The Wild Reeds Share the World They've Built
Almost as often, and with as much need-to-know punch as the roadside billboards flooding their long tour routes, bands are told they need to have “that thing no one else has” to catch their big break. Folk rockers the Wild Reeds (Mackenzie Howe, Sharon Silva, Kinsey Lee, Nick, Phakpiseth, and Nick Jones) being led, not only by female presence but one with an equally balanced trio of women, effortlessly tick that industry box often inciting some shock when the group steps on stage. Nevertheless, the expectation or need for standard genre character inevitably dissolves, following the first distorted guitar chord or first overt mention of God and faith, tilting toward nervous but excited anticipation for artistically unusual territory. Positive aftershocks arise in audiences, left hidden until praise among admittance of uncertainty follows the band's last song.
Now signed with Dualtone, the group released their second LP today, The World We Built. And the band makes it clear that this chapter isn't about detaching from their own history.
“[The World We Built] just ended up being an empowering record for all of us and we hope that's what it [will] be for other people,” says Mackenzie Howe, talking with me over the phone from the Golden State. “[B]ecause it is about the struggle of three women and of the two guys in our band and what that's like: being in the world, being young and touring, and who we meet, and what we experience.”
The resulting 11 tracks, introduced by stark cover art, bring together the heart of folk with the experimental excitement of alternative rock, thanks to the edgier and rock-slanted insight of producer Peter Katis (The National, Interpol, Honeyblood). It illuminates the honesties, realities, and individual coping mechanisms that have accompanied the Wild Reeds to the present, existing with unspoken grace as a standalone discovery that recounts the highs and lows of what the band has worked through to get here.
Kira Grunenberg: One initial thing I noticed, is the cover art for The World We Built. There’s this dramatic symbol of a skull as the central design but it’s covered with a stark color and surrounded by a generally muted aesthetic: was that intentional or just how things panned out?
Mackenzie Howe: So, we really had to wrestle with it for about a month and there were a lot of different images and imagery in general that we came up with. [The final image] was just the one that we settled on between all of us. I think in a lot of ways, to us, it feels like the record because it's got some muted colors, the flowers are gentle, and even the pastel-y green-yellow is gentle. There's something about the image of a skull that just intrinsically reminds people of death and yet, we put little things in there to also remind you of birth – like the flowers. So, the record in general feels a lot like, not necessarily a death, but a graduation from who we all felt like we were and what we felt we sounded like. A lot of it had to do with being liberated and reborn as people and women with a different understanding of who we are and who we are as songwriters and just feeling like our sound changed. So, it does make sense to us metaphorically but it's grown now for us, to look like the record sounds.
The dripping skull is rather blank and you can kind of think, 'Well what would they be filling that with?' and you have all these different viewpoints from within your band regarding how you feel about it. I think that's really appropriate.
Awesome! And like, one little funny trivia point [about] the stuff that's dripping over the skull: There was a big rug in the house where we recorded and we took the centerfold picture for our record on this big rug. What's dripping on the skull is actually, texturally, the rug, if you look at it up close!
In calling the album The World We Built, can I infer the title is connected with the idea of summarizing everything that made the band what you guys are up to this point?
It definitely has a dual or [even] triple meaning. I mean, there's a song on the record called “The World We Built” but that's really just a love song. But, we decided to call it that because a lot of the record has to do with feeling like we tackled a lot of personal and societal hurdles [with] being a female-fronted touring band. So, it's referring to the world that we built within the five of us, to keep each other together and learn how to love each other on the road. But it also refers to world we built as in, the structures, the systems, and the patriarchal society we live in, and trying to overcome that as female performers, [as well as] overcome things within ourselves. So yeah, it refers to us in our own unit but also the world on a broader spectrum.
Throughout the album, the topic of spirituality seems to come up repeatedly, the most prominent example being the single "Only Songs." I'm curious as to where spirituality fits into everything for you all.
For all three of us, as writers, it's definitely a huge part of [everything]. I'm glad that's something that you noticed or just felt in general. Both Kinsey and Sharon grew up in Christian families. The church was a large part of their upbringing. Sharon and I met at a Christian college and I think – even with what I was saying about the title of The World We Built, and us sort of tying to ideologies that we had once believed in or felt true to us – part of that is the fundamental side of the church and God and I think the cool thing is that none of us ever, even in disagreeing with things that we were taught growing up, none of us ever gave up on the idea of God, or the universe, or goddess. For us, it's still a huge part of our band. I can't say that anyone ascribes to one particular ideology – I can't speak for the girls necessarily. I don't know what anybody would say what they are but, I mean, we still all pray as a band once in awhile, and personally. We still talk about having “God moments” or really beautiful moments that you know that there was just some otherworldly experience happening in the room. We're not afraid to include that imagery and those feelings in our music because we don't feel like “a Christian band.” We just feel like a band that has experiences that we want to write about and whether those involve God or, cosmic or spiritual experiences or not, it's just going to come out in your music.
There have been bands that made it mainstream, that everybody knows are Christian bands. That they just sort of subliminally slip stuff in there to appeal to both [secular and religious] audiences and that's definitely not us. We're not trying to secretly put religious messages or imagery in our music. I think it's more that we just don't know how to separate from spirituality, for us personally.
I think people will know it's all coming from a genuine place.
Yeah, totally! And even with that single, “Only Songs,” the way that the bridge sounds, saying, 'It's not what you've got that will get you to God,' it sounds really sort of sweet and sincere but it was almost like a snarky comment. I don't know the right word but it was almost like, 'Everything you thought you knew probably is not what you're going to end up knowing.' You know? That whole song is about how everything I thought I knew growing up that I wanted and that was going to make me successful and make me happy – the career, the relationship, and the God I thought I believed in – all those things have ended up not being what's important in the end. It's really trying to encompass that idea.
Some music fans call for artists to stick to music and not inject politics, or anything controversial, into something perceived as intended for innocuous enjoyment. Still, others feel music isn't a safe thing and that its intrinsic value runs deeper than that. Given that your band doesn't shy away from very emotional and occasionally controversial subjects, personal pains and joys, how do you feel about defending music's value and how do you try to convey the idea that music isn't about being safe?
I don't think music is supposed to be safe either. It's definitely a question of is music just entertainment? And it's not just entertainment. There's this quote, and I cannot remember who wrote it or said it: "Art exposes a society to itself." I think, for us, we don't have an agenda. We're not trying to push a certain message. It's honestly just whatever we're going through at the time and how it comes out. And I think that's what was surprising about this record. We picked 11 out of 20 songs, not [thinking] this is this concept for this record. It just ended up being an empowering record for all of us and we hope that's what it would be for other people just because it is about the struggle of three women and of the two guys in our band and what that's like, [in so far as] being in the world, being young, and touring and who we meet and what we experience.
I think we're never going to play it safe. We're just going to be honest. We decided to sew some patches on this last tour, in light of the political situation in the States in the last couple months and a lot of them are very overtly feminist and femme-powered and geared toward our fans. We decided we were going to hand sew them and give all the proceeds to the Downtown Women's Center in Los Angeles because we wanted to do something local. I think there's a responsibility of artists because you have a platform that other people don't have and the political is personal. It's really just how deeply you want to get into that. If you want to be a highly political or controversial artist or, if you want to sprinkle some of it in there however you feel like it's true to you. But once you decide that you're going to push an agenda, if that's not just what naturally comes out of you then I don't really know what to say.
Does the band discuss these things before putting an idea out into the world?
We talk about it as a band. How active do we want to be? What do we want to put on the internet? What do we want to say? I think that'll continue to grow but we're very aware of our responsibility as three women who perform, how we treat the guys in our band, how the guys treat us, how we treat each other. You know, people are not used to seeing three lead singers and three women in one band. We're used to one woman and usually she's got some sort of sexy power to her on stage and it draws everybody in. But three women who all share lead vocals and back each other up? It goes against everything that society knows about what women are supposed to do. We're supposed to tear each other down for male approval somehow. And for the three of us to figure out how to support each other in front of people and give each other the spotlight, I think sometimes alarms and confuses people [but] also really empowers people. So just our presence alone, without even having to really think about it, defies the structure of what most performances and bands look like right now.