After five years of rehearsal, two years of touring, several months of recording — and one big name change — River Whyless has its first album.
Formerly known at Do It To Julia, River Whyless is celebrating the album at CD release parties in Boone, its former home, and Asheville, its current address. A Stone, A Leaf, An Unfound Door is a concept album, built around the idea of the changing nature of relationships. And its creation is full of literary references.
“There’s a saying that you can’t step into the same river twice,” violinist Halli Anderson says. “We like that because it means you have to embrace change. ‘Whyless’ is in a poem by e.e. cummings. It’s a serious word, but it doesn’t have a definition. We just like the question it puts in people’s mind when they hear it.”
Why less indeed. It was a question that occurred to the band when it was performing as Do It To Julia. That music was good. But the music that’s in A Stone, A Leaf, An Unfound Door is way better, the band thought, and heading in a different direction.
The band members, all students at App State, were living in Boone five years ago when they were contacted by a guy who wanted to put a band together. He asked Alex McWalters to be the drummer, and McWalters said he’d do it only if his buddy and musical playmate Ryan O’Keefe, who plays guitar, could come.
Anderson was a psychology major who wanted to be a social worker helping the Hispanic community. She played violin with friends around town and showed up at the first rehearsal, and a funny thing happened — the guy that brought them together was the one who didn’t fit.
“It’s hard to tell that story, because I’m afraid he’s going to read it and be upset,” Anderson says, standing in line at Richmond International Airport to board a plane. She was laughing as she told the story over the phone. But she got serious when she talked about that initial rehearsal. It turned into something serious almost immediately, and by the end of the night, the musicians had written a couple of songs.
“The minute we started playing, it was like there was no choice — the next thing we knew, we were in a band,” Anderson says. “It just clicked.”
They picked an edgy name: Do It To Julia. It didn’t fit the music they were writing when they decided to leave Boone and move to Asheville, where Anderson grew up, she says. They picked Asheville because it was a nice-sized city that was still in the mountains — affordable, they knew they’d fit in well and an excellent home base.
It was a good place to reinvent themselves.
River Whyless recorded much of the album in an old house that lead singer O’Keefe’s uncle has on Martha’s Vineyard, with high ceilings and interesting acoustics. Anderson, a classically trained violinist, played her parts in a tiled bathroom that echoed, giving her just the kind of sound the band was looking for. O’Keefe, who recorded the album, found other rooms and miked them for similarly haunting sounds. What the band (bass and banjo player Matt Rossino is the fourth member) ended up with is an album that puts listeners in a contemplative mood, one that brings up memories semi-cherished and half hidden.
A Stone, A Leaf, An Unfound Door is a concept album, Anderson said, based largely on O’Keefe’s stories. The title was taken from a passage in Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel. Each item in the album’s title — the stone, the leaf, the unfound door — represents an aspect of a relationship that O’Keefe, the band’s frontman, had.
“We’re all so close that Ryan’s concept became our concept, because we had all been through similar things,” Anderson said. “Even the songs that I wrote on the album have the same feeling.”
River Whyless, who financed the album through contributions gotten through Kickstarter, calls itself a baroque/folk group, but “broke folk group” might better describe it, Anderson said.
“The genre-fication is tough for us,” she said. “We also like ‘nature pop’ and ‘progressive folk.’ But ‘baroque’ works for the album, because we’re got strings and storytelling in there. And it has an ‘older’ feeling to it.
“What I don’t want is to scare people off that we’re some overly pretentious art music group. I just want people to listen.”
— Paul Clark can be reached at email@example.com.
who: River Whyless, with Kovacs and the Polar Bear and Little Tybee
what: CD-release party
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Friday, March 2 (9 p.m. $8 advance, $10 day of show)