In an attempt to shine light on local music, The Lantern’s“Columbus’ Own” is a weekly series that will profile a new Columbus band every week.
The Song Birds is a Columbus band making music with a tight-knit family dynamic, but that almost wasn’t the case.
“I had put out an ad for somebody who could play a bunch of different instruments and sing that we would always get along with,” Jessi Maxwell, who plays the guitar and washboard, said. “Kris had just moved back from South Korea, and I was like, ‘Hold on a second, I have a brother who can do all those things in Columbus again.’”
Her brother, Kris Sunderlin, who plays guitar, mandolin and banjo, joined the rest of The Song Birds — Brian Maxwell, who plays mandolin, banjo and bass, Jessi Maxwell and Savannah Norris-Jenkins, who plays percussion and guitar — one year ago. Adding a family dynamic to the band has opened up doors for The Song Birds in terms of communication, Sunderlin said.
“I feel like it’s a little bit easier to express my opinion,” Sunderlin said. “I’ve been in bands where I didn’t really like the way something sounded but was a little too afraid to say it … but this is a pretty tight-knit group.”
In addition to the siblings, there’s a husband-and-wife duo of Jessi and Brian Maxwell in the band. This prior connection truly helps in the creation of the music, Brian Maxwell said.
“We have a good understanding of each other musically,” Brian Maxwell said. “If something goes wrong, we can usually easily figure out how to rectify it.”
Now that these connections are flourishing, the band has gone through musical changes no one was expecting, Jessi Maxwell said.
“It wasn’t intentional, but we all like it,” Jessi Maxwell said. “So as we started going in that direction, we actually did talk about it. This is a whole new thing, so we thought, ‘Let’s go with it and see what happens.’”
This new direction led the band away from a folksy twang to a more upbeat, pop-based sound, Jessi Maxwell said.
“We’re heading in more of a poppy, Americana direction,” Jessi Maxwell said. “We have three-part harmonies and we have a multitude of instruments. Melody is really, really important to us, so we like to have really catchy melodies and layer those with our harmonies.”
Along with this new sound, The Song Birds uses its talent to set itself apart from the rest of the Americana music scene in Columbus, Sunderlin said.
“We actually switch off quite a bit,” Sunderlin said. “We’ll have songs where I’ll sing, a song where Savannah will sing, a song where Jessi will sing. That’s not very common.”
This helps keep every set the band plays feel just as fresh as the first one, Norris-Jenkins said.
“Now I’m spoiled when I go out and listen to a full night of music with the same band and they’ve only got one singer,” Norris-Jenkins said. “I like when different bands have different people singing. It helps refresh your ears, and every time a new person gets up to sing, it still feels new.”
Not only does this method help engage audiences, but it keeps the band members energized for extended sets, Jessi Maxwell said.
“We do pretty long, like two- or three-hour gigs, so that really does break it up,” Jessi Maxwell said. “When those gigs happen, it’s a really long time to hear one person sing, but it’s also really a long time to be that person singing. It’s nice to switch it up.”
The band is also sure to mix the set list up depending on the energy of the audience for even more variety during the performance, Brian Maxwell said.
“We have a few songs about drinking beer, so we do get rowdy,” Brian Maxwell said. “But we have some slower, prettier songs too, and we try to gauge the crowd. The majority of what we do is very upbeat. There are quite a few sing-alongs.”
These sing-alongs with the audience are exactly what the members of The Song Birds look forward to when performing live, Norris-Jenkins said.
“We’d like for you to be drinking and toast with us,” Norris-Jenkins said. “Sing the chorus along with us and do a little bit of dancing if you’d like.”
If any audience members are new to the band’s music, they shouldn’t fret — along with originals, the band plays plenty of cover songs for people to sing along to as well, Sunderlin said.
“We do try to cover songs that we like, and a lot of times, they end up being folksy songs that we grew up with or a new song we like,” Sunderlin said. “We don’t get too much into straight pop, but we do things like a Civil Wars cover that’s pretty popular.”
As 2013 comes to a close, The Song Birds plans on getting new material ready for a new year, Jessi Maxwell said.
“What I’m really looking forward to is writing new material,” Jessi Maxwell said. “January is a slow bar month, anyway. I think it’s an overall band goal to start writing again and head in that different direction and roll with it, see where it takes us.”