The Poorwills: Melodic Stalwarts Show New Folk-Pop Face

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The Poorwills will release Drink on The Wing on May 13 and will play a private invite-only show in Slowtrain's Subterranean Lounge for anyone who pre-orders the CD from Slowtrain. Photo: John Carlisle

Essentially carved out of the three separate acts of Bluebird Radio, Glade and The Devil Whale, the folk “super-group” of The Poorwills came together on a whim and spent nearly half a year putting together their debut album, Drinks On The Wing. Now, with a fully formed setlist, a release show on May 13 and possibilities of a tour, this on-the-fly project may be one of the best groups to emerge in 2011.

The Poorwills originally formed out of a temporary necessity. Glade Sowards was picked to perform in the 2010 City Weekly Music Awards, and he opted to create a backup band for the showcase rather than perform solo. He picked up bassist Jake Fish from The Devil Whale, and both Wren Kennedy and Joey Pedersen from Bluebird Radio for guitar and drums, respectively. As usual with the Utah music scene, all four had already worked together in various groups such as The Platte, The Black Hens and Dead Horse Point, so putting together a band on the fly under the short deadline wasn’t difficult.

Sowards may not have moved into the CWMA finals, but the evening proved fruitful as the newly created folk-pop quartet decided they liked what they heard and stuck with the lineup. The foursome delved into a pile of songs that Sowards had in reserve and began honing their sound while playing select shows around town and experimenting with the band’s identity in the process.

“I originally thought it would be an a-cappella harmony kind of deal,” says Pedersen on the creation of the group. “Which I thought would be cool, but it was nice to incorporate the instruments too, since we all play different stuff.”

Taking on the name of the Whippoorwill’s western cousin, The Poorwills officially formed in March of 2010 as an opening act for The Devil Whale and Bluebird Radio. The initial focus was strictly on the harmonies and pulled little influence from their other works in order to be more folk-pop oriented. After a few months, the group planned to take it on the road, but quickly realized they needed an official release for touring, and made the formal decision to head to the studio that May. The majority of the songs may have been written by Sowards ahead of time with his vocal range in mind, but in the planning stages, The Poorwills found themselves switching out singing duties based on the needs of each song, at times removing all instruments and working together to find the harmony of the song itself. By doing so, the group created a more folk-pop sound compared to their other projects.

“It’s fun for me to have people who are willing to go out on a limb,” says Sowards on creating folk-pop music. “It’s so hard to get people who want to do that. There’s this kind of threshold people have when it’s veering into a ‘pop thing’ and it’s becoming corny, they have a natural tendency to push away and do something edgier. I appreciate that these guys are willing to go out on that limb.”

After nailing the setlist, the initial plan was to record everything live in single takes. But the group was met with technical limitations and discovered tracking was harder than they assumed. The setback led them to formally cancel their plans to tour and forced them to take a different approach to the album. Looking to work with people they trusted, The Poorwills picked The Black Hens drummer Jesse Ellis to record and produce the album and used Jay Henderson’s studio, Feral Frequency, for mixing.

“I used to play with Jesse in The Black Hens and he’s recorded with a lot of folks in town. He’s really good and really reasonable to work with in terms of price and everything like that. It was more than he bargained for, but he was a really good sport about it,” says Sowards.

Rather than finding a formal studio for the recordings themselves, the group taped everything at various homes with only one professional studio recording set up for the piano. Pedersen and Fish hammered out all the drums and bass in the first session, but then it took over five months for the rest of the band to lay down guitars and vocals exactly how they wanted them.

“With the band being so harmony-based, we really wanted to get [the vocals] on point. We worked for quite a while getting those perfect,” says Pedersen.

That kind of dedication is what makes Drinks On The Wing an impressive standout. By putting the main focus on the vocals and making the instrumentation secondary, even the darkest lyrics and depressing subjects shine with delight and sometimes contain a hint of charm, heard best in songs like “Don’t Know Much” and “I’ve Shown My Face.” The music itself is portrayed as a beautiful landscape to each track, creating a backdrop to the stories told within, as if they played what felt natural at that very moment. The album encapsulates the late-’60s and early-’70s harmonized music that propelled musicians like The Beatles, The Beach Boys and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young into the mainstream. The album features enough throwback for older audiences, enough hook for younger ones and enough appeal to keep both coming back for more.

“I enjoy doing this, and as long as it’s fun for everybody, I can see us continue to play,” says Sowards. “Jake has some ideas for new songs, and I know Wren and Joey do, too. Now that it has become more of a band, it would be fun to see where it will go if we split the songwriting up more.”

For finishing touches, The Poorwills got Mary Toscano and Andrew Shaw to design the final album artwork as well as promotional material. Drinks On The Wing is currently available for pre-order at Slowtrain Records for just $10. To celebrate the release, everyone who pre-ordered the album will be invited to pick it up on May 13 during a private and intimate release show at the Slowtrain’s Subterranean Lounge, with guests Jay Henderson and David Williams.

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The Poorwills will release Drink on The Wing on May 13 and will play a private invite-only show in Slowtrain's Subterranean Lounge for anyone who pre-orders the CD from Slowtrain. Photo: John Carlisle