The folk quartet Windborne gave a concert in the Skinner Memorial Chapel on Tuesday, October 29. To learn more about the group and its background and mission, the Carletonian reached out to one of the group’s members, Will Rowan, to find out what they’re all about.
Q: Tell me a bit about how you all wound up getting into this sort of music.
A: We grew up in communities where participatory music was really strong. For instance, my parents were on Morris dancing teams, and the teams would get together after a day of dancing out and go to a bar, pub or one of their houses, and just start singing. I grew up around that, and my parents singing in the car, and so on. Several others of us in the group were in similar communities, but what gelled the idea of singing as something we really wanted to do was a summer camp for teens that we went to called Village Harmony, which does music from different singing traditions from various places in the world, and works directly with tradition-bearers of those traditions.
Q: How did you all get together as a group?
A: The group started with Lynn and Lauren and me. It was while high school was ending, and summer camps were soon going to be a thing of the past, when we got together and started singing music that we had learned at the camps. We gave a little concert in a tea shop. For a number of years it was just at that level—whenever we were home from college on break or had an opportunity to sing together we would organize a little concert. We were also part of a group of alumni of this camp that did a self-organized tour one winter, during winter break from college, which went really well, and we really enjoyed it. We kept doing it throughout our time in college and a little bit after. Eventually that devolved as things do when people get busy, but we invited another singer from that same group, Jeremy, to come do a tour with us, and he grew on us—like a fungus—no, he’s great! He added both another dimension in terms of the sound, asa bass, and also a lot of good ideas, a lot of drive to take this to new places.
Q: What were some of the group’s formative experiences?
A: Right after we did that first tour with Jeremy, we applied to this program through the State Department called American Music Abroad, which sends groups to various places, doing cultural diplomacy. We did it on a whim; we though this’d be an interesting exercise to put together this application. But then we got invited to audition, and we were very surprised, then even more surprised when we got it. It was sort of a band boot camp—just the act of preparing for that tour and then going—but the really cool thing about it was that we got to focus on just the music, because it was completely organized for us. By the end of that tour we felt like we had performed for more people in Central Asia than we had in North America. It was definitely a formative experience for the group. That was six years ago. From there, we started doing a little bit more touring, more concerts, but still not a huge amount. We would go on a few weeks of touring in any given year for the next four years or so—maybe a three-week tour in the summer, then scattered other concerts at various other times during the year.
Q: What was it that increased your popularity to where it is now?
A: In 2017 we were working on our “Song on the Times” project, which is a project focused on protest music that we had begun before the presidential election really started. Some of the inspiration for it had been sparked by the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe, but as we kept working on that project and the election took such a turn, we realized we wanted to be doing it more. We thought it was important to be singing and using our art to speak out for what we believe in. And then we sang a verse of one of our songs outside of Trump Tower and took a little video of it. At the time, maybe five people on the sidewalk noticed that we did that, but then we put it on the Internet and over a million people saw it, and just responding to comments became sort of a full-time job. At the same time, we were doing a crowdfunding campaign for the album and the book. We had originally thought the book would be a fun crowdfunding perk that we would offer to our supporters, but because we were running the crowdfunding campaign at the same time as we were having this viral video, we went from what we were expecting to get, maybe 500 supporters, to 2,500 supporters and pre-sales. So that really changed the scope of the project, and we’ve now sold out our first batch of books and CDs and we’re on to our second run. We got many messages from people saying “Do you do shows, do you perform? We want you to come out and do a show for us.” So we had to make a decision at that point based on the other things we were doing in our lives—it was a transitional moment when we were able to make the decision to go full-time as musicians. It’s been two years now that we’ve been doing it—the two-year mark will happen on this tour.
Q: Where do you see the future of Windborne going?
A: Well, we’re trying to be open to the possibility that it might get bigger, or that it might stay more or less the same. We’re doing a lot of work in terms of promotion and getting in front of more, higher-profile bookers. We’ve always had the sense that we want to be not only supporting ourselves through our music, but also using our music to uplift causes that we believe in. One of those causes is access to the arts. So what we’re hoping to be able to do is get more higher-profile, higher-paying gigs, and use that to sort of subsidize going into low-income schools and other places where people might have a harder time accessing the arts, and doing workshops and that sort of thing.
Q: What would you say the message of Windborne is?
A: We really believe that art has a responsibility to say something about society. There’s a Bertolt Brecht quote: “Art is not a mirror of reality, rather it is a hammer with which to shape it.” So we feel like we, as artists, feel responsible for addressing the issues of today, but also connecting those issues to the past. Because the struggles people face today came from somewhere—there’s a history that led to them, and that history is not just something that you read about, it’s something that happened and was lived. It’s important to remember the history of the struggles that are happening today, and the way that we do that is through music. But there’s another element to what Windborne does because of where we came from, which is about cross-cultural understanding and connection. It’s hard to encapsulate our message in one thought, but it’s about making connections between the past and the present, and also connections in more of a geographical and cultural way, between near and far.