‘‘We all deserve the light” members of River Whyless croon on “Baby Brother,” the captivating opener on their second full-length album. The lyric resurfaces in the record’s final stretch: It’s both the name and crux of the closing track, before it fades into reverie. The Asheville-based quartet even used the line to inform the album title, We All The Light.
“We decided to take the word ‘deserve’ out just because it made it a little more curious, a little more ear-catching,” says bassist Daniel Shearin. “And it also made it a little more inclusive and it kind of says, instead of like, ‘We all deserve this thing that is the light that we’re reflecting on,’ it’s almost saying ‘We all are the light,’ in fact, instead of separate from it in some way.”
This message of equality and hope is present throughout the album, which infuses string-laden folk with decidedly pop elements and flourishes of global music using violin, drums, harmonium, banjo, cello, guitars, piano and African instruments. In order to achieve such a diverse sound, the band came at the project with a different approach than it had in the past.
“I think the way that we’ve embraced most recently and with this record is to take verses from one song, a chorus from another or just riff from this random idea or words from this song put to the melody of this song. It’s very hodgepodge,” Shearin says. “When you’re writing a song, you kind of fall into the same patterns. And then when you take that pattern and remove part of it and put it on another pattern, then it kind of turns into this thing that we’ve never done before and a lot of that went on with this record.”
Shearin and the other band members Ryan O’Keefe (guitar, vocals), Halli Anderson (violin, vocals) and Alex McWalters (drums) met as students at Appalachian State University. They moved to Asheville, North Carolina, one-by-one after graduation. O’Keefe, Anderson and McWalters were already playing in a group together, and Shearin officially joined in 2012. He says Asheville has a way of seeping into the music.
“Musically, it’s filled with so many different things; you can kind of pick whatever you want. But there’s also the ubiquitous nature of the mountains…that kind of pulls the folk nature out of us, highlights it in a way that might not happen if we lived somewhere else,” he says. “The soul of the mountains is impossible to escape.”
The Southern Café and Music Hall
To glean different perspectives while songwriting, the band likes to decamp to areas outside of Asheville. The We All The Light sessions took them to a woodshed in Maine and a living room studio in Oregon belonging to Justin Ringle of the band Horse Feathers. After the group went on tour with Horse Feathers, Ringle offered to help produce its forthcoming record.
“We had this one batch of songs we’d been working on for quite some time and they weren’t clicking in a way that we were excited about,” Shearin says. “And we had two or three other songs that didn’t fit with this other group of songs.”
So they played Ringle the recordings and asked what he thought. He was way more interested in the extra songs that didn’t fit with the rest of the group.
“He was like, ‘You kind of have to pick one road or the other at this point,’” Shearin says. “And he was like, ‘You know, I suggest this road,’ and we all got on board with that pretty easily and that’s the sound that you hear on the record.”
That sound incorporates aspects of the world music that Shearin and the rest of the band are drawn to.
“I have listened to African music for a very long time, since high school and college. And the rest of the folks, I think they have, too,” Shearin says. “And together, we started exploring especially this one record by a band called Tinariwen—a North African band—that and some music from Asia.”
With arrangements and voices that dance around each other, the result is a ruminative collection of layers and textures that reveals something new with each listen. Songs like “Kalangala” were born by combining two different songs.
“All these little parts and bits and pieces of songs had been played around before that but then they were all like in this big melting pot and we pieced them all together,” Shearin says.
River Whyless’ global approach hasn’t gone unnoticed, and, in fact, the album’s title and content has received a renewed appreciation in the wake of the election.
“I think it’s something that’s changed its meaning with this past year’s political climate and it’s turning into something bigger than we initially intended and we’re accepting that and are very pleased with it, actually,” Shearin says. “We’re happy that that title especially and the songs that go with it seem to display a kind of inclusivity that seems to be on the chopping block in some ways these days.”