There is perhaps no better example of what the band Elephant Revival seeks to accomplish with their work than “Birds and Stars,” a track off their 2013 release These Changing Skies. Here, we are treated to gently rolling acoustic guitar chords, hand claps, and a deliciously subtle intertwining of the echoing vocals of Bonnie Paine and Daniel Rodriguez before a gradually rising flood of strings comes up at the climax. For the most part, the track is soothing and perfect music for a moonlight walk, but the song has a deeper purpose than being an enjoyable listen.
“When I was writing that song, I was coming at it from a place of having questions within myself about my life, big questions that I probably still have,” says Rodriguez, who also plays guitar for the band. “I wasn’t really trying to intellectualize or analyze or anything. I was just coming at it from a place of asking questions and explaining where I was in life and in the mystery of everything.”
This willingness to bring up serious issues as a way of relating to other people — rather than trying to hammer home a message with a sledgehammer or catering to a specific agenda — is one of the reasons people are drawn to the band’s music. Elephant Revival has always walked a fine line between advocating for living life in the moment and being fully aware of what is going on in the world around you. On one side of the coin, you have a mandolin-led number like “The Pasture,” which calls to mind scenes of dancing through fields of green on a sunny day, and the upbeat Celtic/bluegrass hybrid “Grace of a Woman,” which extols the power a woman has to change a lonely man’s life. But then a folk track like “Satisfied” points out just how elusive and arbitrary the notion of satisfaction is, just in case you need to be reminded that the members of this Colorado-based quintet are normal people just like the rest of us and they go through the same struggles we do. As these and other tracks on Skies attest, the band’s content tends to come from a personal place, but what makes this fact even more noteworthy is that, at least in the case of Rodriguez, this is not something he seeks.
“Personally, I find myself not really setting out with any kind of thematic intention,” he says. “I just wait to see what comes up, and then whatever’s moving me to write in that moment is what comes out. But I don’t necessarily try to choose the direction. I just wait for the direction to come through me. That’s when it works best is when I’m doing that.”
Over the course of eight years together, Elephant Revival has released three albums and one EP, and they’ve become a very tight-knit group of musicians. To hear Rodriguez talk about it, whether they are on stage or in the studio, there is something almost mythical about the chemistry and the band.
“We’ve become pretty psychic with each other, and we just sort of fit right into the same pocket, it seems, with a lot of the material because we understand where everybody is coming from musically, and we react and respond musically,” says Rodriguez. “We’re really familiar with each other in a lot of senses, so the dynamics can be really profound and go to some cool places.”
And if this incredible dynamic alone was not enough, Rodriguez holds music in such high esteem as to make it seem almost like a supernatural force, which only adds further intrigue to the band’s ongoing creative endeavors.
“Music is an awesome thing,” he says. “It’s an invisible thing, kind of like the wind. It just sort of blows its way into a forest and moves a whole bunch of trees at the same time. That’s kind of how we feel on stage, being in an audience of people. It just moves a lot of people.”
Music energizes the band, gives them a sense of purpose, and is something they embrace wholeheartedly. When speaking with Rodriguez, it is clear beyond a shadow of a doubt how grateful he and his bandmates are to be able to play music for a living and that people gravitate toward what they do. He senses the connective power that music possesses, and he is in awe of the fact that he gets to play some small part in connecting people.
“I don’t know what it is, but music affects me so strongly,” Rodriguez says. “You go to a different country and you can’t understand what a person’s saying — you just nod your head yes as if you do — but once a song comes on, it’s sort of this overlying thing that everybody understands.”