
In 2002 he and a few friends formed Maplewood. The band had a self-consciously ’70s sound that was in part an homage to the groups like America. While the group’s beginning was ironic, America then praised Maplewood and toured with them, even covering a Maplewood song. Now. that ’70s sensibility has shaped “Two Dark Birds.” The new album even has big string arrangements and a horn section, both of which surprised Koester when he found himself heading in that direction.
He arrived to Arkville in 2007, soon after his daughter was born. “All our money and time went to keep her in daycare. It just made no sense,” he explains. “After a decade in the city, my favorite place was Fort Green Park.” He’d find himself there staring at trees. So he and his wife picked up sticks, and that move and his daughter shaped his music. Now Delaware County and more specifically Middletown have inspired songs like “Ryder Hollow.” The album’s opening song “Closer To Water,” literally came from, as he explains it, “Being on the mountain in springtime and watching how water comes down off the side.” He gets embarrassed describing that sense of interconnectedness the moment produced.
Koester knows such sentiments or writing songs about the joys of fatherhood are hardly cool, but he ignored that to make music that felt like it reflected him now including his “Song For Clementine.” It’s clearly a love letter to his daughter Iris. Her middle name is Clementine, and she appears in the video.
Soon the band will be shooting the album’s second video “Black Blessed Night” here and in New York City with the members dressed as blackbirds and even dancing, with professional choreography by the award-winning tap dancer Michelle Dorrance. Koester describes the song as being like a poem by Poe or Longfellow. At its base is the idea of escaping in nature and finding something much bigger than yourself, he explains.
His own journey
While he knows he’s hardly the first person to come to the Catskills seeking that kind of transcendence, he’s well aware of the larger lineage of artists who’ve come here with that in mind. In his music there’s a sense of connection to that same spirit many have found here from the Hudson River School painters to John Burroughs.