Interview: Siri Undlin of Humbird — Developing a Voice for Social Good
Witnessing and watching the evolution of a songwriter is a fascinating thing. Sometimes that evolution occurs over the entire body of an artist’s work. But sometimes it occurs quickly, almost jarringly when molded by external forces.
Such is the case for Siri Undlin, the creative force behind the indie group Humbird. Humbird has released two albums in the band’s relatively short existence, Pharmakon in 2019 and Still Life in fall 2021. However, the two albums reflect two distinctively different approaches and sets of experiences. Humbird’s first album highlights a young songwriter rejoicing in finding her voice.
The second album, Still Life, comes from a very different place and has a different message and mission. The album was born from a time of turmoil and unrest. Conceived and created during the isolation forced by the Covid pandemic, the album is also a direct response to the murder of George Floyd, which occurred in the neighborhood where Undlin was living, and the repercussions of that event.
Siri Undlin approaches the seriousness of our times with a message of peace and tranquility. She wants people to communicate and to engage. And through those actions, to develop the empathy and understanding that can lead to real change.
With this burgeoning sense of social responsibility and her recognition of the role an artist can play in facilitating conversations about social issues, Siri Undlin will undoubtedly continue to be a force for good.
“Summer Storm for Charlotte”—Video Premiere:
Humbird is continuing to release the videos performances for songs from “Still Life” and provided Americana Highways with the video for “Summer Storm for Charlotte” to debut. Enjoy this new video from Humbird! “Summer Storm for Charlotte.” The interview will appear beneath the video.
Americana Highways sat down with Siri Undlin for a virtual chat before Humbird embarked on its current tour to support its release, Still Life. Here is an edited version of the interview where Siri offers her thoughts on the songwriter’s role in helping the discussion about social injustice and societal issues. She also talks about her evolution as a songwriter and how fortunate she was to have a supportive family, especially during the Covid pandemic when working artists struggled to make ends meet.
Americana Highways: You are about to out on a big tour in support of Still Life. Are you excited about it?
Siri Undlin: I am really looking forward to hitting the road. It has been a long time in coming. We were going to do this in 2020. So it’s nice to circle back and do what we said we were going to do.
We have done some Midwest shorter runs. We have done some plays outdoors during the pandemic, in people’s backyards. We were really busy doing that. But it was really just a tour of the Twin Cities’ green spaces. So it will be awesome to travel cross country.
AH: Do you have any expectations about how you will be received on this tour?
SU: No. As far as what will happen with the shows, everything is so up in the air right now. I hope it goes well. I try to not have any expectations, which can be something that gets in the way or can make me less present for things that actually happen. It will be awesome to just get back out there and do it. You learn so much as you go even if a show doesn’t go like you want.
You usually end up meeting really special people. That’s one of the best parts about making music and its been a long time since that was possible.
AH: Tell me about your band. How long have you been together? How did you find your bandmates?
SU: Humbird started off as my solo side project. I was playing in another active band. I was writing music a little faster than that band could organize and incorporate, which was totally fine. But I was worried that I was not putting out work fast enough. Stuff can get kinda clogged if there’s a backlog and you aren’t sharing what you are doing. So I thought “I’m just going to do a side project and I can put out music whenever I want and still be really casual.”
But over time Humbird became my main focus. It felt like songs were really resonating with people and I was really busy. Eventually bandmates solidified. I’ve been playing with Pat Keen and Peter Quirsfeld the last few years. As a trio we have really gone a lot of places and made a lot of music together.
Adelyn Strei produced Still Life and she’s joining the band, so we will be touring as a quartet this year. The project is pretty fluid. We often have other people sitting in if bandmates have stuff going on. We will rework songs. It’s kind of fun and fresh to do that. It also allows people to live their lives. That seems important.
AH: What inspired the name Humbird?
SU: I needed a name because my name is Siri and Apple sort of took that. So I had to find a stage name and I’m really bad at that kind of thing. I was throwing around ideas like “Fork” with my bandmates and other horrible ideas. But, hey, if someone out there has a band named Fork, that’s great. No shades to that name.
There’s a small town in Wisconsin that’s unincorporated, with a population like 60 or something tiny like that and it’s called Humbird. We drove by the sign on our way to a show and we said that would be a really cool band name. So it stuck.
AH: Where are your origins?
Siri: I am from the Twin Cities. Most of my family is here. I feel very loyal to the Midwest. This place means a lot to me.
I think it’s important to travel and experience new places and new people. But there’s also something to be said for putting down roots and engaging with the place where you have a sense of responsibility. I feel that about the Midwest. I like that about the name—Humbird is the name of a place here and I think it captures our music.
AH: Listening to Still Life, you bring nature sounds into some of your songs. So, originally, I wondered if there was a connection between the name Humbird and the sounds of nature in your songs.
SU: There is definitely a connecting thread. I find that nature and the natural world are very powerful sources of creativity and inspiration. Maybe the sources of creativity and inspiration. I engage with the outdoors pretty intentionally. It’s a big part of my life. So it makes sense that it’s in the music and in the name and I think that it’s in everything I do.
AH: Please describe the basis for the album in terms of your creative process, what inspired you, what was going through your head at the time.
SU: Still Life was an accidental record. It was not on purpose. I was living in a house in South Minneapolis with a bunch of other artists one of whom was Adelyn Strei, who is an amazing multi-instrumentalist and a producer. It took us a while to realize that we could make demos.
There was a lot going on in South Minneapolis in Spring 2020 and we were right in the middle of it. A lot of learning and relearning and reckoning and activism that was necessary to even function at that time. As the summer transitioned into fall, I picked up my guitar again and used music as a way to process and heal and move forward. Addy’s bedroom was right next to mine and we started making demos. The first couple went really well so we said, “Let’s do a couple more.” Then we were like, “Oh, I think we might be making a record!”
The record was entirely written and recorded in the house. We did a little bit of tracking of drums at a nearby studio. But otherwise Still Life really revolved around this home that we lived, and quarantined in, and where we were really challenged by that time.
Still Life is the story of a house and the people living in it. It is also the story of a neighborhood just reckoning with white supremacy and really challenging relationships between people of disparate opinions. It is also about the pandemic and what we were all going through as a planet. Just all of the intersecting and conflicting feelings of fear and hope and despair and possibility that we were feeling.
There are a lot of silver linings in the record. I think there were a lot of silver linings in the experience for us too. It’s not all heavy and awful but it was hard. And I think the music does not shy away from that.
It carves out a safe space for people to just sit and explore how they are feeling. That was our hope anyway. We just want people to listen to this and let the sound wash over them and feel however they are feeling. We wanted this to be a supportive thing for people.
AH: You lived right in the heart of the difficulties and the horror associated with the murder of George Floyd and all the tensions arising after that. Do you feel that the process of writing and recording the album and putting it out helped you heal from that trauma?
SU: Yes and no. I think I will be processing that summer for the rest of my life.
There are things in life that change everything going forward. There’s no going back. That can be a really good thing, such as the birth of a baby. It can be a really, really hard thing that is irreversible—heartbreak and grief and how that manifests for people resulting from events like those. June 2020 was that way for a lot of people in this neighborhood and also for a lot of people who were living in that reality before then.
I feel that summer stripped the wool from our eyes and affirmed for others that their experiences were validated on a more global platform.
In a scenario like that summer, I don’t know that healing is linear. It starts a continuing reevaluation and a constant process. As an artist with a platform, it was a really upending and confusing scenario to sit through as far figuring out what my role was. There are some things that I am obviously not an expert on and there are some things I didn’t feel equipped to talk about or approach with a microphone on a stage.
Because the conversation felt so urgent and poignant, I struggled with how to be an artist in that community context. But, in making this music, I think the music retaught me that you don’t have to be an expert in things to speak and that you can be a great listener and also be a performer and you can be a conduit and a connecting bridge.
There are a lot of ways to engage with art to be important. Not all of them have to be loud and demanding attention. Still Life as a whole is pretty quiet and has a very laid back feeling. It feels very much like a supportive thing for me and I hope it’s a supportive thing for other people as well as empowering folks to do what they need to do.
I’ve never thought about music like that before or at least not about the music that I’ve made. In some ways it was healing and in some ways it was a response to everything going on. Hopefully it moves forward in the future for however anyone needs it to.
AH: Still Life is very different than your first album, Pharmakon.
SU: They are so different – like different universes to me. Maybe people will hear them and say they sound the same, but I was a very different person at each time and I love that. I think that it’s so cool to listen to artists in different chapters of their lives and their creative expressions. Personally, I love sinking into records from different eras from my favorite artists. It’s really a gift to be able to explore different eras in my own experience too.
Pharmakon was very much like stepping into the power of being a songwriter and becoming a working musician. That album really was a catalyst for a lot of things. I love those songs still.
Still Life was different in the sense that it was like, alright you are a musician, you’ve made a record, now what? How are you going to exist in the world and how are you going to connect community and where does landscape fit into this. Still Life is way more abstract and reaching in a way.
Pharmakon was like “I’m a songwriter and this is what it sounds like and these are the songs.” And I love it for that. The person who produced it, Shane Leonard just did a great job of bringing those songs to life with cool arrangements.
Still Life felt more scattered and organic like little seeds coming up from the ground.
AH: You have been getting a lot of regional and national for attention your songwriting skills. How do you feel about that as you are expanding your footprint, so to speak?
SU: Attention is always kind of strange. It is so cool. I’ve wanted to be a musician since I was 4 or 5 so this is not a new dream by any means. I’ve always loved songwriting. Its been the best way to connect with people. I sometimes hear really cool, crazy stories about what people were doing while they were listening to my songs or what happened or where they were when they heard them. I don’t think it will ever get old.
You spend so much time writing and practicing on your bed alone in middle school and think maybe I’ll get to do this some day and it will be like who I am. But it’s challenging figuring out how to get from that point to touring and putting out records and having bandmates you love and connecting with people who love the music. It’s just such a weird path that’s kind of unbelievable.
I like to think of me and my bandmates as a very scrappy, grounded ensemble from the Midwest. We like show up and work hard. We believe in what we are doing. So I think the attention is really nice and really strange and hopefully it keeps growing.
The more people who are hearing the music, the more flexibility we have to really commit to what we believe in, to take care of ourselves, and our communities. Hopefully more and more people will hear our music and like it and we can keep recycling and redistributing whatever we have access to.
I always like to think of what we do as being part of the ecosystem. The more access you have to a broader ecosystem, the more you can make and strengthen connections and be a force for good.
AH: Describe your family’s support as you were coming on to your musical journey. Did you ever have anyone shake your shoulders and say “Siri you’re never going to make any money doing this. Go become an accountant!” or something like that?
SU: [Laughter] I am only doing this because of my family’s support. Maybe that’s dramatic but my parents and my siblings, my grandparents, my cousins, my aunts and uncles—I’m so blessed with a really beautiful family of people I’m close to and care about. I’m involved in their lives and they are involved in mine and never has anyone said that to me. They have always been massively supportive. My parents have always pushed me to not give up. I think that is because they genuinely believe in the music. They are the first ones to hear my music. My songs weren’t great in 6th grade, but they were always like, “keep writing, keep practicing.”
During the last few years, transitioning into a working musician and also navigating a pandemic was very hard. Of course, there were times when I was like “Wow, I think I need to go back to school or get a salaried job somewhere.” Whenever I would talk like that, my parents would say “How about you just find your side job and work until you can do it again.” They were very much like “no keep going, you’ll be fine.” They were talking me off the ledge. I think that kind of support is pretty rare and incredible.
AH: You’ve come up with a visual approach to Still Life with your creative team. Can you describe that?
SU: I didn’t have much to do with it. I sent the music to an amazing artist here in the Twin Cities, Alexis Politz, who designed all the cover art for the album, and I said “Do whatever this music makes you feel like.” I just trusted her and her talent and I think she did an amazing job of bringing it to life. So that’s all her.
Eric and Sarah Elstran produced the videos for the songs “May” and “Plum Sky” from the album. They also produced the “Still Life Visual Album,” which premiered in the Twin Cities last fall. They are two Wisconsin artists who are of mighty amazing talent. It is so fun to send music to artists who you love and respect and say make whatever you want. I like to get out of the way. You do what you are good at and I will send you music. If you like it and are inspired by it, then we can do something together.
That’s one of my favorite parts about finishing a record – brainstorming which artists to collaborate with to bring it to life through social media or video or whatever. It’s fun.
AH: What’s next? Do you have any concepts for your next release?
SU: I write a lot of songs. We actually have two records that are fully done and recorded, mixed and mastered. I think making the music is the fun part. That’s the easy part. Putting out music in a way that best serves the music so it can find people is challenging. That is the whole other half of making music these days, especially as an indie artist. Carving out the time to get it to people behind the scenes within the industry that will help it flourish. That is so much work. Sometimes I only have so much patience for it.
So the music is ever flowing. The releases are another story. So we’ll see what happens in the coming months and years. We have plenty. No end in sight.
AH: Will your tours and travels continue to inspire song ideas for you?
SU: If I have a guitar in my hands and time and space to sit and reflect, there is always something there to notice, to learn from and to react to. It’s really a question of time. I think our world moves so fast and things can feel really urgent and intense. That’s not to the benefit of songwriting. As any creative person knows, you have to be really intentional about carving out time. Otherwise it just won’t happen and you will get swallowed up by all the streams of information. It’s something you have to be vigilant about. I try. It’s easier in some seasons than others.
Humbird’s Spring 2022 tour continues with the dates below. For tickets and more information, click here: http://www.humbirdmusic.com.
April 2 – Churchill School – Baker City, Oregon April 3 – Longstaff House – Missoula, Montana
April 20 – North Street Cabaret – Madison, Wisconsin
April 21 – Anodyne Coffee & Roasting Company – Milwaukee, Wisconsin
April 22 – The B-Side At One Lucky Guitar – Fort Wayne, Indiana
April 23 – Wild Rose Moon – Plymouth, Indiana
April 24 – Hideout – Chicago, Illinois
April 25 – Club Cafe – Pittsburg, Pennsylvania
April 26 – The Winchester Music Tavern – Lakewood, Ohio
April 27 – Newark Organization for the Creative Arts – Newark, Ohio
April 29 – Blockhouse Bar – Bloomington, Indiana
April 30 – Midwest Music Fest – Winona, Minnesota
June 24 – Blue Ox Music Festival – Eau Claire, Wisconsin
Credits: “Still Life” Album artwork, Alexis Politz; Photo credits, Wolfskull Creative; Video Credit “Summer Storm for Charlotte,” Feels Like 95 Films.