Right from the very beginning, Watching For Foxes has always kept an eye on the next horizon.
Welcoming change and following its instincts, the Grand Rapids indie-folk group grew from just three old high-school friends into an expansive seven-member ensemble touring the country in support of a full-length record.
With that much excitement and activity in only four years’ time, some things could no longer bend, and the band found that it had to make a clean break to get a strong start this summer.
“The really beautiful and really difficult thing about being in a band that starts really grassroots (is) it kind of took off in ways that I don’t think any of us could really have expected,” lead vocalist and co-songwriter Joey Frendo told Revue.
Started in 2014 in the small town of Fremont, Watching For Foxes dashed onto the local music scene. The trio of Frendo, co-songwriter/guitarist Jared Meeuwenberg and drummer Brandon Hanes relocated to Grand Rapids, and by the end of that same year had already recorded their first EP, won Grand Haven’s first-ever Walk The Beat music celebration, and returned to the studio for a follow-up release.
Over the next two years, the group released a second EP and gradually expanded into a seven-member behemoth, featuring local musicians Conner Brogan on guitar/mandolin, Geoff Kartes on cello, Ricky Olmos on keyboards and Cameron Barber on bass/banjo.
“We were very lucky early on to get a lot of opportunities that were maybe a bit out of our league, and the project moved forward because we did enough positive things to keep getting chances,” Frendo said.
Inspired by the likes of Ray LaMontagne, The Avett Brothers, Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes and others early on, the strong storytelling songcraft that Frendo and Meeuwenberg shared struck a chord with audiences.
Following the release of its 2016 full-length LP Undone Bird, Watching For Foxes embarked on its own month-long nationwide tour with Texas-based band Folk Family Revival last spring.
The experience proved to be a turning point for the band, in more ways than one.
“Not only did it really solidify our itch to be out on the road, it showed Jared and I that we could do this and that people from all over the country could find merit in our songs,” Frendo said. “It also served to galvanize our want to make music that was squarely in the roots music world.”
Taking feedback from the fans made by playing six nights per week across the country, Frendo and Meeuwenberg found their biggest strengths as songwriters came more from their influences in the Americana vein, and have adjusted their direction to work with more of an alt-country bend.
Casting off the self-described “sadboy-folk” and “flannel-rock” terms they’ve used to describe their sound, and parting ways with several members after the stresses of touring and other creative crossroads, Frendo and Meeuwenberg felt it was time to make a change and let Watching for Foxes end its run.
“(Being in a band is) like a marriage but between five or six or seven people, instead of just two,” Frendo said. “Every person who was ever a part of the many incarnations of Watching for Foxes brought something unique and interesting to the project at one point or another. They helped move it forward, big or small. We’re appreciative of the time we spent cutting our teeth, learning what works but also, just as importantly, what doesn’t work too.”
Now focused as a songwriting duo, Frendo and Meeuwenberg have turned more toward storytelling songwriters like Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson as influences, and have renamed their project Winnow.
From the old English, “winnow” means to separate grain from chaff by allowing the wind to blow away impurities, or to pursue a course, by flying in the air with flapping wings. Both definitions seem perfectly apt for where the duo is right now, as they’re completely open to the idea of collaborating with many of Michigan’s talented musicians in the roots music scene.
“The definition of the word ‘winnow’ that we’ve attached to is ‘of the wind,’” Frendo explained. “The idea of the wind, as a character in a story or as a part of our narrative, was very intriguing. … We grew up in a rural place and always have been (and) continue to be patrons of nature, so it was important to still include those motifs when choosing a new moniker. It almost feels like paying homage to what we created in Watching for Foxes, and now we get to take the parts that worked and shed some that didn’t, and give its core a real shot.”
Relax at Rosa
Rosa Park Circle, Grand Rapids – July 12
Bell’s Brewery Beer Garden
(opening for Drive-By Truckers)
Kalamazoo – July 19
Hoxeyville Music Festival
Wellston – Aug. 17-19
Frederik Meijer Gardens
Tuesday Evening Music Club