How Birding Ended This Indie Musician’s Creative Block

Birds sparked Stephan Nance's recovery from trauma. Now their sets have so many avian shout-outs, fans get a checklist to catch them all.

In the back of the performance space at Parkside Lounge, a historic but dingy bar in Manhattan's East Village, Stephan Nance coughs quietly into the crook of their arm, hoping that their voice will hold out for their moment in the spotlight. It was the last stop on Nance’s international tour, and they would only have eight minutes to perform—a far cry from the non-binary songwriter’s 19-song set in Kaliningrad, Russia just a week earlier.

Maybe, though, the short set is a blessing. Nance’s cold takes no toll on their energy as they belt the theatrical tune Sparkbird, the title track of their upcoming second album. But by the last song, Varied Thrush, about ending troubled relationships, Nance’s voice gives out a little more with each echo of the lyrics “hush, hush” until they end the song in a whisper.

Yet even with a cold, Nance’s love for birds is undeniable—and a scratchy throat couldn’t impede their slew of bird references. During each concert on the tour, they pass around programs that list more than 50 species. Dedicated birders in the audience count the references, which average around 30 in a full set. Sometimes, Nance will reward the listener who gets closest to the performance’s correct tally with a CD or T-shirt.

Despite appearances, Nance, who grew up in Eugene, Oregon, and now lives in Portland, hasn’t always been an avian-inspired musician. They debuted in 2012 with their non-birdy album A Troubled Piece of Fruit, which includes the song Japanese Garden, nominated for the 2012 OUTMusic Awards. But soon after, the artist went through a traumatic period, punctuated by family issues and threatening behavior from the parents of a queer teen they had been mentoring. The experience forced Nance to take a three-year hiatus from music. 

“I got dangerously depressed and suicidal,” Nance says. “I was policing my own creativity and trying to stop myself from engaging in something so vulnerable and what people might call self-indulgent.” 

Nance’s therapist recommended that the musician throw themself into self-care as part of their recovery. To establish a routine and ensure they ventured outside, Nance biked everyday to a park in Oregon called Delta Ponds, where they photographed the wetlands. 

One day, a bird with an incredible orange head and yellow body and black wings landed in the tree next to them: a Western Tanager. Nance didn’t recognize the species, but didn’t rest until they identified it. This spark bird got Nance hooked on birding—the most effective self-care they tried.

For a few years, Nance spent almost all their time watching and learning about birds. When they finally healed enough to write again, birds had become such a large part of their life that it felt impossible not to include them in their music.

Earlier this year, Nance released their newest collection, a six-song EP entitled Look at the Harlequins! In it, the singer uses Harlequin Ducks to recall the month they spent with a past partner in Vancouver—birds, Nance says, help set a time and a place in their music. This EP also includes one of Nance’s most popular songs, Overwintered, which has racked up over 37,000 streams on Spotify. The song references the Northern Flicker, Evening Grosbeak, and Snowy Egret, among others, which you can listen for in a music video the musician dropped today. 

Without birds, Nance says the stories they tell feel inauthentic, like something is missing. “I think of birds as a Greek chorus in our play," Nance says. "They're always there." Similar to a sound artist adding bird calls to a movie’s background noises, the songwriter adds birds to their music to create a convincing scene. “When you’re a birder, you’re always noticing birds, no matter what you’re doing,” they says. “Birds make everything more real to me.”

Sometimes Nance goes a bit further, making birds characters in the music. In Sedentary City, the artist uses the Gray Catbird to characterize a critic of their work. This portrayal comes from the idiom “catbird seat,” which refers to being in a position that gives one person an advantage over another. But because of their love of birds, Nance doesn’t enjoy framing them as antagonists. “If I say something disparaging about a bird,” they say, “it makes me feel a little bit guilty.”

Now, Nance is focusing on recording their upcoming album, due out next year, and continuing to tour. Later this year, they’ll be making the rounds in one of their favorite places to bird: Japan. To warm up to this international journey, the West Coaster has another show scheduled for New York in the fall—and this time, they hopefully won’t have a cold.