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Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Blessed Feathers' Reflections on Florida

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The Florida nonprofit 1000 Friends of Florida conducted an extensive study last decade projecting how the state's population would grow over the next half-century. Its conclusions were stark: By 2060, Florida's population will have doubled, and millions of additional acres of rural and natural land will be developed to accommodate the sprawl. That development would squeeze the state's wildlife into small areas; residents in some communities near the state's remaining natural habitats would be living practically on top of bears, alligators and a number of other exotic species (possibly even panthers).

A map generated from that study struck a nerve with songwriter Donivan Berube, who had spent his childhood in Florida before moving to West Bend, Wis., where he started the folk project Blessed Feathers with girlfriend Jacquelyn Beaupre'.

"The map projects that pretty much the entire coastline will be filled with people and development, and shows how in 2060 all the conservancy land and natural spaces throughout the state are going to be surrounded by buildings, condominiums and subdivisions," Berube says. "I saw the beginnings of that when I was living down there, how quickly they were filling up the swampland to build shopping malls and plazas and retirement communities. People in Florida really do have an odd relationship with their surroundings. It made me realize that though I'd lived down there for 12 years, I never saw the Everglades. I went to the beach, Disney and Busch Gardens, but never the Everglades."

That map became the inspiration for Blessed Feathers' new album, Hey All You Floridians, which portrays the state as an endearingly eccentric but ultimately unsustainable melting pot. The album's title track waves to the migrant workers who are rapidly selling off their orange groves to subdivision developers, as well as to the tourists whose rental cars crowd the roads. "The Alligators of Lake Parker Park" is named for an attraction that underscores Florida's unusual relationship with nature. "It's a park with a bunch of playgrounds and paths, right on the lake, and there are all these alligators sitting on the shore," Berube explains. "You can't walk your dog there, because the alligators will eat your dog, yet parents let their children play there."

For all its local color, Hey All You Floridians doesn't play like one of Sufjan Stevens' geographical songwriting exercises. Its songs are much more autobiographical than that, and the album is ultimately more about the people and relationships that Berube left behind in Florida than the state itself. Berube was raised a Jehovah's Witness, but, after moving to Wisconsin three years ago, he disassociated himself from the church, a move that meant severing ties with most of his family and friends, since Jehovah's Witnesses shun defected members. He hasn't returned to the state since.

On Blessed Feathers' 2011 album From the Mouths of the Middle Class, Berube chronicled his cross-country move in almost fantastical imagery, casting himself as a voyager from America's past on a trying journey to make a new life for himself. It was a bittersweet record, but its loneliness was offset by a sense of hope and adventure. Where that album looked eagerly to the future, Floridians dwells on the past, mourning what's been lost to time. It's a more grounded album, its imagery more sober and its sonic template blunter. Some of the banjos and accordions that fleshed out the last album carry over, but the emphasis is decidedly on guitars and drums this time.

"I feel like the new album is a little more rocking," Berube says. "We've got some electric guitars going this time, and I don't think we had any electric guitars on the last album, and we've also expanded our drum kit, so the whole album feels a little more aggressive. This time when I sat down to write the songs, there was a conscious awareness of making loud music versus making quiet music. I felt like we already have a lot of quiet music. I wanted to make something louder this time."

Blessed Feathers opens for Youth Lagoon at the Turner Hall Ballroom on Thursday, April 5, at 7 p.m.
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