Part of the first line in author John Steinbeck's To A God Unknown reads, "When the crops were under cover on the Wayne farm near Pittsford in Vermont, when the winter wood was cut ..." But just a sliver of the sentence inspired a whole song for the Asheville-based indie-folk band River Whyless. The song "Maple Sap" is the second on the band's new self-titled EP, slated for release on Jan. 20.
"That's what actually started the song and, of course, it took its own form after that," says vocalist/guitarist Ryan O'Keefe. "I like to draw a lot of inspiration from other artists. I don't think there's a reason to reinvent the wheel. I think you have to just build on what's out there and create something new. Reading and listening to music becomes like studying at this point."
The band, performing at the Evening Muse on Jan. 21, is comprised of founding members O'Keefe, Halli Anderson and Alex McWalters — who played in bands together for the past eight years and attended Appalachian State University — and Daniel Shearin.
Literature is a strong influence in the group's work, the name Whyless borrowed from an E.E. Cummings poem that makes reference to a "whyless sky." The band's former name, Do It to Julia, came from George Orwell's 1984. Its previous EP, A Stone, A Leaf, An Unfound Door, came from a quote out of the legendary Asheville novelist Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel.
"Alex and I had been talking about Eastern philosophy and this saying: 'You can never stand in the same river twice,'" O'Keefe says. "It was just the sense that you're always moving forward or your surroundings are always moving forward and it's best to embrace that. So, that's kind of where Whyless came into the equation. To me, Whyless means unquestioned. It's the idea that it's going to happen no matter what: we're all going to get older, we're all going to die, we're all to move forward in our lives and sometimes it's best to embrace that sort of movement. We felt like the river sort of captured that."
The new EP features five tracks that were recorded in Louisville, Kentucky, at La La Land studio under the direction of Kevin Ratterman (whose creds include work with Andrew Bird, My Morning Jacket, and Jim James).
"He [Ratterman] is so adept to just really pushing you forward and creating really beautiful sounds in his studio," O'Keefe says. "He knows it back to front. When you have someone like that setting up microphones and giving you advice on takes, it's really easy to just think into the creative side of things and not really think about the technical side, which gets in the way a whole lot when you're recording at your own studio where you're engineering it yourself and you're running from the control room hitting record and then running in and singing a track and then running back out. It was just a new, different experience and I think everybody liked doing it this way."
This EP, unlike the band's last, which was recorded over the course of a month at O'Keefe's uncle's home in Martha's Vineyard, was recorded and finished in just four days. It strives to capture the group's sound in an intimate setting, reminiscent of a live performance.
River Whyless last performed in Charlotte on Nov. 26, when they opened up for the Knoxville-based honky-tonk act Black Lilles at the Neighborhood Theatre. The group's live shows offer a harmonious ambience with vocals rotating between O'Keefe and songstress Anderson, who also captivates the setting with her hypnotic violin skills.
"Sometimes we get this comment that people enjoy the live show more because there's some sort of energy that revolves around that live music sound, and maybe our music in particular. So, this time we were pretty conscious about that when we were doing the recording."