Sky's the Limit: Q&A with The Birdwatchers
At first look and listen, The Birdwatchers present as a light-hearted and accessible acoustic pop trio. They have the boyish good looks and charm, and their original songs and tasteful choice of covers are bright and catchy. They create a vibe and sound reminiscent of barber-shop-meets-Beach-Boys. Delve just a bit deeper, and you find a dedicated band with abundant musical intelligence and the drive to thrive in the music industry.
Kim Bjerga, Clark Holmes, and Andy Nufer are talented multi-instrumentalists and vocalists. They have a refined dynamic and sound from years of playing together. Kim and Andy have been playing music together since High School, and Clark jumped in a short time later. They’ve earned the hearts of a broad demographic - from local college parties, to Uke Festival performances across the world. These fellows are smart, humble, committed to their craft, and their positive energy and harmonies are absolutely infectious.
The Birdwatchers graced our Kala booth for a fun performance at the NAMM Conference in Anaheim this late January, and they were a delight to interview!
Tell us about how you each got started in music.
Clark: I fell in love with the ukulele around 16 years old. My cousin let me play around on his, and it felt like the instrument I had always been looking for. He and I would stay up late watching every uke video we could find on YouTube. We played together at a couple family parties, I started playing at every talent show opportunity I got, and after a while, I got the confidence to post my own video on YouTube.
Andy: [I took] piano lessons as a kid, and they taught me how to fundamentally read notes, if nothing else. In my early years, I shared a room with my sister Sarah, thus I was forced to listen to NSYNC and The Backstreet Boys, and still know all their songs.
In high school, the friends I made from the water polo team were all also involved in music: choir and band. At lunchtime, they would jam in the band room. I wanted so badly to jam with them, but didn’t really play rock instruments, nor did I have any experience improvising. They were really into classic rock, which gave me my first real musical taste. I started with a guitar class, picked up simple bass guitar as well, then started joining music groups at school including the “JV” jazz band on bass (I was terrible), the large A Capella choir, and percussion. Maybe it was just a nerdy school, but it seemed like the “in” kids were all in music, especially choir. This also contributed to me becoming social as well. In choir, I hadn’t developed a strong ear yet, so I would sit next to Kim and listen to him to get my parts (he was very loud, lol).
My senior year, I joined a pop punk/metal band called Apollo’s Army as the bassist, [and we] competed in the school’s battle of the bands. We won, and that band ended up continuing to perform and make music over a decade later. Kim also joined Apollo’s Army, and eventually we both left to pursue The Birdwatchers. The Birdwatchers took off near the end of my college career at Southern Utah University, where I did NOT study music, but took guitar lessons and played a bit in the university jazz band and percussion ensemble.
Kim: My dad played guitar my whole childhood, and so I grew up listening to a lot of great classic folk artists and songwriters, but I was also a band kid! I played French horn for nine years, and once I got to high school I joined choir and absolutely fell in love with harmonizing and singing in groups. I also sang a lot in church choir growing up so singing has always been a huge part of my life.
How did ukulele become such a prominent part of your sound?
Clark: When we decided to start our band, we were all so excited about the idea of a(n) ukulele trio, we felt like we were doing something that nobody had done before. Once we started to actually perform and travel, we saw the amazing community and spirit that the ukulele brings to the world, and it has changed us all for the better. We just want that feeling to show through our music, and the ukulele is a great tool for spreading that joy.
Andy: I played guitar already. [Clark and Kim] had ukes. Those blend well together.
Kim: In France, I learned ukulele as a little tool to help me relax and sleep when I found it impossible. It’s an unbelievably approachable instrument. When [The Birdwatchers] came together, it was easy to jam together with a couple of ukes and a guitar, which has expanded to now a baritone uke, a bass uke, a tenor uke, and a guitar. We get a nice sonic range. Each of us takes a turn on those instruments, which is fun.
Who are your biggest musical influences?
Clark: I grew up loving All American Rejects, Relient K, and John Mayer. I listen to all sorts of stuff now, but I hold a special place in my heart for all my teenage music.
Andy: John Mayer, The Beatles. My dad used to play Queen a lot in the Napster days.
Kim: Musical influences is a tough question! There are so many. Early on I’d say John Mayer, Coldplay, Jack Johnson, Simon and Garfunkel. As I grew up more, classic rock started to be more interesting to me. Toto, Foreigner, Chicago, etcetera. I also started to truly love disco and funk from this era as well, and that has been a persistent musical taste for me. Blues, funk, soul, jazz, anything that grooves with a good melody and a fun bass line. Earth Wind and Fire, Steely Dan, Kenny Loggins, Doobie Brothers, and more recently Vulfpeck, Magic City Hippies, Prep, Jacob Sigman, and Lawrence all scratch the itch.
Tell us more about your songwriting process.
Clark: I typically start with the chord progression, find a melody, and then finish her off with lyrics. Wherever the idea is, we will bring it to rehearsal, and we'll all try to do our thing on it, and that usually takes the song to a different place. Harmonies are usually created last, but I write with the harmonies in mind.
I always have lyrics and tons of little licks & chords jotted down on my phone to inspire a new song whenever needed.
Andy: I usually start with chords on uke or guitar, just something that feels nice, a catchy strumming or picking pattern. From there, I’ll either add chorus lyrics or a hook-the repetitive part. Hopefully by now I’ll have chosen a topic. I'll then switch up the chords and try to find something catchy for a verse, which could be a melody from a different song already made, or I’ll make up a new one. The bridge must create itself. There have only been one or two instances where I had the melody pop into my mind first, then I had to find chords around it.
Kim: I feel like I’m better at adding to others’ ideas than finding my own, which is nice when you’re in a band. When I’ve started a song, chords almost always come first, followed by a melody and maybe some harmonies, and then the other instrument parts. However, this changes all the time!
What are the highlights and challenges of being in a band?
Clark: I used to be so nervous to sing in front of people, but singing with a band has done so much for me. I hate letting people down, so playing with a band helps me try my hardest. When you respect your bandmates, you want them to always see you at your best. Traveling as a band is a blast, too. Much easier to talk to strangers and make friends!
The biggest challenge is always disagreeing. When you want different things, there is no right answer. You just have to find a way to agree, and move forward. Those moments are always hard, but we are always trying to be open with each other to prevent hard feelings.
Kim: Communication and compromise. We all want different things, so it’s all about finding the things we all want and focusing on those, while being patient and willing to give a little here and take a little there. We also all excel at different things so trying to find parts for each of us can be challenging.
What are some of the highlights/accomplishments you've experienced as a band?
Clark: All of the traveling has been amazing. Australia was especially awesome, the birds there make it feel like it's a different planet! That trip was great too because we played a few small house shows where we got to stay up all night and hang out with the people who came to see us. Those are my favorite kinds of shows.
Getting a "yes" from Simon Cowell was a nice moment too. Although we were never aired on the show, it was a great feeling to make it to America’s Got Talent (AGT), and to hear that the judges thought we had something special.
Andy: All four “yeses” on AGT, even though it wasn’t aired. Playing at Robert Redford’s birthday party. Headlining uke fests in Tahiti, Scotland, Austria, Canada. Winning 5 or more battle of the bands competitions.
Kim: The highlights for me have been our recorded songs! I’m elated with how the last 5-8 songs have turned out, and I’m looking forward to more. Ukulele festivals are also the absolute bomb, as we love meeting new people and performing around the world.
What advice do you have for someone just getting started with playing music?
Clark: Write a song! The earlier, the better. Listen to tons of music, and find out what you love. Playing music is great, but a lot of people play and never write. Use music to be your most creative self!
Andy: These are two tips I wish i had started from the beginning (taken from a John Mayer interview):
- Do all rehearsing and learning with a click track/metronome. You may think it’s not important but you will teach yourself bad habits without this. Everyone thinks they have decent timing, but hardly anyone does.
- Learn how what you’re playing ties in as far a theory goes and in relation to the key of the song. Don’t just memorize parts or create parts without knowing what you’re playing. You’ll advance much faster this way, and more importantly, you’ll actually remember the parts way better. This applies to chords as well as riffs and melodies you play on your instrument.
Kim: Start with something you can accomplish! Reason number one to pick up a uke is that anyone with hands can play it, and you can quickly learn and play a song that you like, which means you’re more likely to enjoy it and stick with it. The other thing to keep in mind is that it’s okay to suck at first, haha. As long as you keep practicing and working, you’ll get better, which will motivate you and encourage you to continue.
What are some exciting things happening for The Birdwatchers this year?
Clark: We'll be performing and teaching on a(n) ukulele cruise in Florida this year! I didn't even know that was a thing, but leave it to the ukulele community to come up with the coolest events.
I am so excited for the original material that we are gonna work on, too. We know some amazing musicians, and I'm hoping that with some help, we can make a great album
Andy: Kanab Balloons and Tunes festival 2/16-17, [performing at] a National Parks fundraiser in Moab on 3/9, Tampa Ukulele fest in April, being a band on an ukulele cruise (TBUG) in November, getting set up to perform as a main act on different cruise lines, auditioning for AGT again.
Kim: Excited to write more songs and record! Also excited for the ukulele cruise we’re going on.