“I did one of those ‘Year of Yes’ things,” laughed Jenna Kole as she recalled the decision that ultimately led to the formation of the folk rock band Eyes Like Birds. Though they recently released their debut album It’s Just Blood, it has been a long road getting to this point. Seven years earlier, an invitation to the vocalist collective The Singing Ladies of Fredericksburg brought Kole together with Emily Barker and Haylee Hill. The three began performing together in smaller groups, including The Lonely Hands with Jenna’s husband Jay Kole on percussion and Scott Wagner on bass. I sat down with Jenna, Jay, and Barker to dig into the history of Eyes Like Birds and discuss their writing process.
It was the 2011 suicide of Aidan Charles, a local musician and mutual friend, that brought the three together specifically to share memories and attempt to put their emotion to music. They found inspiration for a song of grief and a new name for their act in Anne Sexton’s poem “Christmas Eve”:
I wanted your eyes, like the shadows
of two small birds, to change.
But they did not age.
The smile that gathered me in, all wit,
all charm, was invincible.
Hour after hour I looked at your face
but I could not pull the roots out of it.
“The songs are written when we are trying to figure out how we feel about things,” Jenna explained, “and rarely are they any kind of conclusion.”
She and Barker handled the primary writing duties and, in the process, discovered recurring themes in their compositions. A mission statement on the band’s website describes their aesthetic as “songs about love, loss, politics, and the ghosts that haunt us all.” Upon hearing the description read aloud, Jenna remarked, “I feel like we left out astrology and astronomy.”
“And blood,” Barker added. “There’s always blood.”
The album’s second track, “Blood Moon,” contains nearly all of these elements. Set to a rollicking beat, the lyrics evoke natural scenes of seafaring imagery and apocalyptic glimpses, starting with:
Blood drains into a lunar tide
Puddles pooling into the sky
The cycle spins—shake the water out
A second skin started by a drought
They say it’s the end of things
Prophets, blood, smoke that stings
On the corner a man’s telling me
Stories of home and what might be
The words flow to the buoyant acoustic guitar strums and Barker’s warm violin, which she learned to play as a youth, but rarely unveils. “The violin I play just for Jenna,” she shared. Other notable instruments that Barker employs on the album include autoharp and ukulele.
The song is one of several that fixate on temporal themes. Jenna said, “I’ve personally been completely obsessed with time. There’s this frustrating sense of circular nature to what is supposedly progress that never does not confound me.” That paradox is also seen in songs that follow a folk protest tradition like “Hands Up” and “We’re Doing It Wrong.”
In terms of the politics of performing as a woman, Jenna recalls when she first started playing music as a teenager and navigating the complex interplay between how she wished to present herself, the judgement of the audience, and her own adolescent sense of self-criticism.
“I found myself being riddled with self-esteem issues,” she said. “Why the hell did I decide I wanted to get on stage with all of that shit? I have to question that every single time as opposed to, ‘I’m a human being, I’m doing a thing I love, and I can represent myself however I want.’ There’s been this sort of shift, for me anyway, in the political conversation of being a woman. It’s been liberating because I’ve realized I don’t need to think a lot about the things that held me back.”
Jenna’s interest in performing began with a fateful concert. “I saw Alanis Morissette when I was eleven and Radiohead opened,” she remembered. “I was just like, hey, that song is from the Clueless soundtrack. Where’s Alanis?” Both artists would eventually be significant influences for Jenna, but the zeitgeist of Morissette in that moment was particularly striking. “The energy of the show was so palpable and it was at the peak of crazy Jagged Little Pill selling thirty million copies,” she said. “Everybody was singing every single word and I connected immediately—oh, that’s what I need to do. That level of catharsis is what I need and that’s how I’ll be dealing with my emotions from here on out.”
On her 13th birthday, Jenna received a guitar and started attending an open mic at Orbits—now The Colonial Tavern, an essential hub for original live music performances in Fredericksburg. Jenna has called the venue home for twenty years. She and Jay play a regular slot there on the third Wednesday of every month.
Between inception and recording, Eyes Like Birds’s line-up has changed slightly, with Hill leaving for her own pursuits and other musicians joining in collaboration, but the core of the group remains. Jenna and Jay have been playing together since high school, so long in fact that she said it’s “weird when we’re not playing together.”
Being in a band with your significant other has its occasional challenges. “You have that one word or phrase or look or sigh that your partner can do that just makes your blood boil,” said Jenna. Beyond using their talent and humor to work through such moments, having additional projects and collaborating with others also helps. Jay plays in The Brokedown Boys and Jenna and Barker each play in various configurations with other musicians.
In honor of their friend Aidan Charles, Eyes Like Birds is donating half of It’s Just Blood’s Bandcamp album sales to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. The album’s title is lifted from the song “Brittle Branches”, which concludes with this self-affirmation:
It’s always the same, you try to explain, I’ll blame my brain
But it’s just blood that runs in our veins
I’ve seen the truth, what’s true isn’t always proof
The reason’s a secret we knew
I buried this view with tools I learned from you
Then I pulled myself out by the roots.
Jenna summed up the matter-of-fact sentiment of the title: “We use a lot of elemental language in our songs and blood is kind of primary in the imagery that it’s all pouring out as both the life force and as a result of injury.”
Eyes Like Birds will be performing at The Colonial Tavern on Wednesday, January 16. Show starts at 8:30 PM. Listen to It’s Just Blood at eyeslikebirds.com.
Photography by Stephen Graham