These two Minneapolis musicians have recorded a two song EP, Keep Your Head Up, released today, and I’ve come out of music writing hibernation this year to convince you to take a listen.
“Our first experiments in collaboration were so effortless and creatively invigorating that we decided to pursue finishing tracks and releasing them under our respective names to recognize our separate musical identities but also to reinforce our creative collaboration,” said Leavitt.
And even though they started recording before the pandemic, its arrival didn’t slow their roll. Their method was already one of recording remotely, and sharing files back and forth between home studios. There was no time limit, no deadline, and few expectations. They just wanted to make music for the sake of seeing how it felt.
“As it turns out, working together feels REALLY AWESOME!” according to Miller. “I loved every bit of music that Matt sent back to me. I was surprised and excited each time.”
This enthusiasm for the creative process clearly shows in the songs themselves.
Early on, Miller asks the rhetorical question, “why did I get so high?”—as if it wasn’t obvious that we must do something (anything?) these days to distract and relieve our minds from this accelerating and relentless cycle of current events.
It’s one of my favorite types of tunes—a blunt, upbeat song about a non-upbeat subject—and it’s executed perfectly, striking the balance between the two with seemingly effortless precision.
It gets a bit lost within itself at times, musically illustrating the knots of which Miler sings. He’s feeling this song more than he is planning it, like they’re making it up as they go, which makes the ending strangely satisfying; as if suddenly, the knot unravels once you accept it exists.
If you can’t tell, I love this two song EP. It’s both a lovely listen on its own and a tease of something more to come. And if you’re like me and want to know more about this music, as well as what’s in store for the future, read on to hear the answers straight from the musicians.
You note that: “Keep Your Head Up” is a personal anthem in the face of a horrifying political reality. How do you feel that making music and/or music generally in society plays a role in this need for a path forward?
Leavitt: For me, one of the large ideas I grappled with (and am still grappling with) in the wake of George Floyd's murder, the ongoing climate catastrophe, political and social upheaval, is what role art and music-making has in the face of these monumental and very real challenges.
Miller: It can be a tricky thing...there's such a powerful connection from one's self to one's art. Your selfhood is in your art, but you are not your art. Its perceived success or lack thereof, doesn't have any bearing on the worth of the art itself. But that can be tricky for me to hold onto. I think it's a need for external affirmation that fucks with me. I feel like, if my art is getting praised and affirmed, then that means I'm OK as a person. And if it's not affirmed...then I'm not OK. I have a ways to go in disentangling some of that stuff...so yeah, sometimes making music makes me feel not good enough.
But, when I'm just immersed in making music, or performing music, it just totally strips away all of that dumb ego shit. And I feel incredibly whole. So, when my ego isn't getting in my way, music makes that voice disappear entirely.
How has the pandemic affected you as musicians?
Leavitt: I really feel for folks that make their sole livelihoods from touring during COVID; I sincerely hope that this collective experience of being without things that give life vitality and color causes us all to be willing to invest our resources into those things moving forward and value them. I don't want to hear anyone complain about cover charges ever again! But the paradigm has to change too; musicians can't be expected to just plunk right back into those pre-COVID roles without a wholesale re-evaluation of the whole system; including venues, promoters, radio/media, record labels, and the whole taste-making/hit-making apparatus. There has been a tacit approval of very toxic patterns (especially for female and non-CIS white male performers) that cannot continue and I welcome other voices being heard and amplified. So overall I hope we all savor those moments of live shows and camaraderie like good food (I know I have!) and continue to push for the type of artistic communities that are open, affirming, supportive, and collaborative vs. competitive. One plus side of this forced isolation is it's really emphasized the importance of collaboration with others in all aspects of music making. I'm not content to just work in isolation in my basement studio 24/7 like I had in the past.
Miller: For me, it was really really hard. As a musician, to press pause on everything I know for over a year and a half was so difficult. For a bit there, I kinda lost myself. But in the end, I think that time helped me focus on creating for creating's sake. Without the pressure of booking tours, promoting a record, and managing a band, I had a lot of freedom to just make stuff! And my goodness, that felt so good.
As for sharing music, I think the pandemic shed light on just how fucked up our industry is. From a social/behavioral level (like Matt mentioned) to an economic level, it's just so fucked! Every avenue of income is completely drying up and going to the top earners/stake holders. This affects musicians/artists in huge ways, but it also affects other industry professionals (publicists, managers, booking agents, labels, etc.). Their revenue sources are drying up, too. And all of this just sheds light on our economic system in America. The pursuit of capital has just done so much damage to us. Personally and economically.
What do you hope might change in your local music scene and/or in the greater music industry as live shows come back this year?
Leavitt: A reinvestment by the community at large in the arts and that the model that 'worked' in the past isn't the blueprint for how things should be moving forward. This is really a rare clean slate moment where we should all have a say in what our community should look like moving forward vs. just restarting the car and driving off at warp speed.
Miller: There are so many things, but one thing Matt mentioned earlier in the interview is that we need a music culture that is collaborative instead of competitive. It seems to me that competition creates hierarchy. It concentrates power at the top. I think this structure of power is a big part of why we've seen so much abusive behavior in our community.
On the larger systematic side, artists need to be paid more for their music! Holy shit it's wild how unbalanced the pay is! I get that in some ways, the cat's out of the bag with music streaming, but we need some big changes. The UMAW is doing cool work on that front.
On the smaller, personal choices side, I think a lot of white men need to evaluate how we relate the world. Whatever flexibility or power or whatever it is that the scene has given you us the past, it doesn't anymore. And it never should have. And in fact, having a scene with all sorts of folks making all sorts of music is infinitely better than having a scene of the select, anointed few.
What are you most excited about in continuing to collaborate with each other as musicians?
Leavitt: I really feel like Pete and I have opened a door to a whole world of tunes and tonalities that feel immensely exciting; these two songs are basically just figuring out how we work together and how our identities coalesce and coincide. We've only just scratched the surface; we'll be continuing work on another couple tunes that will be on an EP/LP to be released next year. To me, the best collaborations often occur with the least amount of conversation; in this case I feel a great amount of musical bonhomie and inherent trust in whatever weird direction this collaboration will take. My primary song-writing vehicle (Orchid Eaton) just released our sophomore record in April, 2021 so I'll be continuing to ramp that up as well, play more shows as they become available and release a few videos this year.
Miller: HECK YES!!! We're gonna keep making tunes together. I don't know how we couldn't! Apart from these songs with Matt, I'll be releasing a bunch of new We Are The Willows music as well as touring as much as possible solo and with the band. We'll also be celebrating the release of our third album (from June 2020) on Saturday, August 28th at The Turf Club with Naél & Sass. I AM SO EXCITED AND SO NERVOUS!
Listen more and get more info at:
Special thanks to Peter Miller and Matt Leavitt.