Let’s start with a song. “Willingly” is tentative at first – a pick floating over guitar strings, buffered by a passing bassline and then pulled into the current by the drums, which reflect the rhythms in the guitar’s languid strumming. The sudden rush of chorus, a descending melody that seems to skip a beat in its hurry to make it back to the top, builds to one of the defining music motifs – a thrumming, stomping set of hits that feel like they are bouncing off of uneven surfaces, marching the song to its inevitable resolution.
By the end of the song, that stomping pattern is incorporated into the bridge, finally overwhelming the melodies clinging to the surface. The final resolution is denied by a plaintive, wordless voice. It’s remarkable how much of this musical movement is present in the lyrics, which examine a life from a dissociated, almost ghostly perspective. The narrator reflects on a passive life, repeating ‘you’ll go willingly’ until the final subversion: ‘but you’re killing me.’
This is Bernie & The Wolf, our latest Weekly Featured Artist. An indie rock duo full of tender, emotive lyrics and explosive rhythms, they’ve spent the better part of a decade as an independent band, recording their own music, planning their own tours, and building community wherever they go. “Willingly” is the newest single from an album that is planned for release later in the summer, and it is perfectly characteristic of their strengths – complex polyrhythms floating around massive open chords, catchy vocal melodies bringing comfort to the impressionistic, often sorrowful lyrics.
Bernie & The Wolf started as separate musicians: Bernadette Conant, a songwriter inspired by Joni Mitchell and Cat Stevens, and Erik Lobo, who cut his teeth drumming in punk and ska bands before studying music and recording technology. They met in a studio and dated before inevitably starting to make music together. They first collaborated on “Goldilocks”, the beautiful closer to their 2017 album Catch Some. Lobo started out providing bass and vocals to accompany Bernadette’s songs, and eventually returned to drums.
Armed with a wide spectrum of influences, talents, and goals, Bernie & The Wolf have spent much of their time in the tradition of other independent musicians: building community. In planning their tours, including this year’s massive North America run, they focus on house shows, meeting people, and finding connections wherever they go. Bernadette states, ‘I do think how we approach music is community oriented. I don’t think we did that on purpose but it was the most natural way to go about making music.‘ Adding to that, Lobo says: ‘We both had negative experiences working in music before meeting each other. The studio where we met treated us both poorly. It made our life’s mission to be the opposite of that.‘
This attitude is especially on display in the band’s other endeavor: Wolf’s Den Productions. Lobo started recording musicians in 2012, and it’s remained a passion of his. Wolf’s Den, which existed physically in Chicago most recently, is a studio and production company. Lobo works with people on a project level, rather than an hourly commitment, so his services are affordable to up and coming musicians, and he approaches every project with enthusiasm and insight. In Chicago, the Wolf’s Den scene is full of bands that made their way out of bedrooms and basements with Lobo’s guidance.
It’s rare to hear a duo create such a massive sound. Certainly famous examples exist, but many of them push the other direction, leaning into the stripped-down set up. Bernie & The Wolf don’t play with back tracks, loops, or even guitar effects, but they fill every space they play with a dense wash of open chords and energetic complementary rhythms. Bernadette’s voice is a formidable instrument as well, and her sense of melody with and without words guides the songs into a catchy complexity that is as easy to appreciate as it is rewarding to really dig into.
Bernadette: ‘I think most of the time I’m playing guitar, and singing melodies without lyrics, and then lyrics are last. Usually, it’s the melody, the way it’s phrased over a riff, and then sometimes I’ll start singing some nonsense word. That will inspire an idea or a concept.’
Lobo: ‘I get really into the strumming pattern, and between that and Bernie’s vocal melodies, I try to over-accentuate what is happening…The kick and snare might focus on the strumming pattern, and some ornamentation to fit the vocal. I have to create my own counter melody on drums, since there are two of us.‘
On “Willingly,” you can hear that guitar-foreword writing process in action – the verses are full of alliteration, a poetic form surely born from the music of wordless syllables, and the drums are alive with rhythms that seem to map out the contours of the space that the guitar creates.
Bernie & The Wolf have just finished a leg of their most recent tour, which included an opportunity too open for one of their primary inspirations: Francis Quinlan, the pioneering vocalist and guitarist of Hop Along, at Noise Pop Festival 2020. The tour culminated with the release of the band’s first music video for the single “Willingly.” The video was produced by Zane Maxwell at ZM5 Productions, and it interprets the song perfectly, from the uneasy beginning to the shocking final scene. Artistic collaboration is always an act of trust – here, the band approached Zane with a couple of images – the hands grasping, the last shot, and they let him run with it. The result is eerie and experimental, with shifts in color and aspect ratio intensifying the increasing darkness of movement and lyrics.
With a new album hopefully out this year and some time to rest and repair, this writer is certainly looking forward to the band’s next steps. Bernie & The Wolf are empathetic and welcoming in lyric, mood, music, and in person, and they share a commitment to creating art with people. You can feel it in their recordings and in their electric live performance. I could feel it over the phone, a couple of hours ago.