We’re premiering track No. 2 off the band’s new album, Red Clay Heart.
Their band name comes from an unlikely but serendipitous combination. One evening, Marie Borgman and Koda Kerl — musicians native to Nelson County, Virginia — spiked some chamomile tea with Evan Williams whiskey. The brew, they decided, actually tasted like their sound.
Chamomile and Whiskey are coming out at the end of the month with a new record, Red Clay Heart. Produced by Ken Coomer (drummer for Wilco and Uncle Tupelo), it’s suffused with a blend of Americana, blues, Celtic, and Southern singer-songwriter tradition. Borgman’s fiddle, Kerl’s guitar, and their harmonious vocals are further enlivened by Stuart Gunter on drums, Marsh Mahon on bass, and Drew Kimball on electric guitar.
We’ve been listening a lot to the second track, “Dead Bird,” which we’re happy to be premiering here. It’s a knockout brew of a song that makes you feel like maybe you’ve been drinking some of that moonshine-y tea that gave the band its name. It starts out nice and civilized and then comes on nice and strong. Sort of an outlaw-holler still-desperate-for-redemption kind of tune — an emotional white-knuckler that could atmosphere you out if it were on a soundtrack, or even just played loud in your car.
As much as “Dead Bird” might capture Chamomile and Whiskey’s essence, it’s the only song on the record they didn’t write. “The song was written by my friend Robert St. Ours, one of the founders of the Charlottesville band the Hackensaw Boys, who were big in the area when I was coming up. To me he’s as good as it gets,” says Kerl.
He allows that he doesn’t know what the original story behind the song is (“You’d need to ask Bobby — knowing him, I have some guesses, but like many of the best songs it’s got some mystery to it.”), but Kerl still has some interesting things to say about it.
Cowboys & Indians: “Dead Bird” is the only song on your new record that you didn’t write. Where/how does it fit in the mix of the other songs on the new record?
Koda Kerl: We had just started playing it live right before we went into the studio, and I had sent a live version to Ken (producer) in the collection of demos, and he really liked it. So we thought we’d give it a go.
C&I: What drew you to the song?
Kerl: Bobby St. Ours has been a friend for a long time, and he’s definitely one of my biggest influences. He doesn’t play out much anymore, which made me more drawn to covering one of his tunes for the album, and once I tried it with the band, I felt we were doing it justice.
C&I: How did you first hear the song?
Kerl: I think the first time I heard it was live at the Blue Moon Diner, here in Charlottesville. For a time that was kind of the hub of the best songwriters in town. The version I’m most familiar with is from an un-released album called The Stony Point Sessions. It’s kind of an underground masterpiece, just Bobby and his guitar on a porch — a little digging on the interweb and you might be able to find it.
C&I: You’d been doing it live before recording it. What was the process of making it your own?
Kerl: His version is slower and more stripped-down. Once I started shouting on it a little more and putting some anger into it, it seemed we were taking it into a different direction. Our version is more electric. You always aim to make it unique while also paying respect to the original work. I sent Bobby the rough mix and he loved it, so that was all I needed.
C&I: Any good stories about playing it live or recording it?
Kerl: After doing a couple takes in the studio, Ken had us drop our tuning half a step, which gave it a more haunting vibe, especially with Marie’s fiddle. I never would have thought of doing that, but it worked immediately. I guess that’s why you get a producer.
C&I: What’s your favorite part?
Kerl: “I opened up a bottle and poured a river of wine / I drank the blood of the savior and he drank some of mine.” I’ll go with that line in this moment, but I love every word of that song. Musically, Marie’s wild, buzzing fiddle solo always brings the house down when we do it live.
C&I: What’s the musical chemistry like between you when you play this particular song?
Kerl: It’s one of the most dynamic songs we’ve done. It goes up and down, and by the time we get to the last hit, it feels like a complete piece. It gets some stress and anxiety out for me when I sing it — I’m not sure why exactly. It also feels good to share in something beautiful someone you love created.
Photography: Images courtesy Sanjay Suchak