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We Are the Willows Turn Love Letters Into an Orchestral Folk Masterpiece

L-R: Peter Miller, Hilary James, Leah Ottman, Stephen Lindquist, Travis Collins, and Jeremiah Satterthwaite

L-R: Peter Miller, Hilary James, Leah Ottman, Stephen Lindquist, Travis Collins, and Jeremiah Satterthwaite

We Are the Willows | Turf Club | Saturday, December 13
We Are the Willows' second full-length album, Picture [Portrait], is like a period film — dreamy, lush, and filled with nostalgia and yearning. Concept albums are always ambitious, and this one is no exception. Within, the Minneapolis indie folk act's lead singer, Peter Miller, has pieced together the story of his grandparents' courting days based upon 350 evocative old letters.

Miller lived with his grandparents while he was in college. His grandmother Verlie would sometimes speak of the letters her eventual husband Alvin would write. His interest piqued, Miller asked to read them, but she insisted they'd be of no interest. Finally, when Miller graduated from college, she gave them to him as a gift.

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"The idea of the person you will be with for the rest of your life and where that leads you is one of the most universal human experiences between one's biology and one's choices," Miller says. "I'm interested in these ideas as a whole."

The letters detail Alvin going off to World War II and show the uncertainty and vulnerability that comes with falling in love. After reading through the letters, Miller came to We Are the Willows with basic chords and ideas of what he felt best represented each portion of the story, and they shaped the melodies on top of his framework. Told in first person from his grandfather's point of view, the orchestral tracks pull direct quotes from the letters.

According to Travis Collins, who plays bass in the group and has played with Miller for years in other bands, the album came together in a positive environment.

"I was always envious of how things worked in these projects that Peter was in, and I realized with We Are the Willows, it was always fun going to practice," he says.

Leah Ottman, who contributes violin and keys, adds, "We're all close friends, and we get along really well. We all have the same vision and drive, and that's not always the case in bands."

Above the orchestral layer built around the six-piece band — filled out by Stephen Lindquist on drums, Jeremiah Satterthwaite on guitar and banjo, and Hilary James on cello and keys — the story is brought to life with Miller's almost otherworldly singing voice. He sings in a range far higher than most male vocalists, but not in a falsetto, and displays an ocean-sized emotional depth.

Miller taking on the lead role in a band almost didn't happen. When he left for college, he was a drummer and that had always been his instrument of choice. Then, something clicked.

"I said, 'I'm gonna be a new person,' and wanted to create a new identity," he recalls. "So when I met new musicians, I would tell them I'm a drummer, but I wanted to try singing. I sang really poorly in some bands for a while, but I have a high voice anyways. I learned to develop my singing voice in a physiological way, and it became a definitive thing for me. It was never a conscious thing to bend my voice a certain way when I sing. It was more of a discovery than a decision."

Alvin passed away two years ago, so he never heard Picture [Portrait]'s final results. On the other hand, Verlie was one of the first people to hear the mastered tracks outside of the band. "I went to her apartment and got a couple of pairs of headphones, and we listened through together," Miller says. "I had printed off all of the lyrics for to read. When she started listening, she said she felt she had stepped back in time. She told me that I captured my grandfather's voice. It was the most affirming thing I could have heard. I wanted to honor them and their story, and I was afraid of mucking it up."

On the album, the outcome of the love story is never clear-cut — even if we do know how it turns out.

"It's amazing to think about, but I'm older now than my grandfather was when he wrote these letters," Peter shares. "He was this young person who was madly in love with one of five potential mates. When he was off at war, he had all of these limitations on what choices he could make, and the person he could be.... Reading the letters allowed me to learn about myself and how to live in this world."

WE ARE THE WILLOWS play a Picture [Portrait] release show with S. Carey and Marty Marquis on Saturday, December 13, at Turf Club; 651-647-0486

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