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Painting a portrait of We Are The Willows

We Are The Willows navigate murky emotional waters to deliver orchestral indie-folk.
Minneapolis-based band We are the Willows.
Image by Patricia Grover
Minneapolis-based band We are the Willows.

The key to making a grown man cry has been discovered, and it resides right here in Minneapolis in the form of orchestral indie-folk band We Are The Willows.

We Are The Willows is the brainchild of lead singer and guitarist Peter Michael Miller. The band began as an offshoot of Red Fox Grey Fox, a local emo group that included Miller.

“[The project] started out as dumpster songs that didn’t really fit with Red Fox Grey Fox. … I started becoming more invested in all of those songs,” Miller said.

These “dumpster songs” started to collect, eventually evolving into two EP’s and the 2009 full-length “A Collection of Sounds and Something Like the Plague.”

In 2010, Miller started touring solo full time, performing the songs across the country while living out of his van. He returned to Minneapolis later in the year, when he was able to gain residency at the 331 Club.

Miller decided to experiment with a string quartet to accompany his music.

“That was the moment I realized that this is what We Are The Willows needed to sound like all along,” Miller said.

That sound is a blend of the weep-worthy falsetto of Iron & Wine, the instrumentation of This Will Destroy You and the quirkiness of the Magnetic Fields.

This year will see the band’s first release since 2011’s “Places.” The record will also be the debut release for the current lineup, including cellist Hilary James.

The album, “Picture (Portrait),” is slated for late spring or early summer this year. Intended to be a 20-track release, the record is based on roughly 350 letters that Miller’s grandfather sent to Miller’s grandmother while he was stationed in the South Pacific during World War II.

“My grandma gave me these letters after I graduated from college, and I decided I needed to write songs about them,” Miller said.

Miller cites one letter as particularly important, in which his grandfather tells his grandmother about how the weather on the beach was as undependable as his alcoholic father.

“Those moments are the ones I would look for, and they would be really striking to me,” Miller said.

Even the title “Picture (Portrait)” holds special meaning for Miller.

“A picture of something is just one perspective of who somebody is, but a portrait is this whole idea of who they are. … [I]n a way this record is an attempt to both capture a picture of somebody but also communicate this whole notion of who they are,” Miller said.

We Are The Willows guitarist and banjo player Jeremiah Satterthwaite did most of the heavy lifting with recording, getting vocal and guitar tracking help from Miller.

“We did all of it on our own. We did drums and strings at a church,” Lindquist said.

The record is currently in the mixing and mastering process.

The band was able to save on recording costs by having Miller play the Memorial Day weekend services at the church while paying the difference to rent the space, an experience that Miller admitted was a bit awkward.

Awkward because agnosticism played an enormous role in his earlier releases, specifically “A Collection of Sounds and Something Like the Plague.”

 “I was able to see a lot of things for what they actually are,” Miller said.


What: We Are The Willows
When: 9 p.m., Saturday
Where: Turf Club, 1601 University Ave., St. Paul
Cost: $7
Age: 21+


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