[Originally for DC Music Download - 21 September 2012]
Written By: Nida Masiulis
A brief exchange with Lindsay Pitts and Cliff Usher—formerly known as Birdlips which just this summer refashioned itself as GEMS—reveals something of fundamental importance to which the longevity and success of their first musical project can surely be attributed. These are two musicians that possess a not entirely common ability to discern what feels right, and to act on it even in the face of opposition.
Pitts and Usher both started out playing with the band Business of Flies while attending the University of Virginia. It was this sense of rightness that kept the two musicians together when that band broke up after graduation. They could very well have parted ways, but Pitts and Usher knew that it wasn’t time yet. As Usher explains, “I just felt in my gut there was something good about Lindsay, and I had to be around her and had to keep playing music with her.” With this deep affection, Pitts and Usher formed the band Birdlips. They shortly began playing gigs, picked up and moved across the country together a few times, recorded albums on both coasts as well as in Florida. The press paid attention and offered praise. Roughly five years passed.
And then the duo found themselves at another juncture. “We realized we had gotten so far from where we started that we really needed a new name,” says Usher. The decision to transition into something new wasn’t an easy one. According to Pitts, “A lot of people thought it was a bad idea to start an entirely new project. And it did weirdly feel like the death of something. A little sad and confusing, but we were exhilarated at the same time.” Whatever pressures they may have felt during this time of transition, though, are not apparent in the music itself. The new band’s first two released tracks—“Heavy Lines” and “Golden Years”—are carried off with the same sense of ease and assuredness that marked their Birdlips’s work.
In an attempt to understand how GEMS will distinguish itself from Birdlips, you might look for clues by comparing the bands’ websites. Is the aesthetic shift from the colorful nature-inspired motif of the Birdlips’s site to the austere black and white of the new GEMS site, indicative of a new musical aesthetic? Usher says yes—“A core idea at the heart of the new band has been to sharpen everything we do to a point. This has pushed us into a lot of dichotomies: life and death, day and night, male and female. I think the choice to use black and white is a reflection of that.” The track “Heavy Lines,” an even mellow groove with Pitts on lead vocals, points to yet another dichotomy: oppression and freedom. The lyrics speak of heavy emotional weight, yet Pitts’s vocal delivery remains unquestionably buoyant. The realities of life will try to get you down, but make music and you’ll stay afloat—the song seems to suggest.
Another somewhat radical change for a band that, as Usher puts it, “create[s] everything in collaboration in this weird, isolated little world we share,” is that they’ve begun working regularly with drummer Sean McVey, and are open to the possibility of adding additional musicians to the fold as well. The decision to open the band up a bit certainly doesn’t stem from a need to broaden or diversify their sound—Birdlips never did sound like just a duo. So to all the Birdlips purists out there that might have their reservations about GEMS, let’s say we trust Pitts and Usher’s instincts like they’ve trusted their own all along?