When indie folk duo, The Winterlings, arrived in Washington State five years ago, they were welcomed by a pack of wild coyotes. “They were outside our motorhome window, howling like cats trapped in a trash can,” Wolff says. “It was delightful.”
Songwriters and multi-instrumentalists Amanda Birdsall and Wolff Bowden had toured their first album, The Animal Groom, from Miami to NYC to Seattle. Called an “undeniable gem” by No Depression, the album hit #6 on the Roots Music Report Folk Chart. Partners in life as well as music, The Winterlings parked their RV in the shadows of the Olympic Mountains, where they planned on letting their roots run deep into moss and glacial silt.
“By sunrise, the coyotes were gone, and Wolff started chopping firewood,” Amanda says. “In the old days, when young couples got married and headed west, their families gave them tools as wedding gifts. When we headed west, Wolff’s Dad gave me an axe. ‘You can own it and Wolff can swing it,’ he said. Lyrics came to me. ‘You’re the axe that I have carried since the day when we were married.’ Those lines became the song ‘Acres.’”
“Acres” became the title track of The Winterlings’ sophomore release, You Are Acres, a collection of songs rich with natural imagery. From the duel between death and laughter in “Opening Line” to a child lashed to her family tree in “Easter Dress,” the songs go deep and stay there. And yet, the music is often celebratory, even jubilant. In “When We Were Young,” lines like: “Before our births we were / rafts of laughter on a sea of war / stories written in a book of blood / souls inside of cells since time begun,” suggest we were alive long before we were born. In “Darkness Stars,” an expansive harmonium drone rolls like a wave towards a shore where a chorus of friends waits, cheering a drowning soul to stable soil. Wolff sings with the voice of the drowning man, years after he’s saved: “You who fed my darkness stars / hid my gasoline when I was fire / walked the tide pools in your gown / remember me now.” Foot-stomping environmental anthem “While We Were Sleeping” features a rollicking fiddle solo accompanied by Dixieland piano and horns. Throughout the album, Wolff and Amanda take turns singing lead, with words so vibrant the songs unfurl like tiny films.
Wolff grew up in a house on stilts, high above a Florida swamp. Encounters with foxes and alligators filled his dreams with forest beings he called “Winterlings.”
“When you’re little you’re made of adventure,” Wolff recalls. “So, I built bonfires and sang for them. One had the head of a fox and the body of a woman. Another was half-tortoise. I would drum on his chest with my six year old fists and we would laugh. Soon, even when I wasn’t dreaming, I felt as if the Winterlings were watching over me.”
Decades later, Wolff felt like the Winterlings were still with him, even on the rainy Olympic Peninsula, 3000 miles from his childhood swamp. Amanda feels their presence too. “For me, they have come to symbolize the creative force itself,” she says.
“Society is always pushing a prescribed path,” Wolff adds. “Winterlings are inner voices that say, ‘Maybe you should try the woods instead of the road.’ We both abandoned traditional roads to follow our creative callings.”
For Amanda, that meant leaving graduate school. “I had been working toward a doctorate in psychology for three years, but I often put off studying to play guitar,” Amanda says. “I discovered Patty Griffin’s Living With Ghosts and taught myself every song on the album. Soon I was writing my own songs, filling the margins of my notebooks with lyrics instead of taking notes. I left school and drove to Canada where I worked on organic farms in exchange for food and rooms where I could write.”
They hadn’t met yet, but something similar was happening to Wolff. Since childhood, he had been painting mythological beings, nude butterfly goddesses and hurricane angels. After college, while preparing medical school applications, ArtExpo Miami named him Artist of the Millennium, and he sold his first painting to baseball legend Andre Dawson. Art sales bought Wolff time to write. He published two books of poetry and was booked to read with the US Poet Laureate. Rob Brezsny quoted his poems in his Free Will Astrology column. Though Wolff had turned paint into money into time into poetry, he knew there was another step. He dreamed of painting the wind itself. But he had never learned an instrument.
Wolff and Amanda met one night at a party where a Buddhist ritual had just taken place in a backyard fire pit. The ritual consisted of writing, on small slips of paper, wishes that would burn in the flames so their smoke might lift them into the wind and make them real. Wolff burned his wish and Amanda arrived an hour later. She was the muse and the music he had been waiting for, and his life as an artist re-awakened her desire for a creative life.
“The night we met, we did a trade, my cd for his poetry book,” says Amanda, who plays guitar, banjitar, violin, piano and harmonium. “We loved each other’s work and started dating, but since he couldn’t play a single chord, I never imagined we would make music together. A year later, we moved to Oregon and were writing separately. I’d hear him practicing his new songs, and I’d sing along, harmonizing. Then I started adding violin parts and even wrote a piano part in my head. From that point we just kept growing as a duo.”
Wolff is now a multi-instrumentalist as well, playing guitar, ukulele, harmonica, banjitar, and a unique foot-drum rig. His right foot plays both kick and tambourine, while the left plays snare. And when he’s not holding a stringed instrument, he adds other percussion pieces, such as brushes or mallets or shaker egg. With so many instruments, it was only natural for Wolff and Amanda to record and produce You Are Acres on their own. They recruited Amanda’s high school friend and Punk Rock Bride fashion designer Stephanie Ward to play electric guitar, and master blues bassist Howard Hooper to play bass. Florida friend Ray Noel played the trumpet, and Wolff’s Dad still doesn’t know he contributed haunting vocals to the song, “Father I.”
“The album is called You Are Acres,” says Amanda. “because we carry acres within us - expressed and unexpressed wilderness which shapes the earth we live on, the landscape we inhabit. A lyric from the song ‘Opening Line’ sums it up: ‘Cedars breathe out and we all breathe in.’ We are only alive because they are also alive. Our happiness is woven into the happiness of all living things.”
From the bridge of “Opening Line” come the lyrics: “Still, the wind feels lovely on our skin. Still, the soil is born from our dead kin. Still, her arms are where I want to live.” In the arms of the Earth. In the brief burst of light that spans a human life. And in the rainy light of the Pacific Northwest, The Winterlings have chosen to make music with meaning, music to remind us that we are being held in enormous, eternal arms, music in which the dead and the living join hands and dance.
The Winterlings have played the CMJ Music festival in Manhattan, The Juan De Fuca Festival in Port Angeles, Northwest Folklife Festival in Seattle and Fisherman’s Village Music Festival in Everett. Their songs have appeared in multiple video projects including Outdoor Research’s Tiny House Tour (“Belize”) and the Irish Documentary Jennie Hodgers produced by TG4 (“Jennie Hodgers”).
The Winterlings have played shows with Frazey Ford (The Be Good Tanyas), Heart by Heart, The Maldives, The Chapin Sisters, Danny Schmidt, Cataldo and many other amazing performers. They have played at hundreds of distinguished venues, including The Bearsville Theater, Benaroya Hall, Appel Farm (sold out show), SEATAC International Airport and Seattle’s iconic EMP (Experience Music Project) Museum for the 20th Anniversary of the release of Nirvana’s In Utero Album.
The Winterlings released their sophomore album, You Are Acres, on January 15, 2016 at a sold out show to a crowd of 250 at Fremont Abbey Arts Center.