Imagine local four-piece The Poorwills in a bathroom, maybe yours, clothed ... or not. Any person, no matter his or her vocal capabilities, can sound fairly operatic surrounded by walls of tile. So if the scraggly, indie-rock singers chirped together in such a locale, demonstrating their strongest asset—their four-part harmonies—it could be a veritable come-to-Jesus moment.
That’s the backbone of the band—not singing in the shower, or Jesus, but harmonizing. “We’ve talked a lot [over the years] about how awesome it would be to have some big, crazy harmony band, and we finally pulled the trigger on it,” says guitarist Glade Sowards.
This project began when Sowards was asked to play the 2010 City Weekly Music Awards showcase, and he invited the soon-to-be band to back him up; it went glowingly. Taking cues from the likes of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, The Beach Boys or, more contemporarily, The Moondoggies, The Poorwills decided to cut a record a few months later and eventually released their debut in May 2011.
The Poorwills’ rock-meets-barbershop swings with twangy riffs, gentle acoustic strumming and simple beats, but is most stunning—a stop-your-conversation-and-listen-with-mouth-agape stunning—when they subtract those elements. “Usually, when someone does a ripping solo, that’s when the crowd is cheering,” says bassist Jake Fish. “If ever we get that response, it’s when we stop and all just sing. It’s a weird thing.”
That is, when all of the band members are actually in town long enough to play a gig. Like many area bands, members of The Poorwills play in a variety of other projects. Currently, there is Sowards’ solo work, plus The American Shakes, The Bully, Bluebird Radio and, most notably, The Devil Whale. Fish and guitarist Wren Kennedy also play in the latter; they toured nationally this summer and will be gone for most of this fall. Joey Pedersen rounds out The Poorwills’ lineup on drums.
So The Poorwills will be singing their harmonies rather infrequently until winter. “That’s what I get for poaching musicians,” Sowards says with a laugh.
Despite irratic scheduling, this sharing is OK by the band. “It’s a very incestuous music scene, but I think that that also strengthens the community,” Fish says. Sowards adds that musicians and bands feed off one another’s energy and motivation, and if one band does well, everyone does well.
Until the next infrequent gig, fans of The Poorwills can sate their thirst for soaring harmonies by listening to The Poorwills’ debut Drinks on the Wing—a nod to how a poorwill, the desert-dwelling cousin of the whippoorwill, consumes water in flight. “We liked that metaphor for us; we are always walking around drunk,” Fish says, laughing. “And we’re traveling all the time, too.”
The metaphor extends further. “[The bird] is small and scrappy [like indie music], lives out in rocks in the desert and it hibernates,” Sowards says. “When there’s nothing going on for this bird, he just sort of checks out. That’s how I feel about music and my musical career in a lot of ways. We push, then we drop, we push, then we drop.”
Luckily, they pulled through and recorded this album, although not without technical difficulties. Tracks like “Open Your Eyes” and “Cleaning the Time Machine” are throwbacks to bygone days and best demonstrate their singing prowess.
“We got to the harmonies and realized what had worked live, kind of loosey-goosey, wasn’t going to fly. It took a lot of work figuring that out,” Sowards says. “And, at one point, we wanted to record everything into one mic, which was harder than it sounds. It’s the difference between singing here [at the City Weekly offices] versus singing in your bathroom.”
The Poorwills performing on the roof of the City Weekly offices: