Between Blue and Gray
Winterpills’ indie-folk-pop blurs seasons, emotions
SUCH PRETTY LIGHTS: Winterpills finds the bright side of darkness.
by Leslie Wylie
Spring’s nice, but there’s something about winter you just can’t appreciate until it’s over. Only when the skies part and the birds start singing and the daffodils unfurl their botanical sunshine does it become possible to reminisce with conviction about the season past: its grim elegance, its shades of gray, its elegiac solitude.
Granted, it’s the same stuff that had you plotting suicide under a pile of quilts just a couple months back. But seasonal affective disorder, sans the cover-up of therapy lights and anti-depressants, does have its perks.
Just ask Phillip Price, frontman of Northampton, Mass.-based band Winterpills. While Price isn’t SAD-positive, so to speak, he has made a name for himself by catering to the wintriest of human emotions: nostalgia, heartache, and despair. And hope—those fleeting moments when the temperature climbs beyond its predicted thermometer notch, and maybe there’s a burst of sun, reminding us all that winters pass, seasons are cyclical.
Price writes best from beneath that pile of quilts, peeking out every so often to watch for changes in the sky. “If I’m miserable, I can write much better,” he says. With his dark-rimmed glasses and pensive smile, Price looks the part of the permanently gut-wrenched artist. The band’s self-titled debut, out on Signature Sounds’ Soft Alarm imprint, reflects as much; it compacts a season of pain into 10 softly-illuminated pop songs, each awash in chilling melodies and shadowy vocals.
“We want to make music that’s beautiful,” Price says. “In the span of a three- or four-minute song, we want to take people on some kind of ride or journey that speaks to a quieter part of the psyche….”
With his background involvement in power-pop and indie-punk bands, Price was initially intrigued by the challenge of getting his point across with subtlety instead of volume. “We got very used to playing very loud, and I’d be singing at the top of my voice, trying to yell over the drums,” he says. “[With Winterpills], our idea was to create a quieter experience. But we’re not really breaking new ground.”
The notion of a “crossover from the folk world into the indie world,” as Price puts it, has indeed enjoyed a recent swell of popular embrace, headlined by acts like Iron & Wine, Sufjan Stevens, Stars, and Low. Such bands have eased themselves onto the scene by way of a shared faith in listener sensitivity, a belief that music doesn’t have to use force, be it discord or sound decibels, to make its point. But Winterpills is not merely latching on to a temporarily profitable trend. Theirs is a sound that comes naturally; from the very beginning, it simply couldn’t happen any other way.
The band, which also includes vocalist Flora Reed, guitarist Dennis Crommett, and drummer Dave Hower, claims to have formed over the course of a snowy winter. They began meeting up regularly to drink, play music and nurse various wounds (for Price, it was the death of his father). When the catharsis was complete, Winterpills recorded the finished product in Reed’s kitchen.
Their emotions congeal with surprising ease. Price’s lyrics are a composite sketch of frostbitten imagery—frozen kitchen pipes, pale gray stars, blue ghosts, cold tears—and the music follows suit, swelling and melting like snowdrifts, fraying into dissonance before realigning into harmony again. The lyrics are at times bitingly visceral (“Apples still/ crisp on the shelf/ pack of duck sauce/ a glimpse of self” in “Found Weekend”), and at others abstract (Reed’s refrain of “There’s honey in the chemicals” in “Portrait”).
But what becomes of such poetry when the suffering that elicited it subsides? Price’s life has normalized somewhat since the writing of the first album. When not touring with the band, he’s a single father and part-time video store clerk. He says, “Suffice it to say, I’m happier now, and it’s not as easy to write.” Price describes the songwriting process, in its current incarnation, as a series of ups and downs. “They come when they’re ready. I just have to be patient.”
Some artists, when confronted with a similar situation, work to recreate the creativity-inducing environment, be it comfortable or agonizing. And they may or may not be aware of what they’re doing. In springtime, they pull down the shades, crank up the air conditioning, and mentally recreate the sobriety of those winter months. In happiness, they devise new and increasingly complicated measures of self-destruction. It’s a difficult equation to stomach—the relationship between crumpled hearts and creativity, wrecked springs for the sake of reliving dismal winters—but high costs can sometimes yield lofty rewards.
Price laughs aloud at the suggestion, but not because it’s unreasonable. “Probably, in retrospect, that suggestion’s not far from the truth,” he admits, before tacking on a disclaimer. “But not consciously.”