Minneapolis-based Indie band We Are The Willows performs to a packed room at the Winona Public Library on Monday. The performance was the first of more than a dozen events in the band’s weeklong residency, in collaboration with the Page Theatre.
by NATHANIEL NELSON
This week, at locations all across Winona, you may hear the songs of Minneapolis-based, Winona-favorite orchestral Indie band We Are The Willows emanating from unusual places. As part of a Minnesota State Arts Board-funded project, and in conjunction with the Page Theatre at Saint Mary’s University, We Are The Willows is spending a weeklong residency in town, complete with a half dozen performances, workshops, artist talks, and a panel on the music industry.
According to Theresa Remick, the residency is one of the largest hosted by the Page Theatre in recent years. The flagship concert series for the theater, the Page Series, regularly brings professional artists to Winona to perform, but We Are The Willows has been different.
“Every time we bring a professional group to Winona, we try to schedule at least one event for learning outside of the theater,” Remick said. “This one is much bigger. If you don’t run into them at some point in the week, you’re probably trying to avoid them.”
The residency began on Monday with a performance at the Winona Public Library, the first of five “unplugged” previews of their Page Series concert, which will happen at various places around Winona ,including Blue Heron Coffeehouse and the Winona Farmers Market. Additionally, a three-part workshop is planned for members of the Winona Friendship Center, and a second workshop was hosted at Riverway Learning Community on Tuesday morning. There will also be a homeschool music workshop on Friday, a music industry panel on Wednesday, an artist talk on Thursday and a historical talk about the band’s biggest project, “Picture (Portrait).” The residency will culminate on Saturday, March 30, with a full performance at the Page Theatre at 7:30 p.m.
“I think it’s a cool opportunity because they’re an Indie music band, and you could easily fit them into the target of Indie music listener groups, but the concept of ‘Picture (Portrait) ‘can be approachable for a wide demographic of people,” Remick said. “They bring something interesting, and have the ability to connect well with all those different age groups.”
Peter Miller, the lead singer of We Are The Willows, explained that the album “Picture (Portrait)” was a big impetus for the current residency tour across the state. The production of the album began after Miller graduated from college, albeit unintentionally.
“The album itself is based on over 350 letters that my grandparents wrote to each other between 1942 and 1946,” Miller said. “When I started reading the letters, it was to get to know my grandparents a little bit better. But as I kept reading through them, I kept finding things that were interesting, and I couldn’t help but write poems about it.”
In total, Miller wrote around 20 songs based off his grandparents’ courtship during World War II, and the songs were compiled to create part one and two of “Picture (Portrait),” released in 2014 and 2015, respectively. The project, based around familial stories and connections, provided a base for much of the band’s residency work.
Miller explained that working on the project made him confront his own family history, and while it helped him to learn more about his family, it also taught him more about himself.
“One of our goals is to get community members to consider and engage with their own family history, and to think about this sort of family tree and how the people around them relates to who they are as a person,” Miller said.
We Are The Willows isn’t new to Winona either –– the band is a common sight at Mid West Music Fest, and has played regional shows several times before. However, this project is a different beast entirely.
“It’s not common for an Indie band to be spending their time this way. We get to hang out in town for a while,” Miller said. “It’s been going great, and we’ve met a lot of nice and sweet people.”
The Winona residency is the second residency for the band, following a weeklong stint in Northfield, Minn., but Miller said the residencies have been opening his eyes in many ways. For one, the album is showing a lasting effect on the people the band has met, and individuals have approached them with their own stories to tell.
“We just finished a workshop with some folks from the Friendship Center, and we were just speaking with these women who were sharing stories about their lives. They came because something about the story of our record resonated with them,” Miller said. “That really human connection doesn’t really happen at a rock club or a bar in this particular way.”
The final performance will take place at the Page Theatre on Saturday, March 30, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are available online or at the door for $15. For a full schedule of We Are The Willows’ residency events, or to purchase tickets for the Page Series performance, visit http://pagetheatre.org/project/we-are-the-willows-residency/.