River Whyless

Johnny Brenda's Presents

River Whyless

Tue, June 12, 2018

Doors: 7:00 pm / Show: 8:00 pm

$15.00

This event is 21 and over

All shows are 21+ Proper I.D. required for admission

River Whyless - (Set time: 9:00 PM)
River Whyless
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 t he 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.”
Venue Information:
Johnny Brenda's
1201 N. Frankford Ave
Philadelphia, PA, 19125
http://www.johnnybrendas.com/