Hi! I’m Sarah Morris. I’m wildly in love with songs and the people who write them. There have been a few songs in my life that have been total gamechangers—songs that made me want to be a songwriter and songs I’ve written that made me feel like I am a songwriter. About That Song is a space where I can learn more about those pivotal songs in other writers’ lives.
For our 33rd installment, I got to chat with Maygen Lacey and Noah Neumann, who together lead the delightful Minnesota act Maygen and The Birdwatcher, about influential songs in their journeys as artists.
Sarah: Hi Maygen! Hi Birdwatcher (Noah)!
I’ve been fortunate enough to share a couple of songwriter nights with the two of you in the past few months and I am a huge fan of the songs you write, and the way you sing them! You are the reigning Midwest Country Music Organization’s Americana Artist of the Year, as well as winning consecutive trophies for Album of the Year so…. clearly I’m not the only one who is a fan!
You’ve got some really great shows coming up on the calendar that take you all over the Midwest, so thank you for taking a minute before you hit the road to talk about the songs that have brought you to this point in your journey. Do either of you remember the song that you heard that made you want to be a songwriter? Tell us about that song.
Noah: Oh man, hmmmm … There have been quite a few that have flicked that lightswitch over the years. But the most impactful was probably “If It Takes a Lifetime” by Jason Isbell. I only started to get excited about lyric writing in the past five years, and this is one of the earliest to flick that switch. It does such a good job of painting a picture without needing to lean on superlatives. It emphasizes the beauty in the commonplace, which is very attractive to me.
Sarah: I’m a huge Jason Isbell fan—hearing Southeastern in 2015 was a game-changer for me—and within his catalog of songs with excellent lyrics, that’s one of my favorites as well. How about you, Maygen?
Maygen: Want to be a songwriter!? Ooooo, well… I can’t say songwriting comes quick or easy for me. I’m as slow as molasses with the whole process. What tipped me into wanting to express my own emotions was the vulnerability and gut-wrenching sadness in Brandi Carlile’s song “That Year,” combined with watching her perform it live and see her face and hear her heart. I saw it as such a way to free the thoughts, feelings, emotions that maybe we all chew on for years and years that need to just be released so we can move forward. I began writing as a way to forgive some wrongs that I held on to for too long. It was such an incredible feeling.
Sarah: Songwriting as freedom—I can get behind that. Once you began writing, did you feel like a writer immediately? It took me a few years of writing before I believed it—was there a song that gave you that “a-HA! I AM a songwriter!” moment? Tell us about that song.
Noah: Ha, well, if I ever feel like a writer I’ll let you know! In all seriousness, there hasn’t been one song that’s made me feel like that. It’s more like certain parts of songs. Maybe there’s a verse or a line that I feel conveys a complex feeling and is aesthetically pleasing to hear.
Maygen: I’ll be totally honest—I don’t feel like a songwriter. It’s very hard (most of the time) for me to write freely. I have so many walls that I’ve constructed for myself, and I feel I’ll be a songwriter when I don’t see walls. There was a song I just poured my heart out one day, which was a very bad and sad day for me. I didn’t see any walls that day. The song is “Comeback” off our first EP, and I still cry at the end of it sometimes.
Sarah: I’ll just be over here saying that I consider you both excellent songwriters. The idea of no-walls in the writing is so interesting to me. Maygen, I believe we’ve talked about this a bit in the past, in a parking lot maybe? But it can be hard to do that as a mother, as a wife, as a daughter—perhaps the same goes for father, husband, son … And also, there are times in writing when I am able to give myself completely to the story of it, and occasionally the walls do disappear.
I’m curious—do you recall the first song you wrote together? Was it something you set out to write for your duo project, or was it in the writing of the song that you realized you were onto something?
Noah: I don’t think I remember the first, but a good story to sum up our partnership is “Comeback.” I wrote a guitar part that felt very snappy and upbeat. I thought it would fit into some summer vibes and would turn into a goodtime-y song. Well, when Maygen was listening to the track she was in a pretty down mood. So the way she interpreted was completely flipped from how I had initially heard it. We went ahead with Maygen’s vision and it turned out way better than I could have imagined.
Maygen: Yeah, totally. That was one of the first where we were really able to see each other as equal parts to a whole. That we both brought unique perspectives to the project.
Sarah: The respect that you have for each other’s contribution is evident any time I’ve witnessed you perform. There is a visible sense of trust and comfort that really invites the audience along for the journey.
Your recent single “Where Good Things Grow” was written as a commission for the South Dakota Grassland Coalition, and it’s GORGEOUS. Can you tell us about that song?
Maygen: What a fun project this was! We are big outdoors people and love nature and I’m a bit of a tree hugger and all that. So when we received an email from the South Dakota Grassland Coalition that simply asked if we had any interest in writing a song about how lovely the Grasslands are, I immediately thought about our previous summer tour, driving through them on our way out to Montana. We fell in love with the beauty out there, so it was an easy “yes” to write a song about them. (Their whole campaign and wonderful resources can be found here.)
They asked us to write from a perspective of the ranching families that live on and care for the land. It was a really wonderful exercise in jumping into the lives of people who are so connected to Mother Nature in that way and truly just want to make sure the land stays healthy for future generations.
Sarah: I’m so glad that the SDGC knew who to ask to write their theme song, and that we all get to hear it. I know you spent some time in the studio recently, is there perhaps a single coming up? Any chance you could tell us, sneak peek style, about that song?
Maygen & The Birdwatcher: We’ve possibly acquired a bit of a “good-timin” reputation with the music we have been releasing. And we love that! We also thought, “Hmmm. What if we recorded an EP that suited the WINTER vibe we all experience up here in the North.” So we contacted someone we thought would be the perfect fit for that feel—beautiful strings, lots of harmonies and a calmish-ness—and hopped in the studio with Erik Koskinen to get it all down. We’re shaping things up as I type this and will look to have our first single out mid- to late February!
Sarah: Oh good! My winter heart can use some new music, so I’m glad to hear it’s just around the nonexistent snowdrift. So where can we hear you sing a few of these songs? I believe you have some fantastic Midwest dates coming up!
MBW: We will be debuting one or two of the new songs at our Leap Year Show at the Dakota in Minneapolis on February 29!! You’re cordially invited to come enjoy a fantastic night out, complete with us, The Holy North and Clare Doyle … all in one swanky, beautiful, seated venue!
Sarah: That is an amazing lineup! At one of my favorite venues. (You had me at “seated”!)
MBW: Otherwise, you can catch us at our fav winter fest, Big Turn Music Fest, in Red Wing on February 16… and we’ll be hitting up a lot of gorgeous Wisconsin in March. Our tour dates are all listed on our website!
Maygen & The Birdwatcher’s Leap Year Show feat. Ty Pow & The Holy North and Clare Doyle!
FEB 29 • 7PM
📸: Tom Smouse