Raised by a pair of English professors, JT Nero’s initial attempts to mine the family business were with poetry.
“Words are sort of my family’s trade,” said Nero, half of the creative brain behind folk band Birds of Chicago. “I wrote a lot of really aggressively awful poetry in my late teens and early 20s.”
In his early 20s, Nero also played percussion in a jam band. After a couple of years, he started experimenting with attaching melodies to the poems he wrote. He began playing guitar partly because of its practicality.
“If you’re going to be a songwriter, it’s tough to carry a piano with you,” he said.
Nero became serious with his songwriting when he moved to San Francisco around 2000, joining a songwriters group that spurred his creative momentum.
“It was a good group because it was very friendly, very supportive but also very competitive,” he said. “We met every Monday, and you didn’t want to show up with a half-assed song. That’s what got it really sort of clicking for me.”
Around that time, he met the other half of Birds of Chicago: Allison Russell.
Nero had relocated to Chicago in 2003 and was playing with his band, JT and the Clouds. Russell’s band, Po’ Girl, came through town, and the two bands played a show together. Nero and Russell soon realized they had a mutual admiration for each other — both personally and professionally — and Birds of Chicago was born.
This admiration comes through when Nero talks about Russell.
“Allison is this amazing self-taught musician,” Nero said. “She taught herself clarinet when she was 20. I don’t know how many people have taught themselves clarinet over the years, but I think it is fairly small. And she taught herself ukulele and banjo and guitar. She has an incredible musicality that way.”
Fast-forward about a decade, and they have just had their first child together. Now five months old, their daughter has been the newest adjustment to living life on the road.
“When she was four weeks old, we went to the Netherlands. So she’s put some miles in,” Nero said. “When you’re first-time parents, no matter what you do, everybody’s kind of figuring it out as they go. This is the life we’re most accustomed to, so it’s probably the best one to raise a child in.”
Though it seems like touring with a baby would result in a uniquely stressful situation, Nero’s biggest complaint was fairly ordinary for a new parent.
“I will say there is a weird kind of spell that is cast,” he said. “Babies sort of remove the conversational filter from all other people. So there’s a lot of advice being given to us, whether invited or not — anything from normal to fairly outrageous.”