Most listeners became familiar with River Whyless in 2016 after the band was featured on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert. Two years later, they’re back with their second album Kindness, A Rebel, an album that transcends the band’s designation as folk/Americana, often a catch-all for music that’s a little unique to to fit a specific genre cleanly. Kindness, A Rebel finds River Whyless embracing their roots while obviously maturing in both musicality and songwriting: their second single, “Born in the Right Country,” is a haunting, politically motivated statement, aided visually by a striking music video that premiered in conjunction with the album.
Recently, The Young Folks caught up with band members Daniel Shearin and Halli Anderson at Clearwater’s Great Hudson River Revival (a music and environmental festival in upstate New York founded by Pete Seeger), one of just many stops on River Whyless’ extensive summer tour.
The following has been slightly edited and condensed for clarity.
TYF: Why don’t you guys tell me about the band. You started in Asheville [North Carolina]?
Daniel Shearin: We met in Boone, very close to Asheville, moved there and then recorded some records, hit the road.
TYF: How long have you been playing together?
Halli Anderson: Me and Ryan [O’Keefe] and Alex [McWalters] have been playing together for, I don’t know, since 2007, but Dan was the first person I met in college. I met him through music, because I was cruising through one of those new dorms in my new college and I was ready to make friends, and I heard The Beatles, I think it was The Beatles, coming from someone’s dorm room, and young college Halli decided to go pop my head in and there was Daniel sitting there with a friend and he was playing music. I didn’t know at the time that he would be joining me and Ryan and Alex and be in this band that’s a very deep rooted family unit. I just thought “oh, someone’s playing Beatles, how cool! My first college friend!” and actually he’s gonna be one of my best friends when I’m in my 30s.
TYF: It’s funny how that works.
HA: Yeah, a lot of things have happened and we’ve shared a lot together and we’ve played a lot of music together.
TYF: When you were in college, did you know that this is what you wanted to do?
DS: I knew that I would be bummed not to do it, but I don’t remember if I thought at the time that I would actually…
TYF: Have a career.
DS: Yeah. I remember the moment, somebody from the high school I went to, a few years ago a current student sent me an email like, “hey we’re doing a project about following your dreams and making a career of what you love and I just wanted to reach out and ask you about being a career musician” and I was like I guess I am. I guess I never realized that.
HA: That’s the first time you learned.
TYF: “I guess I have a job.”
DS: Yeah, I guess I haven’t done anything else for a long time. That would just be irresponsible at this point to not call it a career.
TYF: I was thinking, because I was listening to your new album and it’s somewhat political, obviously you’re wearing your ‘Make America Kind Again” shirt, and I was thinking this is kind of the perfect venue for you guys almost.
HA: I had that thought this morning. I put this “Make America Kind Again” shirt on and I thought, well I don’t know, this seems… I don’t want people to be offended by what I’m wearing, but then I thought I do believe in that sentiment, I do believe in this message, and if there’s anywhere to represent it, I feel like it’s this place. And I should be wearing it in places that might disagree, so that the message can be carried along, but I don’t know, I don’t think anyone would want to argue with making a place kind.
TYF: Why don’t we talk about the album. Some of it is political, especially “Born in the Right Country.” The music video is pretty intense.
DS: Well, I guess the concept for the album, it just kind of happened to be a collection of songs that we were all kind of thinking about the same thing at the same time. We never sought out to make a “political album” and you know, there are a lot of parts of the album that aren’t necessarily political, and there are parts that would be on the album regardless that might have a political lean to them, but they’re just thoughts about life. This particular part of our existence as Americans especially, it’s just it seems that it’s a conversation that you just can’t help but have. If you’re really speaking from your heart and speaking about things that are on your mind, then it’s gonna be there. I think all of us were just writing songs and were like, well, this is just what we’re all thinking about, so here it is, this is what we came up with.
TYF: How long did it take you to write this album? I know all of you are songwriters.
DS: Yeah, it kind of depends on where you start counting there, some of the songs are older than others, but the bulk of it was written probably within a year and a half if you start at the inception of sitting down with a guitar and starting to write a song. Then, you know, we all met up and started trading ideas back and forth and from that moment it all happened within six months.
HS: Couple months, yeah. Once the band started working together, it went very quickly. The recording was only in three weeks.
TYF: Three weeks is nothing.
DS: Yeah, we did the bulk of the writing in probably a month and the recording in less than a month, and then that’s the end of that.
HS: But those ideas, you know, they’ve been floating around for longer. I think it’s kind of a snapshot of where we all are at this moment at our age and in the country and with each other. We all happened to be feeling similar things, which is great when you have multiple songwriters. If we’re all on the same wavelength then you kind of end up with an album that is a little more cohesive.
TYF: You recorded it in Texas?
DS: We did.
TYF: I read that you guys like to travel around and record in different places. Was that a conscious decision?
DS: Texas was happenstance. We had a friend who hooked us up with a studio. He kept telling us, “you gotta check it out, you gotta check it out,” and it worked out great. We do like to leave home when we do stuff like that, because otherwise life keeps getting in the way and you can’t fully immerse yourself. The way we like to record albums is [to] spend every waking moment together and then go to sleep and wake up and it just never really leaves your mind, so you can go a little deeper into it that way versus like, oh yeah, I got an appointment with my landlord, or I gotta go get dinner.
TYF: Speaking of which, you guys have had a lot of life changes recently. You moved to Oregon?
HA: I did, I moved to Astoria, Oregon.
TYF: That must shake up the dynamic of the band a little, because you guys aren’t with each other all the time. You have to plan to record and rehearse.
HA: Yeah, it’s a big shift. It’s been a big change. The good thing is, my move was never a representation of me leaving the band. It’s more like okay, we’re graduating into another level of music making where we can still focus on our lives and have everything content for ourselves and our partners and our families and create that portion of life and nurture it, so that when band time happens, it’s coming from a good place, we’re all ready and we’re all happy to be together. The move has been good. Scheduling has been tough and I do miss the guys. We do communicate over text and emails and that’s difficult, because we prefer to be face to face, but I think we’re working it out.
DS: I think it’s probably easier for me to exist this way, because I don’t have to fly back and forth. I just get the benefit of not having to… We used to sort of always be on call in a way, like our manager would call us and be like “well, we’ve got this show in Knoxville and it’s next weekend, what do you think?” And you know, of course if we have a weekend off we’re going to make plans, because we never get a weekend off, and then all of a sudden we all have to cancel our plans and play this show, so that doesn’t really happen anymore, because she has to fly across the country. That part’s really nice.
TYF: You’re on a pretty extensive tour this summer.
HA: Yeah. It’s exciting.
TYF: You were in Massachusetts last night, right? Can you remember?
HA: Nope! [laughs]
DS: It was a late night.
HA: Every once in a while… we plan well, I think, our tours. We try to give ourselves a healthy amount of sleep and a good morning routine, but every once in a while there are two [dates] that just don’t line up quite right. We find ourselves driving into the night and then getting up early in the morning.
TYF: That’s rough.
HA: I try to tell my family, nu-uh, it’s not rock-n-roll. We’re a small business and everything is in order and then we have those nights and I’m like oh yep, still in a band. I’m still chugging along. And it feels good every now and then.
DS: Keeps you on your toes.
TYF: Your style seems to be evolving. Do you feel that way?
DS: I think it’s just one of those things where we’re following our instincts in the studio and in the rehearsal space. We try not to analyze it too much, because once you start trying to analyze it then sometimes you’re putting unnecessary boxes around yourself. And we worked with a producer this time. He actually did a really good job of getting ahold of all these flying parts and catching and putting a net on them and making them make sense together.
HA: It feels strange for me, personally. I feel like music sort of changes and grows with the individual — as we grow up in life, things that influence us, different bands we discover, or different moods we’re feeling, or any sort of stimulation from the environment sort of changes you as an individual. So for me, I think, making the same music, but then changing as a person, they don’t match. It’s totally possible for some folks, I guess, and I guess it would be possible for us too, but it doesn’t quite feel natural to just sort of stay in the realm that we were. I think things inevitably will change for every record that we make whether we want them to or not. It’s just kinda gonna be what it’s gonna be.
TYF: Are you already thinking about the next album?
HA: We always say we’re not going to and then we end up talking about it.
HA: Two days later.
TYF: I know for most bands, you work on an album for like a year plus and then as soon as you put it out it’s new, but for you, you’ve been working on it for over a year and you have new songs you want to put out.
DS: We talk about it in the way it would be different from this album, what are the things we like about this album. We need to make sure we hang onto that concept. But everything we’re saying right now is just…
DS: Completely subject to change. It’s fun to talk about.
HA: There’s always that notion of oh shit, we’re doing it again, we’re talking about the next one, we haven’t even agreed if there’s gonna be a next one.
DS: Yeah, here we are, one week in.
TYF: How does it feel to finally release Kindness, A Rebel?
DS: We’ve been done with it for so long, it just, it’s like wow, finally, people can hear it now, because we finished it. I mean it was totally done in the beginning of January and then we slowly did the whole release process. By the time June came around it was like good lord, still nobody has heard this.
TYF: Right, like didn’t we already put this out?
TYF: When I was listening to the album, I thought, some of this sounds like Paul Simon, and in a lot of reviews people have said the same thing. Have you been hearing a lot of that?
DS: Yeah, I think, um, like a lot of the percussive developments and some of the songwriting choices, maybe the way the cadence and the vocals sometimes might be reminiscent of his. I certainly would take that as a compliment. I love Paul Simon. I think we all do.“`
TYF: Who are some artists that you guys admire?
DS: I don’t know if I have a favorite record, but I would say the one that no matter what stage of my life I’m in, I always tend to love is Nick Drake. All of his stuff… there’s never been an issue with Nick Drake, every part of my life, I still love it.
HA: I love that you said Nick Drake. That fits in a lot of different walks of life, or moments in life. Mine probably would be Van Morrison, older Van Morrison, maybe Astral Weeks. It’s funny, each member of the band has pretty different tastes from the other members.
TYF: Oh yeah?
HA: Somehow we meet in the middle and what you get is the mix of all our different tastes communicated. We only have a few bands that the four of us all get really excited about together. There are only a handful of them.
DS: Part of the reason we’re staying [at Clearwater] is to see Jeff Tweedy today.
HA: Yeah, Wilco is one that we all agree on. I could call that an influence.
TYF: So since you all have different tastes, how did you land on the sound of the band? Did it just sort of happen, or did you have a discussion about it, or…
DS: Definitely the former. [We] just keep tinkering around, and things that struck us all, or at least struck some of us, would stick and then other things would strike other people and then it all kind of blended together and came to be whatever sound you want to call us. I think anytime we try to discuss something like that we just tend to squash it.
HA: It’s true, you can’t touch it too much. You can’t talk about it, or you end up compromising it. It’s a strange magic that floats around and you can’t try to grab it.