birds shared a snippet of his soul with the internet this week when he released his new EP, “Who We Are.” The 6-song collection is an emotional diary of sorts, a culmination of distinct moments and feelings from the past few years.
James Hu, who created birds when he was in college, has played violin since he was 5 years old. His production on “Who We Are” reflects his classical background, with soft piano notes and melodic cadences.
In college, he first fell in love with electronic dance music when he saw Dillon Francis live in 2013. His taste grew to encompass various genres, from electric funk artists like GRiZ to trap producers like RL Grime to melodic artists like Illenium and hip hop acts like 6LACK.
Inspired, he started DJing casually, entertaining crowds at Greek events and house parties. He also co-founded the first student-run record label at Northwestern, Sheridan Road Records, which organized and advocated on behalf of student musicians and producers.
Hu eventually began experimenting with music production, playing around with Ableton and incorporating some of his knowledge from music theory classes. While electronic music seeped into his listening activity, he still appreciated the music that he grew up playing, classical pieces from his youth such as Schubert’s String Quintet in C, one of his favorites.
“Unlike violin, where there’s the qualitative, I like how the digital audio workstation (DAW) can really help me structure my thoughts in a way that’s quantitative,” Hu said.
The digital production format appeals to his analytical mindset and music theory background.
“I had a ton of momentum on birds right when I first started,” Hu said. “I was on a creative storm really.”
But that was years ago. Since starting a full-time job in New York, Hu realized that his musical project had fallen by the wayside. It hit him when he realized that he’d produced a single song over a year and a half, compared to putting out something every other week when he first started producing.
For Hu, the “Who We Are” EP was a way to pick back up and complete some of the dozens of unfinished ideas he’d started in bursts of motivation.
“These were tracks that were twenty five percent done, or ten percent done,” Hu said. “It was like, thirty-second ideas I captured and never looked at again.”
Who We Are, 2018
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A mournful track, a bit like a funeral march, that sets the scene with a voice of regret. Yet, the chirping of birds in the background indicates a hopeful feeling of life and of energy.
Soft, simple piano chords capture a few key moments from a memorable day, layered on some thin and sparse background drums.
“Who We Are”
In this track, Hu’s electronic influence begins to emerge. He experiments with scale changes, and a build-up coupled with a soft drop, intertwined with moody, trappy synths.
With this song, Hu imagined the conductor of an orchestra gesturing to the back section of an orchestra, and a trumpet and a horn leading into the second drop.
“Free ft. J-OT”
In “Free,” rapper J-OT lends his somber voice to birds’ simple beat. The sparse and subtle melody is reminiscent of Keys N Krates. J-OT is a rapper that Hu has been friends with for more than a decade; they went to school together until diverging for college. Hu lets J-OT take the spotlight and really focuses in on the lyrics as opposed to the background production.
“Viaje por Autobus ft. Minmar”
This track, inspired by bus trips that both birds and Minmar took independently, is a blend of dance-heavy, trippy notes. For Hu, his bus ride was very pleasant and special. Minmar, a Portugese producer that Hu met on Soundcloud, lends a whimsical flair and a dynamic dimension to the song.
“We’ve been pushing each other musically over the past couple of years,” Hu said.
In “Viaje por Autobus,” the chaotic, booming nature of electronic production peaks. The bass progresses throughout the production, accelerating to a fully-engaged beat.
This tracks begins with confusion. A confused melodic overlap, a tense, urgent melody that explodes suddenly into a drop that’s bitter and intense.
Hu said that this track was conceived years ago, during a bleaker period of his life.
“I didn’t realize that at the time, but when I sat down to make the music, it turned out pretty dark.”
With “Flags,” the album mournfully concludes, in a manner similar to the first track’s funeral march vibe. You can even hear birds chirping in the background.