Although local group Birds of Bellwoods started out as a folk project, frontman Stephen Joffe would not describe the band’s upcoming LP, Victoria, as a folk album. He’d sooner label it alt-rock, or, in his exact words: “indie folk alt-rock pop.” Joffe attributes the change in the band’s genre to their 2015 performance at the KOI Music Festival in Kitchener, when an audience member approached guitarist Adrian Morningstar after the show and said, “Man, I love it when punk bands play acoustic.”
For the band, this was a huge indicator that Birds of Bellwoods was, above all, a rock band. The new record exemplifies this, while still preserving the group’s harmonious vocals and the poetic lyricism of their self-released 2015 EP, The Fifth. Victoria’s sound is less folky, veering away from the mandolin and banjo in favour of electric guitar riffs and power chords.
Morningstar and Joffe began writing music for fun while at theatre school. Their dramatic ambitions have persisted; Joffe can be seen in the upcoming CBC and Netflix original series Alias Grace, based on the Margaret Atwood novel. Yet it wasn’t until Joffe went through a rough breakup that the two began to take their musical pastimes seriously.
Of the breakup’s aftermath, Joffe says, “[I] ended up sleeping on Adrian’s couch for about a month and after that long, he was like, ‘Alright buddy, you have two options: you can either get your shit together, or we can start a band.’ And I said: ‘I’ll take option two, cause I’m never gonna get my shit together.’”
Joffe and Morningstar reached out to the best musician they knew — bassist-vocalist Kintaro Akiyama, who had just graduated from jazz school at McGill University. But Birds of Bellwoods didn’t fully come together until Joffe saw Chris Blades in a play in Toronto, in which he played banjo and sang. “I was like: that’s the guy. That’s what’s missing. So we started shortly after that,” says Joffe.
Victoria, which will be released on January 19, is a project many years in the making. Some of the tracks on the LP are based on songs that Joffe and Morningstar were working on before the band was even formed. Although Joffe generally heads up the lyrics and would sooner label himself a writer than a musician, he describes the writing process as “very collaborative… I would say that none of the songs are songs until we all put our hands on them and work on them collectively.”
Collaboration and community are very important to the band — this is reflected in Joffe’s outlook on the Toronto music scene, which he describes as “one of the most supportive, fraternal musical environments you could hope to work in.” His number one tip for breaking into the city’s industry? Go out, see shows, make friends, and “know that the people around you aren’t your competition.”
This community extends beyond musicianship and into the audience itself. Joffe, having personally struggled with anxiety, describes the process of creation as “really helpful,” and also recognizes the importance of having a support system to “make you feel less alone.”
The band hopes to translate this to their audience: “When we play these songs live, we’re creating an experience that [the audience] can relate to — someone out there in the audience has been through this too,” says Joffe. “And we’re not only sharing this experience, we’re celebrating it.”
Following Victoria’s upcoming release, Birds of Bellwoods will be touring Québec and Canada’s east coast in October, although no Toronto show is lined up. If the celebration of shared experience through the medium of indie folk alt-rock pop music is your thing — and how could it not be? — I’d recommend giving them a listen.
Editor’s Note (October 15): an earlier version of this piece did not make mention of Victoria‘s release date.