by Jane Roser
Asheville, North Carolina is considered one of the coolest towns in America, if not one of the most creative. With it’s quirky shops and cafes, the breathtaking Biltmore Estate, gorgeous scenery used as backdrops for Hollywood blockbusters (like The Hunger Games) and a spectacular live music scene that has gained national attention, Asheville continues to draw people from around the world who want to experience its awesomeness.
Indie-folk band River Whyless came to Asheville after three members graduated from Appalachian State University in Boone. While there, Ryan O’Keefe (guitar/vocals), Halli Anderson (violin/lead vocals) and Alex McWalters (drums) met Daniel Shearin (bass/vocals) and formed River Whyless.
The band’s name came about after a four month-long debate. “We wanted “river” because you can’t step in the same spot twice,” explains Anderson, “it’s ever-changing, ever-moving and adapting and we like that mindset when we approach songwriting and living.”
“Whyless” was a word suggested by McWalters after reading a poem by e.e. cummings which mentions a “whyless sky” (e.e. cummings was notorious for inserting words that didn’t exist into his poems, creating havoc for his editors and confusing lit studies students everywhere).
“It struck a chord,” says Anderson, “it’s such a curious word.” Then she laughs, “it’s been difficult saying [River Whyless] into a microphone for three years, but it felt good and seemed to suit our music- it had that natural element we were going for.”
After two years, River Whyless is set to release their follow-up album on January 20th. The 5-song, self-titled EP was recorded live at La La Land Studio in Louisville, Kentucky over the course of five days and produced by Kevin Ratterman (Andrew Bird, My Morning Jacket, Ben Sollee).
“Knowing that we were going in make a live recording, this album was more rehearsed to get it the way we wanted it be, so there were [fewer] edits to be made,” explains Anderson. “Ratterman was great to work with. He was calm and positive and moved quickly; we felt very comfortable with him. The record we did before this, A Stone, A Leaf, An Unfound Door, we made ourselves and spent countless hours adding things-there’s glass, there’s rocks, there’s an acorn hitting the roof and 70-something violin takes on this one song. We can sometimes be perfectionists, so it was really nice [to be able to do] a live take and that’s it. As long as we rehearsed enough and we were tight, it produced a great outcome and really captured the live essence and energy that we were unable to do on the last record. We had only our four instruments and maybe a shaker or two; it’s pretty simple and just felt better.”
Songwriting is a collaborative effort and Anderson, O’Keefe and Shearin will usually start with an outline of a song, then tear it apart. “I can spend two years writing one song and I can pull another one out in thirty minutes,” Anderson says, “then as a band we’ll move it around, try different keys, change parts- as a songwriter, one needs to go in knowing that a song is going to be flipped on its head; it involves a certain amount of humility, but I think we’ve all reached a comfortable spot where we are able to do that with one another and the end product is always better that what was brought in. We take the time to try everyone’s ideas, so it can be hours and hours of trying out different routes.”
River Whyless just completed a video for their new single “Life Crisis” which they submitted to NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest. Directed by Brock Scott, the video was filmed in McWalter’s Airstream, so it feels intimate and cozy. I also love how his percussion playing on a banjo is the best use of a small space I’ve seen. “Life Crisis” was a lyrically collaborative effort between Anderson and O’Keefe dealing with contrasting themes of the hardships which can accompany relationships, in this case, both chasing a commitment and running from one.
“It began as an upbeat bluegrass song,” explains Anderson, “but we decided we wanted it to be a little more thoughtful, so we simplified it and made it a bit darker.”
River Whyless’ calendar is filling up with upcoming festivals, including SXSW, more music videos and continuous songwriting. There will be plenty of chances to catch this hot band whose name may be a bit of a tongue twister, but their lyrics are fraught with honesty, hope, heartbreak and love.
“I was sitting at the breakfast table last year with my grandparents,” says Anderson. “My grandfather’s a little hard of hearing, but he’s very smart and knows what’s up.” Anderson continues laughing at this fabulous memory, “so my grandmother asked what the name of our band was again and my grandfather goes: “It’s Wireless, Jane! Wireless!”
With a new album coming out and a full-length one on the horizon, River Whyless is next hitting the road for a 19-stop tour, including a show at Tin Angel on January 29th. Their songs “Life Crisis” and “Maple Sap” can be heard as part of WXPN’s World Cafe playlist today (during hour two, right in-between the Grateful Dead and Lake Street Dive).
“We’ve been writing and recording for awhile,” says Anderson, “so it’s exciting to be on the road again. Somehow we got ourselves flipped around; most bands write in the winter and tour in the summer, but we love the winter and people are more apt to come to shows since everybody is ready to be out of the house and fewer bands are coming through town. It’s nice after writing for so long to be able to share these songs.”