“Songs are like people,” according to Seth Richardson, lead vocalist, lyricist and founder of Birmingham’s Voices in the Trees. “Each one has its own personality. Some come to me quickly and want to be heard often, while others come in whispers over a period of months and want to be only rarely played.”
You may recognize the name Voices in the Trees. They’ve been playing an increasingly regular schedule of gigs in a variety of local bars and venues over the last year, and in August of last year took second place in the Zydeco Battle of the Bands. If you have seen them, than you certainly remember Richardson’s compelling stage presence and high-pitched wail. In person, Richardson is a slight and delicate figure, but on stage he transforms into a mournful siren, one part torture, one part grace.
Richardson’s lyrics are often filled with hardship. At 22, he wrote the oldest song he still performs today, called “On My Knees.” The subject is addiction, he says, “a hunger deep inside of you that can never be filled,” and is a recurring theme in his originals, along with spirituality and references to death. According to Richardson, “The death theme has to do with change and rebirth. I have been reborn so many times in my life.”
Now 31, Richardson has been performing since he was three years old, when he sang with his father, a former preacher, and mother, at church. “I got up from the pew, walked up front and sang with their duet,” he says.
Richardson’s onstage theatrical performances are full of dancing, twirling and graceful gestures that are rooted in his days as a child actor. At 12, he auditioned for The Wizard of Oz and had to sing “Over the Rainbow.” “I got up there, started singing and the room stopped,” he says. “I really felt for the first time like I belonged on stage.”
Today, his tremendous energy during performances is fueled by the other band members. “For me, the band spurs me on so that I can get in the moment with the music and let myself be with the song and its meaning,” says Richardson. “I think the key to good music is the musicians all being in the moment.”
Though it came from an accidental misstatement, the band’s name now has new meaning.
“Voices in the Trees represent the voices in our heads that hold us back, the ones from which we want to run away, and performing is the perfect method of purging those voices, Richardson says. “Part of performing is releasing those fears and other voices that block us.”
Richardson played with local bands from 2004 through 2006, including The Awkword Silents. By 2007, he was disenchanted with bands and hesitant about starting another one. “I had invested so much emotion in The Awkword Silents, which broke up because of major disagreements,” he says. “I didn’t want to experience all that heartache again.”
2007 was a pivotal year for Richardson. “It was a rough year,” he says, “but I had a huge spiritual experience.” He is convinced that this spiritual growth impacted the evolution and success of Voices in the Trees. “I think that’s why things have worked out so well for us,” he says. “I’m not placing the same expectations on a band that I was before.”
That year, Richardson had embarked on a solo recording project and wanted to film a video for an original song. He contacted Gary Brown via myspace.com to film it. He and Brown jammed, and eventually performed as a duo, with Richardson on vocals and guitar and Brown on bass. Brown then brought in his co-worker Mollie McFarland Harrison to play viola, which was “very magical,” according to Richardson. Mollie’s husband, Patrick, was later hired as the band’s drummer.
In 2009, the band, which was known at the time as “Dog Tree Party,” invited guitarist Bradford Sims to hear them at Bottletree Café. There, Sims told Richardson that he was “trapped behind his guitar.” Richardson agreed, and Sims’ subsequent replacement on guitar freed Richardson up vocally.
Today, Richardson writes the lyrics to the band’s songs, and the other band members con tribute to the music, especially Sims, a gifted writer who often provides guitar parts around which the rest of the band writes songs. The band’s sound is a kind of indie-goth sprinkled with lively viola runs.
Voices in the Trees have released one CD to date, “The Death of Viola,” the title of which is based on the fact that one of Mollie’s violas actually broke during a performance. According to Richardson, the group’s plan is, simply, “to keep going.”
Voices in the Trees will be performing at the Nick on Friday, July 8, along with Spencer Ezell, Flat Cat, The Cancers and Skyway Spirits. Cover is $6 and the show begins at 10 p.m.
Birmingham Weekly welcomes Genie McElroy, who will write about local music and related topics. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.