Photo: Cara Robbins
As for you uninitiated folk, here’s the lowdown. First begun as a solo project for frontman Yoni Berk, Little Owl now stands as a four-piece outfit. Their jams are a quirky and enlivened melding of gypsy folk, baroque pop, and indie-rock anthems, filled with bright melodies, swelling orchestrations, and a heavy helping of unusual instrumentation. (Think harmoniums, fiddles, ukuleles, and synthesizers.) Thematically speaking, the songs tend toward the affirmative and inspiring and draw heavily for inspiration from the natural world. Oh, and for good measure, they’re also some of the nicest, friendliest, most ego-free musicians currently making the rounds.
Originally hailing from Santa Rosa, Berk moved to Santa Barbara in 2007 to attend S.B. City College and soon after began playing music and teaching yoga. (He still holds classes at Parker Way hotspot Yoga Soup twice a week.) But after a brief stint in a now-defunct surf-rock trio, Berk decided to switch gears. “I thought, ‘Okay, maybe it’s finally time to start trying something with music I like.’ I wanted to become less of a sit-in musician and really put my all into it.”
Berk’s first solo venture proved to be a promising, if slightly lo-pro, affair: an acoustic set at State Street joint Ultimate Bagels as part of 1st Thursday. Friend Shayna Brown joined along on backing vocals. “That was our first official show as Little Owl,” Berk recalled.
Later that same night, Berk got a call from violinist Nathaniel Markman, an old friend who had been recruited by Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros after their first Santa Barbara gig. “He had just finished playing Bonnaroo with Edward Sharpe and called to tell me he was moving out to S.B.,” Berk explained. “I told him about the band, and shortly after, we started making music together.”
With Brown and Markman at the ready, Berk felt the push to record and found an eager engineer in Gardens & Villa bassist Shane McKillop. Over a handful of weeks in 2010, Berk & Co. holed up in a makeshift studio behind McKillop’s Villa Street home, laboring over the songs that would become Little Owl’s debut EP, Stories and Observations of Argus Madur.
In the meantime, the lineup started to grow. First came drummer Maxx Farris and pianist Emily O’Dean, who Brown and Berk both knew as friends, then guitarist Jordan Smith. A lot of practice and a few gigs later, the show offers started to roll in. In the months following Argus Madur’s completion, it seemed like Little Owl was everywhere, playing as many shows as its members could fit into their collective schedules.
“Aside from Maxx and me [and Markman], no one had live performance experience,” Berk recalled. “My thought in those first few months was that I just wanted them to know what it felt like to play in front of an audience, whether that was to nobody at Muddy Waters or to a packed house opening for someone at SOhO.”
The tactic seemed to work. The more shows Little Owl played, the tighter they got, and the more folks came to rally behind their swelling, spirited anthems. On a number of occasions, I watched full rooms of friends and fans unabashedly belt along to Berk’s uplifting lyrics. During the band’s EP release, they even inspired a crowd-wide interpretive dance-off, no shoes required.
With the momentum building, Little Owl said good-bye to Markman and Smith, who both amicably departed for other ventures, all the while propelling itself to the final round of 2011’s Downtown Sound Battle of the Bands competition. (They narrowly lost out to Lompoc blues makers Saint Anne’s Place.) They also started gaining some major support in and outside of the Santa Barbara music scene. Last year, the band ventured north to record at John Vanderslice’s renowned Tiny Telephone studios in San Francisco. .
The single’s A-side, “Tucked Away, Our Home Our Mountain” finds Little Owl at its most propulsive, with synths, electric guitar, and a restless drumbeat laying the groundwork for Berk and Brown’s tension-filled vocal leaps. “[‘Tucked Away’] was initially a song I wrote on the ukulele,” Berk explained. “Then one day at practice, the band convinced me to pick up the synth, and it turned into this dancey song. It was a great little push to create something upbeat, synthy, and fun, and I feel like that was something I could never approach before there was a band.”
“I’d always relied on other people’s music to make it,” Berk continued, “so it’s been really cool to surrender that intuitive, possessive nature you have toward songs you write for yourself just to see what can happen with it.”
7″ Released May 29th