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“What am I to build, if my hands are broken, if I’m not the chosen one?” sings Steven McKellar of Civil Twilight on “Story of An Immigrant”, over a lush, dynamic beat that evokes the sounds of his native South Africa while steeped in the band’s ever-evolving present.
The foursome (Steven, his brother and guitarist Andrew, drummer Richard Wouters and Kevin Dailey on keys and guitar) are living proof of what happens when you stop worrying about being the chosen one and make music built on both the roots that grew you and the love that keeps you thriving every day. Civil Twilight’s songs embrace every corner of human emotion, balancing delicate, poetic lyrics with sweeping arrangements that touch all the senses: a phrase to make you think; a rolling drumbeat you can feel in your bones; a guitar vamp as illustrative as a picture; a shimmer of keys whose light can nearly be seen and heard. Produced by Ben H. Allen (Gnarls Barkley, Bombay Bicycle Club, Cut Copy), their third record on Wind-Up is built on this vibrancy, on the permanent dust of a Cape Town youth; on the connection that unites them all as brothers beyond blood and on their new home in America where they pull from the innate, thriving musicianship of Nashville, where they live.
When you listen to Civil Twilight, from their self-titled debut, to 2012’s widely lauded Holy Weather to now, it’s easy to understand why the band has topped five million YouTube views and reached historic success with film and television syncs –because it’s music you can’t shake, that translates experience into moments and creates melodies that become imbedded deep under the skin. We’re all immigrants, in some way, and Civil Twilight’s singing our national anthem.
Here’s Civil Twilight in their own words, on their new album, the brotherhood of the band and why embracing the past is crucial to forming their present.
You seem to be in a more united, cohesive place than ever – and the new album really finds a balance between your past in South Africa and your here and now. What brought you to this point?
Steven: This record was like getting back to our roots – not just our musical roots, but also the spirit of freedom, and youthfulness. Shedding taking ourselves too seriously and learning to just have fun again, through a journey back to where we started, to what first turned us on. It was surprising what we found when we dove into that. We didn’t plan it but there is a lot of South African rhythm, tonality and imagery. You grow up with a richness that becomes embedded in you.
And you can hear that so well on songs like “Story of an Immigrant,” which manages to feel fully infused with the sounds of your native South Africa without abandoning what Civil Twilight is known for. It’s almost as if you were able to distill the purest essence of the band into one song. Do you still feel like an immigrant, though?
Steven: That song was inspired by a movie I watched about people being smuggled across frozen lakes – and about a man thinking about how far he’s come and how much he has to look forward to. That’s what it’s about – my own journey, how far we’ve come, how much there is yet. The feeling of it reminds me of being home in Cape Town. That happens a lot on this record – for some reason, we suddenly feel like we’re back at home. You can hear it. You can smell the ocean. It was the first song I personally wrote for the record, and suddenly everything made sense: “let’s keep going down this road.”
Richard: Part of the idea of “Story of an Immigrant” is everybody is an immigrant. Everybody is on a journey. They are from somewhere, going somewhere.
So do you feel at home in Nashville? You’ve lived all over the country as a band – Richard, Andrew and Steven, you grew up in South Africa, recorded in South Carolina, and lived in Los Angeles before this.
Steven: It’s a strange thing – I feel more comfortable in Nashville and more comfortable back in South Africa than I ever have. I don’t feel like either one is really home. Home is not necessarily a physical place anymore.
Maybe that comes out of the band being its own self-contained community.
Steven: You create a culture around whatever you are creating with a band. I understand that culture, the culture of us, and I feel more at home in that culture than any other. Being in America, it’s a country where it lends you the opportunity to be an immigrant, to start over, to start the life you want to have. For us, America has been amazing. It’s allowed us to do what we love.
Andrew: And, personally, I don’t know how people endure touring without their mates around.
And what does living in Nashville bring to the band? Kevin, I know you’re from America and met the rest of the crew in Tennessee after they moved here.
Kevin: There are so many good musicians and studios in Nashville; it really causes you to become better, being around so many people who are so good. It’s intimidating, but it forces you to roll up your sleeves and stop making excuses.
Working with Ben H. Allen really seemed to help push that, to bring to the surface everything that was bubbling under and highlight everything that has already made the band so remarkable. What was the process like?
Steven: The recording of it was pretty easy, but we’ve never had as much time to write as we did here – we wrote this album over the course of a year, and having so much time was wonderful. Learning to write as a four piece came with a lot of changes, since this was the first album writing with Kevin as a permanent part of the band. But the actual process of recording was a lot of fun, and Ben was amazing.
Were there certain ideas you went into the studio with? Things you wanted to do differently than the last record, or ways you wanted to grow?
Steven: On the last record, I tried to throw away a lot of my natural inclinations, to try to be a little more out-there or trendy. This record, there was a lot of freedom and joy in making it because we got over the idea of trying to be cool. Every record is a snapshot of your life and I think this one represents a time in our life that’s very honest.
Richard: We intentionally thought about breaking it down to the essential ingredients, to what we all did well. I think that on this LP you can hear our voices clearly. Everybody is saying something. And we started to embrace our early influences which were a lot of early nineties British bands – the Verve, early U2, Blur, but also Nirvana, Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins, Paul Simon, and some South African artists like Johnny Clegg.
Steven: If you make music out of love, and strong passion, you can’t escape who you are. Even if you push yourself to embrace a different part of your personality, your heart will always comethrough. And your heart has a feel and a touch and a smell.
There is indeed so much passion in your music – this new record is almost kinetic in the sense it has a pulse, a heartbeat, beyond just the lyrics and beats. You can feel the emotion as much as you can hear the songs. Do you think that quality is what has given you so much success in the sync world? Your songs have been in everything from NUMB3RS to One Tree Hill to House and Parenthood. That’s pretty remarkable.
Richard: Yes, I think the reason we get used in film and TV so much is because our music tends to connect emotionally with people. It works well because TV is always trying to communicate something very strongly emotional.
Andrew, how important is your relationship with Steven to the band? What does being siblings bring to the table?
Andrew: I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for him. We think differently and challenge each other, but it’s a bond you can’t fake. I got into music because of Steve – and that dream was kind of kept alive by him and Richard, in the early days.
Kevin: As somewhat of an outsider, I think your connection is the foundation. You don’t see it,because you’re brothers, but it’s such a strong connection.
But now, since bringing Kevin into the fold as a permanent member, you truly all seem like family. Richard and Steven, even though you aren’t related, you two grew up together and may as well be brothers.
Steven: Our relationship is a huge part of the band. We’ve gone through a lot of crap together. We’ve always had a special musical connection – something that’s hard to explain.
Richard: At the heart of it, we make music to connect. The connection is probably what’s the most important to us: with each other, with the songs, with the listener, with the Spirit. There’s something about music that really is so mysterious. It speaks to a part of you that’s deeper than words. It can open you up in a way that other things can’t. And we’ve always been drawn to that. We feel it ourselves when we play together on stage and we want others to feel it too. It’s more than performing. It’s about inviting people into that joy and that fellowship.
Find out more at www.civiltwilightband.com and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civil_Twilight_(band)