Night Heron Is Heeding the Call of R&B

“If people say it’s sleepy, I’m like, yeah, that’s the point!”

What would Sade do?

It’s a rhetorical question, of course; the reclusive R&B singer isn’t likely to sit down for a Q and A. But it’s a question that Sade fan and Portland native Cameron Spies found himself asking often while recording Instructions for the Night, his first album with Night Heron, which was released last year on Literal Gold Records.

While Radiation City, Spies’ former band, always bore a strong soul influence, Instructions for the Night immersed him almost completely into quiet-storm R&B.

“I realized that I had never allowed myself to make very clear aesthetic decisions about how a record is going to sound,” Spies says. “And with this one, I was like, OK: slow tempos, warm, dark-synth patches. If people say it’s sleepy, I’m like, yeah, that’s the point!”

His voice has changed, too. He sings softly and gently, commanding the listener’s attention while expending minimal physical energy. Spies’ day job is engineer, producer, mixer and arranger, and his skill behind the boards is obvious—he treats his voice so it sounds like it’s occupying a vast space, despite how quietly he sings.

Spies cites French pop artists like Air and Serge Gainsbourg as inspirations for his calmer singing style, but the change in his voice had as much to do with necessity as anything.

“It’s born from having all this really intense chaotic stuff around me all the time and needing an escape from it,” he says. “The only thing that made sense to me was just singing quieter and quieter and quieter until it was basically a whisper.”

In 2018, two years after the dissolution of Spies’ relationship with bandmate Lizzy Ellison brought an end to Radiation City, Spies and Sara Bedau welcomed their daughter Alma into the world.

“Sleeping Boy,” Night Heron’s first song, is delivered to a child who “would have been 5 years old today.” Spies hesitates to elaborate whether the lyric applies to anyone specifically, but he doesn’t deny that his experience as a father shaped the subject matter: “It really came from having a child and seeing that human being in front of you and having a moment of reflection on the children or child that doesn’t exist.”

With the template for Instructions for the Night established by “Sleeping Child,” Spies enlisted collaborators from the Portland scene to help make it a reality, including bassist Grace Bugbee, synth player Andy Lawson, saxophonist Nicole McCabe, and percussionists Ian Hartley and Tyler Verigin.

In the middle of recording, the pandemic hit and the music industry went into lockdown. With Spies and Bedau stuck together in their home, the latter played a major role on the record, singing on five of the album’s 10 tracks, despite having never sung on a record before.

“She co-wrote one of our songs almost inadvertently,” Spies says of opening track “Dreamz.” “I was playing chords in one room, and she was across the house in another room, and I heard her humming this melody, and it ended up being the hook of the song.”

The band’s currently finishing up a new album, which Spies describes as more upbeat while “still keeping it sleek.” Bedau sings on much of it, but Spies says she doesn’t plan to be an active member of the band.

“That kind of comes down to logistics,” he says. “We have a kid together. So that means that if we’re both at rehearsal, somebody’s got to be watching the kid, and that’s really expensive and we just can’t afford it.”

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