If there's a single theme that shapes The Wild Reeds' new record The World We Built, it centers on the word liberation.
Yet in a band that combines not only three lead vocalists but three distinct songwriters, that theme's rendered in three subtly different ways. And as those voices harmonize, so do those lyrics, creating a thoughtful, nuanced and dynamic album that rings with the honesty of varied perspectives.
Kinsey Lee, Sharon Silva and Mackenzie Howe—along with drummer Nick Jones and bassist Nick Phakpiseth—came together about five years ago in Los Angeles and earned a local following with the release of the 2014 album Blind and Brave. The young band developed its own folk-rock take, and its new songs brim with energy and beauty.
"I think gradually our songwriting has grown into each other in a cool way," Howe says. "We bounce off each other and our styles have changed with our development."
Released last week on Dualtone, The World We Built is a creative leap that has the band receiving major praise from the likes of NPR Music. "Think Crosby, Stills and Nash," says the influential Bob Boilen in describing both the vocal and songwriting strengths of Lee, Silva and Howe. Indeed, "Fix You Up" sounds like an echo down Laurel Canyon circa spring 1969, coming off the front porch of Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash.
More, the album's title deftly spins a secondary meaning out of the song "The World We Built," creating separation from a love song to refocus the words more on the band's development over the years and how those experiences informed the lyrics.
"A lot of the record is about liberation, whether it's being stuck in your day job grind and wanting to get out, or breakups," Howe says. "We just had the songs and we whittled them down and found the common theme.
"A lot of it speaks to us facing the actual world we live in, being women in a patriarchal society and having to prove ourselves constantly, and how that can weigh you down. But at the same time it's about the world that is the five us. We're together 24 hours a day on the road and we've had to grow up on the road."
Part of that means waking up to the fact much of life doesn't turn out in the sort of neat way young women have been taught to expect, Howe says, which is reflected in different ways across the album, from the cover art of a skull, with its eyes covered in dripping paint, to the trio's lessons-learned lyrics like "Part of growing up is knowing when to walk away," on "Catch and Release."
Thematically, the Wild Reeds found themselves writing their own individual takes on some of the more common and shared experiences they've had since forming the band, finding what they want out of life and latching on. Howe, on the album's first single "Only Songs," sings, "The only thing that saves me/Are these songs I sing, baby." "Songs tends to come out of really true bursts of emotion. This one just happened to come from a time when I was feeling rejected and I thought that when all else fails I have music and I have this band and I have the ability to sing about it," she says. "When relationships go to crap, or friendships or jobs or circumstances, I can pick up a guitar and sing about it."
Lee wrote "Fall To Sleep" about rushing between jobs and rehearsal, fighting off the exhaustion of trying to earn a living outside music while putting all their creative energy into the band. Howe says the song came out of a six-month period of time when the band members were trying to quit jobs and move ahead with music, yet still having to juggle all the separate aspects of their lives.
"She sings in the chorus 'Fall to sleep holding onto something sweet,'" Howe says. "It's that same thing, you fall to sleep with this little a bit of hope that this thing you're working super hard toward works out."
The way Silva frames it, on the slow-burn album closer "Fruition," centers on the line "I am not looking for lasting happiness/I'm looking for worth."
"She's saying the same things that I'm saying on 'Only Songs,'" Howe says. "You have to find the things that are lasting. Those are what will bring you inner contentment. It's about the same theme, told in different ways. We find that happens all the time."
Despite the heavier themes, the band brings a sense of humor to their work as well. Filming a clip for "Only Songs," The Wild Reeds leveraged a bit of unfortunate circumstance to make a more memorable music video. The idea, brainstormed in advance, centered on the band holding a garage/lemonade sale to earn quick cash to replace a guitar.
"The one part that we could not figure out was how we were going to shoot my guitar getting stolen. ... I normally don't leave stuff in there but my neighborhood is pretty quiet and I got a little too trustful," Howe says. "They'd smashed my window and it took me a few minutes to realize everything was gone. I was bummed but we had to go shoot that day so I called my director and asked 'Do you want to shoot my broken window?' The scene wrote itself. But luckily my guitar wasn't in there."
After years of songwriting, demoing and playing shows, the band singed to Dualtone, home to The Lumineers, Shovels & Rope and Langhorne Slim. The label support gave The Wild Reeds the opportunity to select top-tier producer Peter Katis (Interpol, The National) for The World We Built.
"Our last record was a bit more pastel feeling and we were a lot younger, so we really hadn't developed our sound. Peter was able to help guide some of the songs in a way that we wouldn't have imagined," Howe says. "We're excited to play these songs out on the road every night."