My Tinder inbox is empty, all those love-letters I received in secondary school are bundled at the bottom of the wardrobe, and the last three text messages on my phone are from my mother and Dominos pizza. I’ve not been on a date in years and I’m pretty much convinced that romance is just an idea sold to you by Moonpig and coffee table books; something that always happens to the protagonist in a film but never in real life. Romance is dead.
One man who’d disagree, though, would be Peter Miller, lead singer of We Are The Willows and one of the lyricists behind his band’s concept album Picture (Portrait). The record, which is released on November 4th, is based upon love letters his grandparents exchanged during World War II. The lovers met a few months before his grandfather was drafted into the army and the pair ended up getting married after the war.
Fearful of soldiers giving their locations if letters fell into enemy hands, wartime love notes were heavily censored by the Army. With anything remotely factual ruled out, this led to soldiers having to talk more about their feelings than most would be comfortable with - including Peter’s grandfather. His letters ranged from expressing amazement at a sun on a rainy day to dealing with his relationship with his own father. Throughout the musical adaptation of the letters comes a sense of quiet romance that can warm even my cold dead heart, with lines like “Dear Ms Branster, you are on my heart and you were from the start”.
When the war was over, Peter’s grandfather was deployed back to the USA but forced to destroy his share of the letters, because he couldn’t carry all of them back with him. All that remains are the missives sent to his future wife. These were the letters that Peter was given as a present for his graduation. While spending years touring as a solo act, he read and re-read the letters, attempting to capture the magic of the letters and his grandfather’s voice.
I chatted to Peter about how letters written before he was born inspired an album, what his grandparents thought of it, and whether the romance really is dead.
Noisey: How did the idea for the project form?
Peter: I lived with my grandparents while I was going to college. They offered me a small basement apartment attached to their home in exchange for cheap rent and chores around the house. They invited me over for most every meal and every once in a while my grandma would talk about the letters my grandpa wrote to her while he was stationed in the South West Pacific during the war. I was immediately interested in these letters. My grandpa was a very quiet, kind and peaceful man. He only spoke when he needed to. I saw these letters as an opportunity to get to know him more. What did they say about the letters over dinner?
They talked about them in a pretty un-romantic way actually. They said they were pretty boring and that at the time they didn't really know each other all that well. Though after reading them, it's clear they got to know each other through the letters.
When did you get a chance to read them?
After I graduated from college my grandma gave me the letters. I read them over the course of five years in my spare time. I read the greatest amount of them while touring on the first We Are The Willows record (A Collection of Sounds and Something Like The Plague) and follow up EP (Places). I was touring as a solo act and essentially lived in my van. I had a lot of time before shows and would read a few letters, make notes and let them sink in.
When did you decide to use them with music?
I began thinking of the letters as having musical qualities shortly after I began reading them in 2007. I didn't really begin writing the songs until 2010 when I began touring full time.
What was it about them?
I found that, just as with songs, the letters had dynamic shifts and changes. The more I read, the more that became apparent to me. It then became a matter of trying to capture that. How was that process?
It was really interesting because, like my grandparents said, the letters could actually be a bit boring at times because, really, there wasn't much to talk about. Not only did they not know each other well, but also, with the Army’s censorship, there wasn't much my grandpa could say about where he was and what he was doing. It also meant that he couldn't really talk about how he felt about what he was doing in the war. The really special parts were little things, read between the lines.
Any in particular?
One really powerful moment was in a letter where he was writing from a beach somewhere in the South West Pacific. It had been raining on and off for days and he was getting a glimpse at the sun setting between rain showers. He wrote that the weather there is as undependable as his father is. His father was an alcoholic and squandered a good deal of their money. As heartbreaking as that was to read, it was also really special to get to know my grandpa in that way. It was meaningful to know what he was going through, and what sorts of experiences were informing his life.
How did your grandparents meet?
My grandpa had heard about Verlie Branstner (my grandma) from his siblings. He heard that she was the prettiest girl around. He volunteered to chop wood for Verlie's dad just to get a look at her. He thought that she lived up to the hype. They first met in their church parking lot in Wadena, MN in November of 1941. He didn't ask her out until June of 1942. In many of his letters he expresses regret for being too timid to ask her out before that.
Were they still around to hear the record?
I was able to play some of the songs for my grandpa before he passed away. My grandma has heard the whole thing. I was incredibly nervous for her to hear it. I went to visit her and we listened to it together. She says she loves it and she thinks I captured my grandpa's voice perfectly. Hearing her say that made me feel like a million dollars.
Were you worried about their reactions?
Yeah, big time! I mean, I had asked their permission to write songs about them, but I was worried about overstepping my boundaries or taking conceptual turns they wouldn't approve of.
How have other family members treated the project/recordings?
Everyone has been really supportive. My grandpa was the cornerstone of our family. We all revere him and his life so much and I think they see that this album, these songs, exist to honour that.
Did you feel like you were adapting a book through having to change a piece of writing into song lyrics?
Yes, I think that’s essentially what I was doing. There is a good deal of my writing voice in the songs, but it was always a goal to keep true to my grandpa, his voice and his story.
Finally. Do you think romance really is dead?
My grandparents' relationship has caused me to think a lot about how love and romance relate to proximity, scarcity and access to information. The conditions under which my grandpa was writing were certainly not ideal for courtship. His letters were strictly censored and often times he didn't even know if she would receive his letters. If she did, he wouldn't receive her response until months later. Could you imagine not knowing whether someone's feelings for you have changed in the months that you are waiting for their response? How much of feeling something has to do with that feeling being reciprocated?
What about in the modern age?
Today, we can know a lot about a person before we even talk to them! We can look online and find that they like the same music, studied abroad, volunteer at a food shelter, have a sister, etc. But when we do talk to them, we can expect to hear back from them very quickly (or discern their interest by their lack of communication). Also, we have a much larger pool of partners to choose from. There aren't only 4 or 5 potential partners to choose from. There are thousands! Another factor about today is that there is dramatically less social and biological pressure to find a partner.
So, when I consider the parameters for our relationships today and contrast them with the parameters for my grandparents' generation, it leads me to believe we can actually know people more than they could at that time. We have higher access to compatible partners. In that sense, when a person finds another to partner with, it is because they know them well enough and are in love enough to choose to be with them. Our choice to be with someone is more informed and therefore maybe a bit more true.
The beautiful, confusing, amazing thing about my grandparents' generation is that they chose to be with someone on such different grounds. They didn't have the same access to information and computability. Love was more of a choice than it may be now.
The album Picture (Portrait) is slated for release on Nov. 4 via The Homestead Records.
Follow Dan on Twitter: @KeenDang