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From co-workers to co-stars

As unique as the name StrangeBird may be for an electronic pop duo, it originated from ordinary circumstances — a casual conversation between Paly choir teachers Brittney Kerby and Michael Najar. 

“We were sitting and talking about life and sharing stories as friends would do,” Kerby said. “And (Najar) made a comment one day like, ‘You’re a strange bird.’ And I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I am a little bit of a strange bird. We’re both a little bit of a strange bird.’”

While they had collaborated with other musicians before, Kerby and Najar said they did not think about starting a band together until a few years ago, when Kerby offered some of her insight on Najar’s original musical, “Venture,” which was performed at Paly in 2018. During the creation process, Najar said he realized he could combine his newfound interest in music production with Kerby’s similar interest in songwriting and singing to create the duo they soon named StrangeBird.

“We got to know each other and became friends, and I think the musical was helpful to see how we would work together,” Najar said. “That was where I think I knew she was super talented, (had a) great voice, a great ear for melody (and) harmony. So that really solidified this — ‘She’s got all this and she’s a nice person. Let’s do this.’”

When inspiration strikes, Kerby said she turns on a recorder, sits down at a piano and begins singing to the notes she plays. Then they both work to refine the sketch and turn it into a song. 

“Songwriting for me is vulnerable — I’m talking about past relationships, about things in my life that have made an impact,” Kerby said. “And I’ll be honest, most of the time, those are the dark, sad times. When I feel that energy, songs kind of pour out of me. It’s therapeutic in a way. So I would say that a lot of our songs are from that more emotional place.”

Kerby said StrangeBird’s newest single, “Just Like the Moon,” sprung from one of those times of feeling something deeply and wanting to put that into a song. 

“It’s kind of nostalgic in a specific place and a specific time,” Kerby said. “I lived in Los Angeles and there was a neighborhood I would walk in with my boyfriend at the time. And that feeling of walking in that neighborhood — I can feel it even when I think about it; it’s a very visceral feeling. Essentially I was trying to take that and put it into a song, of being under the moon and what that feels like.”

Kerby said that unlike Najar, who shares drafts of his music with his friends and family even when it might not be fully polished, it took years before she felt ready to let others hear her music. 

But after releasing songs as part of StrangeBird, Kerby said she has realized there is something valuable about letting her music exist in the universe rather than keeping it to herself. Kerby and Najar said they always aim to make a positive impact on other people through their music and most of all, enjoy the process. 

“I feel like they’re able to be more creative when they’re doing their own projects and songs, and that’s really inspiring,” said senior Rohini Bharat, who is part of both Najar and Kerby’s Festival Choir class and the acapella group Folk Yes. “(They’re) basically making art and making it their own, creating a sound that’s really different that can show us what’s possible: the different things that we can do with our voices, the techniques that we learn and the music that we sing.”

In addition to knowing the components to making a great song, Bharat said Kerby and Najar are also great teachers and cool people. Kaitlyn Son, a choir co-president who began singing in Paly choirs her freshman year, agrees.  

“I love how they’re genuinely cool teachers,” Son said. “It’s so comfortable to converse with them even though they’re teachers, and they understand students so well. And, of course, they love music, so that’s why they’re teaching. But it’s so obvious when we’re in the classroom with them — the energy they bring into choir and how they bring the songs to life with their conducting and all that is part of why I’ve been in choir for so long. I love that feeling of singing together, but I think they really make it super awesome.” 

Both Bharat and Son said Kerby and Najar help maintain a close-knit choir community. And Najar and Kerby said they have built that same supportive environment within StrangeBird. Kerby describes it as a trusting partnership where she feels confident sharing her musical drafts and working together with Najar to refine and perfect them. 

“We’re good at trying to get the most expressive music out of one another, so it’s just easy to make music — it doesn’t feel like a chore, which was the most exciting thing,” Kerby said. “Music is our job, so the magic sometimes can be gone. Keeping that alive in our own creative journeys of musicianship is what this is to me.”