RI's Brown Bird Finds A Solemn Victory On Final Album

Apr 30, 2015

It’s been a year since the death of local musician David Lamb, whose passing threw the future of the folk duo Brown Bird into question. This week saw the release of the band’s final album. Crafted during Lamb’s battle with leukemia, the album was finished by his wife MorganEve Swain, the other half of the band. Music journalists are calling it Brown Bird’s swan song.

MorganEve Swain sits in the Warren apartment she shared with husband and fellow band member David Lamb. Their dog Zed sits on her lap.
Credit John Bender / RIPR

With its distinct, pulsing rhythm, a full drum set and electric bass, Axis Mundi, the new album from Brown Bird represents a departure of sorts.  The sound is a retreat from the slower, more pared down music of the duo’s previous albums. 

But the gypsy influences and the intertwining voices of husband and wife David Lamb and MorganEve Swain are the same genre-defying sounds that brought the band to prominence just a few years ago.

For Swain, the whole album represents a culmination of the music that Brown Bird had always been working towards.

“It’s actually kind of funny because if you look up old interviews, we’re saying the same things.  You know we’re getting a little louder, a little heavier,” said Swain. “Basically if you listen to the records chronologically that’s basically what happens.  We never wanted to make such a huge difference that it would be like, what happened to Brown Bird? And then, with Axis Mundi, that is the leap.”

Swain had to complete that leap without her life partner and music partner Lamb, who died just over a year ago, at age 36, following a battle with leukemia.  After his death, Swain was determined to finish the album.

Sitting in the living room of the third floor apartment the couple shared in Warren, she said she found the album title, Axis Mundi, while reading through Lamb’s notebooks as she was completing the album.

“It represents where heaven and earth connect, and it’s where communication happens between higher and lower realms. It’s a symbol of knowledge; it’s a symbol of spirituality,” said Swain.

The title could not be more apt.  Lamb began recording material that would become Axis Mundi before his leukemia diagnosis in 2013.

Swain said in addition to treading new musical ground, the album was supposed to be a celebration, when the couple still hoped Lamb would recover.

“It was just going to be this very exciting new thing for us, and we were excited to you know, ‘hey we had this horrible year,’ we’re gonna come out of this and be bigger and stronger than ever,” said Swain

Though in the end it didn’t work out as they hoped, Swain said it was cathartic to finish their final collaboration.  And it's been getting attention from national media, including The New York Times, NPR, and the Boston Globe.

“So to be able to put it out anyway, it’s loaded," said Swain. "I say that we wanted it to be a victory record and I feel like it still is.”

But the victory was hard-won, according to Swain, who was hesitant to touch much of Lamb’s original tracks.  She enlisted the help of a friend and fellow musician, as well as her brother Spencer Swain, who produced the album.

The album confronts Lamb’s sickness head on, with the opener "Focus." In the track, Lamb sings directly of his illness and his hopes for recovery.  Swain said at first, it seemed like an unlikely choice to kick off a so-called victory record with such a subdued, haunting song, but as soon as she heard it, she knew it was right.

“I think it’s a pretty ballsy song to open with, because it demands your attention.  Even if you don’t know our story hopefully that song still strikes, something that you need to listen to,” said Swain.

Lamb wrote all the songs on Axis Mundi but one.  Swain penned the track "Tortured Boy."  She wrote it in 2008, during the summer she first met Lamb. Their relationship and the musical career were just beginning, but Lamb was in the midst of a personal crisis. Swain knew that following the breakup of his first marriage, he was worried about embarking on a new relationship.

“He was really struggling with who he was and whether or not he was a good person, so I wrote "Tortured Boy" for him, and that’s basically what that song is about,” said Swain.  “Hey you don’t need to be punishing yourself, I’m here and as far I’m concerned that’s all that matters.”

The two were eventually married in 2013, only months before Lamb would find out about his illness.

The album, Axis Mundi, concludes with "Avalon," a spare tune featuring just Lamb and a guitar.

Originally written as a Christmas present for Swain, Lamb recorded the 45-second song in secret while recovering from a bone marrow transplant, which ultimately didn’t save him.  Swain was overcome the first time she heard the song, but now she believes that within the song Lamb had given her a gift.

“There’s a line where he says 'you’re a healer and a huntress and a holder of hands,'" said Swain.  "When I first heard it, it just destroyed me, but it is also where I took the name 'The Huntress' from, which is what I’m calling my solo project. Putting 'Avalon' at the end of this album is kind of presenting that this is the end of Brown Bird, but it’s not the end of me, and that’s because of him.”

Swain isn’t sure when or what she’ll create moving forward, but she knows she’ll carry Lamb’s legacy with her.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Lamb died at age 35.

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