The comfortable audacity (and Christmas music) of Birds and Arrows | Music Feature | Indy Week
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The comfortable audacity (and Christmas music) of Birds and Arrows 

Together in the woods, Birds and Arrows are (from left) Pete Connolly, Andrea Connolly and Josh Starmer.

Photo courtesy of the band

Together in the woods, Birds and Arrows are (from left) Pete Connolly, Andrea Connolly and Josh Starmer.

Andrea Connolly has a broken left arm, but she can still play guitar.

The Birds and Arrows singer and co-founder fell from a horse while surveying the 88-acre sprawl that she and her husband and drummer, Pete, rent in rural Rougemont, N.C. Though the folk-rock trio's 2011 LP, We're Gonna Run, depicted three horses on its cover, Andrea only discovered her love of riding after the record's release.

"I had ridden once when I was about 5, when I was in kindergarten. I got thrown," she remembers. "My mom said I was not even upset about it. I just got up and said, 'I quit. I'm never getting on a horse again.'"

This time, she isn't giving up easily. She doesn't even sound bothered by her busted arm: She and Pete effuse about their country home, where they live in a 19th-century schoolhouse-turned-cabin and work the land to pay the rent. Four years into their marriage, and three finished albums into their tenure as a band, they still exude honeymoon sweetness. Early next year, they'll release their latest LP, Coyotes. It's their most ambitious, featuring a dozen guest musicians and ostentatious cello arrangements courtesy of third member Josh Starmer. And, this Saturday, they are playing a Christmas show at Durham's Pinhook—broken bones and all.

The injury has forced Andrea to find new ways to play. This weekend, an open-tuned guitar will rest flat in her lap, allowing her to overcome the limited range of motion and lack of strength in her fretting hand. Starmer compares her to Beirut's Zach Condon, who transitioned to ukulele after hurting his wrist.

"She's done quite a good job coming up with a way to play the guitar," he says. "The results are completely unique interpretations of 'Jingle Bells,' holiday classics we know really well. She's making those same chords and playing the best she can, but everything about it is nonstandard. You're going to recognize all the songs, but at the same time, you've never heard them before."

This is the fourth year that Birds and Arrows have played a Christmas show. Pete jokes that he's been "browbeaten into liking Christmas" by his wife's adoration of the season, but the work Birds and Arrows puts into these annual holiday shows reflects a band that takes its carols seriously. Andrea and Starmer have even prepared a vocal and cello duet of Schubert's "Ave Maria," with Andrea taking care to learn it in Latin.

After six years as a band, it seems as if the Connollys have come to a point of comfort, not only musically but personally: Their new rural home, where they moved in early 2012, enables these two to live as they have wanted to for years. Andrea is surrounded by horses, while Pete drags fields and mends fences in the rural quiet.

"Late in the year last year, we started getting tired of living right in town," Andrea says. Their old house, just outside of downtown Chapel Hill, abutted Rubber Room Studio, meaning rent often increased and other musicians always stopped in. "It was cool for a while, but we could never escape from people playing music on our porch and music all the time."

They scoured Craigslist with keywords like "wood stove" and "cabin." Andrea almost didn't check out the Rougemont place because the listing said Roxboro, an hour due north from Chapel Hill.

"It's 88 acres and a real cabin. The cabin is a 200-year-old school house moved from Roxboro," she says. "There are 10 horses on the property, and it's just beautiful, lots of pastures."

The Connollys' bucolic paradise is a 45-minute trek from Starmer's place. But he doesn't like to drive. After maybe five months of practices on the farm, the band scheduled alternating rehearsals between Chapel Hill and Rougemont, a symptom of their sudden, easy way of compromise.

"In some respects, it's like an old married couple, where things just work. We don't have to negotiate," Starmer says. Such comfort extends beyond the traditional boundaries of band membership: On Coyotes, for example, Birds and Arrows brought in a dozen guest players, from Ben Folds Five bassist Robert Sledge to members of Mount Moriah and Baltimore's June Star. Yet the married songwriting duo dictated nothing; they simply sent audio files to their friends and let them add what seemed natural. Starmer's parts were written this way, too. He likens his role to hearing the songs for the first time on the radio and then being expected to write his accompaniment.

"I'd never heard this song before. We'd never played it in rehearsal, so there was no constraint in terms of what I even dreamed of doing live," he says. He composed elaborate multi-track cello arrangements, sometimes layering 15 complementary parts. "When we finished the album, Pete and Andrea started saying, 'Let's learn how to play these songs live.' I kind of gulped."

So Starmer designed and built a series of pedals to help expand his sound. "The Cellotron," as he calls it, operates on the same principle as the mellotron: Starmer sampled himself playing, and each pedal summons a different note. Like Andrea playing guitar with a broken arm, Starmer took a curveball and worked it to his advantage—with unexpected and fascinating results.

"They don't bat an eye when bad things come their way," Starmer says about the Connollys. "They know exactly what to do, which is to make a good thing out of it."

To wit, Andrea isn't giving up on horses; riding is the first hobby that's taken her mind off everything else.

"I don't think about music," she explains. "I don't think about anything except what I'm doing on top of that horse."

"Like falling off twice," replies Pete.

"Like falling off, yeah," she says, "especially when I fall off."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Solid joints."

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I saw them in 2006 with Andrew and they were still HOT!

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Great article, thorough and well-researched. Plus oral histories are a cool way to tell a first-hand authentic story. Too bad …

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