It’s a tale as old as time: Two adolescents meet, fall in love, get married, and, eventually, their grandson makes an album based on letters they exchanged during WWII.
Okay, okay, so maybe this story isn’t quite that common.
In the year that’s passed since Minneapolis’ We Are The Willows released the first half of their dynamic concept album, “Picture (Portrait),” things have been moving at breakneck speed. “It’s kind of funny,” says frontman Peter Miller. “Sometimes I feel like I measure life by the things that I have not yet accomplished, that I wanted to accomplish. But, just thinking over the last year, a lot has happened.”
A lot, indeed. In addition to releasing “Picture (Portrait) Part I,” the first half of the double album, We Are The Willows has put out multiple music videos, received praise from Paste, BuzzFeed, and NPR, and toured as direct support for Blitzen Trapper—all within the last 12 months.
“It just sort of hit me and I was like, ‘Wow, that’s a lot of shit to pack into a year,’” Miller said.
None of those accomplishments, though, would have been possible if “Picture (Portrait)” didn’t boast such a fantastic concept and an even better story, which Miller developed while reading the 350-odd letters his grandfather sent his grandmother while serving in the Southwest Pacific during World War II.
“In the beginning, [the album] started out as this attempt to translate my grandpa’s experiences into songs in a way that could help make sense of it for me, personally,” Miller says. “As I was doing that I just sort of found myself really wondering—having all these unanswered questions about his internal, emotional, and cognitive life.”
The double album’s first half, “Picture (Portrait) Part I” recasts those letters into 10 songs featuring Miller’s tender countertenor vocals riding over the top of catchy melodies played by a six-piece band. “Picture (Portrait) Part II,” set to be released in spring 2016 as part of a double LP package, will offer a different perspective to Part I.
“The first half is a picture—that’s who my grandpa was,” Miller says. “And the second half is an attempt to make it more of a portrait—that’s more about us.”
For example, “Dear Ms. Branstner,” one of the standout songs on Part I, looks death in the face while sounding both catchy and upbeat. As Miller states, “It’s a song about my grandpa being naïve and young, and thinking there’s this honor and glory in the possibility or inevitably of death. I think I would feel a little more tortured about it.”
“Beautiful Singing,” the companion track on Part II to “Dear Ms. Branstner,” is a recording of Miller playing “Dear Ms. Branstner” for his grandmother at a time when he was one of his grandfather’s primary caregivers. As the song winds down, his grandmother brings up the fact that his grandfather is confronting death, again. “[It’s] sort of like him, towards the end of his life,” Miller says. “For me it felt important to say both sides of that story—for my own sake, to round it out.”
And “Picture (Portrait) Part II” accomplishes just that. Whereas “Part I” resembles Miller’s grandfather’s letters in its upbeat, courageous sound, “Part II” explores what might be lurking under the surface of those letters. It feels much more complicated and heavy; the songs are shorter and sound spliced together; Miller’s voice is ethereal throughout. While the record’s first half was strictly a full-band affair, the second features mainly Miller and outside voices, such as PHOX’s Monica Martin and Eau Claire’s now-defunct The Daredevil Christopher Wright, to further draw a distinction between the two parts.
Miller put together the record’s second half in his basement, recording vocal tracks by both him and his guests and cutting them up into little pieces. “It definitely came from a similar place, creatively, as a lot of the previous We Are The Willows records,” he says, adding, “[The songs are] a lot more personal to me, trying to sort out what it meant to read my grandpa’s letters and learn more about him, and what it meant to take care of him before he died.”
Where “Picture (Portrait) Part I” flirts with the idea of death, Part II is consumed by it, attempting to impart to listeners the idea that love can last beyond this life.
This becomes most clear on the album’s weighty closer/title track. Over a sorrowful string arrangement, a clip plays of Miller’s grandmother reading a letter on Christmas Day 2012. Unlike every other letter read or referenced throughout “Picture (Portrait),” Miller’s grandmother wrote this one just two months after his grandfather’s passing. It’s an absolutely crushing, impeccable conclusion to the tale of two lovers who wouldn’t be torn apart.
“I don’t listen to our record a ton,” Miller says. “But when I do, it’s hard to get through that one.”