Fans describe their sound as “dark, edgy, mellow and subdued.” Listeners often argue that their fierce vocals resemble that of Florence + the Machine and their music has been referred to as “folksy” and even “Goth rock” on occasion. After much contemplation, the lead vocalists of the Wooden Wings define their style as “ambient alternative rock with an edge plus acoustic influences.”
For brevity’s sake, they classify themselves within the broad “alternative” genre. After years of sonic growth, what started out as a simple acoustic teenage duo—one timid female pair—has sharpened and expanded to become a five-person-strong crew with a mature and dynamic sound. When the ambitious young band releases their new album, Liminal, with a month-long tour kickoff show at One Eyed Jacks Thursday, July 12, they’ll bring a fresh element to the diverse indie music scene in New Orleans.
As we sit outside Rue de la Course, where Oak Street meets Carrollton Avenue, late one Monday night, the two founders of the Wooden Wings, Loyola University sophomores, tell me about their humble beginnings.
Molly Portier, a New Orleans native, and Cherie LeJeune, from Lafayette, met more than five years ago at a summer camp in Lafayette just before they began high school. They stayed in touch, shared their passion for lyric writing, fiddled around on the acoustic guitar, and eventually braved a Sunday open mic night together at Neutral Ground Coffeehouse. They booked their first official gig on May 31, 2008 and played sporadically throughout high school. Living in separate cities was a challenge for the fledgling duo, but two years later they released a debut album, titling it 144 Miles to denote the distance between their hometowns.
The word “awkward” frequents their joint recollection of that first show.
“Eventually we started calling ourselves the Wooden Wings because I’m a left-handed guitarist, and she’s a right-handed guitarist,” says LeJeune, “so together on stage we make a pair of wooden wings. But people used to call us ‘the wooden sticks’ because we were so awkward on stage,” Portier says with a laugh. “We wouldn’t move and just spent the night flipping through our binders of lyrics and glancing at each other with an ‘okay, you ready?’ look between each song,” LeJeune chimes in.
Portier pauses then says, “Yeah, it was really bad and it was awkward. But you know, we did it.”
“And I love that we can trace it back to that,” LeJeune continues. “That’s the thing, for us—we’re not just another college band. We’ve had this going for so long and we plan to keep it going.”
“And we’re still kind of socially awkward,” Portier says teasingly.
The band name seems well suited as a reflection of both the duality of their vocals and the intense connection between the two founders as musicians and confidants. Their familiarity is obvious upon first encountering the petite pair and seeing the bond that has formed over years of developing musically and otherwise alongside one another.
“Molly and I are best friends,” says LeJeune. “I don’t see us ever not singing together. That’d be weird. I’d feel like I didn’t have half of my voice or something.”
You can tell that the two have been friends for a long time by the way that they finish each other’s sentences, genuinely compliment one another in their recollections, and talk with each other more than to me when responding to my inquiries. Both have musically inclined fathers who also played in bands during their youth, but neither girl became serious about music until they met. By fifteen, they both owned binders overflowing with scraps of self-written lyrics. At sixteen, they gleefully checked their MySpace pages for amassing “fans” of their uploaded recordings. “We thought we were the bomb,” LeJeune recalls with a self-deprecating laugh. And yet, they both fearfully clung to their guitars that first night at the Neutral Ground.
“We’ve learned and grown up together musically,” LeJeune says. “We had maybe dabbled in it before, but we didn’t seriously start writing until we met each other, and we’ve both grown and helped each other grow since.”
“When I’ve done shows when Cherie wasn’t available to play, it’s just not the same,” Portier explains. “When one of us isn’t there—I don’t know, it’s like the other half of you isn’t on stage or something.”
This familial bond has extended to their newest band members as well—three young, male musicians who have, according to LeJeune, taken “these little acoustic songs we wrote and turned them into these ‘oh my god, what happened?’ awesome songs.” The two founders have known Harry Rosenberg, the group’s electric guitarist, and Anthony Mikhael, the drummer, since their high-school days. Phil Cork, the bassist and a fellow Loyola student, is the Wooden Wings’ most recent addition and, according to Portier, brings “an entirely new spin” to their material.
“They really feel what we do, which is kind of hard to find with our style of music,” says LeJeune, “because we’re girls and we’re not playing the kind of rough rock ‘n’ roll that guys typically want to play.”
The band’s camaraderie was solidified on a brief-but-eventful tour last summer. “Literally, we all just crammed into a minivan and we were napping on each other’s laps, making peanut butter sandwiches on each other’s backs…” LeJeune explains. “It’s hard to not get close to people when you’re existing like that, and it definitely influenced our music. The shows we played on that tour were so tight, tighter than we’d ever been before, and it was because we were just so close. When you have an emotional closeness with the people you’re playing with you naturally feel the music more.”
“I know it is kind of cliché to say ‘We’re a family,’ but I really do feel like we are,” says Portier.
“No, we totally are a family,” LeJeune affirms, before Portier finishes, “We fight like a family. We love like a family. We feed off of each other’s energy.”
This summer, the young band will be venturing off on an even lengthier tour in support of their brand-new album Liminal, this time in a bigger, newer van. They kicking off the month-long road trip through the Midwest and along the East coast at One Eyed Jacks Thursday night.
Portier mixed the majority of Liminal herself and admits it was an “insane process.” “At one point I was working nine days straight at my job and then coming straight home, not even eating dinner, and just mixing and editing until three o’clock in the morning and then waking up and doing it all over again.”
“We haven’t played live in six months because we focused solely on putting this album together,” says LeJeune, “and now we’re going to finally get to feel it out live.”
Liminal, the Wooden Wings’ third album, showcases the major sonic maturation the band has undergone since their first record. While 2008′s 144 Miles and 2010′s Fact Not Fiction centered on acoustics, Liminal ventures away from the acoustic centerpiece and delivers complex harmonies, bold bass lines, and a more-pronounced rock vibe to their music.
“I’m most excited about performing ‘Luna’,” says LeJeune. “It’s a song on the new album with no acoustics. It’s just Molly and I’s vocals on top of all the instrumentation, which means that live we’ll be able to put our guitars down and just let loose.”
“It’s always fun when both of us aren’t playing guitar,” Portier agrees. “It’s just fun during the live shows to be able to take off your acoustic and rock out.
“Vocals have always been more our instrument than the guitar ever really was,” she adds. “With this album we had a chance to focus on our vocals, so they are way more intricate…some songs have five-part harmonies.”
Their voices have grown sharper, louder and more confident, and the album’s elaborate and inventive harmonies are what make the band’s emerging sound most distinct. “We kind of took that and ran with it because we realized more recently that it’s what we have going for us,” says LeJeune. “If anything, it’s our voices.”
Their lyrics have matured too. The new album is more “worldly” in terms of theme, the girls tell me. “It’s a lot of reoccurring nature and city, and it’s just more about the world and less about relationships and our personal lives,” LeJeune explains. “Our last album was more like, ‘oh boys,’” she says with a swooning voice.
“But what could you expect from fifteen and sixteen-year-old girls?” Portier interjects. “You just can’t escape the recurring topic of boys.”
“But we managed to avoid the relationship theme for the most part in this one,” LeJeune finishes. “I mean, some songs hint at it, but it’s more of a mature way of dealing with it.”
When I ask about the guys’ feelings on the subject in the past, they tell me they’re amused by the consuming thoughts of teenage girls. “The guys knew who all the songs were about and thought it was funny,” says Lejeune. “They knew our personal lives backwards and forwards.”
“They definitely enjoyed making fun of us,” adds Portier.
Despite their heavier voices, more extensive instrumentation, darker lyrics, and edgier rock panache, the Wooden Wings still pay tribute to their lighter origins, giving acoustics a recognizable presence on the album. “You can’t forget the acoustics,” says LeJeune, “because that’s how we started out. In [Liminal] there are still some songs with a dramatic acoustic presence because we didn’t want people to think that we totally abandoned that part of our sound.
“If you listen to the album from start to finish, it’s still the Wooden Wings,” she ensures. “It’s still the acoustics, still the rock…but the lyrics just display more mature writing. Everything’s a lot cleaner. Our harmonies are tighter. Everything that we do has just gotten more refined. We’ve just grown up, and it shows.”
Their favorite songs to perform remain “Yes Sir” and “Crashing Down”—two songs they played at their original Neutral Ground performance and that have found their way onto nearly every set list since.
Despite the typical challenges that face striving college bands—low funds, hectic schedules, demanding coursework, and noise regulations that prohibit students from belting songs within the dorm walls—the band has mostly benefited from their academic locale. The girls credit the rising indie rock scene in New Orleans as influencing much of their ambition thus far, and the scene seems to be fortifying on Loyola’s campus, a setting that has fostered a slew of young go-getting musicians.
“We are actually kind of a weird genre for New Orleans,” says Portier, “but there are a lot of bands in our genre coming from Loyola—though New Orleans doesn’t cater to that unless it’s brass really—and I think it’s awesome that there’s this up-and-coming scene of indie rock right now that is trying to make its way through New Orleans.”
As music industry majors at Loyola, Portier and Cork, the bassist, have also been well-schooled in the fundamentals of music management and distribution. “The school encourages bands to go on tour and gives them instructions on how to begin,” LeJeune explains, “how to contact venues, how to advertise, how to budget.” Portier did nearly all of the tour planning on her own, lining up venues and dates, collaborating with bands to perform with, and coordinating publicity. The band has never had a booking agent, and a young, local artist their age designed their poster art.
“You’re on the road with everyone else,” Portier says, “and we’re all learning and doing sort of the same thing at the same time, so we help each other out.”
“There’s a lot of bands pushing to accomplish a lot of these same things, so it pushes you,” LeJeune adds. “Just having that knowledge and that environment, that’s probably the greatest thing we’ve been able to take out of New Orleans.”
As far as the band’s post-college future, the sincere front women are rosy, but realistic. “We just take it as it comes,” they say.
“Although we both would love to stay in New Orleans, you just never know,” says LeJeune. “But I don’t think we’ll ever stop. Even if I live across the country from Molly, I think we’ll still be recording songs that we write and emailing them back and forth. I’ll fly in from time to time and record something.”
“We’ve already had experience with living apart,” adds Portier.
“We’ll always be the wooden wings,” LeJeune says. “I can’t imagine not sharing music with Molly.”
“Yeah, I don’t know how to describe it,” says Portier, “but in five years—shit, in forty years, I hope we’re still playing together.”
I’m picturing a Wooden Wings reunion, Beach Boys-style, on some distant Jazz Fest itinerary.
The Wooden Wings launch their summer tour and celebrate their CD-release on Thursday, July 12 at One Eyed Jacks. Joining them on the bill are the Vettes and Enharmonic Souls. The show begins at 7 p.m. The Wooden Wings’ tour will circle back and conclude on August 10 at Artmosphere in Lafayette.