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To wend is to move in a specific or purposeful direction but in a slower, circuitous way. The word may bring to mind thoughtful movement, where there are an abundance of different paths that go in the same direction. That’s the concept behind Riley Johnson’s band, WEND, and the many different iterations of it.

“It took a long time to find a band name that felt good and seemed right,” said Johnson. “Wend kind of jumped into my head randomly a few months into trying to think of a name, and I immediately liked the way it felt. The general definition is that you are heading somewhere specific, but you move towards that place in a meandering, roundabout sort of way. The word felt like it really embodied my own path as a musician. Creating music feels like what I was born to do, it’s just taken a lot to finally arrive at a place where I have a healthy relationship with my creativity, and writing music feels as natural as breathing.”

The band is releasing a new single and accompanying video on Friday, April 23, called “Holotrope.” The video is directed by Daniel Ojeda and features Ballet Idaho company dancer Madeline Bay. The song will be available on Bandcamp and all major streaming platforms, and the video will link off YouTube.

WEND is fronted by Johnson, who writes, sings and plays harp and keyboards, but there are a few different branches of the band: A duo form that consists of Johnson and Ross DeMastus on bass; a trio with Johnson, DeMastus and Wade Ronsse on drums; a sextet with a four-piece string section featuring Kyla Davidson on cello, Jessica Harned on violin, Emily Jones on viola and Aled Roberts on violin; and a septet with all the musicians.

It’s a lot, considering Johnson didn’t start playing the harp until she was 25, but she began playing piano at age 10 and is mostly self-taught. However, for a long time she didn’t play music at all, not through her twenties, and it took some work for her to start again, she said.

“I’ve always wanted to make music more than anything,” said Johnson, “I wrote a song when I was 11, won an award and was told to keep at it. But then mental illness kicked in, and I didn’t make any music through my 20s. Sometimes when I care about something a lot my body doesn’t want to let me do it. I’m working hard on recovering my ability to do the things I care about.”

She said she felt a disconnect from music but started to feel like she couldn’t ignore it any longer. She bought a keyboard and began playing in some bands. She ended up seeing the harp for rent at a local music store for $35 a month, and she’s been renting it ever since, for the past four years. She had a few lessons, but just like when she was a child she learned the harp on her own.

“The feeling of the harp’s soundboard against your chest feels so good, and it was kind of medicinal feeling,” said Johnson. “Theory-wise too, the harp is like the piano, and I found it was easy to write music.”

She played her first solo show after 10 months, but it was mostly improvisational. Five months later she was accepted into Treefort in 2018 and didn’t want to play by herself, so she enlisted DeMastus and Ronsse. And she began to write, a lot; “I always felt like I heard more parts in my head than I was capable of playing.”

Four weeks before that Treefort she wrote the sheet music and Ronsse came over. He said he couldn’t believe how prolific she was.

“I thought it was gonna be easy, like folk music stuff,” said Ronsse, “but I got there and she had sheets and sheets of music. It was so cool because she wrote it but left it open-ended, so it’s both complex and familiar. She set me up to play the most musically and emotionally complex stuff. It’s the most creative thing I’ve been a part of.”

Johnson said the deadlines for Treefort ended up being immensely helpful because it forced her to write the songs out, and a lot of the lyrical content in WEND reflects emotional struggle with creation.

“Holotrope” definitely reflects that. It was born out of a jam the trio had at a farm they also all work on called Hillfort Farms, owned by Nick Crabbs. They went out and jammed in a cabin and ended up using that in the band’s Waltzer TV performance, which featured Treefort musicians. Johnson credits co-founder of Treefort Eric Gilbert for giving her that deadline because, again, that’s what forced them to put it all together.

Although the song has been mastered, DeMastus said the overarching structure is the same as the first time they played it, and that doesn’t happen very often. He said it speaks to the way the band creates.

“The song concept is that there are these disembodied, exiled parts of yourself that you have to bring back in to heal,” said DeMastus, “that you have to heal things in order to create.”

When writing the song Johnson said she was imagining an island where certain parts of yourself are banished although you live on the mainland. The song reflects the dichotomy of those parts of self interacting and reuniting. “Holotrope” is perhaps not what one would expect from a band fronted by a harp. It’s got rhythmic breathing in the background and, no pun intended, Johnson’s voice wends around the song that’s also full of different percussion suppled by Ronsse. DeMastus rounds it out with spacey and interesting bass lines. “Holotrope” almost works itself into a kind of musical frenzy at the end that combines all of the sounds. It’s definitely not folk music; think more experimental and psychedelic.

Ojeda ended up writing a complete video storyline to go with “Holotrope” and was helped by videographer William Bowers. It was his first time directing a music video and filming it. Ojeda also happens to be a company dancer at Ballet Idaho, where he’s choreographed 10 original works. He said he recently started to lean into his love of film, and when Johnson approached him, things kind of took off. He met with the band and after listening to the song on repeat came up with a whole accompanying story line that mirrors the concept of the song. He also came up with some really creative ways to film while maintaining COVID safety.

They shot the whole thing in a day. The idea is that their house was similar to a forest, but instead of viewing clutter as mess, it is portrayed as “untrimmed growth.” He said it’s as though the musicians let their creativity spill across their environment. The dancer represents a foil to Johnson, and because the song is about an acknowledgement of suppression, the dancer also physically stands in for that.

“The band playing “Holotrope” is sort of a beckoning ritual, where instead of trying to keep this entity at bay, they willingly invite her into the space, and assimilate her into their forest,” wrote Ojeda in an email. “We’ve all had a lot to face during this time, and this forced and, unfortunately necessary, sort of exile has made this perfect storm in which you kind of need to face your demons, and either you eat them or they eat you.”

Ojeda also said because it came together so quickly, it really speaks to the communal spirit of Boise’s artists; “Thank god for YouTube crash courses, Modafinil, alcohol, and the power of hyper-focus. Also thank god for William Bowers and Madeline Bay.”

It may have come together quickly but it pairs really well with the song, almost like an amalgamation of two ideas that go together; a semicoloned sentence if you will. And that’s pretty reflective of the concept of WEND as a band.

Three weeks from the “Holotrope” release, WEND, the duo, will also release a bunch of ambient tracks people can listen to for meditation called “Meditations One.” The septet version of WEND will release a six-song EP later this summer, self-released and recorded by Andrew Masters, a local friend who also recorded the “Holotrope” session.

Local band WEND

releasing new single and video

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