Iron Horse Concert: Seth Glier's "Birds" isn't afraid to ruffle feathers
NORTHAMPTON — Singer-songwriter Seth Glier's latest album is titled "Birds," but the Shelburne Falls native uses a different creature to describe his musical inspirations.
"I like the writers that are going after whales," Glier told The Eagle during a recent telephone interview. "They're going after these big things like death or sexuality; they're not just love songs, but they're trying to put a fingerprint on the human condition, trying to address those questions that don't really have any answers."
Glier alludes to this uncertainty in his new record's title track: "It feels like the birds are watching me, and I can't explain it," the refrain goes.
These lyrics aren't metaphorical; Glier wrote and recorded the album in his home studio, a loft in an old Easthampton mill building. A "dozen or so" birds live in a smokestack outside his window, he said. After his older brother, Jamie, died in October of 2015 from complications related to a seizure (Jamie had Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and was also autistic), the musician began noticing his winged neighbors.
"They'd perch and hang out on my windowsill as I would be working on practicing piano and working on songs. ... They sort of felt a bit like a sympathetic audience to what I was working on, and they also acted as someone to talk to in a time where I was looking for some meaning. In a way, I think those birds were kind of like mediators between a spiritual world and my sensual one, and I found it helpful," said Glier, who will play at Iron Horse Music Hall on Friday and Saturday.
Glier is prone to the kind of figurative or existential thoughts that, when uttered by a well-whiskered 29-year-old, can often cause older eyes to roll. But Glier's uncommon experiences during his youth offer a depth to his observations that have allowed him to avoid sounding grandiose; they have also fueled his acclaimed verses and earned him a platform beyond music. Shortly after his brother's death, Glier gave a TEDx talk about gratitude. Jamie was a focus.
"To this day, no one has taught me more about communication than my nonverbal brother. In his own way, he taught me the art of listening, how to hear what not saying says by reading body language and gestures," Glier explains in the video before calling Jamie his "greatest non-musical musical influence."
As Glier outlines during the speech, he was bathing, dressing and feeding his brother by age 14. By 22, he was Jamie's legal guardian, his parents embroiled in a messy divorce at the time. Almost five years later, Jamie was hospitalized after experiencing about 200 seizures per hour. Glier ultimately felt that the right call was to end Jamie's medically induced coma; the family opted for comfort care instead. The decision afforded them time to spend with Jamie in a more natural state before his passing.
"His death gave me the simplicity and honor of being his brother again, and I'm really grateful for that," Glier says in the video.
Indeed, the thesis of Glier's speech — "my gratitude is not a state of peace or arrival but rather a bitter balance for balance and reason" — is evident in his most recent work. The 11-track album oscillates between grief and joy, loud and soft. Guitars and synthesizers factor in accordingly, creating songs with significantly different sounds and messages.
For instance, the album's second track, "Water on Fire," is a foot-stomping critique of fracking; the ensuing title track is a slower meditation on the finch and sparrow and blue jay outside Glier's window.
Glier's adolescence had a similarly stark contrast. While he gained power over his brother's care, he rebelled against authority at school. During 10th grade at Mohawk Trail Regional High School, he was suspended for playing guitar in study hall. In protest, Glier wrote a song and played it repeatedly outside of the principal's office, leading to his expulsion, according to Glier. He subsequently enrolled in Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Public Charter School.
"Much better fit," he said, noting that he traveled to the Berkshires to open a show at the Guthrie Center when he was 16. He now performs there two times per summer.
After high school, Glier headed east to Berklee College of Music. A year later, he was on the road, dropping out of school and beginning his music career by touring in a 1989 Toyota Camry, taking any gig he could find. His second album, "The Next Right Thing," was nominated for the best engineered album, non-classical Grammy award. Three records later, Glier is hoping to provide his audiences with something more than just entertainment and a sense of camaraderie when he performs.
"I also think that I want to comfort the afflicted and, at the same time, afflict the comfortable a little bit," he said.
Mixing hope with sobering realities about society is part of this act.
"That can ruffle some feathers," Glier said of his shows' exploration of the uncomfortable, "but that's what feathers are for."
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at email@example.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
Who: Seth Glier
When: 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Where: Iron Horse Music Hall, 20 Center St., Northampton
Tickets: Either night — $15 plus a service fee ($5 web/phone, $2 at counter) in advance; $20 cash-only at door. Both nights — $25 plus a service fee ($5 web/phone, $2 at counter) in advance; $30 cash-only at door.
Information: 413-586-8686; iheg.com
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