Audia Reviews: Bedouine — Bird Songs of a Killjoy
Azniv Korkejian fashions nests of resilience and reflection from everyday heartbreak, and does it enchantingly.
Label: Spacebomb Records
Consider, for a moment, the northern bald ibis. It is a striking bird, with yellow beady eyes peering out over a long, pink, curved beak, which it uses to peck at the dry desert landscape. Its soft, small plume of feathers bounces at the back of its head, the final festive flair to complement a swath of purple and green. But there aren’t many left.
Once found across Europe, northern Africa and the Middle East, its current migratory patterns find it wintering in Ethiopia, stopping in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and returning to Palmyra in mid-February. The species was already critically endangered before the start of the Syrian civil war, but after the conflict began, environmental officials in Syria and Turkey noticed the birds weren’t coming back. So they started putting the birds in cages to prevent their migration—and the population has grown steadily. One count put two pairs in Syria and 100 pairs in Morocco, eagerly waiting for a brutal war to end before they can migrate as their instincts dictate.
Azniv Korkejian, who records under the name Bedouine, was born in Aleppo, Syria to Armenian parents, and spent her childhood in Saudi Arabia, growing up in the same region as these birds. We all have themes in our lives we migrate to, thought-out thoughts that have carved paths in our brain, stories that we rely on to feel more like ourselves. They are necessary cycles of reflection, though they can cage us in the past, too. In the soft lyricism of her second album, Bird Songs of a Killjoy, Korkejian seems less worried about the ways relationships (or places) might hold one back, and more concerned about what to do with the feelings of attachment, and maybe even guilt, afterward. She is the one with the key to the cages of her mind, the one granting permission to grow, change, move on. “I’m as free as a bird,” she sang on her self-titled 2017 debut— and this sense of freedom is made visceral again, as instrumental swells create expansive vistas, painting sunset colors behind Korkejian’s grounded voice.
She opens the album with longing: “Oh, Kentucky, I miss you.” Places are often inseparable from the experiences we have in them, the people we meet there. Leaving a city or a neighborhood can feel like a breakup, too. Korkejian followed a friend to Kentucky after college, calling it a “hugely influential time”, playing gigs, learning from other artists in the music scene. She still seems to be cautiously flirting with her adopted home of LA (she moved to the US when was 10, living in Boston and Houston before settling in California as an adult); on her first album, she was “still dying to know what's exciting,” wondering, “Can lives so designed be sustained?” Maybe not: on “Echo Park,” she shows you around the streets of this hip neighborhood, where she notices other artists—and gentrification. When she bops, “Where everyone’s avant-garde,” it’s a fun parallel to Joni Mitchell’s autoethnographies of her own bustling creative scene, like on “People’s Parties,” or “Big Yellow Taxi”—only this time Bedouine can’t ignore the “Revolving faces of the storefronts”, or “rising cost of coffee/The skyline inching higher … I'd stay as long as I can bear … Long as my rent don't climb.” But hey, “the sights are free.” The song leaves us with an atmospheric recording of children playing and dogs barking, before transitioning seamlessly into the delightfully instrumental “Reprise”.
This kind of honest social critique might label someone a “killjoy,” but Korkejian’s delicate, melancholy sound is really a gift of radical softness, a spacious directness that feels more genuine than a lot of other modern folk music. The combination of full orchestral backing and intimate, quieter moments makes her music thoroughly, but not overly, produced -- she’s less a guitarist and more a muse of her own life. Korkejian’s voice is always certain, but gentle, in the way picking up an injured bird would need to be. It’s easy to compare her breezy guitar-picking poetry to Joni Mitchell and other 1960’s/1970’s contemporaries (not to mention the instant vintage look of the album covers’ washed-out pastels), but her familiar sound is by no means tired. Her debut had references to birds too, and she was wary of this theme becoming a cliche; but “These songs are just where I landed, and that’s OK,” she’s decided.
Korkejian was more or less unknown when her self-titled debut came out in 2017, but rose to indie prominence with nods from the likes of NPR and Pitchfork. She studied sound design, and still works a day job editing music and dialogue for film. But music was always her passion: her mother had her take piano as a kid, and she found guitar in college. Both of her albums offer much to the listener, the end result of locking herself in rooms forcing herself to play, making sure she captures her emotions before they fly away. (And in between these releases, she also put out a cover of Linda Perhacs’s “Hey Who Really Cares?” and Elton John’s “Come Down in Time”.)
Making music amid all of this social and environmental change, most of the album finds her grappling with this idea of caging herself or someone else—and finding the wings to keep going, realizing agency can be clumsy. She finds herself “walking circles ‘round the room” on “When You’re Gone”, and the phrase “I love you” makes up most of the chorus. When she sings “Ain't it a shame?/Always the same old game we play” there’s an implied universality in the vague specificity; you wonder if she might be rolling her eyes at that overdetermined cycle of love and heartbreak, not just hers; but there’s no actual cynicism, just poetic observation.
On “One More Time”, the idea of a bird helps her come to terms with the shock of being alone: “I'm on an island with no one else around.” By the end, she is ready to let go: “Am I to you, some sort of chain?/Are you a bird? Am I your cage?”
After the driving, swirly beat of “Dizzy,” “Bird,” the longest track on the album, finds her sitting down with herself with the brave honesty necessary after any breakup; the somber tone gives her the space to sit with her feelings, centering herself in what needs to be done. “I kept the bottle we drank from together/I don't know, is that insane?” she begins, reaching the point where “I'll release you/With what is left of your wings/I will leave you to sing.”
“Hummingbird” is one of the album’s catchiest tracks, building slowly but surely, using the image of the bird as a symbol of determination. A small ruby-throated hummingbird is on the cover, too (and available as an enamel pin on her Bandcamp page)—a distinctly American bird, native to the continents of North, South and Central America. Her parents moved the family to the US when they got a green card; many of her family members have left Syria for Armenia.
Just like on her first album, the pain of Korkejian’s family’s story of survival doesn’t quite define the album, but she isn’t subtle about it either. “Daddy was an electrician, fingers to the bone/Mama was a seamstress, stitched everything she owned/Crossing the Atlantic, a dream over the tide/Soldiers, we were ready there, approaching the front line” she sings on “Bird Gone Wild.”
Bird Songs is an album for the freedom of summer, capturing what it’s like to gaze into the panorama of your own life and be real about where you are. There’s room for sentimentality, for sure—and also permission to take flight when you need to. Korkejian knows how to fashion nests of resilience and reflection from the detritus of everyday heartbreak, and does it enchantingly. And when the last harmony fades, as you walk around your sunny neighborhood, you might take off your sweaty headphones to hear actual birds sing.