Nomadic folk duo Blessed Feathers wanders its way into the spotlight
When I last spoke with Donivan Berube and Jacquelyn Beaupre – the duo better known as Blessed Feathers – in the fall of 2012, the band was gearing up to release their first album, "Peaceful Beasts in an Ocean of Weeds." Three of their debut's six songs were inspired by places the duo had lived in, places like Lakeland, Fla.; Holyoke, Mass.; and their current base in Wisconsin.
And they've only continued to add places to that list, thanks to a two-year span that's seen the folk duo go nomadic, release a new full-length album, build buzz locally and nationally, and find themselves the cause of a Internet commenter war on the usually docile waves of NPR. It's been quite a road, one that now leads to a lower level show at The Pabst Theater on Saturday night.
Oh, and they got engaged. On Dec. 18, 2012, near the end of a gig opening for Cory Chisel and the Wandering Sons at Turner Hall Ballroom, Berube popped the question to his bandmate in front of friends, her family and fans.
It was an exciting event for the musically talented couple, one that sparked even more developments the following year. In February of last year, Berube and Beaupre quit their jobs at Januli's Pizzeria and Italian Deli in West Bend to performing, touring the country's national parks and living nomadically.
"It's pretty intense, but we have good friends and good family," Berube said.
While Blessed Feathers was traveling the country and living from place to place, they made the time to record and release a full-length album, "Order of the Arrow," this past fall.
"We had spent that whole year on the road, and the album was recorded right in the middle of it," Berube said. "So we were trying to capture that spirit, and it sounds like we kind of did, at least based on everyone's feedback. I still write songs the same way about the places we spent time in and the people we met there."
That includes Wisconsin, which doesn't always get the fondest treatment in Berube's lyrics. In reviewing the album, the Journal Sentinel's Piet Levy even noted that the lyrics were "sometimes ugly … (singing) of beer guts."
"A lot of Wisconsin cabin fever came through," Berube said. "In the winter, I'd start hating myself, and all these songs would be all this pent-up angst because I couldn't go anywhere. I was so damn cold all the time. I got pretty intense."
Considering how this particular winter has gone, many Wisconsinites might find themselves agreeing with Berube's "ugly" lyrics, even if that wasn't the point.
"I didn't mean them to be ugly; I meant for them to be real," Berube explained. "There are songs that I look back on and think, 'What the hell was I talking about?' And then you listen to albums like Bruce Springsteen's 'Nebraska,' and they're all these heart-aching stories. You think, 'Wow, this is what a song should really be if you're going to have words at the base of the songs.' They should mean something to at least yourself, if not anyone else."
Even so, "Order of the Arrow" made solid waves locally and nationally, going as far as NPR's "Morning Edition." The network picked up on the duo's rich folk tunes – and their story of roaming romance – and interviewed them for an end of the year segment called "Music We Missed."
"My expectations for that thing were rock bottom," Berube said. "Obviously, 'Morning Edition' has a massive audience, but she had to edit the interview down to three or four minutes. And it's a four- or five-hour show, so who's really going to be paying attention to our tiny, tiny, tiny part? And of those people, who's going to care enough to look us up? And of those, who's going to care enough to buy an album?"
Apparently plenty. The interview became a viral hit, with the link scoring tons of comments and Berube and Beaupre receiving letters from across the country offering words of praise, encouragement and places to stay. One person even paid $100 for the album.
"We received dozens of emails saying, like, 'Hey! I'm from Manhattan, Kansas. If you're ever coming through and need a place to stay, come on over," Berube recalled. "I'm like, I'll probably never be in Manhattan, Kansas, but thank you!"
Of course, as is typical with Internet commenters, not everything was positive. In fact, the interview sparked a modest bit of controversy, mainly coming from Berube's talk about his days as a Jehovah's Witness. In the interview, he explained that as he and Jacquelyn – not a Jehovah's Witness – fell more in love, he made the decision to write a letter of dissociation and leave the faith rather than be expelled for breaking the rules. Since then, his family and old friends in the faith have shunned him.
"There was the negative side of people, who thought that I was badmouthing the organization, which I made a point to say in the interview that that wasn't how I felt," Berube said.
Shortly after the segment's posting, Berube posted a note to Blessed Feathers' website explaining the shortened interview, that there were no hard feelings toward his former faith nor a mission to shame or twist the facts about it. Even with his first dose of commenter outrage, however, the positive words outshine the negative.
"I wasn't offended by any of it," Berube said. "I thought it was damn interesting. I got so many letters – apparently every ex-Jehovah's Witness ever listens to NPR now – with people saying, 'Wow, it's so reassuring to hear of an ex-Jehovah's Witness that's doing something with his life.' People would tell me, 'You're a shining beacon to the rest of us who lost everything.' It was really encouraging."
Blessed Feathers' year of adventure and new places hasn't quite ended yet. At the beginning of the new year, Berube went off on a six-week residency in Peru to give English lessons to the local children. He also is all prepared to start recording another album on Sunday in Cudahy.
And even with a bigger profile, Berube and Beaupre still plan on living their nomadic journey. Berube noted that they might stop and find a place to settle down in the late summer, but for the time being, Blessed Feathers has other goals in mind.
"All any musician should worry about is writing better songs. It's easy to get sidetracked by the business of the music industry and worry about getting press and worry about making the right connections. But as a musician, your job is to make better songs. That's all I want and think about: trying to make my music and my albums better. There's so much sh*tty music out there. We don't need any more; we just need better music."
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