River Whyless Bring a DIY Approach to Stellar New Album ‘Monoflora’ [INTERVIEW]
Indie folk foursome River Whyless’ love for nature is evident in everything they do, including their latest album Monoflora, out April 8 via Soundly Music.
In addition to songs like “Heaven and Light,” which features sounds that emulate birds chirping, the record’s cover illustrates a patch of wildflowers, a person looking across a body of water, staring at what appears to be Earth rising behind some rocky cliffs.
The same sense of wanderlust that eminates from the album cover permeated throughout the record’s recording process, too. The twelve new tracks came together during a month-long retreat in August 2019 at drummer Alex McWalters’ home in the mountains outside Asheville, N.C. The band returned to its roots by working without a producer for the first time since their 2012 debut A Stone, a Leaf, an Unfound Door. According to McWalters, that decision was by choice this go around, whereas a decade prior it was out of necessity.
“A big part of why we first wanted to work with a producer was to help oversee things with us being a four-person band,” McWalters tells The Boot. “With each of us being songwriters, it’s like having four cooks in the kitchen, which can lead to a lot of creative stalemates. With over a decade as a band behind us we feel like we’ve grown to understand one another better than ever before, which is what pushed us to self-produce Monoflora.”
Most of the gear brought in for the project was from bassist and vocalist Dan Shearin’s Sleeping Dogs studio in Asheville. Guitarist Ryan O’Keefe has experience behind the knobs as well, having mixed the band’s debut record. McWalters says that allowing them more free reign on the production side of the music is something the band had discouraged prior to getting together to work on Monoflora.
“For a long time we tried to steer clear of band members having an extra amount of input on albums due to their past experiences in the studio,” says McWalters. “We needed an outside perspective in order to keep us grounded, but this time around we decided to instead embrace all of our experiences to see what it could actually produce.”
Now fully grounded on their own, River Whyless excel at bringing together the unique singing voices of Shearin, O’Keefe and violinist/vocalist Hallie Anderson to create one singular, collective sound on Monoflora. This was the result of the band’s lack of preparation prior to getting together to record, opting instead to workshop the songs in real time as the tapes ran. This allowed each tune to act as its own living, breathing document during their time in the studio. That helped the band to settle onto the same wavelength and tie each song together, no matter who was writing or singing it.
“With Monoflora we wanted to obscure the fingerprints of who actually wrote each song,” says McWalters. “We were deliberate about not writing anything outside of the band because with multiple writers and styles an album often doesn’t feel as cohesive as most albums do. Even though we still have three vocalists on it, this record feels like it's all coming from one vision.”
Because the pandemic forced the band off the road only a few months after Monoflora’s recording sessions transpired, McWalters says the group hasn’t had much time to practice together, with Anderson being based across the country in Astoria, Ore. Now that shows have returned, McWalters says he’s enjoyed re-learning them and introducing them to live audiences -- even if their meanings now offer a different sort of relevancy from when they were first written nearly three years ago.
In particular, album opener “Heaven and Light” stands out because of its examination of humans capability to be both amazing and terrible creatures at the same time. For McWalters, this is exemplified by the line “We are a parasite, we are divine,” which has also taken on a whole new meaning for him since the onset of the pandemic.
“That idea had a certain meaning to me in 2019, but after having gone through a global pandemic it resonates so much stronger,” says McWalters. “To see how people have behaved throughout the past couple of years has been eye-opening. You can turn on the news and hear about amazing acts of kindness followed by stories of selfishness. These things exist in all of us, and the pandemic has only caused these emotions to boil more toward the surface.”
Another song that has taken on a new meaning since it was first laid down in the studio is album closer “Lost In Space.” An ELO-sounding tune with theatrical symphonic arrangements, the track explores the urge to run off to a cabin in the woods with your lover to escape the distractions, or tides, present in everyday life.
Avoiding those distractions is easier said than done, as referenced by the line “Our greatest gift is to know a thing but still not believe it.” Still, he eventually takes solace in those he holds dearest, as the group sings, “Hiding in the light of an easy love / With the woman on my living room floor / I only find that the time is pure when it’s gone.”
Looking back on the month-long recording sessions for Monoflora, it’s safe to say that their workshopping yielded band’s most riveting and pure music to date. The album sees the band returning to its roots and reinventing previous creative methods, which sonically feels like a fresh breath of air.
In many ways the pandemic was a great pause, or rebirth, for many. River Whyless and its members are no exception, coming out of that time away from performing better than ever before. Monoflora is a testament to that growth.