In late July, 2018, Maya de Vitry clicked “publish” on a Facebook message that took fans of acoustic trio The Stray Birds by surprise. “We have made the incredibly difficult but truly healthy decision to disband,” it said. It also announced that they’d completed an album called Let It Pass, which would be released later that Fall without a supporting tour. This is what she remembers as her own personal point of no return.
“It felt like posting and then reading your own obituary, because at that time I truly felt no other identity,” de Vitry said in an interview for WMOT’s The String. “I definitely felt really heavy about sharing the news.” That single post, she said, “felt like the end and the beginning of something to me.”
The Stray Birds - Maya de Vitry, Oliver Craven and Charlie Muench - had a nimble, three-voice chemistry and catchy depth. They nurtured those virtues over seven years into a solid place in roots music and a comforting ubiquity on major festival and broadcast stages. Their label home was format leader Yep Roc Records. After four albums and two EPs and touring across North America and Europe, The Stray Birds had seemingly gone fully airborne. In spite of - and because of - all that, deVitry had an epiphany that she had to break away.
“The band was in a really aggressive touring cycle for a number of years, and I think that’s really difficult and can be really isolating,” she said. “It can be really fun too, but for me I started to find it just impossible to go on at that pace. I was really needing time away and time to process creative ideas and how else I wanted to speak.”
Speaking in a singular voice was her plan from the beginning after all.
The music got into de Vitry’s heart through her family; her parents played socially and attended shows and festivals regularly. She started with classical violin lessons and adapted that to old-time and bluegrass. Her hometown of Lancaster, PA wasn’t much of a scene, but it was not far from musical destinations. “We would go in the summer time to Clifftop, this string band music festival in West Virginia where people sit around and play fiddle and banjo in the woods for a couple days,” she said. “And that was a very normal family vacation for us.”
Maya got into a string band with some young women and toured a bit. After high school she traveled and busked with her fiddle, living a gypsy life in the US and in Europe. When she landed in Asheville, the vibrant scene there inspired her to get deeper into songwriting. Then the string band dynamism in and around Boston’s Berklee College of Music called her north. And about that time, she started working with fellow Lancaster PA musician Oliver Craven, five years her senior, who had some years of touring under his belt. His help as arranger and collaborator on what was to be de Vitry’s first EP recording led that to become a duo project. Before long, they brought in Muench on bass and harmony vocals, and The Stray Birds hit the road.
“I don’t want to say I let myself be absorbed by another identity, but I very quickly moved over into being a band mate and I really took that seriously,” de Vitry said. “And it really suited my personality, because I wanted to be helpful to a collective situation. And I didn’t necessarily want to lead anything. It was scary enough to be singing songs and to have the camaraderie and companionship of people who were willing to leave behind whatever - for us to make that collective sacrifice, once that’s in motion I had no clue at the time how difficult it would be to stop.”
When that time did come to stop, she and the band did so deliberately, creating a buffer of transition. They vowed to co-write Let It Pass as a swan song album. Meanwhile, de Vitry stepped up writing songs for herself. She’d been struck by producer Dan Knobler after working with him on a side project, so she asked his help. The first sessions with his hand-picked Nashville band, intended as demos, surprised them and became half of the album. They kept on the same path and finished Adaptations, which de Vitry will release on her own label on Jan. 25.
Adaptations are, by definition, changes living things make to better adapt to their environment, and these songs chronicle and illuminate that process in this living artist. Opener “Wilderness” is scarcely three haikus long lyrically, but it establishes a theme of finding love in unknown country and making a safe space through it. “What The Moon Said” rides luxuriously on Anthony da Costa’s electric guitar ambience, while de Vitry sings the lovely lines: “Rivers are made of oceans / RIvers are made of rain / Look at the way the water outgrows its name.”
Water, woods and diurnal cycles are central themes of the record, but so are flashes of moral fire about a world gone decidedly unnatural. “Go Tell A Bird,” inspired in part by a “consciousness-shifting” stay in Cuba and political tumult at home, has earned attention as an early release, with its allusions to the marginalized and the migrant. Humans on the land are suspect. Birds in the air, stray or not, have at least a shot at freedom, she seems to say.
The new year and the new identity requires a lot more thought and uncertainty than another year touring with an established band, but de Vitry is reconciled to that because it’s on her own terms. “I went to Boston intending to figure out how to write a song and what to say,” she remarked. In making Adaptations, “I experienced that first love again, where I felt like this is the thread I need to follow. This is who I am.”
De Vitry will play a CD release show at the 5 Spot in East Nashville on Feb. 5, and she is scheduled to play a number of times at Folk Alliance International in Montreal, Feb. 14 and 15.