For River Whyless, Songwriting Is 'A Good Way To Wash The Soul' Ari Shapiro chats with the North Carolina folk band about some of the personal stories behind its album We All the Light.
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For River Whyless, Songwriting Is 'A Good Way To Wash The Soul'

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For River Whyless, Songwriting Is 'A Good Way To Wash The Soul'

For River Whyless, Songwriting Is 'A Good Way To Wash The Soul'

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

River Whyless is a quartet from North Carolina. They make folk music and also pull in threads from other genres and cultures.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL DAY ALL NIGHT")

RIVER WHYLESS: (Singing, unintelligible) All day coming down.

SHAPIRO: They trade off lead singer duties and swap instruments from one song to the next. Two members of the band came into the studio the other day. Halli Anderson and Ryan O'Keefe told me they've all done their own musical projects in the past, and they're still exploring what it means to sound like the quartet that is River Whyless.

HALLI ANDERSON: I would hope that it sounds as a cohesive thing, but if you're well studied, there are small pieces of our character that creep into the lyrics.

SHAPIRO: Give me one of yours.

ANDERSON: "Blood Moon"...

(SOUNDBITE OF RIVER WHYLESS SONG, "BLOOD MOON")

ANDERSON: ...Because I had a child that was being born into the family. It's my cousin. And her parents had tried really hard to have children for a long time, and the whole family was involved and supported them. And they had a child finally. And I was in awe at how hard they tried to have this beautiful being. And I felt selfish that I wasn't having a child yet and that I had chosen to play music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLOOD MOON")

RIVER WHYLESS: (Singing) Born on a blood moon, the other side of the sun (unintelligible) for everyone.

ANDERSON: And so I think my desire to be a mother even though I'm in a band, came out in the lyrics of "Blood Moon".

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLOOD MOON")

RIVER WHYLESS: (Singing) Mine can't be the womb that you were in. Breath in the new (unintelligible). We share the air tonight, motherless night.

SHAPIRO: Did your relative who had the baby know that this song was about her?

ANDERSON: They did. The night I wrote it, I was so emotional about it. The power had gone out in the house. There was a huge storm, and I was writing it by candlelight. And I was so thrilled by it and so affected by it. And I immediately texted my uncle and said, hey, I wrote a song about your daughter, and I'm so thankful that she exists.

And he wrote back to me, and he said, you know, I used to babysit you a lot when you were little, and I took care of you when your parents were getting divorced. I had you a lot, and you made me want to have a daughter.

And so we had a very intimate moment. And yeah, so I told him right away. And he's known ever since, but I don't think the girl has heard this song yet.

(SOUNDBITE OF RIVER WHYLESS SONG, "BLOOD MOON")

SHAPIRO: Ryan, where on this album do you hear what is distinctly you apart from River Whyless as a band?

RYAN O'KEEFE: Definitely in the song "Baby Brother" and its brother "We All Deserve The Light," which is the last song on the record. And they're kind of a...

SHAPIRO: A pair.

O'KEEFE: ...A pair.

(SOUNDBITE OF RIVER WHYLESS SONG, "BABY BROTHER")

SHAPIRO: Tell me what it is about this song that you think is so essentially you.

O'KEEFE: Well, the song is about my brother and our relationship. We were really, really close as kids, and then we grew apart as he went to college. And our paths started to change. And he had this moment where he got into kind of a deep depression.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BABY BROTHER")

RIVER WHYLESS: (Singing) Well, you can talk to God in the morning when you're sober.

O'KEEFE: So I went up to Maine and stayed with him, and we ended up just having a wonderful, like, weekend and kind of used the alcohol to get to the really deepest points of our relationship. I'm sure it was quite debaucherous.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BABY BROTHER")

RIVER WHYLESS: (Singing) Oh, Baby Brother...

O'KEEFE: But when the dust settled in the morning, I think we rekindled a deeper part of our relationship.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BABY BROTHER")

RIVER WHYLESS: (Singing) We all deserve the light. We all deserve the light.

O'KEEFE: The line, we all deserve the light, came from as he was explaining what depression was to me. He talked about just not seeing color in life anymore. And I writing that line, we all deserve the light, was trying to help him get out of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BABY BROTHER")

RIVER WHYLESS: (Singing) We all deserve the light.

SHAPIRO: You each told these really personal stories about these songs that you wrote in very emotional moments - Ryan about your brother, Halli, about your uncle having a child. And when that emotional moment, that song you wrote, becomes the thing you do every night, becomes your daily routine, what happens?

O'KEEFE: It's tough. I'm never going to reach that same moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE ALL DESERVE THE LIGHT")

RIVER WHYLESS: (Singing) Welcome to my cabin.

O'KEEFE: But you still find emotion in playing them live every night. I love singing at the end of that song "We All Deserve the Light" and just looking out into a crowd of people. It feels - it's different than I maybe intended when I first wrote that song about my brother, but now it's like - it feels like this anthem that I just want to share with everybody.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE ALL DESERVE THE LIGHT")

RIVER WHYLESS: (Singing) Well I understand we all deserve the light.

SHAPIRO: And for you?

ANDERSON: I'm similar to that, but I think the song to me has - when you write a song or when I write a song, it's like putting it in a deposit box or putting it in a vault of sorts. When I talk about these things, which I noticed earlier when I was speaking to you that I was getting emotional - it's when I talk about what the song is about is when I go back into the territory of why I had to write the song in the first place.

So to me, making these songs is sort of a freedom and a way to dispose of anything that's just been tumbling around inside my soul. And so being able to play them every night is a good way to wash the soul and get rid of the angst.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIFE CRISIS")

RIVER WHYLESS: (Singing) I am holding back my tongue. Try not to let it show, but all your friends and family seem to notice.

SHAPIRO: The new album from River Whyless is called "We All The Light." Ryan O'Keefe and Halli Anderson, thanks a lot.

O'KEEFE: Thanks so much.

ANDERSON: Thank you, Ari.

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