An Interview with Seasonal Birds

  I was first introduced to Seasonal Birds at a gig they played in January at the used bookstore Sellers and Newel, and the band’s music left quite an impression on me for its often intense but minimal folk style. The band is a duo, made up of guitarist/vocalist Sean Parker and vocalist Maia T. Pilling, and I met up with the two of them at Hart House in the leadup to the release of their first EP to talk about the band and the Toronto music scene.

HZ: Okay, so to start with I wanted to ask how the band started out. Could you tell me that story?

Sean Parker: It started with we were hanging out, we hadn’t in a while.

Maia Pilling: Spring 2021, I think.

SP: We had known each other in high school and we both did music and had talked about doing music together but we didn’t know each other super well at that point. But I knew that she was a great singer.

I had started writing the song “Skyline.” I didn’t want to sing in front of people but I wanted to perform the song. I had the first verse of it down and then the chorus, and by the first time we went to rehearse she had written a second verse and it fit very neatly into the voice of the song and at that point I realised we had something. It was a very unique experience to have someone else’s writing work with your own.

HZ: So was Sean always singing as well from the start, or did that come later?

MP: I think the more songs that we started writing, the more [Sean] got comfortable writing for stuff that [he] would want to sing instead of writing something as a song and being like “I don’t want to sing that,” and those existing as two separate things, instead writing something that we could sing together.

SP: I think that it came out of necessity both the start of the band and the start of me singing. Me singing came from things that I had written that were more about myself, where it would be weird if [Maia was] singing it. There’s also just more potential for harmonies if I’m singing the melody and she’s harmonising.

HZ: Do the two of you collaborate on writing songs, or is it a situation where you write separately and then bring songs in once they’re done?

SP: Bit of both.

MP: I think it started more together, because in 2021 the only thing you could do was be with your friends outside and for us that was writing songs. Once being together wasn’t a novelty and it was a novelty to be alone, like being by yourself with a guitar all night, there was more of that.

SP: And the line between who completes a song is blurry, because something that she added, like even a harmony, could be an integral part of the song. So, that’s still my song if I perform it myself, but if you hear Seasonal Birds I wouldn’t say, “That’s my song.” 

MP: We were rehearsing for nothing for a year.

SP: We were just talking a lot and building up a comfort with each other almost as coworkers, and that made us more comfortable bringing in songs separately. When we started in the summer, we didn’t know each other very well, but we became very close through doing it and so we became more comfortable with that. We do still write together, but I think we became more comfortable as songwriters on our own and coming in with our own songs.

HZ: How do you think you fit into the kind of music scene that you’re a part of here in Toronto? I’ve seen that you’ve played shows with bands like Grumpy Truck which are very different from your own sound.

SP: Yeah, we don’t, and that’s kind of part of it.

That’s something that I’ve felt is really important with this band. I think it’s really important as an artist to be pathetic.

MP: And we’ve done a lot of that.

With every show we’ve played that wasn’t just us there’s been a little bit of that. You have to make a step between the opener and the headliner.

SP: I think that if you’re trying to write vulnerable music without being vulnerable while doing it, you’re asking a lot without taking a lot. You have to set up a baseline where if someone doesn’t buy in, you should look a little pathetic. Sometimes we’ve had some surprising shows that really worked. Lawngirl was great. We had a show at Bar Orwell where after us was a grunge band, a shoegazey grunge band. The lofi grunge aesthetic has a surprising amount in common with our aesthetic.

MP: Folk and punk, they’re like cousins in that sentiment of “fuck all that noise, this is what actually matters.” I think we fit in in that we make music for friends. It’s music for friends, it’s music for listening and you can do that with a thousand pedals and it can sound cool, or you can do it with just a guitar and singing.

SP: I think of when Tracy Chapman stepped in for Stevie Wonder and she played “Fast Car” for a crowd of people expecting to see Stevie Wonder. If I’m asking you to listen to something that you might not want to hear, I have to put myself in a position I might not want to be in.

MP: There’s no escape, but we’re here together.

Playing at Drome or Tail of the Junction is like, “What are we doing here?” and “Why does that man have a lit cigarette inside?” I think we are some of the first people to have played places for months without a drummer or a bassist. Without anything else.

SP: We also could maybe get away with it more if we were just doing coffeeshop jazz. The thing I wanted to avoid is that as a band where there’s two singers and just a guitar, it can just be Ed Sheeran. We’re quite loud and we start with one of our loudest songs on purpose. You see us and we look like we’re going to sing softly about love, but we actually sing loudly, also about love. The acoustic guitar is often seen as an inherently delicate instrument. I play without a pick, too, but I strum in a pretty punk way on some songs. We are more aggressive than people expect, I think, which also earns us the right to be softer later. We come in with a big thing of “this is not going to be Jason Mraz covers, but this is a little uglier.”

Sometimes we’re also not acceptable to folk musicians. Not like real folk musicians, but people who just expect us to play Sufjan Stevens covers. I like Sufjan Stevens, I like Adrianne Lenker but I like Glen Hansard. I really like the Once soundtrack. When I heard it when I was a kid, it changed my brain forever. We’re both too soft for people and too aggressive for some people.

MP: When you said “too soft and too aggressive,” I thought that that’s just like being a woman. I think that we make music for women.

HZ: Do you have any particular favourite venues that stand out to you in Toronto?

SP: Sellers and Newel is the big one.

MP: Sellers and Newel is the first one I was going to say.

SP: No offense to anyone else, but we owe so much to that man. Peter Sellers is a very honest man. If he didn’t like us, he would tell us. As much as he says he doesn’t know anything about music, he has taste. I don’t think he’s making anything off of those shows, and if he didn’t like us he wouldn’t have invited us back. 

The Burdock is fantastic, shout to Ethan on sound at the Burdock. It depends a lot on the people doing sound at the place.

MP: Tranzac is invaluable for the music community.

SP: You can feel that. There are people that go there all the time just to support it, not knowing what to expect. The community at the venue Bar Orwell is great, we’ve had some interesting shows there, it’s good acoustically.

MP: And also very indie. If the owner didn’t want to have it, it wouldn’t happen. It’s always the same people there, the owner, the bartenders. It’s unfortunate that so many Toronto venues have to be that way. 

SP: There’s sometimes a fair amount of philanthropy involved.

MP: Drom is an outlier.

SP: Drom is one of the best places to play in the city, it’s clear that they really respect artists. The Drom community, especially the people in charge of Drom, really respect the artists and aren’t just trying to give artists the least possible. Sometimes [venues are] giving you the minimum you need to be able to make music.

MP: Or even less.

HZ: To move on to your new EP, I was wondering how you approached recording it. Is there any kind of a concept behind the record, or how did you pick which songs you wanted to include and how they’re sequenced?

Sean Parker: We used to end sets with this set of songs. It started with just how I tuned my guitar but it became a set of songs we’d use a lot. We recorded it in the span of just 12 hours during the heatwave last August in a studio space in Niagara. Everything was recorded live so how that feels is very much part of it. The point isn’t to get the perfect recording of it, but to accept how it sounds even if our voices aren’t totally perfect or something.

Maia T. Pilling: Also, being able to look at it retrospectively, it goes with the theme of music for friends, just with the atmosphere of the space and the love and care that went into it. We also got the artwork for it and footage taken. Also the feeling of people coming up to us after shows and asking, “When is the album coming out?, “When is the EP coming out?” and those fires being relit.

SP: “Skyline” is one. “Inhale” is one we should’ve put on the EP. “Sunlight” was the one I’d get asked most often about whether there was anything recorded of it online. They’re also some of our oldest songs- that’s not even true, some of them are.

MP: Well, they’re also the canon. “Sunlight” is a fun one. It’s the one I sing the least on but also my favourite one to sing on. That just shows how powerful the story of that song is that I cried and I only sang four lines on it.

SP: Yeah, I remember we both cried recording that. It’s music for friends but also music for each other, and we recorded them together. A lot of the songs are about patience and persistence and that’s also what went into recording it. Our close friend AJ came out and filmed a lot of the experience, and Maia’s boyfriend Phil set up the equipment and helped us record it. At the very end of the EP, you can hear four people singing, and that’s us all holding hands and singing the last chorus together. 

HZ: So, obvious question again but what’s next for Seasonal Birds? Sean, I know that you’ll be moving to Montreal in the fall. 

SP: What’s next is hiatus, sort of. Not a complete one, just pulling back. I’m moving to Montreal for my Master’s, but I’ll be coming back maybe once a month to see friends and so on. We’d only be playing special shows until one of us moves the other way. So, because of that we might be more focussed on recording and just getting the songs done. Before this EP, the only EP we had left was a live one because we were so live-focussed, which is funny in an age where it’s so important to have a loaded Spotify. So what’s next is focussing more on recording, less on shows and I guess on grad school.

MP: The theoretical basis of recording since we’re both going to be studying music for the next two years, although in very different aspects of it. The music itself isn’t going to stop but it’s going to take different forms.

SP: It’s going to occupy a different place in our lives. We didn’t exist in a way that some people might consider significant for most of our existence, but that’s because it was all live. It was a lot of grinding to be a mainly live band that does stuff people prefer to listen to alone. Not everyone goes to a show where they’re pretty sure they’re gonna cry. I do, but not everyone, so we’re focussing on that. What’s next is probably a full album, which will probably take more than twelve hours to record, embracing a real studio method with more than just a live overdub. We might do that this summer or over the course of the next couple years, but it’s going to continue, just with fewer shows. Far fewer shows.

HZ: Something that stood out to me about the performance as a whole, beyond just the songs, was the explanations of the songs and the banter. The explanations sometimes would be really personal, too. How did that become part of your performance and do you think it adds to it in any way?

MP: I think they originated just because of Sean having to tune between the songs, and just the sheer amount of tunings. It’s not just once, it’s more than once. Even if you don’t have to tune, there’s going to be dead air unless you decide to play songs right into each other and when you’re tuning so much there’s even more.

SP: I eventually established a baseline that the tuning would start with, but the first show I didn’t think about it at all.

MP: Well, it was the first show.

SP: Explaining the songs was something that I didn’t really like at first, it’s something that I think people would find annoying or at least I could find it annoying. But sometimes it really resonates with people. At the show you [the author] were at, “Patience” was an example of that. The way I thought about that song really changed when my grandmother passed and that day was the anniversary of her passing, so I really had to say that and that resonated with people. 

And there’s a tradition in folk music of talking about songs like that, like in ethnographic descriptions of what people would be doing when a song was sung or in Irish music where the singer will tell a story before singing the song.

The explanations of the songs came more later, but the banter was always there. We don’t try to be funny but people seem to find the way we talk to each other funny.

MP: Well, we’re just friends.

SP: When you do see friends trying to do banter on stage, though, it isn’t always funny. And sometimes you can really tell that they think they’re being funny.

MP: It doesn’t take all that much to be funny. Anything that’s already funny is two times funnier when it’s flanked by a song about a breakup and a song about the loss of a loved one.

SP: I think my brother said he was recording a set and he couldn’t find a song where I didn’t start it by saying some stupid thing, like “This song’s about Papa Smurf,” and I’d start playing as I said that. It might be a way out for me sometimes. As much as I believe in songs, they’re just songs. I don’t want to be pretentious and like “Let’s all be together in this space.” The banter helps and it can be relief.

HZ: Finally, do you have anything else you’d like to say to the audience reading this, about making music in Toronto or about the band?

MP: Yeah, I think making music in Toronto is always difficult. No one wants anyone to make music in Toronto except for people who genuinely like music and I’m not counting Drake, the Weeknd or Shawn Mendes and I’m not counting A and B and C. It’s really about the people who came out to our shows and asked after about how we felt about the show or messages us on Instagram saying how much they liked the show or said “This made me cry about something I didn’t even know I was upset about.” It’s those interactions that have pushed us forward doing this and it’s great to see that there are people who care about the shit that we care about.

SP: The community that you can find from being vulnerable with your music. It’s wonderful when you can find artists who are open to something like that. We’re very grateful to the music community that we’ve found and created in Toronto. There are some truly wonderful people in music in the city. 

Seasonal Birds’ first studio EP, Patience, released April 28th. You can keep up to date with the band by following their Instagram.