"I don't think I'm very unique," Megan Birdsall says. We're about halfway through our conversation, and so far it has been about something that is, in fact, uncommon: leading a double life.
Birdsall is a jazz singer who also fronts a folk-rock project. Writing original music for the latter — MBird, she calls it — has taken up most of her energy lately.
She looks comfortable, leaning in a booth at Grinders, but her eyes stay sharp and her often blunt answers come quickly. I have just asked her what kinds of experiences flavor the songs for MBird, and her hand — grasping a forkful of salad — freezes en route to her mouth.
"I write about stuff that I think everybody writes about: love and loss and life and death and transitions, balancing between light and dark, growing up," Birdsall says. "I've lived my whole life as an artist. That's all I've been around. I've been in life-and-death situations and experienced that with myself and other people, and I've seen ups and downs. But I think everybody pulls from those kinds of experiences when they write."
It's fitting that Birdsall doesn't view her work as anything extraordinary. She grew up in a creative family, the daughter of an actor turned voice-over artist (Jim Birdsall, a founding member of the Missouri Repertory Theatre) and a singing, dulcimer-playing mother (Jeri Birdsall). Her younger sister and brother, both of whom live in the Kansas City area, are also musicians. She attended the Boston Conservatory with a triple major in voice, theater and dance, and took jazz classes at Berklee College of Music.
That's all to say that Birdsall, now 33, is perhaps a more qualified critic than most who claim the profession. Later that evening, at band practice, she's casual but firm when she corrects her MBird bandmates — guitarist Michael Smith, bassist Ben Leifer and his brother, drummer Matt Leifer — when their tuning is off or the harmonies are out of place. These are things that aren't distinct the first time through a song, but the difference is clear the second time, the music richer for Birdsall's meticulous ears.
Birdsall first released a collection of nonjazz tunes as MBird in 2010, four years after her full-length jazz debut and a few months after she had relocated from Kansas City to Nashville. She hadn't abandoned jazz — she returned to her hometown for frequent gigs — but she set out for Tennessee with something specific in mind. Over the Bones, the record from that period, reflected her new ambition, leaning toward gentle alt-country, with touches of fiddle, slide guitar and mandolin.
The songs that Birdsall and her crew run through in practice are without those Southern flourishes. In the years since Over the Bones — in particular since Birsdall's return to Kansas City over the past year — she has transformed MBird's sound into something less easily categorized. Smith's guitar playing drifts between blues and jazz, and the Leifers were raised on rock and roll. Birdsall has a mature voice, like a smoother version of Lucinda Williams: dark honey and no rough edges.
"By the time I made it to Nashville, I was able to really understand what felt right and what didn't," Birdsall says. "I respected what I was doing without trying to be a star."
Stardom, she says, is the furthest thing from her mind. She relays an old joke: "What's the difference between rock musicians and jazz musicians? Rock musicians play three chords to a million people, and jazz musicians play a million chords to three people." Birdsall has played to enough empty rooms to understand that the value of art can't be measured in audience size. Now, her aspirations are simple.
"The music is honest," Birdsall says. "It's not necessarily regular-genre — you don't hear it and go, 'Oh, yeah, it's rock!' But people feel good when they hear it. Coming here [to Kansas City] for the second time, nobody knew me at all as an original artist here — just for jazz. When they hear about it [MBird], usually the response is, 'Why didn't you tell me you were doing this?'
"My interpretation with jazz music comes through improvisation," she continues. "That's just musical. Or it's me channeling my own energy through someone else's lyrics. But MBird gives me the opportunity to cross genres and put myself in a different situation with different kinds of sounds. It lets me express myself in my own words, which is something that I don't get to do with jazz music. If we keep playing shows and making records, I'm good with that because that means we're still writing. I'm a musician, and that's all there is for me."
She shrugs. All of this is as obvious to her as the weather. Writing is what she cares about most. It gives her room to breathe.
"There's some stuff that's happened recently, and I can feel it," she says. "I can feel it in my stomach, right?" She makes two fists, pushes them into her gut. "But I don't know what I'm gonna say about it yet. And what I say might not have anything to do with what I'm feeling. It's like a negative image."
Birdsall pauses, reflecting on her analogy. She laughs after a moment, her mind caught on something that she decides not to explain.
"The juxtaposition of life is so interesting, and things get turned upside down so quickly," she says. She smiles. "But this is a vehicle to face things on my own."