It’s often true that “the sum is greater than the parts,” and the Asheville, North Carolina experimental folk band River Whyless is a perfect example. Their mesmerizing sound, built by seamless harmonies, soaring violin and unusual percussive elements, demonstrates the power of the collective, but so does the band’s songwriting.
The song “Life Crisis,” from their 2015 self-titled EP, is the result of contributions from all four band members, Halli Anderson, Daniel Shearin, Ryan O’Keefe and Alex McWalters, but it also benefited from the passage of time, and lots of patience.
The song started as two separate songs, one by Halli Anderson (violin, vocals) and one by Ryan O’Keefe (guitar, vocals.) Halli’s lyrical contributions ended up as the verse, and Ryan’s as the chorus.
I am holding back my tongue
Try not to let it show but all your friends and family seem to notice
I hope it gets to you, when you are ready
I am telling you all my thoughts
As you empty out your pockets for the plane ticket that you’ve lost
Be safe you fool, in New York City
Be safe you fool, In New York City
I will break you in
I’ve tried it before and I’ll try it again
But if this time you feel your shell has grown too thin
I would lend you my skin
I’d lend you my skin
Heard you were rolling in the good times out west
Went to the desert to find your destiny and place
Did they set you straight in your life crisis?
Did you see me floating there above your body
Like an angel suspended or an enemy you failed to recognize
Was I there that night?
Did I haunt you?
Was I there that night?
Could I save you?
I will break you in
I like the fight
And you, you like to win
But if this time you feel my love has grown too thin
I would lend you my skin
I’d lend you my skin
Halli talks about the genesis and development of the song.
“Ryan wanted to write a country song, just a fun country song, for his girlfriend. The chorus was born out of that. It was essentially to tell his girlfriend that whatever pain she received, be it from him or other people, he would protect her. Even if it was from inconsistencies in his affection. So he would say ‘I’ll lend you my skin if my love’s grown too thin.’ It was just supposed to be a gift for her when she came home from work, just ‘I thought of you today and I wrote this for you.’”
Meanwhile Halli had been writing her own country song, but not the fun, happy kind.
“Mine was supposed to be a pissed off country song,” Halli says. “It just came out of pure annoyance with the person I was seeing at the time. I was dating a guy who decided to embark upon a spiritual journey because I think he had a number of demons, as a lot of us do, that were suppressed and not attended to. And I was feeling at the point in our relationship where I was in it to win it. I was falling in love but I was afraid to tell him because he still seemed plagued. And he took off on this trip, a business trip, to New York City, where he met with his ex girlfriend for a day and talked things out, I guess. I wasn’t there and I was sitting at home in fear and insecurity and resentment and started writing a song about it. And he met with his ex girlfriend for a day and maybe had closure, who knows what.
“And then after that he went out west to take sort of a spiritual journey with a group of people, a sort of meditative, tackle your inner demons, trip. I didn’t talk to him for a few days because he was off the grid, and I was upset. That song was born out of one moment where I was sitting at home and mad about him being in New York City, and mad about him taking this spiritual journey instead of handling it at home with me or just dealing with it himself.”
The lyric “Did you see me floating there above your body / Like an angel suspended or an enemy you failed to recognize” reflects the point in a relationship where it’s unclear if you’re helping or hurting your partner. In this case, Halli wondered what he was seeing in his meditative state.
“I was hoping that I would appear as an angel and be the solution and that he would fall in love and commit to me. And the enemy part would be: or am I just getting in his way? I’m trying to help him, I want to be with him, I want to do something greater as a pair but am I actually a distraction?”
The two parts of the song, Halli’s verse and Ryan’s chorus, were telling a similar story, but from different points of views. In Halli’s verse she was asking for commitment and reassurance. In Ryan’s chorus, he was offering it.
“And so Ryan and I got together and just for shits and giggles decided to put the two together since they had similar meanings, and it ended up being something more important than we had ever intended. Mine being a mean country song and his being a fun country song. It ended up being something a little more serious once the band came in and changed the chords around.”
It’s worth mentioning that “Life Crisis” is not a country song. It’s dark and percussive. Minor chords lend the song emotional weight. If there are vestiges of its country song origin they are well hidden. So how did it change from being a country song to something so different?
This is where the other members of the band, Alex McWalters (drums, percussion) and Daniel Shearin (bass, vocals, harmonium, cello, banjo) come in. For a year the band couldn’t figure out what to do with the song.
Halli describes the turning point.
“We were sitting in the practice space and attempting ‘Life Crisis’ in many different colors, many different drum beats. The guitar was electric or acoustic. Who played bass, who did what, and we were frustrated at one point. I remember Alex moved off of his drum set and we decided to break the song down, to take it unplugged, take it into the very middle, group around one another, strip it down to the bare bones.
“So we took it to a smaller level and Alex got out a banjo that was given to me when I was twelve from Smiley’s Flea Market in Hendersonville. I hadn’t been taking care of it very well. It had been gathering dust and it was missing a few strings. He pulled it out and started beating on it with his drumsticks, and it was cool. It sounded different and it gave the song an identity that was separate from a country song.
“I think we got stuck in a rut–that we were writing this bluegrass country thing that wasn’t really working for anybody. It didn’t have any sort of heart to it the way that we were playing it. So when he pulled the banjo out and started drumming on it that changed everything. Dan started playing different chords on the guitar. And when he added the new chords, there was a different feeling than we had before. And it felt good. It felt more meaningful. It made me feel more comfortable because what I had written was more emotional than what I depicting through the country chords. It really did it justice in that moment and we were all digging it and we started to develop on top of that. And then it became more of a full band thing afterwards as we started to plug in and we started to record and we added harmonies. But it was built off that moment when we just unplugged everything, scratched what we had and started over on a very small drum kit.
“Alex has some tom work in there now, but it started with just a low tom, and the banjo rested on top of that. He was hitting both the strings and the head of the banjo and creating that strange sound, and it resonated. The banjo would resonate in G and that was the droning sound underneath everything.”
Many listeners were introduced to River Whyless for the first time through their Tiny Desk Concert with NPR.
The first thing that got the attention of those new listeners was probably the typewriter used for percussion, but that wasn’t part of the original instrumentation.
“That came in later,” Halli says. “That was a good percussive addition. We were on the fence about using the typewriter. You either love it or you hate it. We’ve had about 50 percent of people who love the typewriter and 50 percent of people who think it’s the most hipster thing. Which we were afraid of, but at the same time, it’s a tiny desk performance and that’s why we brought it in. We needed small things that were percussive and it seemed to be, rhythmically, a really good addition to that song. And it sat perfectly on top of the harmonium. The typewriter came in when we were auditioning for the Tiny Desk and it was the only thing we could fit into Alex’s Airstream. It’s not something that we would bring on stage, I don’t think. It sounds messy. It’s wasteful as far as paper is concerned.”
The typewriter had its moment of glory in the Tiny Desk Concert, but it’s not what you hear in the studio version of the song.
“My uncle brought to a family reunion one time a bunch of instruments that you can buy at Cracker Barrel. They’re bells and a little tiny glockenspiel, all these little things. He brought them for the kids to play with. And I started tinkering around with them and they were actually pretty cool. I wanted to steal them and bring them into River Whyless world. So I swiped the Cracker Barrel instruments from my grandparents’ house and Alex plays the rat-a-tat-tat part on a closed glockenspiel. He closed the mini glockenspiel and set it up on the drum set. He beats that with his sticks and it has a really cool strange snare sound, like a cheap snare sound.”
“Life Crisis” was the first truly collaborative song that River Whyless wrote. The process was long and difficult, but ultimately worthwhile. Listeners can expect to hear more collaboration on the band’s next album.
“The beauty of this song is that it was our first collaborative thing, and we thought it would die many, many times. We thought that song would go under the rug and never be seen again because so many of our songs have, but that one just hung on. And because of that one moment (when Alex got out the banjo) we managed to revive it.
“I think our next record is going to be the biggest collaboration we’ve ever done, equal parts lyrics, equal parts songwriting. The next record will be fully collaborative and will have different colors because of that, but all in all it will be the most honest version of what we are right now as a band.”