Sara Watkins

Sara Watkins

River Whyless

Wed, December 14, 2016

8:00 pm

Adv Tix $20.00 / Day of Show Tix $25.00

This event is all ages

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Sara Watkins
Sara Watkins
"This is a breakup album with myself..." says Sara Watkins of her third solo record, Young in All the Wrong Ways. Writing and recording these ten intensely soul-baring songs was a means for her to process and mark the last couple years, which have been transformative. "I looked around and realized that in many ways I wasn't who or where I wanted to be. It's been a process of letting go and leaving behind patterns and relationships and in some cases how I've considered myself. What these songs are documenting is the turmoil you feel when you know something has to change and you're grappling with what that means. It means you're losing something and moving forward into the unknown."

That sense of possibility infuses the songs on Young in All the Wrong Ways with a fierce and flinty resolve, which makes this her most powerful and revealing album to date. In some ways it's a vivid distillation of the omnivorous folk-pop-bluegrass-indie-everything-else Watkins made with Nickel Creek, yet she makes audacious jumps that push against expectations in unexpected ways. These songs contain some of the heaviest moments of her career, with eruptions of thrumming B3 organ and jagged electric guitar. But it's also quiet, vulnerable, tenderhearted. In other words, bold in all the right ways.

Recently Watkins found herself without a manager at the same time she was leaving the label that released her first two solo albums. For many artists that might be the worst possible time to enter the studio, but working without a net invigorated Watkins. It was important for her to document this time in her life when she was between professional contracts: free from the weight of obligation to anyone but herself. In that regard the tumultuous title track sounds like the first song of the rest of her life. Her backing band create a violent clamor, with Jon Brion's sharp stabs of electric guitar punctuating the din and Jay Bellerose's explosive drumming ripping at the seams of the song. In the chaos, however, Watkins finds clarity: "I've got no time to look back, so I'm going to leave you here," she sings, with new grit and fire in her voice. "I'm going out to see about my own frontier."

Fittingly, Watkins wrote or co-wrote every song on Young in All the Wrong ways—a first for her. Her previous albums have featured well-chosen covers that compliment her own songs and showcase her interpretive abilities. "I love singing other people's songs, and originally I did plan to have a couple of covers on the album. But as we were recording and getting a picture of how everything fit together, it became apparent that the covers really stood apart from the story that was taking shape. I felt like I just had a little bit more to say. Everything is coming from me, so there's a unified perspective on this album that's different from what I've done before."

Some are lonely and quiet: "Like New Year's Day" describes in careful detail a trip out to the desert, and the low-key arrangement echoes the reassuring isolation of the southwestern landscape. Other songs are more extroverted, their volume and energy a means to reach out to friends and colleagues. "Move Me" opens as a loping pop song, but soon explodes into a walloping rocker as Watkins demands, in a voice that strains against composure, "I want you to move me!" It's a time-stopping performance: Janis Joplin by way of Fleetwood Mac.

"That song is about relationships that have gone stagnant, how sometimes we just go about the process of making small talk in order not to stir anything up," she says. "But it's sad when you can't have a meaningful conversation with people after a while. Even if they hurt you, you just want to feel something from them. You don't relate to each other the same way as you once did, so you have to decide if you're going to invite this person further into your life or just move on."

Watkins knew just the right people to bring these tough-minded songs to life. She corralled longtime friend and fellow fiddler Gabe Witcher to produce, then put together a band that includes two of Witcher's fellow Punch Brothers: guitarist Chris Eldridge and bass player Paul Kowert. Providing harmonies on the title track are Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O'Donovan, Watkins' bandmates in I'm With Her, and Jim James of My Morning Jacket provides a vocal foil on "One Last Time." "I've known these guys for a long time, so there's a personal trust as well as a musical trust. I was able to put my heart and soul into these performances, in a way that I don't think I would be able to if I was in a room full of strangers. It allowed me to give myself over to some of these very personal thoughts that are in the lyrics."

To say these are personal lyrics might be an understatement. They're beyond personal, whether she's confessing some long-held regret or gently consoling a friend. Young in All the Wrong Ways ends with "Tenderhearted," a quietly assured song that Watkins wrote about a few of her heroes: women like her Grandmother Nordstrom who have weathered hard times with grace and have provided Watkins with examples of how to live her life. "They're women who have endured so much yet emerged with love, strength and kindness. I remember someone saying, It's so sad how much she's had to go through. And I remember thinking, That's why she's such an incredible person. She faced all those trials and came out the other side."

Watkins would never be so bold as to count herself in their company; instead, she aspires to follow their example. But Young in All the Wrong Ways does reveal an artist who has managed to transform her own turmoil into music that is beautiful and deeply moving: "God bless the tenderhearted," she sings, "who let life overflow."
River Whyless
River Whyless
“We stopped clinging to our individual visions,” says Ryan O’Keefe. “All our songs and ideas got thrown into one pot from which anyone and everyone was free to draw.”

“Nobody felt as though they were compromising because it was all completely new and unexplored territory,” adds Daniel Shearin.

“We were mashing songs together,” says Halli Anderson. “We were co-writing choruses and trading verses and switching instruments.”

“There was an energy,” adds Alex McWalters. “And the songs just kept coming.”

When River Whyless set out to write We All The Light (out August 26th on Roll Call Records), its three original members – O’Keefe, Anderson and McWalters – were already accustomed to “collaborating” with each other. Collaboration is a word often used to glamorize a much less appealing process: compromise. By definition, compromise requires mutual concessions. It means one must listen at least as much as one speaks. It’s a give and take, a back and forth, an amendment of individual visions for the sake of something greater. With We All The Light, River Whyless bought into that process.

In O’Keefe and Anderson the Asheville, NC band already had two accomplished songwriters. In McWalters, an idiosyncratic percussionist. They were accustomed to the slog of progress, to the necessary but often arduous give and take that ensures only the very best ideas survive. But when Shearin joined the band in 2012, River Whyless acquired not only an accomplished bass player and multi-instrumentalist, but also a third singer/songwriter. The new dynamic added yet another strong personality to an already potent lot, and the result was a period of creative gestation wherein the band’s four distinct musical voices struggled to coalesce into a single vision. In short, River Whyless worked for three years to compile a couple albums’ worth of songs that everybody liked, but not everybody loved.

It wasn’t till the band decamped to Maine in the summer of 2015 that We All The Light began to take shape. Set up in a woodshed, the only objective was to start fresh. New songs, new ideas. The slate was clean, and their minds, coerced by creative desperation, were open. Every morning, before entering the woodshed, they helped Joe, their host, haul cedar logs across the property. Joe was building another shed. It seemed an apt metaphor. The logs were large, and it took four people to haul them, and the ground was uneven. But it wasn’t complicated, as long as there was communication. One log at a time, piece by piece. This made sense to them. There was a newfound clarity. Compromise developed into actual collaboration.

In an attempt to further explore the virtues of collaboration, the band enlisted, for the first time, an outside producer.

Enter Justin Ringle, a musician and producer who was, ironically, accustomed to running his own show. Having written and self-produced five successful albums as the lead singer/songwriter behind Horse Feathers, Ringle had every right to expect a certain level of autonomy while working on We All The Light. But what proved Ringle’s greatest asset, aside from the obvious musical prowess his resume displays, was not necessarily his ability to impose his own creative vision. Rather, it was his ability to listen, to adapt and improvise, to effectively apprehend the level of complexity with which a band comprised of three songwriters and one discriminating percussionist tends to express itself. Ringle, embracing the collaborative spirit, understood that his job involved as much emotional orchestration as it did musical. He recognized how much love the band members had for each other and for their craft, and how that love, more than anything else, was the band’s greatest weakness; how the care and concern, expressed in different ways, was the thing that so often impeded their progress.

Ringle and the band worked with engineer Kevin Ratterman (who also mixed the album) in La La Land, a studio in Louisville, KY, where the album’s sonic foundation was recorded to tape. Then the group decamped again, this time to Ringle’s home in Astoria, Oregon, where they built a studio in the living room. Here is where they explored what Ringle recognized as the band’s strongest common denominator: its growing interest in global music. At its core, We All The Light is still very much a folk album. The global music influence is subtle, but significant in that it ties the record together, if not sonically, then spiritually. Which is not to say We All The Light is a religious album. It’s not that explicit. But it was music created outside the United States—of Africa and India and Asia—that inspired the band to experiment, to explore, and, most importantly, to have some fun. In “Kalangala,” for example, a track that includes tabla and kalimba, the band’s three songwriters sing in unison: “Here we are unbound,” a line that seems an apt encapsulation of the album’s musical and emotional attitude.

With three superlative singers and songwriters in O’Keefe, Anderson and Shearin, River Whyless consciously worked to blur the designation of a lead singer on We All The Light, deftly blending the three voices throughout the record. The trio’s vocals intertwine and layer together with gorgeous harmonies, rarely working alone. The vocal synergy is in many ways another instrument on We All The Light, adding additional colors and textures to the sonically adventurous mix.

The band’s music has already gained fans in the press. NPR Music’s Bob Boilen says the "immensely talented band from Asheville, N.C., was my favorite discovery at this year's Americana Music Festival. River Whyless builds its music around fiddle, guitar and harmonies, with imagination and textures that set the band apart from many of its acoustic and folk-based peers." Paste called their self-titled EP one of the best of 2015, saying "sometimes it can be hard to stand out in the crowd when you're producing experimental folk rock. Plenty of groups are capable of harmonizing well and turning simplistic rhythms into infectious anthems, but it's rare to find artists who can evoke as much emotion as River Whyless." River Whyless will make their Newport Folk Festival debut this summer, and also return to the Americana Music Festival in Nashville.

We All The Light is an album about heeding the need to adapt, to change, and, yes, to relinquish. It’s about submitting to the pains of compromise in order to honor the belief that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s about taking to heart the virtues of equality and learning how much more complicated that can be in practice than in theory. But also how rewarding.
Venue Information:
Troubadour
9081 Santa Monica Blvd
Los Angeles, CA, 90069
http://www.troubadour.com/

All lineups and times subject to change