River Whyless captures creative sparks on new album

TRIUMPHANT RETURN: From left, Alex McWalters, Ryan O’Keefe, Halli Anderson and Daniel Shearin are back with River Whyless’ first album in nearly four years. Photo by Molly Milroy

River Whyless didn’t intend to let nearly four years elapse between albums, but the unplanned gap has proved beneficial for the band on multiple fronts.

Recorded in late 2019, Monoflora was originally slated for a spring 2020 release, yet with music venues across the country temporarily closed due to COVID-19 restrictions, touring in support of the record wasn’t plausible. So, the Asheville-based indie/folk rockers shelved the project until travel felt like a safe and responsible option.

Nearly two years later, the 12-song collection debuted on April 8 and features a practically ideal blend of familiar and fresh — precisely the kind of grounded but boundary-pushing work that listeners might expect from one of Western North Carolina’s best ensembles.

During the album’s release week, as River Whyless embarked upon a monthlong East Coast tour, Xpress spoke with all four band members about taking risks, seeing their latest vision through and reconnecting with the material after a long, unplanned hiatus.

Capturing spontaneity

After hitting new sonic and songwriting heights with 2018’s Kindness, A Rebel, which received widespread acclaim — including from Bob Boilen at NPR Music  — Halli Anderson, Ryan O’Keefe, Daniel Shearin and Alex McWalters sought to challenge themselves for the band’s fourth full-length album. But first, they needed the right space in which to conduct their experiment.

Having cut their previous record at Sonic Ranch studios in the U.S.-Mexico border town of Tornillo, Texas, where they lived for a month, the group looked for a new spot to record in relative seclusion for 30 days. As luck would have it, McWalters and his fiancée, Christina Torquato, had recently finished building a house in Swannanoa with a large unfinished basement that begged to be converted into a temporary recording room.

“We’ve always been a band who works best if we can get as secluded as possible, so that was the closest thing we could get to being out and away from everything and everybody,” McWalters says.

With Anderson flying in from her home in Astoria, Ore., the four members set up shop and put their trust in Shearin’s ever-growing production and engineering skills — the first time they’d employed a band member in that capacity since their 2012 debut, A Stone, A Leaf, An Unfound Door.

“Dan is an awesome engineer, and with modern gear you can get really good sound quality without being in an expensive studio,” O’Keefe says. “We often wish we’d done this or that working with an outside producer, and we wanted the freedom to explore.”

Another key component of that experimentation was the band’s songwriting approach. Rather than convene at the studio with fully written, thoroughly rehearsed material, River Whyless opted to bring little more than a few rough demos and ideas to McWalters’ house.

“Recording things as you write them, as you come up with the idea, there’s just a certain spontaneity there that’s captured — a certain life, a certain flavor and a certain realness to the feeling,” Shearin says. “A lot of times, you go back to rerecord it with the demo and everything mapped out, and then you find yourself trying to capture the spontaneity of the demo. We wanted to capture it without re-creating it.”

Real cohesion

As the sessions began, Anderson, O’Keefe and Shearin decided to exclude McWalters from the initial round of writing so that they could foremost craft the songs vocally and work out harmonies. McWalters went along with the request but notes the approach required a faster work pace once he rejoined them behind the drum kit. Nevertheless, the new process had its rewards, McWalters continues, particularly as Shearin pushed him to be more improvisational and embrace the rhythms created in the moment.

O’Keefe feels that this route allowed River Whyless to initially keep the process small and helped them build the foundation for Monoflora “before getting too caught up in recording.” It also gave McWalters a chance to be more of an objective ear with the songs rather than potentially influence his bandmates’ writing from the start.

“We’ve always sort of been trying to achieve this sense of real cohesion within the band, because we have three songwriters and three pretty distinct voices in those songwriters. So you often get a record that has three voices on it — and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but sometimes it feels like three different records put together,” McWalters says. “We’re always trying to challenge ourselves and to see how closely we can blend things and disguise things and make it all feel like one piece and one voice.”

Along those lines, Anderson notes that throughout the making of Monoflora, she and her bandmates talked about ego.

“Not the ego of being overly self-confident, but of what it takes to write a song. You kind of have to dive into your own personal memories and experiences and your own personal belief, and it’s such a personal thing,” she says. “If you want those lyrics to be really poignant and undiluted — if you want them to be stronger — oftentimes you need that singular ego. And so we were always trying to figure out how we, as a band, create or have a shared ego. Just to find that one thread that we all share was really a tough and exciting and experimental process for us.”

Anderson adds that digesting the songs on the record is interesting because it has highly personal pieces from everybody, yet the overall cohesiveness plays even more impressively knowing that she not only lives across the country but also plays violin with Horse Feathers, the indie folk band fronted by her husband, Justin Ringle.

“[Ringle and I] love a lot of the same things and we challenge each other and we support each other and we talk about each other’s albums and mixes,” she says. “So that can be, I’m sure, frustrating for the boys in River Whyless sometimes to know that there is another opinion that’s secretly digging its way in.”

But for Monoflora, Anderson’s focus was wholly with her bandmates in Swannanoa. With Ringle back in Oregon and the couple limiting themselves to nightly phone calls, Anderson stayed at McWalters’ house for the entire month as O’Keefe and Shearin went home each night to be with their partners.

“It was surreal to be away from everything that makes up my current life identity in Oregon and to be divided from that and just be 100% swimming in the ocean of Monoflora,” she says. “I’m sure there are some little undertones of Horse Feathers in there, but most of it is just the freedom I had at that moment.”

Blessings in disguise

With tracking complete by October 2019, River Whyless sent Monoflora off for mixing, but as the songs trickled back to them in late February and early March 2020, the bandmates weren’t satisfied with the results. As the pandemic hit and the May release date was delayed, the quartet turned to Kevin Ratterman, who’d mixed 2016’s We All the Light and handled most of the tracks on the latest album. Shearin also leant his mixing skills to “Michigan Cherry” and “Time is a Holy Ghost,” while Noah Georgeson completed “Mourning Dove.”

“I’m not sure what we would have done if the release date was what it originally was. We may have had to find some other way to make ourselves happier or a compromise,” McWalters says. “But that extra time gave us a chance to reevaluate and go in a different direction. So, thank you, COVID, for letting us do that. We maybe didn’t need two years to do that — a couple extra months would have been fine with us — but it is what it is.”

As pandemic restrictions lifted and touring once more became a reality, the bandmates returned to the songs this March and, following a West Coast tour in August, will bring them to The Orange Peel on Friday, Sept. 16. Removed from their usual arduous process of writing, recording and touring in a condensed span, the group is appreciating the perks of rediscovering their latest creations — particularly McWalters.

“[Songs are] sort of in your face from the second you make them until you’re so sick of them,” he says. “I enjoy them more because I’ve had some time to come back to them. They almost feel like they’re not my songs, which is always kind of nice. It’s like eating food that you didn’t prepare. It’s just somehow better.”

Lyrics penned nearly half a year before the pandemic have also taken on new meanings for their songwriters. Shearin notes that themes concerning climate change and the fascinating contradiction of humans being a parasitic yet incredible species (explored on opening track “Heaven and Light”) seem even more poignant today. And when Anderson wrote “Fast Like a Match,” she felt more divided between her various personal and professional commitments. In turn, she subscribed to a theory about people only having so much energy to give to each passion or focus in their lives and a need to dole out certain percentages to each interest in order to achieve a sustainable balance.

“And so ‘Fast Like a Match’ was written about this struggle between trying to give enough of my heart to my partner while also giving enough of my heart to my passion,” Anderson says. “And since I wrote that song, I’ve gotten married, and that tumultuous question of ‘Can I contain both of these loves within myself?’ has been answered — or has just calmed down. And I realized that maybe my whole theory about percentages is totally wrong and that we have the capacity to love many things and love them hard.”


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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for ashevillemovies.com and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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