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Leukemia grounds Brown Bird

Crowd-funding for medical expenses aided Dave Lamb (with his Brown Bird bandmate, MorganEve Swain).MIKAEL KENNEDY/Mikael Kennedy

It was when playing his own songs became an insurmountable feat that Dave Lamb knew something was very wrong.

Lamb and MorganEve Swain — who together make up Rhode Islander folk duo Brown Bird — had been touring nationally in support of their latest record, “Fits of Reason,” since its release on April 2. From the onset, Lamb felt off — the extreme exhaustion typical of the road wasn’t foreign to him, but this was different — and Brown Bird’s raucous repertoire suddenly went from providing passionate performances to impassable challenges for him. By Houston, Lamb had reached a point of fatigue that forced them to cut the set short and rush to the emergency room, and it was there that his hemoglobin count became the first of many life-changing numbers that would eventually add up to a leukemia diagnosis.


As Lamb and Swain are full-time, uninsured musicians who’ve been forced into hiatus, Brown Bird launched a YouCaring crowd-funding campaign in hopes of offsetting his towering medical expenses. The outpouring of support has overwhelmed them (as of press time, the fund-raiser has brought in nearly $60,000) and the duo is optimistic as Lamb begins chemotherapy and a long road to recovery that will lead to his eventual return to the stage. Over the phone from a Rhode Island hospital, Lamb opened up about his diagnosis, his gratitude, and how this experience will affect Brown Bird’s music in the coming months.

Q. When you shared the news of your illness with your fans by way of the YouCaring fund-raiser, you mentioned that you were feeling sick for weeks before the Houston show. Can you pinpoint the moment when you knew something was wrong?

A. After the first week of shows, I just didn’t have the same stamina I usually had. I was already feeling feverish, and was pale. I went to a clinic, and they treated me for my symptoms and gave me some antibiotics. After the medication went through a cycle, the same symptoms just came right back again. They gave me more antibiotics. We went back on tour again, but the same thing happened — I ran out of the medicine, and the symptoms came back. That whole time, I was just getting more and more exhausted. Every song was just a complete battle to get through. I didn’t know how serious it was until we got to Houston — we went straight to the ER after that, and that’s where they diagnosed me with anemia and noticed that my hemoglobin count was dangerously low.


Q. What went through your mind when you heard the word “leukemia”?

A. With all the talk of low blood counts, the term “leukemia” came out quite a bit — it was just kind of always there in the back of our minds. We definitely had a little bit of time to let that set in. With it being something our family has been through — my older brother went through leukemia when he was 6 years old; my family is pretty familiar with the process of the treatment — it wasn’t as scary as it would’ve been if I had been totally unfamiliar with it.

Q. A lot of difficult decisions had to be made when it came to your work and your health. How do you feel about stepping away from music for now?


A. There are many different emotions you feel about it, and admittedly one of the first is panic. We rely on the money that comes in just to keep going from show to show. On top of that, it’s what we love to do. To have to cancel one show let alone a month’s worth is just an awful feeling. It was all pretty overwhelming at first, but as we started considering just how important it is to make sure we’re healthy, it became clear that we couldn’t let ourselves worry about not playing right now. As soon as we’re able to, we’ll definitely get back out there. We’re very eager to start playing again.

Q. Have you thought about the impact this will have on you creatively?

A. Oddly enough, people mention lyrics to me a lot, and the idea of [leukemia] contributing directly. I don’t actually tend to work with lyrics first, when I’m writing — the music comes first and then the lyrics tend to follow on that wave. This experience might show itself in our music, but we’re not going to be as direct and necessarily as obvious about it as people expect from Brown Bird. Maybe it’ll come through metaphor or feeling the intensity of the music itself.

Q. How has this experience changed your relationship with Brown Bird fans?

A. It’s pretty clear that there’s something about our music that reaches these particular people on a deeper level. It’s a great connection to have, and to affect people in that way, because our favorite music affects us that way. It’s good to know that our music can have the same impact on others. We try to be as honest with the audience as possible, and we’re just out to be ourselves and to play music we love. We’re very, very fortunate that people respond to that, and that people love what we love as well, so there’s no reason to ever change that kind of honest connection with them. I feel that’s just deepened with this whole experience.


Hilary Hughes can be reached at hilary.jane.hughes@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @hilmonstah.