When Bear Rinehart (NEEDTOBREATHE) initially conceived solo project Wilder Woods, its scale was unclear. “I definitely didn’t have a major label in mind…I didn’t have a tour in mind.” Instead, it started purely as “exploration,” as “scratching the itch.”
Here, we explore in great detail how those initial desires grew into both a thrilling, self-titled debut album, along with new sonic ground for the celebrated songwriter. We hit on Rinehart’s relationship with producer Gabe Simon, we discover how the song “Sure Ain’t” helped establish the Wilder Wood sound, and we unveil all the most critical creative moments for the LP, as told by those intimately involved.
After the episode, listen to Wilder Woods’ debut album.
Interviews: Bear Rinehart, Gabe Simon (Producer), David Leonard.
Wilder Woods — “What Gives You The Right”
Jesse Cannon: Hi. My name is Jesse Cannon, and I’ve devoted my life to figuring out what goes into making great albums. I’ve produced over a thousand records, written two books and recorded hundreds of podcasts, pursuing the hidden secrets of how great music gets to the world’s ears.
Now, I’m proud to present Inside the Album, where we get to go deeper on how your favorite artists have made the amazing albums in their catalog. We will hear firsthand from the musicians and the team behind them that helped craft these records, while getting to know the little secrets that go into making great music. On this episode, we discuss Wilder Woods’ self-titled debut album.
NEEDTOBREATHE (feat. Gavin DeGraw) — “Brother”
Jesse Cannon: Wilder Woods is the solo project of Bear Rinehart, who’s better known as the front man of the American Christian rock band, NEEDTOBREATHE. While he may have come from a town named Possum Kingdom, South Carolina, he rose on out from that land to make six albums with the group that would see him touring the world with everyone from Taylor Swift to Tim McGraw to Switchfoot.
Despite NEEDTOBREATHE being a group who evolved their sound over those records, time came for Bear to step out on his own, so he took on the moniker of Wilder Woods, which he named after his two sons. He burst on the scene with two singles in 2019, but did not reveal his identity immediately and speculation flew all over the place as to who the person with this huge voice and unique sound could be. Soon, his identity was revealed and his self-titled debut was announced and has been making waves with fans as many of the songs on this record pick up traction with a whole new audience.
I sat down with Bear this summer on a cool writing room at Atlantic Studios. We got to chat about this record while escaping the record New York heat. He’s going to start us off by telling us why he wanted to make a solo record instead of another NEEDTOBREATHE record.
Bear Rinehart: I’ve always wanted to do a solo record. I think anybody who has a band or an established kind of thing, once you’ve done it, a record, maybe two, you start thinking like, man, it’d be cool to play with other people. It’d be cool also to be the boss. I mean, a band is a democracy and it takes a long time to make any decision and all those things, which also makes a band great but in another way, you’re just like, “Man, it’d be fun to do something different.”
So, I put it off a long time for a lot of reasons. I mean, the biggest reason, the band was really busy. I think we were doing 150 shows a year, something like that. So it really became more, like, possible in the last few years, where we started doing bigger shows and less shows. So, then it seemed like half the year I was able to go home and I sort of freak out after I’m at home for more than a week and not working. I just haven’t gotten used to that in adult life.
So, I think that’s kind of where I started to go like, “Man, I’ve got to do something,” and I didn’t know what. Honestly, the goal of making the solo project and even coming up with the name for Wilder Woods and all that was based on finishing the project, really. It was like, I read this book “The War on Art.”
Jesse Cannon: One of the best.
Bear Rinehart: Yeah, and for me, what my takeaway, there’s a million takeaways, but the biggest one in terms of a practical thing, was that I hated doing demos. I was like, I don’t want to engineer things. I just felt like I always was so slow at it and I didn’t like what I got at the end. So, I let that sort of be an excuse of why not to do a solo record. It’s like maybe these demos, I lived in Charleston at the time, which there are studios there and some musicians but it’s not like a Nashville or somewhere like that. So, I think I did that.
So, my first part, how I stepped into it was, I was like, “I’m just going to show up and work, and if that means learning how to do this Logic or whatever.” Obviously made a bunch of records before but just having to do it myself. My neighbor had a sort of tiny house garage situation. I was like, can I use that as an office for the next, actually for probably three or four months, sort of going in there and just knocking out songs and trying to learn the craft a little bit. Listening to the demos and going back and working on the ones. So that’s kind of how I think it started.
I did not think it would be as big of a deal as it’s become. I definitely didn’t have major label in mind when I was writing the songs. I didn’t have a tour in mind. It was like, “Let me just do this as an exploration of this art and scratch an itch and we’ll see what happens,” and it kind of gradually became the thing it is.
Jesse Cannon: When you come from an established band, there’s obviously so many expectations and so many lessons learned, so I had Bear reflect on what those lessons learned looked like when coming into this project.
Bear Rinehart: Just coming up, I was in a band. In the band, we always had, I mean, our bass player is a great engineer. Seth was always great at that. So, it was like we kind of worked on things around him. He built the demos up. We knew our way around a computer but we weren’t running it. I think over the last few years, everybody started to do their own demos at home and everybody’s kind of, I mean, in a band, everybody’s gotten better at it.
For me, I just hated the, I kind of talked myself into, I don’t have a good ear for mixing. I’m in the moment. I need my hands on the thing or it doesn’t count. Some of those, I think, were just excuses, in a lot of ways. What was weird about my demos because of how bad I was at it or whatever, was also what made it unique, in a way. So, I just kind of gave into that, I think. So, some of this stuff was like, drawing is probably the hardest thing for me. Putting a bunch of guitars down on there or getting the textures is pretty easy but actually having beats down was really tough.
There’s something great about being confused when you’re trying to work on music and when you get good at something, you start to get better and better at it and somehow, the essence you start to lose that, I guess. When I was young, I always thought bands, as they got older, sucked more. It’s just like, “That’s just the way it is.” They get better at what they do. Now, it’s not as rock and roll anymore. It’s like math and they’re doing it for their own selves, it’s like. So, I always thought it was like that. It’s funny how it kind of is like that. I think bands can make great record late in their career but I do think it’s harder in some ways to get out of the same rut.
So, I think there was some things like that when we first started out, we were from a small town. When we got signed [with] Atlantic, we barely could even come up here and eat without getting embarrassed about how Southern we were. So, I think the idea of us knowing what was going on in the music business was actually crazy, too. We just didn’t know anything about it. We knew no other bands that were signed. We didn’t know how to run puddles. We just, we were totally clueless. There was something beautiful about the music we made during that time. It’s just, it’s clueless kids, garage band-style. So, I tried to emulate that as much as possible by a). me trying to do things like in Logic that I would never do, just programming beats and stuff like that. Those beats didn’t make the record but the process of, “Oh, it’d be fun, try to cut it up this way,” or whatever.
And then, I think working with people that scared me was probably the best part of this process. I would go into a room and, yeah, I was looking for people that did things differently than me. They took a left when I was thinking of right. Ultimately, I think finding the producer for this was based on that. I didn’t go to some big name, the guy I chose had never even made a full record outside of his own band’s record. That would not be a thing that Atlantic would normally warrant or condone but at the same time, was right for me.
Jesse Cannon: The results that gave in Bear’s collaboration are obviously amazing. The second you hear this record, you know there’s something special going on but it’s funny because it didn’t seem like it was going to work at first.
Bear Rinehart: His name’s Gabe Simon, brilliant. I mean, I honestly think he’s going to be one of these guys, like you’re going to see him on a ton of records really soon. I think, I went over to write with him, the A&R guy from Atlantic, this guy, Steve-O, is awesome and I’ve had good experiences here but it was a great experience. We actually listened to music together. It was like he was in Nashville. I just moved to Nashville. He said, “Go write with this guy and just see how it goes,” or whatever. He’s like, “You’re probably not going to like him.”
Gabe is a character, is a loud character. I’m pretty serious. Yeah, he just said, “He’s going to be off the walls. I don’t know. He’s just, he’s kind of crazy. He talks a lot. He’s loud.” He’s like, “And that doesn’t seem like it’s going to fit your personality and that whole thing.” And so I get there and we wrote one of the songs from the record “Electric Woman,” we wrote the first day. He was like that. He was in and out. Stuff was going on at his house. He’s like, “Oh, the painters are coming by,” and this and that. It’s like one of those crazy, but when I left, the demo we had. I was like, this is scratching the surface of the sound. It may not be the sound yet, but we’re heading the right direction.
And then, I didn’t commit to it even then. I was like, let’s do three songs or four songs together. I think the first day we were in the actual studio working on the first few songs. The work he did before leading into it sort of pre-production work, so we had kind of demoed the songs together. His process is pretty late night binge, kind of brings in all these crazy ideas. I’m like, “That one’s cool. That one’s cool, and the rest of that, let’s no.”
That first couple of days, the combination of how wild that stuff was and imaginative it was and how good of a musician he was and I knew, “Man, I really need partners in that.” We’ll obviously hire a band to play and I’ve got people for that but in terms of what do these guitar parts, what are the signature Wilder Woods sounds, all that stuff. So, he was that. And then what’s crazy, over the process, we became really good friends. Now, we’re thick as thieves. It’s funny that it started that way. It’s like, “You guys are probably not going to like each other and this probably won’t work out,” but no, it’s been awesome.
Jesse Cannon: And now, I’m going to bring Gabe into the conversation so he can talk about how he saw their relationship bloom.
Gabe Simon: Bear and I were kind of set up on a creative blind date. His label, a guy named Steve Robertson put us together. He’s an A&R guy there. He’s kind of a legend. He’s been around for about 21 years at Atlantic. When they started putting together this record, Bear was kind of going around trying to find some people that he liked working with and Bear showed up at my house one day and we were just supposed to write a song. We liked the way that we both thought in the room together and it was very natural but, at the same time, we were kind of doing things that neither of us have ever done before. We weren’t trying to revolutionize anything but we were just thinking about things differently than we had both thought creatively about in the past. It was just really cool, natural and we kind of weren’t sure if we were going to get along because I’m pretty hyperactive and he’s pretty chill but it worked out.
We come from different worlds, so where Bear might have grown up with Sam Cooke, I grew up with Radiohead. So, it’s already like that’s fundamentally a difference in the way that we think about music. Where Bear might be like, “Let’s track the acoustic guitar,” I might like, “Well, cool. Let’s track the acoustic guitar, then let me chop it up and then make it sound like I ran it through a tape machine and then take that tape machine and wrap it up again and then pitch it down a full step and then gate it really, really, really hard until you can barely hear the guitar but it sounds like (scratching noise).” All of a sudden, that’s the rhythm instrument. It’s like we tried weird things that were normal thing but then made weird.
Jesse Cannon: This record has such a unique sound that recalls both sounds new and old, so I was curious about how they came to that point.
Bear Rinehart: One thing that we set out not to do was we’re like, “It just can’t be Americana.” I love Americana. I think the band was rooted in some of those things and the folk things and I
think NEEDTOBREATHE was. So, Wilder Woods, I wanted to stay away from that complete and also felt like the songs didn’t match that but it was like it might be easy for me to go back and put it on acoustic or whatever. So that was really important to us. I think we started steering towards, “Look, if we’re going to do a ballad with an acoustic, let’s make it redemption song.”
So, we kept pulling up Marley as a reference. It’s like, let’s put a little backbeat in there. Let’s put a little bit of space around the vocal that’s, let’s make it, I guess, atmospheric a little bit more as opposed to kind of in your face or dry. That definitely limited us in a way and in a good way, it was like, okay. We can’t, there’s certain sounds. Any sustain on guitar, it’s like, “That’s out.” We can’t have that. So, we need space in this mix. So if anybody’s playing a note longer than two beats, like, “Get out of there.”
So, that was the kind of how we, you know what I mean, we limit ourselves, forced ourselves in some ways to kind of keep that feeling and I think that spoke to kind of, we stayed away from B-3s and stuff like that unless they were really chime-y and high end-y, or it just, the Mellotron couldn’t be straight in. We had to be pretty affected if we were going to do something like that. So, drums were the main thing that was like, “Let’s keep the drums in the lab room and totally real, bass, good tone.” The stuff around it needed to be interesting and not, I think just space filler.
Jesse Cannon: I then asked him to talk a little bit more specifically about how they shaped the songs to make this unique sound.
Bear Rinehart: I definitely did a lot of other songwriters, a lot of sessions where I spent probably two weeks first time so after I had probably written 30 or 40 songs for Wilder Woods, I go up to Nashville. I’m like, “I’m going to write the remaining ideas I have with some different writers, did 10 days in a row or something crazy like that.” Got back. It’s like, “I’m closer but now it’s like there’s a song I got out of those 10 days or something like that but now I’m getting the vibe.” I think the crux of it for me was finding the sound, just the hardest part, like I sort of took that for granted. My band finds its sound just by being on the road and it just happens. This was some sort of search in the dark.
The song “Sure Ain’t,” actually wrote that with this guy Josh Bruce Williams and Andy Albert. That song but when the demo started coming back and then Gabe kind of messed with it the first time. I was like, “I think we have the sound. This is the window into the house.” I wanted a, we kept using the term smoky soul sort of thing, and it’s basically the beginning of “Walk On By,” the Isaac Hayes track, we were like, “Our record has to feel like that feels.” Any time you put that on, people just sink down in their chair. It’s like, it’s heavy and there’s something sexy about it.
So, on that track, the guitar part that was in there was an interesting guitar part but the way he cut it up in a sample, played it down real but then cut it up as if you would a beat or something like that, like a break beat. So, part of it is reversed and then part of it has this, we used a vinyl pedal that basically kind of gives you that sort of thing. It’s that Chase Bliss Warped Vinyl, to get nerdy on you. When we got that, I was like, “Okay. That’s a modern element to this soul stuff that we have. Let’s screw with it.”
Wilder Woods — “Sure Ain’t”
Bear Rinehart: The drums, when I came in, we had a guy, Darren King who played on, he was the Mutemath drummer.
Jesse Cannon: My god! One of the best in the game.
Bear Rinehart: So, he comes in and he plays over that track. There was that kind of thing. It’s like, “Man!” In some ways, he plays it like a hip hop sort of way. I know he does work with Kanye and stuff now. He played that, like a busy kind of soul way, which is different than you would think.
So, I think it was a melding of those things. It was also, we need to build, my voice is a big, strong, loud thing and we need to build the moments like that. So, that song probably is the quietest song in the verse and the loudest note. So, it was like this is the magic we need to find. Nothing vocal style is a big thing for me. I just kept emulating Jim James in the sense that the phrases are shorter and the reverb catches and it goes long. That wouldn’t traditionally be something I’d done before. A lot of the phrasing, I think like the beginning of that song (singing) like is really like kind of sort of R&B’s, Motown-ish kind of enunciations was a big part. So, I think all of those things together kind of made, it was like, okay. Now, we’ve got framework. We know where this stuff is supposed to live. Now, we’ve got to find the songs that aren’t there for that and also, so that was a big breaking point, I think.
Jesse Cannon: While we’ve discussed a bunch of collaborators on this record already, if you read the credits, you realize we’ve just touched the surface. Here’s Bear talking a little bit more about who else worked on this record.
Bear Rinehart: Some friends that played on the record. There was a guy, David Leonard, who actually used to be in our band a long time ago. I went to his place and wrote some, Franklin, Tennessee, Jeremy Lutino is a drummer I’d known and producer in Nashville that is insane percussion guy and also very, just one of the most tasteful music guys. He’s kind of like when you do a live take of a song in a room, a lot of these we actually did three takes of and it’s like, “Okay. That’s it. We got the vocal. We got the drums, bass and guitar.” He’s the kind of guy that can do that and also at the end of the take, we’re like, “Man! That second verse you sang was…” He’s not so engulfed in his own thing. It’s just a drummer really good sense of a song and Gabe played bass, which is an amazing thing around. He’s just a sense about it, especially he knew the songs usually well. It’s great.
And then a guy named Tyler Burkum played guitars, for the most part, and he was in some bands that I knew. There was a band from Nashville called Leagues. Jeremy the drummer and Tyler were in that same band together, so Tyler was on tour with Mat Kearney when he opened for the band and it’s just, friends in that way.
Now, and the live band, who we’ve just started getting, as we talking about collaborators. This guy, Roger Klashay played organ and keys and stuff for D’Angelo. I’ve always wanted to play with him. So, he put the band together for our live stuff. So that’s a good example of the collaborations. It’s from a totally different world and maybe the band would be in just a lot of fun.
Wilder Woods — “Electric Woman”
Jesse Cannon: People often underestimate how much the physical space you make a record in affects the record. So, I had Bear talk a little bit about where they made this record since it has such a unique sonic imprint.
Bear Rinehart: Yeah. We did it with two main sessions. Probably I think three or four of the songs in that from my buddy David Leonard’s studio in Franklin, which really close to my house. It was totally different, two different studio experiences in the sense this was more classic, like warm room, carpeted, kind of like 70-ish kind of thing. I think of like a Fleetwood Mac record or something. That’s what the stuff sounded like. So, that created some challenges for what we ended up making the record sound like, but we had a great time and made some great songs but we were looking for that room reverb, I think.
So, we went to this place called Layman Drug Company, a Nashville new studio. They’re starting to do stuff there, I mean relatively unknown in Nashville and totally not Nashville as far as the way it looks and built. I mean, I’ve worked in Sound City before. It remind me of that tile floor, very really live room. You got baffling and stuff in there but you’re not using it very much. So, that really helped, I think, the sound. A lot of these songs are 80 bpm. It’s like the slow trippy tempo. So, to get, I think, the drums to feel like they’re filling the space in that and keep it simple, the reverb in the room was huge. So, we track most things like that, trying to get the space in there, so yeah.
The Layman Drug thing, I think was pretty magic. I would love to work there again. I feel like it’s our spot. It also is super simple. They have this thing that’s called a tree sound console but it’s really pretty small, really easy for even me to work. So, it just allowed us to work fast I think and not worry too much. Okay. We’re getting good stuff here and we’re putting it up.
We approached it some, I kept bringing in Temptations records as references because and mainly because of the panning. It was always like, let’s just be aggressive with the panning. Let’s not forget. I think especially when you’re making a record fast or it’s not the way you normally do it. It’s hard to kind of remind yourself like, “Leave the drums all the way on the left and let’s put the guitar on all the way in the right,” and it’s like, give that sort of room experience. Those records to me, when I put them on my car, it blows my mind how good they sound. And the arrangements, obviously, were such a big part of that, classic arrangements. So that’s what we aimed at. I think Layman’s helped us do that.
Another thing I think that’s huge in studios, at least for this project, is the massive window in the control room. I’ve worked at a lot of places where we couldn’t communicate with the band. We were doing a lot of standing up over the console so you’re kind of dancing and barking the things to the bands like nothing’s going on that nobody’s seeing. You know what I mean? Like, “Oh, did you just move something?” It’s like, “No. I saw you move it on the whatever.” So, I think that was a huge part of making, when you’re doing live takes I think that’s pretty important.
Jesse Cannon: I then asked him to talk about the actual process of the record and what it was like making it.
Bear Rinehart: It was the smoothest process I’ve ever been a part of and I’ve made a lot of records. We would pretty much know what we were doing. Pre-production is kind of an archaic term, I guess, these days but we really demo the songs that we knew the arrangements before we got there. But then it was more about the drum sound so I say we spend, I don’t know, three, four, five hours on getting the drums sound going. As that’s going, getting bass and guitar but for the most part, we’re worried about the drum track and then we would just play it down. I’ll just sing it live in the control room with an SM7 like we’re using now and probably four or five of the vocals we cut like that, just like in the three live takes we did. We’re just like, “I think that’s it. It felt good.” So, really effortless in that way.
I would say, by dinnertime, for sure, by five or six, we were into overdub land on the songs. Not all the songs were like one day in that way but a lot of them, I would say the foundational elements of the tracks were live and done by dinner. And so then we would spend a couple hours doing overdubs and the Moog stuff or Mellotron through pedals and all that, just the candy kind of things. Some of that we had sort of experimented with before we got there so it was like we want to put that part down but now, through a real space echo. Just kind of give it the sort of tape warble that we felt like those things needed but really the bulk of it was that and a lot of dancing around, having fun. The pace of this was really refreshing to me because we just didn’t slow down long enough to worry about something. It was like, “Okay. We’re just going with our instinct. Is this great or is it not? And if it’s not, let’s just do a different song today.” There was something about that that by 4:00 or 5:00, everybody is in the studio really proud of what they’ve done so far and that just, I think the morale of that was a lot of fun.
Probably all the guys that were in there, all the players produce, which I thought was really, Ian Fitchuk is another guy, he co-produced that Kacey Musgraves’ record that won the Grammy this year, but he played piano and keys and organ and stuff and some drums on the track. He’s the kind of a guy that we had in there in the sense that all these guys know the song is important, more important than their part. Also, just when to speak up and when not to. So, there was a really good chemistry to that. It’s like the only time that got broken is if the label came by or something like that. It’s like there was too many people in the room or whatever. For some reason, we couldn’t get the flow state going or whatever you want to call it. It’s like that felt, that was a really, I think, magic part about it.
Jesse Cannon: Next, I turn to producer Gabe Simon to hear his thoughts on how the process worked for this record.
Gabe Simon: So, when we got together, he had a handful of songs. I did a lot of pre-production in terms of putting ideas together of what I was imagining how the next couple, at that time was a couple weeks would go in terms of creation. When we started making the record, actually at David Leonard’s place, the first part of the record I did with David Leonard’s place. Even that was kind of evolving when we got into the studio. I had these full arrangements of at least three of the songs of how I imagined it would look like. Then, I was brought on for the rest of the record and I had about a day to prepare.
In that sleepless night beforehand, I was just kind of messing around with stuff and I came up with the rhythm and kind of general vibe of what “Sure Ain’t” became. And “Sure Ain’t” kind of became the tent pole track. It was like, this is, we love the sound, we love the vibe, we love what we created, we love the both modern and throwback element of it, the fact that it really focuses on the vocals. The rhythm and the production is really key and really important and fun but at the end of the day came back to what made that song and the storytelling so important in that song and getting to that vocal cut at the chorus, when he just shrieks like crazy. It’s just so exciting. So, when we found that, we’re kind of like, “Okay. So, we have these other two songs that we like from this but I think we could write more stuff.”
So, basically, Bear went out on tour with NEEDTOBREATHE for another month and a half, wrote a couple more songs, came back, we wrote for another two months and then finished the record in December last year. So even though we had an idea of what we wanted to do in June, the record wasn’t wrapped until December, early January. It was evolving as we were doing that, certain things became more intimate, certain things hit harder and figured out what our, truly were are influences and what our goal was with the project. And that sounds like a long period of time but it’s weird to think about a guy who had been part of a band for almost two decades that’s been very successful and another guy, myself, who has never worked with him before and comes from a different background. Took us a minute to kind of figure out we could literally do anything and your voice sounds amazing on everything. What do we do to make it the best thing? It just took a lot of discovery to get there.
I probably did about four or five arrangements of each song on the record to kind of get it to feel correct and even in the midst of that, we would have players on certain tracks. We had certain songs that we used, what we thought we were going to record that song. We went in there and the band played at that song but then I didn’t end up using that song but I was able to steal all of the sounds that we got from it and use it on another song.
So, it was kind of a fun thing where even as we were creating, we were trying to find ways to take, if we had a piano part that we loved from another song that we didn’t find a way to chop that piano part, like “Feel” for example on the record. “Feel” was a song that was written late in the process. It was actually after we had recorded everything. There was another song on the record, originally, called “Mountain.” We just couldn’t get into the place that we loved but we loved this piano part that Ian Fitchuk had played, who is a great producer, writer, just a great dude. He had played it and we’re like, “We have to use this piano part.”
So, we found a way to pitch it and alter it and do this weird stuff to it and then make it the intro to “Feel” and the bridge to “Feel,” which then inspired this whole new production element of that song. So, I truly mean every part of every recording that we did was used in some way.
Jesse Cannon: You had heard Bear mention that almost everybody who played on the record was also a producer, which can often lead to there being too many cooks in the kitchen. So, I asked Gabe if that became a problem during the process.
Gabe Simon: No. I think that overall, it didn’t make it bitter. I think everyone was really respectful of my role and Bear’s role and what we were trying to accomplish. I think they knew that we had put a lot of work into getting the identity to where it was but also we didn’t, the players played a key moment. We would try stuff, we come up with these arrangements. We’re like, “This feels good. Can we get someone who has a different touch to do the same exact thing?” We would do that. That’s what would change the overall ideology of the song.
Like “Supply & Demand,” we had a full arrangement with kind of more of an aggressive drum groove on the verses and chorus but we had all the same hooks. Then, when the band got in there and we had Tyler Burkum on guitar and Jeremy Lutino on the drums. Jeremy just cleaned it up, he opened up so much space in the verses that we originally were kind of shying away from but the way that he played and the way that he chose to fill some of those gaps ended up making it so we could actually have less stuff on the track, which was really, really nice.
Then, when guitar came in, we’re sitting there, we’re playing stuff and say, “Oh, this feels cool. We have cool lines and stuff that we’ve prepared.” And somebody pulled out a wah pedal and we’re like, “What if we just went total Isaac Hayes on this?” And it just got weird and really wet and made the bridge really choppy and nasty. All of a sudden, we had wah guitar in the whole song and wah became then like a pivotal instrument for the two or three other songs. So, it was like, we make these weird discoveries only because that player was there.
So, I feel like Bear and I had such a, we had such a smooth relationship the whole time. I mean, I was really grateful for that. We created very efficiently, yet we both were kind of like, we would sit there and I’d play guitar part over and over and over and over and over again. We would look at each other and go, “This is the worst guitar part I’ve ever heard and I don’t know why I keep playing it.” There was a pretty great understanding of each other as when we were working that there was, nothing was sensitive. We could just create and move and create and move. When we both connected with something, we would light up but when we both hated something, it was very clear, like, “This is horrible. Why are we doing this?” It was great. I worked myself to exhaustion. He put me up at a hotel room one night and bought me a White Russian and was like, “Go to bed.” So, but, I mean, it was pretty chill. I mean, we had a really great record process.
Jesse Cannon: With Gabe talking about how often they changed directions on these songs, I asked Bear about how many songs were left on the cutting room floor.
Bear Rinehart: I think, yeah, there’s probably 20 or 30 legit songs that, but I don’t think we were good enough about, pretty disciplined with our tracking of them. I think there’s a couple B sides that we probably will end up playing live some and maybe we’ll put out at some point. It felt like we made them in the album but we were pretty good about that. I mean, a few of the things happened naturally, so we kind of painted ourselves into a corner in an interesting way.
But, “Light Shine In” is the first track on the record and that was one of these extremely conscious kind of lyrics that I had written. So, we had put it into three different songs. It was almost like a manifesto. It was like, “I want this to start the record but I don’t know what the music thing should be.” I think it was two days before we were out of the studio. Somebody’s playing feedback in the room downstairs and it’s like, “Okay. I think we got a track.” So, that song came out very naturally in that way but most other stuff, I feel like we went in like, “We’re trying to cut these five and we’ve got to get them.”
Jesse Cannon: One of the hardest things to do when you have all those extra songs is to whittle down what should be on the record. So, I asked Bear about how they went about that.
Bear Rinehart: Yeah. I think I have a really good sense of what makes an album now, after I’d had made six set records with the band. I think there’s a sense that, as you’re writing, what we need an up-tempo track or we need a track that is a little lighter or we need a track that showcases this part of your voice. I don’t think it’s always exactly the same. I wouldn’t say I have some sort of template for what record you’re trying to make but when you have the first five or six songs, you’re like, I start making a conversation with myself like, “Would I be miserable if I don’t put this song on the record?” And if you can get that list of songs up to five or six, then I think riding the other half of the record, in a lot of ways, is about writing for the holes that you see in the album so far.
Wilder Woods – “Supply & Demand”
Jesse Cannon: Every great record comes with some great stories so I wanted to revisit some of them with the people involved. Up first, Bear’s going to tell us about some of the late nights making this record.
Bear Rinehart: So, what happened is now, accidentally, the first time and it was like, “Man, I got to get this vocal in. They’re asking for this song at this time,” or whatever. He’s like, “Man, I got a session about love. Won’t you come by after dinner,” or something like that. It ended up, I got there late or something. It’s like, the next thing you know, it’s like this he has a case and has a studio on top of a hill in Nashville and that kind of in the woods, around this crazy driveway and then there was a vibe up there that I wasn’t prepared for, really. It just, it went great. We sent the vocal out to everybody, producers and everything. They freaked about it.
We came into this, we actually did a stereo thing which our mixers all hated us for, obviously, but we did it because when we demoed “Someday Soon,” we were playing the guitar on the couch with the stereo mic set up, like Audio-Technicas.
As I did it, I was like, let me just do the demo. Let me sing the demo into these same mics and that way, it’ll just give this sort of thing and let’s just make sure we don’t have phase things but let’s just see what happens. Well, we get the vocal back and it’s like everybody freaks about it because you can kind of hear if you’re listening to headphones me moving my head. It’s a little bit of right to left, which for a mixer is like, they’ve got their whole thing up there grid set up. It’s like, “You gave me two vocals. I don’t want that.”
But so we kind of met on at least the ballad, several of the ballads on the record. The louder songs don’t work as well for that but the ballads we did some, I’m sitting down in a couch with the stereo mics. It’s late at night. There’s nowhere to go. There’s a feeling about that stuff. They’re like, “That was kind of magic.”
And something that I’ve always heard stories, like Kurt Cobain’s laying on the ground when he’s singing the whatever. And I think there’s something about that that’s super true. I’ve seen pop people walk around with an SM7 and get in the corner room and kneel down and all these different, get their voice inflections and vibe to be different. I think it was more of a mood thing for me so I could just lay the vocal back. I was able to focus in a way, I think most times that you don’t have.
There’s a lot of pressure recording vocals, I think. There’s a magic sort of, almost bedside manner the engineer needs to have for that. If vocalist is in a booth and you can’t see them, then, you’ve got this engineer in there. He’s like, “Oh, let’s do just one more. It was a little pitch-y right there.” It’s like, in your mind, you’re thinking, “No. That was terrible. I suck. I can’t sing anymore.” There’s no positive feedback, so I think from me, being in the control room the way we did it and being there late at night and kind of just relaxed, it helped a lot.
Jesse Cannon: Next, we have long-time collaborator David Leonard talking about when Bear bought his house and how that story made it onto the record.
David Leonard: I think one of the songs that I got to write with him that is on the house, “Hillside House,” was a pretty special time. It was right before Bear moved here. He was coming out and we were writing songs. I remembered somebody told me that this guy was a friend of ours was selling a house out in Brentwood. I was like, “Man, we should just go check it out.” We drove up there and we drove up to the place and the house set up on this big old hill and kind of overlooks Franklin and I remembered driving up there and we walked around, we looked around, and we were just talking about the place the whole time and we came back. Immediately, we wrote this song. It was kind of crazy that then he ended up buying the house.
So, at the time, it was just a home. It was a place that kind of metaphorically writing about but then it actually became his family’s home and that made it even more special and they started thinking about putting it on the record and all that kind of stuff. That’s really cool. I’ll always remember that. It’ll always be a part of this record.
Wilder Woods – “Hillside House”
Jesse Cannon: And here’s Bear telling his side of the story.
Bear Rinehart: It was very, felt very Tennessee, like we wrote some songs like that, like the Hillside House, I moved to Nashville during this process because I was just going there way too much. I went, I bought a house on a hill. In the day, this guy actually, David, my old buddy, who’s in the band, showed me the house because his friend or something owned it. So, we go up there in the afternoon. We’re like, “Let’s just kick around, see what happens.” And we went to see the house. I was like, “That’s the one, that’s killer.” We wrote this song that afternoon.
And so, things like that I think kind of defined like, “Whoa! We’re going to keep, that song we’re keeping.” We have to figure out how to record it to fit on this album but that’s a classic song for that.
Jesse Cannon: Next, I asked about one of my favorite features of this record, which is the background vocals. Now, here’s Bear unveiling the inspiration for them.
Bear Rinehart: We had The Watson Twins sing, who’ve I’ve always been a fan of but didn’t know and Jesse Baylin. We had heard a record they sing, all three of them sing together on. We’re like, we want this because we don’t necessarily want this straight like gospel singer vibe. We want more of a haunting, sort of 50s, a lot played into that but I think that was the kind of thing.
Jesse Cannon: And here’s producer Gabe Simon talking about how much these backing vocals affected him.
Gabe Simon: I’ve had very few moments in my musical career where I’ve been actually moved, I mean moved to tears. We had the three wonderful singers in, Jesse Baylin and then The Watson Twins. They’re amazing. They do a lot with the Kings of Leon to Wilco and Jenny Lewis and a bunch of great bands. They’re pretty different singers. They’re not traditionally background singers. They’re all artists but the way that they sounded together was just really, really special. It didn’t feel like you were getting a session singer. You were getting an artist singing on the track.
And so, there’s a moment, we’re recording at this beautiful studio called Layman Drug Company and we’re in the tracking room. Bear and Conrad, who’s engineering the record with me, is behind the console and the glass and kind of looking through. They’ve got these girls. They’re set up in the other room and they’re all three singing on the beautiful AA440 mics. We’ve got the baffles in between them but they have the windows in between so they can kind of see each other. I’m just standing there with my headphones on, their headphones on and I’m conducting them.
We’re doing “Someday Soon,” when it drop into the amens that come right out of the bridge. We added this moment because we didn’t think we needed anything because there was this beautiful musical moment, but we’re, “What if we just had this?”
Wilder Woods — “Someday Soon”
Gabe Simon: It kind of solidified what the song lyrically had been talking about because I think that that moment at the end of the bridge might have been forgotten, lyrically, if we hadn’t done that. I’m standing there and I’m listening to them sing and I’m just losing it. And I come back into the control room after we’ve tracked and it’s just like Conrad and they’re all so emotional. It was just, we knew we had captured something really unique and special. We had gone to a moment in history and time that felt like we were in a different era of making music where 95 percent of what I do is looking at a computer. That whole day was just looking at singers and listening and hearing and putting that over top of music that we’d worked very hard to make simple and beautiful and the whole experience was just otherworldly.
Wilder Woods — “Someday Soon”
Jesse Cannon: Next, I had Bear talk about making some of the songs in a little bit more depth. Here he is talking about the song we’re listening to now, “Someday Soon.”
Bear Rinehart: “Someday Soon” is an interesting one to me because I wrote it with two guys that I really didn’t know that well at the time. It was Trent Dabbs and Cason Cooley, who now I know much better, [we’ve] become friends. But I went over to Cason’s place. I actually wrote a song for a soundtrack. We were like, we don’t have time to cut this, but I wanted a girl singer on it, so I was like. Anyway, I spent the first half of the day doing something completely different. Trent’s like, “Should I still come or what’s going to happen?” It’s like, “Yeah, let’s just, 2:00 we’ll be done with this thing, come over.”
And in Nashville it’s very, traditionally, it’s like whatever, 11:00 to 5:00 or whatever. We had that sort of thing. So, they come over, played an idea I’ve had for 10 years probably that nobody really has jumped out when I have played and they did that, which is like, “I think this is cool in the moment. I don’t know what it was.” But so that song happened in a two and a half hour period, or something like that. The demo basically sounds like the record does now. I end up using Cason to cut probably half the vocals on the record. It’s the one thing we would cut if we didn’t get it in a live take, we would cut at his place late at night. So we kind of, at 10:00, bottle of wine and a vocal. It’s like, we would do it.
But “Someday Soon” was one of those where I had this lyric idea I was going to write my two boys, which is Wilder and Woods. I was like, “What would I want to say to them about, it’s okay to make mistakes and we love you no matter what and shame.” It’s like these big subjects. I started writing, we started writing things and all of us are telling our own stories and all three of us actually had kids so we’re kind of like trying to do that, but as we’re doing that, it kind of morphs into a story about ourselves. It’s whatever you would tell them, I think you would actually probably could use as a lesson for yourself. That’s kind of how the song ends up so at first it’s like really talking to someone and then it’s like, “I,” by the end of the song.
And I think, Trent had this idea about the chorus in there, it says, “Someday soon, these worries roll on.” It was like, what about, and it’s weird being part of, right, so me saying that now. That does not sound like a lyric. If somebody said that to me, I’d be like, “That doesn’t make sense.” But something about when you’re in there and it’s like, “Let’s turn the phrase a little bit. It does make sense but maybe people haven’t heard it exactly that way before.” And there’s something so magic about that because after you’ve heard it now, like now I’ve sung it a few times, like, oh, this is like, this is always just sitting there, but it wasn’t. It was like, it came out of nowhere. And I think that was like, one of the only times I’ve been driving home and the writers both hit me up separately and they were like, “Do you think we just wrote a classic song, or something?” It felt really special to us in that way, like, I really feel like something, it just magic happened in that two hours. It was like, whoa! This is something kind of bigger than us in a way.
Wilder Woods — “Religion”
Jesse Cannon: Next, Bear’s going to talk to us about the song that closes out the record, “Religion.”
Bear Rinehart: Yeah. I mean, “Religion” is one of those. It’s probably like I feel like it’s interesting coming from me. I think people who are fans of, I grew up, my dad was a pastor and I’ve got plenty of sort of beef, just like most people do with church and all of that and guilt and religion and all this, and kind of how they swirl around. I think that I’m probably one of those who hasn’t totally thrown out the baby with the bathwater, in a way, but I do still have a lot of deep-seeded things that feel, I think we just live in a time where a lot of religion is commercialized, unfortunately. I think even in North America as opposed to whatever.
That’s why, I think that’s something I was just trying to battle with and it’s like how do I do that through my own story and hopefully not also be disrespectful, in a way. So that song I think was one of those that I did write by myself. It was one of those, I had actually gone over that tiny house late at night that I was writing in early on in the process. It’s also the first demo I made that I was like, “I think I like this.”
I kept putting on a goal sheet, people would see, like they’d say, “Make a demo you’re proud of.” I’m like, “What does that even mean?” I was like, “I don’t know but I think I’ll know it when I hear it.” That was one where just mostly acoustic and vocal and really nothing changed from the record. I think we actually used the acoustic, that track in that tiny house on the album. It’s the final track on the record, and so I’m very proud of the way that came. I also feel like it was important to kind of begin and end the record that way. I’ve always thought that’s very important and the statements that you’re making.
So, I feel like “Light Shine In” is the first track and has this manifesto kind of thing about how intention is what matters and all these things. Then, “Religion” is this kind of like, “Man, I’ve been beat down by this thing. This is some common ground we have.” So, anyway, I think that’s probably my bookends, I guess for this chapter.
Wilder Woods — “Religion”
Jesse Cannon: To wrap things up, I talked to his collaborators about what they think makes him unique. Here’s Gabe Simon.
Gabe Simon: So, you probably met a lot of people and interviewed a lot of people. I think, when you meet someone who can sing, you’re like, “Wow, that person’s an amazing singer. It’s too bad that maybe this person will never get noticed or no one will ever care,” or whatever.
The amazing thing about Bear is that Bear has this will that I’ve never seen in an artist before, that has not evaporated with time and with making many records and touring and playing in big rooms, 12,000 people a night. It has not evaporated his desire to work harder and push harder and be better and practice more than everyone else and even when he’s not as good at something, he wants to be at least the hardest working at it. So, that combo of probably, I remember Steve Robertson at Atlantic called me and said, “I’ve got this guy that I want you to write with. He probably has the best voice at this label I’ve ever heard.” So, put that together with that work ethic and that level of drive and I feel like he can truly will success into existence.
Jesse Cannon: To finish us off, here’s David Leonard talking about what he thinks makes Bear unique.
David Leonard: Fell in love with the guy. The guy’s, he’s something that’s pretty special. You don’t meet many people who write songs the way that he does and has a voice the way that he does. So, I gravitated towards him and what he does, for sure.
Man, the guy has drive like nobody else and he has the smarts of doing this for the last 20 years. He is constantly a person who’s learning and trying to grow. The man’s never going to take no for an answer. If there’s a hurdle that comes along, he’s always going to try to figure out a way to make it work and to figure out how to make it better. It drives me. It’s made me a better producer. It’s made me a better musician. I’m excited for him.
Wilder Woods — “Electric Woman”