River Whyless’s third album, Kindness, A Rebel, found the Ashville, North Carolina, quartet stepping away from the neo-folk leanings of their first two records, A Stone, a Leaf, An Unfound Door and We All The Light. While the band’s earlier albums showcased occasional flirtations with the modern, Kindness presented a band that was willing to evolve past its initial premise. The group didn’t exactly turn its back on its signature folk/world-beat sound, but if the warm, burbly synthesizer of lead cut “All of My Friends” doesn’t convince you that this is a band forever in flux, perhaps the Sonic Youth-like guitar cacophony of “Another Shitty Party” will. With this left turn of a record, fans of River Whyless wondered where they’d go next.
The answer? They would turn in on themselves, according to their latest record, Monoflora. Eschewing the idea of bringing in outside parties, the band revealed itself as a collective in the truest sense. The Asheville quartet– featuring vocalist/guitarist Ryan O’Keefe, vocalist/violinist Halli Anderson, vocalist/bassist/harmoniumist Daniel Shearin, and drummer Alex McWalters– chose to turn McWalter’s home into a recording studio and produce the album themselves. Music lore is full of stories of artists who retreat to a cabin in the woods, only to emerge months later with a finished product. In River Whyless’s case, the isolation proved necessary and fruitful. In place of the Kindness’s underlying indie angst is sophisticated chamber pop full of layers that reveal themselves with repeated listens. There’s still the mysterious, haunting folk with songs like “Oil Skin” and “Mourning Dove”. But there’s also the gorgeous, rolling “Call Me Your Baby”, its cosmopolitan elegance and orchestration evoking the pop of ’60s French chanteuses, and the single “Promise Rings”, its irresistible chorus recalling the unabashed candied sensibilities of Lindsey Buckingham.
I recently spoke with River Whyless’s Daniel Shearin about the creative and collaborative process behind Monoflora and finding the muse in Asheville, North Carolina.
CF- In your one sheet, you quote the novelist Philip Roth: “In most professions, there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end. With writing, it’s always beginning again. Temperamentally, we need that newness.” Does that lack of closure ever frighten you, that the wheels are always spinning?
DS- No, I think it’s a good thing. I think it’s kind of what keeps you moving. It keeps you young. It keeps you looking at life in a new way and continuing to try to get better and better. I like to think that we just keep learning and experiencing and growing. There’s that Bob Dylan quote, “That he not busy being born is busy dying.” I think that rings true here. It’s a good thing to keep pursuing and growing. Then maybe eventually, you decide that you don’t, and then that might be a good thing, too (laughs)!
When you’re finished with one project, are you already thinking a few steps ahead about the next record? Is there anxiety or can you enjoy the moment of having released a new record?
No, I wouldn’t say worried. I would say probably the opposite probably, thinking more like, “Oh, okay, we’re probably done for a bit,” and then next thing, you’re picking up a guitar and something pops into your fingers, and the next thing, you know, you’re like, “All right, I’m writing another song.” And then after you do that, you’re writing another song and then another on. Then your bandmates come to you and then here we go again. We’ve got the next record in the works without even really trying.
Is prose a huge influence on the band?
We all write lyrics, and to speak specifically to that, we often will get stuck with something, and we’ll have a blank spot in a song. A lot of time, we’ll turn to the poems [Ryan’s] already been writing or maybe one he’s working on and that will become part of the song. Like the song “Oil Skin” on this record, it started out with the first verse that Ryan had written quite some time ago, and it didn’t really have a set melody, necessarily. It was totally different guitar part. We started vamping on different grooves and then tried singing his lyrics over the first groove, and it worked out really well. And then we thought, “Well, what are we going from there?” Then we wrote this whole melody and chordal structure that was the chorus, but we didn’t have any words for it. And then we sent it to Alex– he wasn’t in the room with us at this point– and we ended up using one of his poems as the chorus. That was a direct connection between the prose and the lyrics.
What’s the collaborative process like for you? I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a band that has so many moving parts.
(Laughs) It’s always different! It’s different for every album; it’s different for every song. At its best, it’s spontaneous, the more spontaneous the better! The more you get out in this initial verse, before you have to really start considering things, that seems to work best for us. Sometimes that spark looks like a little jam and we’re all coming together, and sometimes it starts with a single person in their bedroom coming up with an idea or an entire song. Sometimes songs come to the table more or less finished, and then we get completely deconstructed and re-reconstructed. Sometimes they are written essentially together, and then somebody will go home and work it out and finish it that way. Sometimes we’ll have several songs that are not quite complete, and we’ll take a verse from this song, and verse from another, and a chorus from here, and then add them together. All of a sudden, it’s like a creature or a character that no one had really thought of on their own. It’s pretty involved!
How did the band function during the initial stages of COVID?
We wrote and recorded the whole record just before COVID happened. We started writing it in the spring of 2019. We came to each other with pretty close to zero ideas, minus a couple of verses. We had very basic structures. We ended up recording all of it in August, and then we moved on to finish it up in October. We were gonna release it in 2020, in the spring, and that’s where things started changing, as you know. We ended up taking our time with the artwork, taking the time to remix some of the songs. All of a sudden we had more time! All the things that we weren’t happy with, we went back and did some remixes. All in all, it worked out well for the record, and we’re very happy to be sharing it and having it out in the world.
Are these upcoming shows the first you’ve had since the pandemic?
We played three shows in 2021, just a 3-day run in North Carolina. Those were great. They were great refreshers on the old material. Then we got together last week and learned the live versions of the new songs. This is the first real tour of the new songs.
Now that you’re finally able to tour again, do you see traveling as something essential to your creativity?
I don’t know if I missed it. But once you get out there, there’s something about movement that sparks creativity, like encountering different perspectives or being forced completely out of your routine. It certainly helps the creative process. I’ll say that when we were all stuck at home during the pandemic if you’d asked me five years ago, “What would happen if you were locked in your house for a year? What would you do?” I’d be like, “I’ll probably write a thousand songs,” and I can say it was not that (laughs)!
I’m a pretty solitary person, and some of the other band members are the same way. I wouldn’t say we need social interaction to feed ourselves, but it turns out that it’s a bigger part of my muse than I expected. Being forced to stay inside my house for that long was more creatively draining than I’d expected, honestly.
Can you talk about Asheville as an influence? Do you think it infuses you in ways that other cities can’t?
I think in today’s world, you can access any type of music, anytime. The limitation of your region in terms of what you’re listening to is not a constraint like it was years ago, but there’s something undeniable about the soaking in the atmosphere that you’re around. Ashville is picturesque; it’s beautiful. The community is very supportive and vibrant. It’s a city, but it doesn’t feel like a big urban environment. For me, and I think for the rest of the folks in the band, there’s something that is ingrained in you as you’re sitting on the porch, looking at the mountains, playing guitar. There’s certain things that feel right when I’m writing and playing, that would probably feel different if you were sitting on a balcony in the city. I’m not saying it would be worse, just different.
For Monoflora, you decided to produce the album yourselves. Why did you go that route?
We’ve worked in the past with producers– our last two records, we did with producers, and they were great; they worked out really well. We gained a lot, and they shaped the records in ways that we didn’t expect, and the records wouldn’t have been the same without them. But this time we did want to leave that aspect behind and just be the four of us and agree that we were going to be completely honest with each other and leave our egos behind.
I have a recording studio in my house, but it’s very much part of the big room in the house, and we wanted to spread out and not be in anybody’s space. We paid our drummer Alex and his girlfriend– who’s now his fiancé– to live in an Airstream. We took over his entire house—mostly the basement, but really the whole house–and converted it into a recording studio. We took all my gear, brought it over there, and set it up. It was a ton of work setting up a new studio, being the recording engineers, being the producers, and being creatively driven, making decisions, and performing. It was a lot of hats to wear, but we knew we could do it, we wanted to try it. It was a lot of work and long days and mentally exhausting, but it was the best kind of exhausting. It gives you energy.
With each record, your band is turning corners. Is that a deliberate choice or something more organic?
I think it kind of goes back to the things we started the interview with, that we’re just trying to keep learning and trying to keep getting better and better. We’re always looking to do things and bounce ideas off one another. We also try not to fall into a formula or repeat something that worked in the past as a crutch, something that might put us in a box. We try not to hold onto the wheels so tight. I would say it’s intentional in a way, but it’s not something where we think, “What are we going to do differently?” It’s just that things happen differently when you allow them to.