Breathe Owl Breathe is the intimately-crafted acoustic pop of East Jordan, Michigan trio Micah Middaugh, Trevor Hobbs, and Andréa Moreno-Beals. Five albums, two EPs, and a children's book into their career, this much-adored indie group is fronted by the youthful enthusiasm of principal singer-songwriter Middaugh, who arranges the group's folk-driven, harmony lush dynamic often described, as a commenter at Daytrotter puts it: "a band that understands life in a beautiful way...reminds me of my everlasting curiosity for life, and puts on an incredible show."
I had arranged to interview Middaugh via cell phone from their tour bus, but when I dialed him up, a voice in a distinctly higher registered answered the call. "You've got the right number," said vocalist and cellist Moreno-Beals. "Poor Micah is sick and resting in the back of the van. Can we do the interview with me instead?"
And so we did, as Moreno-Beals, her band, and Laura Gibson ambled down a good stretch of the American interstate in their shared tour bus. Here, the Colombian born, classically trained cellist generously shares her thoughts on touring, the new album, and the phenom that is (the hopefully recovered) Micah Middaugh.
Seattle Weekly: How was the show last night?
Andrea Moreno-Beals: Last night's show was great! It was fantastic. Such a sweet, warm, enthusiastic crowd. It was so nice. Really, that's how it's been almost every show, which is what keeps us going. Some of the places we've played are very nice. Not really places I'd prefer to spend an evening, if I had a choice, but all these sweet people come and they listen to our songs. It's been so cool.SW: You played Salt Lake City last night and you're on to Boise next. Both of those cities have the highest Morman demographics this side of the Mississippi. Random coincidence?
AMB: Right, yeah. We're actually on tour with Laura Gibson, this is her tour, we didn't book the shows. There are just a few shows, like the one in Seattle, that are our own. We've never played Boise before, and I don't know what to to expect from that, but we've played Salt Lake City before and it's been great. It's so fascinating, different people in different cities listen differently, whether they're on the ocean, or they're landlocked, it just feels really different. I guess because we move through them so fast that the differences are more exaggerated. [indecipherable noises] Everyone's climbing back into the van so if you hear a bunch of noise it's just us. We're traveling altogether, the seven of us in one big van [The Laura Gibson band and Breathe Owl Breathe], which is great, and a lot of fun.
SW: Do you guys all switch driving duty?
AMB: Yeah, the guys have been doing all the driving which is so nice, because I personally can't stand driving. I've had to do a lot of it in our own van but yeah, it's been really nice that they've traded off all the shifts.
SW: So the tour's going well? Have you played with Laura Gibson before?
AMB: No we haven't, we've played some festivals that she's played, but that's it. It's been such a great match, a real fun variety.
SW: She's a great songwriter, and a lot of her songwriting involves these beautiful images of the natural world. I was just listening to [your song] "Swimming" and there's a real love of the outdoors there too. Is that something you all share?
AMB: Definitely, really strongly, yeah. It's probably one of the strongest things that the three of us have in common, I'd say.
SW: I understand you all live in the same house, is that still the situation?
AMB: No, just Micah and I do. Trevor lives an hour and fifteen minutes in away in another city, Traverse City.
SW: They have good coffee there, don't they?
AMB: They do, yeah! Our friends at Higher Ground Roastery, they do an incredible job traveling to different places in South America and Africa where they grow coffee, and they are definitely passionate about it.
SW: You're coming to another big coffee city. You've played Seattle a few times.
AMB: Yeah, we've been to the Tractor several times, trying to think if we've played anywhere else in Seattle, maybe not, maybe it's always been there? But we love the Tractor. The crowds that have come out to hear us play have always just been wonderful, we always look forward to getting to play there.
SW: You've been on tour for a little while now, and you've put out a quite a few records. As a band, do you guys prefer touring or being in the studio?
AMB: That's tough because we all love to travel so much, but the pace we have to travel at to tour is not really ideal, so I guess it depends on when you'd ask us. At the moment we're coming to the end of a really stressful tour, so I'm more inclined to say recording, and being in the creating process, that whole element is so exciting. It's hard work for sure, too, but it's so fun and exciting. I guess that would be my preference, although I do really love touring and the way it allows us to see different parts of the country, and Europe, it's been amazing. I don't know, we love them both. But right now, when we get home from this tour, we're looking forward to writing some new songs that we've been really wanting to put out.
SW: That's exciting. A new full-length album?
AMB: Yup, that's the plan, it's been a little while since we put out our last one, Magic Central, and we put out our children's book in December which was a lot of work and a really big project we're really proud of that's been doing amazingly well, but yeah, we've been meaning to make another full-length record.
SW: That 7" [The Listeners/These Train Tracks] was so cool, I have a few questions about that. First, who was that little boy singing on "The Listeners"?
AMB: Oh, it's a little girl! It's great, though, at that age you can't really tell. I love that. I worked as a first-grade assistant the year before we recorded that song, and she was a student I had who just lived to sing. She was just so interested in music, such a sweet, dear, girl that I really loved, Sarah. So, Micah had the idea that it would be really neat to involve one of my students in the song, and I asked her if she would. It worked out beautiful, she did such a great job.
AMB: No, but I did go to school with a lot of music training from the beginning. It's called the Waldorf School, I know they have one in Seattle, I think there's one on Whidbey Island, they're all over. They're really amazing programs.
SW: That's where you went to school?
AMB: Yeah, sorry. I was teaching at the school that I went to. I was assisting teachers that I had with their students. It was a very sweet experience.
SW: Do you have children of your own?
AMB: No, I don't, we'll see, I hope to someday. Not yet. I'm only 26.
SW: You've got so much time! I know a lot of a lot of parents with small children are fans. Do you intentionally craft songs for young listeners?
AMB: No, I would say we definitely don't try to reach a particular crowd of any kind. We just try to be as true as we can to what inspires us, and to art, as we can. I would love to appeal to people of all ages, we just make music that we love. We definitely don't work like, "Let's make this music age-appropriate," that's the opposite of how we approach it.
SW: There's definitely a universal appeal, though, with your music. Where did you get the name for the band?
AMB: It actually came from a dream that Micah had. He had this beautiful dream, but it's not like he has these kind of dreams all the time, it was this really special, one-time sort of dream. It was from the point of view of a field mouse, the mouse was running across a corn field trying to find a place to hide because there was an owl that was chasing it. It kind of gave up and stopped running and gave out what it thought was going to be it's last little mouse breath, and it was so cold that you could see the breath go up through the air. But for some reason, the owl changed its mind and let the mouse be, and started flying off into the night sky. And you could see the breathing of the owl, too. When Micah explains it, it sounds like such a serious, wonderful, beautiful dream, and it had that really mysterious quality, but it was also humorous because of how the owl flew away, which was with one wing which it flapped three times, then he flapped three times with the other wing. So, he's basically zig-zagging his way through the night sky, and that always cracks me up. In the dream, it was the owl's way of being playful and funny.
SW: What's interesting is that you describe this dream like it's one you had.
AMB: Yeah, well I've thought about it a lot since it is a question we get so often. And I'm sure my imagination of it is completely different that what he dreamed, but I love that it's taken on a life of its own in my mind.
SW: Do dreams factor in to the rest of the band's songwriting?
AMB: Probably, I can't think of a specific occasion but I wouldn't be surprised. Micah is such a one-of-a-kind guy. I've always felt he has this connection to a world that's like a dream world. He's done such an amazing job becoming an adult but keeping that connection strong, which I think a lot of people give up on and shrug off as they get older. He's super athletic, when he goes for runs, he talks about his "running mediation," and that informs a lot of his writing. I wouldn't be surprised if dreams that Trevor [drums] and I have and talk about sometimes work their way into what he writes, he's the one who writes all the lyrics, with very few exceptions like one lines here and there from us.
SW: From what you've told me and what I've read online, Micah has all these aptitudes: songwriting, instrumentation, he's athletic, and he's a visual artist. I know he made the art work for the 7".
AMB: Yeah, that's what he studied in college, and he especially loves woodcuts. So each scene [for the accompanying children's book] was cut out of a block of wood, and then he rolled ink on them, and printed them.
SW: Is there a special connection between the visual arts and the music you make as a band?
AMB: Micah's very much the leading visionary, so he carries that [connection] prominently. I consider myself a visual artist as well as a musician but I guess I'm not as confident about my art. He's so driven to create visual art, I would say it's just as important to him as the music. He's extremely particular about anything that gets put out with our band name on it, how it looks visually. He won't settle for things that don't have a high-quality aesthetic. The art for the first couple albums he and I drew together but more recently he's been the one to really take it up.
SW: I know that he picked up a love of music from his dad. Did you get yours from your parents?
AMB: Yeah, I would say. With all three of us, we definitely each have our own relationship with music. I'm sure that it would have found its way into our lives even if we didn't have parents who appreciated it and helped us to cultivate an appreciation for music, but we're all really lucky that our parents did play a big role in exposing us to all kinds of music. In my situation, my mother plays the piano, and I grew up listening to her play and she sang me and my brother to sleep every single night for years. Her father, my grandfather, was a violinist, he was really very talented, and his mother was a harp player, so I have a lot of classical musicians in my family, and I'm sure I got a love of music from them.
SW: Sounds like a very charmed childhood and a loving home. Kind of full circle in the context of the music you're making now.
AMB: In a really deep way.