Dec. 1 2015 08:51 PM

How one singer and a team of veteran musicians made one of the year’s best records

Photo by Jeff Corrigan

About 20 minutes into our conversation, Birdy Bardot starts talking about going record shopping at swap meets. She goes often, she says, to find unusual curiosities she can add to her collection. She’s particularly drawn to albums from the ’60s, and most recent ly she nabbed a couple of early Beatles finds.

“To me, records are very precious,” she says on a Sunday afternoon over coffee at Influx in Golden Hill. “ This is pressed onto wax, and it’s a precious commodity. But they’re selling it for pennies. It’s like a treasure hunt. I saved it from a box and now I can listen to it.”

It shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that Bardot, whose real name is Emily Reilly, holds vintage physical media so dear. Her music at times carries with it a certain vintage, stylish charm, recalling the likes of ’60s French ye-ye singers, or Lee Hazlewood’s recordings with Nancy Sinatra. And on the cover art of her debut album she displays a cool, pre-Summer of Love aesthetic, clad in a peacoat and large, round Jackie O sunglasses. But vinyl has an even greater significance to Bardot beyond format or nostalgia: Her new album and band came together almost directly as a result of record shopping in Ocean Beach.

In early 2014, Bardot had started up a partnership with Al Howard of The Heavy Guilt and The Midnight Pine after making several shopping trips to Cow Records, where Howard logs shifts between time spent playing with any number of different bands. They were mutual fans of each other’s music, Howard even going so far as to call Bardot’s other band, The New Kinetics, his favorite local band. The reciprocal admiration prompted Howard to ask Bardot if she’d be interested in working on a collaborative project together, and a little more than a year later, the first Birdy Bardot album materialized.

The 11-song album, released in July via Redwoods Music, is an eclectic set of pop songs that feels at once entirely modern and of another time. It’s drenched in reverb and steeped in a lightly psychedelic haze, and each song carries a faint touch of darkness around the edges, whether in a hip-swinging number such as “ Omens” or the bluesy “ I Get Gone.” There are plenty of upbeat tracks throughout, like “Heart and Smoke,” which Howard refers to as “an ass-kicker.” Even more striking are the subtler tracks, such as “Dirge” or the slowly building opening track “ Treading Water,” the mood of which Bardot says came about pretty naturally.

“I don’t think I had anything in mind when we started it,” she says. “ It was winter when we started writing, so it was that slow time of year. That’s why I think the songs started out kind of slow and pensive. That part was pretty organic. It was just kind of what we were feeling at the time.”

Birdy Bardot plays Dec. 4 at The Casbah

Bardot—a subtle but powerful vocalist with a background in formal voice training—is backed on her debut album by an all-star team of San Diego musicians. Many of them are in her live band, including Howard, Josh Rice and Jason Littlefield of The Heavy Guilt, Transfer’s Matthew Molarius, Mrs. Henry’s Daniel Cervantes and Taurus Authority’s Jake Najor. Each player came to the project gradually, adding their own unique parts over the course of the year, each new track ever so slightly helping to shape the recording you hear today. Both Bardot and Howard say that the band played a huge part in crafting the Birdy Bardot sound, injecting new life into the humble project begun by the two songwriters.

“For that record, all the way, it was like one instrument at a time,” Howard says. “We just build collage art around it. Jake [Najor] dictated a lot of the direction that those songs would take. There would be an acoustic guitar, or keyboard, then he would just hit it. And it’s like, ‘that’s what it is!’”

“They’re very easy to work with,” Bardot adds, discussing her band. “They’re super motivated, and always in good spirits. Considering how hard they work and how many bands they’re in, they’re never crabby. It’s always just like ‘let’s go, let’s do this!’ It’s a really cool vibe to be in a group with them.”

Bardot’s album came to be the first record released on The Redwoods Music, which is run by Howard, Rice and Molarius. It’s as much a label as it is a collective, with each record sharing many of the same musicians, many of whom also happen to have a creative and curatorial role in how the label operates. In fact, it’s not too far off from Motown or Stax in how it employs a house band role in its recordings. Since Bardot’s album dropped, Redwoods has also issued a 7-inch by The Midnight Pine and a new album by Dani Bell and the Tarantist. At the time, however, the venture was just beginning to crystallize, and the Bardot project ended up being the catalyst that launched it all. “I don’t think at the time we quite knew what we were doing yet,” Howard says. “We have a lot of ideas. Probably too many ideas. So we just throw a lot of things at the wall and see what’s sustainable. But now I think we have a good bearing on what we can realistically do with a couple brains and a couple arms. It kind of set a mark as to what level each record has to be at. We just want to make solid music, and we want to make timeless music.”

Just a few months after Birdy Bardot’s self-titled album came out digitally and on CD, Redwoods issued the album on a limited number of vinyl copies, ready to become someone else’s precious commodity. And they’re almost already sold out. In fact, if you shop at Cow Records, you’re likely to hear Howard spin the album on the store turntable, in kind of a local spin on High Fidelity’s Rob Gordon selling five Beta Band CDs after playing “Dry the Rain” inside Championship Vinyl. In fact, Bardot’s seen listeners become converts in real life.

“The night that the vinyl came out, Al was testing the vinyl on the player at the record store, and some guy from Chicago was like ‘hey, I want to buy this record’,” Bardot says. “It was literally one of the first sales, because the box had just been opened. And he took it with him. This random person was just flying in for a business trip, and wanted to buy some records. And it just happens to be your album—that’s pretty cool.”

Correction: I identified Daniel Cervantes as being a member of Birdy Bardot's live band. While Cervantes did contribute to her debut album, and co-wrote many of the songs on it, he's not actually in her live band.


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