For many bands, and especially those who’ve been together for several years, recognizing maturation, progress or palpable evolution is a daunting task. Is it continued creative accomplishment that signals progression? Or perhaps it’s profitable commercial endeavors? The answer is often quite unclear. Six years, two albums and countless gigs after first forming as a band, River Whyless, the North Carolina-bred folk-rock outfit has discovered their evolution is a subtler albeit monumentally important one.
Deep in the throes of writing and recording their bold new album, Kindness, A Rebel, the four musicians reached a necessary and collective understanding. Namely: this band is their lifeblood, their family and their love. To that end, with unspoken acceptance, the members of River Whyless, each songwriters in their own right, collectively put aside their respective egos, coalesced around each other’s creative vision, and fully embraced the beauty of their enduring partnership.
“It was a feeling of openness and hope and acceptance,” says singer-violinist Halli Anderson of the multi-week sessions with producer Paul Butler (Devendra Banhart, Michael Kiwanuka) that resulted in some of River Whyless’ most dynamic, genre-bending and heartfelt material yet. Creatives regularly waver between honoring their own creation and rallying around larger ideas for the benefit of the group. But with every member of River Whyless now charting a life outside the band, and also writing on their own, when coming together to record Kindness it was never more crucial they be open and honest with each other.
To that end, singer-guitarist Ryan O’Keefe remembers an early brainstorm session that saw all four musicians seated in his living room, each passing around their phones to hear rough sketches of songs the others had written. And while each member acknowledges one of their self-penned songs may not have ended up on the album, working together as a group to land on the best River Whyless songs -- the ones that speak to hope and betrayal, maturation and stalled momentum, the kinds of weighty topics their younger selves could never have taken stock of -- was essential to both create a killer album and, more importantly, move forward as a united band. “We’ve reached a point where we just understand that the songs are more important than the egos,” says drummer Alex McWalters. Adds O’Keefe bluntly: “This album gets to a deeper area than any of our others before it.”
Working with a dynamic producer like Butler had already pushed River Whyless out of their comfort zone. “He pulled out elements of our writing that maybe we were timid about doing,” O’Keefe offers. But it was the experience of working on one specific track, in particular – the opening “All of My Friends” – that best exhibited how much the band had grown. Having scrapped the electro-driven song when Butler took an initial disliking to it, Anderson “had to do what I call my walk of abandonment,” she recalls. “I tried to accept the fact that this song wasn’t going to make the record. So I let go of the song.”
But a few days later, upon discovering a small burbling tone on a synthesizer, their passion for the song was reignited. Says O’Keefe, “It was the first time I felt like we captured a song in the moment of creation. Lyrics were changing in the moment. Melodies were changing in the moment. Singers were changing. It was really difficult and emotionally intense but so gratifying when we were done.” Adds Anderson: “The spirit was revived and the song was reborn in the studio. We were all letting it be.”
Most importantly, the illuminating experience proved to River Whyless that even after many years together they were still making new creative discoveries. Getting to that point, however, was hardly easy. Following 2016’s We All The Light, each member had taken on additional responsibilities in their personal lives: O’Keefe, recently married, and bassist Dan Shearin, engaged, were busy building their first homes; Anderson relocated to Oregon; and McWalters enrolled in grad school to study creative writing.
And, of even greater consequence, after years of pounding the pavement, the band began to wonder if this dream they called River Whyless was strong enough to keep pushing forward. As each band members’ life evolved, however, it was River Whyless, they realized, that served as their anchor and kept them whole. O’Keefe says his awakening on this front arrived spontaneously one night in Santa Fe, NM. Following a tough support-gig tour and just before Anderson was set to move to Oregon, he dropped her off at a motel. “And as we pulled away it felt like an ending,” he admits looking back. Watching her through the window, as the car drove away, “it was as if I removed a pair of tunnel-vision goggles and could see the world and my life for the first time since we started this band. I felt incredibly small, fragile, irresponsible, foolish, at a loss for what to do next and very alone. The reality of what we had been trying to do for a decade came crashing down in an almost laughable way. We didn't talk about it and I don't know if anyone felt the same way but, at that moment, I changed.”
Shuttling between Oregon and North Carolina in recent years, Anderson admits she too found herself struggling with her “core identity” at the time. It was not until she got in the same room with her bandmates last year to write Kindness, A Rebel that she, for the first time in ages, felt completely whole again. “It's strange to say but the only place that I felt completely me was in the making of Kindness, A Rebel,” she says. “There's something about creating music in the studio that allows one to forget the pomp and circumstance and be more present, more instinctual.” Music, and her band, she realized, “remind me of where I belong.”
A year of change was a sentiment Shearin also shared: in the run-up to recording Kindness, A Rebel, he’d seen his life shifting drastically with a host of significant milestones, and perhaps most significantly, the sudden passing of his father. “This rocked me incredibly hard and shaped and colored the rest of the year,” he says, noting that his bandmates and manager "were monumental in helping me through this experience." During this time, Shearin found “a profound peace and beauty in loss -- recognizing the growth that can rise in the place of what is gone.”
Later, this was echoed as they wrote the album, as the immediacy of the process forced each member to surrender his/her own vision and trust one another with the bigger picture. As McWalters notes, everybody relied on the collective group to wade through their respective challenges. Trusting each other's creative instinct in the process was a necessary act of “letting go, an embrace of our weaknesses and a celebration of our strengths." He adds that "it was something of a revelation to me to realize that our weakness can be interesting, that imperfection is as compelling as the talent that surrounds it.”
Simply getting in the same physical space with one another to write new material proved challenging. To combat this, last fall all four members retreated to a secluded cabin outside Boone, North Carolina for several days and began brainstorming ideas for their new LP. “It allows you to live and breathe the music… even if just for a little bit,” Shearin offers of this forthright method of creative incubation. It was in that cabin the early seeds of what became Kindness began to take shape. The band bounced ideas off each other, followed inspiration where it might lead. They were so focused in fact that all the musicians were loathe to return to their everyday lives. “We dragged our feet to get there and then we dragged our feet to leave,” says Anderson, who calls the album “a giant massage for my soul.” What also became apparent during this getaway was that River Whyless was eager to stretch the boundaries of what constituted their sound.
Whereas earlier albums centered on a largely beatific brand of heartfelt folk music – seen most prominently on their 2012 debut album, A Stone, A Leaf, An Unfound Door – with encouragement from Butler, the band began to experiment with a more aggressive and innovative sonic palate. “This time it was more like, let’s just see what happens and go with it,” says McWalters, who notes he wanted to embrace “a more straightforward driving feel” to the album’s highly rhythmic percussion. To that end, the band balances its more traditional harmony-anchored leanings as seen on “Van Dyke Brown” and the genteel acoustic lament of “War is Kind,” with more overtly rock leanings like the Middle Eastern-tinged psychedelic scrum of “Falling Farm” and the guitar-and-piano jangle of “New Beliefs.”
This musical diversity is a direct reflection of each band member bringing his or her distinct flavor to the fold. Though, as Anderson admits, the band has never been more cohesive in its creative vision. “It’s always difficult to have differing opinions on songs and try to find a compromise,” she admits, but “that’s the fun thing about collaboration,” O’Keefe notes. “It becomes something beyond your own self. “And honestly,” Shearin adds, “ if not everybody is onboard to give it their all and get behind an idea then it can end up feeling empty in a way.” Simply put: where River Whyless has previously been distinct songwriters operating under a single banner, they were ready to now explore what it mean to be a true collective.
Not that it required much heavy lifting. “Because we spend so much time together and we live and love one another, even when we don’t think about each other when we’re writing we tend to write about similar sentiments,” Anderson says. “The same types of things are often affecting all four of us.” Concurring, McWalters says when River Whyless plays music “we can almost predict what’s going to happen next and can read each other’s mind.”
“It’s so important to always keep an open mind” when writing, Shearin notes, if largely to leave the door open for the band to veer down unexpected and exciting new avenues. Despite having never felt more unified in their vision for the future, much as they’ve navigated their freewheeling career to date, River Whyless is choosing to not predict what lies ahead. Allowing their creative union to continue guiding them, they insist, remains their only constant. “It feels like you’re on a journey with your family,” McWalters says of the satisfaction of being in a band like River Whyless. “It’s a beautiful thing.”