On The String: River Whyless Brought The World To Appalachia
Few bands in my heart’s collection trace back to a single, revelatory song quite like Asheville’s River Whyless. I heard it performed on September 11 of 2013 at Music City Roots (you can see it here for yourself). “Pigeon Feathers” unfolded like a mini-suite, starting with a mesmerizing looping bass figure playing off an insistently repeating arpeggio played by violinist Halli Anderson. That fractured and grew into a noisy crescendo that broke suddenly to introduce Ryan O’Keefe’s lead vocal against the quiet backdrop of a gently strummed guitar. From there, the song swung between elegantly minimal and roaring passages in a flux that spoke to the parts of me that had grown up on classical music, and I could tell right away something was especially thoughtful and deliberate about this indie-folk quartet.
Then, they were in their early days touring behind album number one, A Stone, A Leaf, An Unfound Door. Now it’s almost a decade later and River Whyless has released its fourth album, Monoflora. Yet when I visited the band in April to talk about their career, my reference to “Pigeon Feathers” and how it had hooked me turned out to be a potent starting point, and you can hear it in Episode 207 of The String.
For one thing, bass and guitar player Daniel Shearin makes his bandmates laugh when he says that “Pigeon Feathers” remains his favorite River Whyless song, even after three subsequent albums. “I always ask to play it live,” he says. While drummer Alex McWalters calls it “a formative song” that helped the band find its identity during its early days. “We spent a lot more time and put a lot more thought into our arrangements, and ‘Pigeon Feathers’ for me was like this hallmark of that time,” Alex says. “That song underwent like four or five different versions or drafts.” He goes on to say that it galvanized the way the band would integrate rhythm, especially beats borrowed from North African pop, into their carefully constructed sound.
Before they were an ensemble, they were friends at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC. Halli introduced herself to Daniel because he was playing Beatles songs on an acoustic guitar in her dorm, and soon all four were close. All minus Daniel created their first band, a rock/emo ensemble called Do It To Julia. Post college, things got more focused, with the new name, a strategic move to Asheville, and the addition of Daniel officially just as they released the first album. Ryan says he was a folk singer and aware that the musical bonds among the band weren’t as obvious as the personal ones. “Immediately, it was like, well, this is a weird combination. But we loved each other, so we had to make it work,” he says. “That has always been our dynamic. There's always been a push and a pull.”
Halli’s recollections of the band’s consolidation include a ton of rehearsing and some intentional adjustments in the way she deployed her violin. She was never a traditional Carolina fiddler, but she says the band would sometimes get lumped in with the progressive bluegrass scene merely because there was a “fiddle” in the group. So she responded to that with more plucked pizzicato figures, more tapping on the instrument as a percussion instrument and wider, worldly influences. “One way to battle that genre (perception) I guess was to pluck it or to join the African inspiration and take the fiddle elsewhere, or even some Asian. You know the erhu sounds very similar to the violin, and I could emulate some of those parts, and then just sort of take it out of the straight bluegrass world.”
The band’s deliberative process led to a real breakthrough with 2016’s We All The Light, the album that got them national press and an NPR Tiny Desk Concert among other accolades. It is for me one of the best progressive roots albums of the last 20 years, a swirling sea of gorgeous, grooving music elevated by oblique but beautiful lyrics. The project tested them however, as we learn in the interview. “We were rehearsing, practicing, three or four times a week for a long time, (while) working day jobs and just kind of like slogging through this creative process,” Alex says. “Not to open up a can of worms, but we actually wrote almost an entire record before that we ditched.” Their manager gave them an ultimatum as well, saying she couldn’t carry on unless they finished the project.
Anderson says that somewhat fraught experience led the band to flip their process and approach Monoflora very differently. “Monoflora’s intention was, let's make it as co-write as possible. Come totally unprepared. Maybe just bits and pieces of songs, but for the most part, allow the band to let the song bloom, instead of sitting alone and writing a full song in one's own mindset. So that was a big change. We've been kind of slowly maneuvering to be a co-writing band through the years through each record. But this was a major attempt to write as a foursome.”
Those writing sessions were followed by a 30-day, self-produced session in a self-built home studio, and the results are spectacular. While the flowering opening track “Heaven And Light” deploys some of the metric quirks of the classic River Whyless sound, the album draws out more folk ideas with longer lines and more hummable tunes. “Time Is A Holy Ghost” floats like an opium dream with Alex’s quick rimshot drumming and Halli’s woozy, distorted fiddle. “Promise Rings” delivers a poppier snap but with lyrics that celebrate a saturated nostalgia, buoyed in a video that draws from home videos shot when the group were still apparently in early college. A favorite from the second half is “Michigan Cherry,” a cooing folk song about young seduction with a riverine flow and lovely plucked violin timbres.
Interviewing four members of a band is challenging, but River Whyless passes the microphone around readily, and they bounce off one another easily. The picture that emerges is of four people pulled together by something very deep, bonds that have been worth fighting for and negotiating over. There’s a commitment in every band. This one feels especially potent and patient.