Separate and Together: The Wild Reeds

Saying Cheers to the joys and struggles of making music as a band

On Cheers, each of the Wild Reeds' three songwriters became stronger individually, and the band is better for it.

In between 2017's The World We Built and Cheers, released on March 8, the band took some time off. The band members—songwriters, singers and multi-instrumentalists Mackenzie Howe, Kinsey Lee and Sharon Silva, and drummer Nick Jones and bassist Nick Phakpiseth—pursued other projects, solo or otherwise, but with the understanding that they'd regroup and everyone would bring new things back to the Wild Reeds.

"We had a lot of time off before making the record and some time off after and we were really able to spread our own wings. As much as we're a unit, that was the first time we allowed each other and ourselves to go our own ways," Howe says. "That takes a lot of confidence in each other and a lot of commitment to each other."

Broadly speaking, The Wild Reeds are a folk-rock quintet, but the band is less constrained stylistically than ever, ranging from power-pop to ballads on Cheers. There's a thematic breadth too on the album, even in the seeming simplicity of songs like the title track. It's about cheering people on, cheering them up, and the celebratory 'cheers!'.

"There are all kinds of things that come with three artists, three writers, who come together and compromise. That's the feeling of 'Please keep cheering for me,' not just the people out there who care about us, but each other," Howe says. "People don't often know what to do with three lead singers, but we work really hard to collaborate and to share the limelight and the stage with one another. We've always had struggles as a band and we've always worked through them."

Having multiple songwriting voices collected into a single band isn't the norm, but neither are Wild Reeds the first to function that way (NPR Music's Bob Boilen has compared them to Crosby, Stills and Nash). What Wild Reeds have found is a way to encourage each other and to create a sort of conversation between their songs.

"The way that we write is separately and then we come together with the material and work on it as a band. For the most part, lyrics, melodies and chords are written, to the point it can be performed acoustically. But in recent years we've gotten better at collaborating on arrangements," Howe says. "When we start playing the songs as the full band, the feeling and the vibe of the songs comes out. Sometimes the writer would think it would be acoustic, but then then it comes out as more rocking. So we let the song be what it wants to be."

The recording process is when the band shapes those disparate songs and voices into something singular, into an album that has an identity that can unify all the elements. As the band whittles its batch of songs down, a theme emerges.

"We usually don't go into the recording process with a theme for the album because we're three different people, but out of the actual recording process itself, usually a theme or a feeling will reveal itself to us," Howe says. "Cheers refers to camaraderie and the separateness that comes with being in a band with five people, but also the inevitable compromise and collaboration."

Though the songs start with each individual writer, it takes the full-band contribution to bring it to life. And though the rhythm section of Jones and Phakpiseth joined after the trio was established, they're not merely hired guns.

"They're a full part of everything and sometimes people feel the band is us three writers but we definitely keep the guys in the loop," Howe says. "They're both great musicians, so it's fun to have them involved in arranging stuff and they give us a different perspective. They can see things from outside and inside."

The longer the band has been together, the more they've become committed to the project, which extends to working hard on maintaining the relationships and nurturing one another.

"We've been on the road the last five or seven years and we've given up a lot to our hearts into the project. We've done the best we can and there really is no right way," Howe says. "It's a real ebb and flow and a dance and a lot of uncomfortable communication, standing up for yourself and stating your needs and honoring each other and making sure your bandmates have what you need."

Those aspects of the band relationship influenced Cheers in some unexpected ways. In a couple instances, it wasn't a song's writer pushing to put something on the album, but a bandmate who saw some different potential.

"Sometimes each of us don't want to push our own songs too hard," she says. "No one wants to be a diva and sometimes we have to step in when we feel one of the others really wants something but doesn't want to say it."

Howe's "Play It Safe" was a new song, barely demoed, and one she wasn't sure fit with the batch of songs they'd built up.  

"I wasn't fond of it, but my bandmates really liked it and they were fighting for it to be on the record," she says. "It's about life in general and the balance between taking advice and taking risks and making mistakes. So it fits in with the general theme of the record."

Conversely, one of Lee's compositions had been around longer, but hadn't found its way to the forefront.

"'Lose My Mind' was maybe not even going to be recorded. Kinsey always loved it, but couldn't figure out the right feeling or vibe or arrangement," Howe says. "One day I went to our producer and said 'We really need to record the song.' It would be a disservice if we didn't at least give it a shot. We jammed and jammed for hours and got the groove we have on the record."

So Cheers reflects a different band and different band dynamics than The World We Built. Life's challenges build deeper relationships and the Wild Reeds have proven a lot to one another.

"It felt right to call it Cheers and that goes back to the theme of the album," Howe says. "There were a lot of internal struggles and independently a lot of things that happened in each of our lives that made us have to get stronger and communicate better. In the process of getting more independent, we committed to each other. We busted open the doors on some of our internal issues."

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