Minneapolis’ We Are The Willows recently celebrated the double vinyl release of Picture (Portrait) parts 1 and 2 on March 25th. Fans of The National, Sufjan Stevens and Basia Bulat will appreciate the sounds of this collective that offers unique vocals and discrete arrangements on non traditional instruments.
Derived from a series of 350 letters written by songwriter/frontman Peter Miller’s grandfather to his grandmother while he was stationed in the Southwest Pacific during World War II, their correspondence inspired Miller to explore themes of family, separation, life, death, and identity in a time of national and personal crisis on Picture (Portrait) Parts 1 and 2. If there ever was a kaleidoscope of sound that turns distinct patterns at every movement, this project defines that. Front-man Peter Michael Miller leads and delivers with a high register voice quite like a unique vintage instrument with a tuning all its own. Glide recently had a chance to talk to Miller about the two part albums and a little much needed history on the crafty & unique We Are The Willows.
Releasing a two part album is quite ambitious, but releasing both parts at different times is even more interesting. How did you end up with so much music to make it into two parts and why the decision to do two parts?
When I was reading my Grandpa’s letters and and beginning to write the songs, I threw a lot of ideas against the wall. I probably had 30 or more song snippets that I considered fleshing out. As some of the songs were coming together, I realized that there were two distinct voices rising to the top; my Grandpa’s and my own. I did my best to translate his experiences into songs, but then I still had so many unanswered questions and so much I wanted to say to him. I realized that these letters were just a picture of who he was and only writing songs about them wouldn’t capture everything. I wanted to create a portrait.
Releasing Picture (Portrait) in two parts was as much a logistical decision as a creative one. On the creative end, it was important to me that my Grandpa’s story (part I) stood on it’s own for a while. I wanted listeners to be able to engage with those tunes on their own, then get re-informed by another part of the story with Part II. Once this creative need became clear, we realized that it could be helpful in extending the life of the album cycle. These days a band releases a record and if it doesn’t take off, it seems to get buried pretty quickly. We wanted these tunes to have every chance they could get to be heard.
Are there any double albums in history that you are a fan of that made you want to introduce your music in this format?
When I started talking about the idea with friends, immediately people referenced the 2005 Bright Eyes releases (I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning & Digital Ash In A Digital Urn). I love those albums and remember being incredibly excited when they both came out. I’m sure that set a precedent in my mind for this type of release.
Picture (Portrait) was inspired by more than 350 letters sent from your grandfather to your grandmother. Have you always considered using these to write music to or did something inspire you to go in this direction?
I lived with my Grandparents in college and my Grandma gave me the letters when I graduated. She talked about them in a very un-romantic way. She thought I’d be bored by them. I started reading them and immediately began thinking of melodies and arrangement ideas. For me, writing tunes is about making sense of the world. These letters and who my Grandpa was were things I was trying to make sense of at this time. Writing songs about them was a natural way for me to do that.
What type of person was your grandfather? Obviously he invoked quite a stroke of creativity.
My Grandpa was a very kind, modest and quiet man. He was the sort of person that said little, but what he did say meant a lot. He was the cornerstone of our family and we all admired and loved him very much. I always wanted to know more about him and for him to share more about himself.
I think he would have liked the record because it’s something that I made. I think he also would have joked about how he’s not all that interesting and I was wasting my time writing about him. Then he would have offered me some supper.
Some has been written about the album, but can you talk about We Are The Willows the band some and who is currently in the band and what each member offers to the big picture of sound?
We Are The Willows is comprised of Jeremiah Satterthwaite (guitar), Travis Collins (bass, voice), Leah Ottman (violin, keys, voice), Hilary James (cello, keys, voice), Stephen Lindquist (drums) and myself (guitar, voice). I am incredibly lucky to be surrounded by the most talented, creative and thoughtful musicians I know. Each person contributes so much and we’ve learned so much about being a band together over the last 4 years that it’s hard to put it all down in words, but I’ll try.
Jeremiah has an impecable ear for tone and where his guitar should go in a song. He knows when to sit back and when to be in the front of a tune. He is also 1/3 of our record label and is an absolute scientist with engineering/ producing. Also, he does 90% of all of our design/ website/ video content. Travis is a bassist. Some folks play the bass, but he is a bassist to the core. It is part of him. He is methodical and deliberate with the parts he writes. He is also 1/3 of our record label. He handles most of our merch, accounting, radio, and distribution. Leah is a singular human. She has a presence that is all her own. She pushes us to be all that we can be. She’s a socratic questioner. Her playing and singing come from that place and it shows in our tunes and makes them better. Hilary has a heart of gold. When she plays, you can’t help but feel joy. She can hear a tune, and know exactly what it needs. Her parts are some of my favorite on the record. She also does a lot of our administrative work; she researches bands around the country for me to contact when we tour, she finds and researches college booking committees, and she does our poster mailing. Stephen is the most creative drummer I’ve ever heard and has an incredible ear for arrangement. He tends to be the liaison between the classically trained and un-trained in our band when it comes to working on new material.
How often does the band play in Minneapolis and what venues do you consider home turf?
We play locally about 4 times a year. A couple of our absolute favorite joints are the Turf Club and Icehouse. We’ve played the First Avenue Main Stage a few times and wouldn’t mind doing that more often.
Talk about some of your most memorable live performances to date and what makes a great We Are The Willow show?
Oh man, there are so many fun shows to consider…I think one of our favorite things is to play shows with our friends. We love the folks in the band PHOX and every time we get to play with them it feels like being at home having a slumber party. Basically, I love being able to be free of distractions and look at my bandmates and smile about the fact that we are playing music and we get to spend a good deal of time playing music. For the most part, every show allows for that and I love that fact.
How would you best describe your band if you had to name drop three other bands as descriptors to assist?
Answering this may require a bit more objectivity than I have about our music. In my head, we sound unlike anything else in the world but probably we sound like The National with vocals that are 2 octaves higher and much worse.
What do you anticipate the next We Are The Willows album to sound like?
I’m not quite sure. I’ve been working on a bunch of new tunes and we’ve been working on one of them as a band. I’ve been amazed by where the song has gone and how it’s shaping up. I don’t know how to talk about it yet, but I know that we’ve figured out how we work as a band. I feel like we all have a better idea of how to diagnose what a song needs and prescribe the right sounds to that.