Kate Anderson – guitar, vocals
Secily Anderson – guitar, vocals
Life is a meandering road. Its horizon is a surprise, obscured by twists and turns. We’re not meant to know what comes next. All we can do is choose a general direction and see where we wind up. With any luck, it’ll be reasonably close to our intended end. Folk-rock trio Winter Grain finds three musicians’ paths converging and, after discovering a common destination, choosing to travel together.
When singer-songwriter Kate Anderson moved from Reno, Nevada to Salt Lake City, Utah in 2014, she met guitarist Secily Saunders while looking for band members. Discovering a musical and personal harmony, they formed a band around Kate’s songs and gigged locally and regionally. Even in its nascence, the group attracted a following—not to mention attention from the local media—for their spirited live performances and harmony-laden folk-rock tunes. But, as John Lennon once sang, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
Before the band had been together a year, Kate, a helicopter pilot with the Army National Guard, was chosen to train on the storied Blackhawk chopper—just as she was switching jobs in her civilian life. In addition, she and Secily became engaged. Late one night, Kate and Secily reflected on their musical direction. “If we could make a wish,” Kate said to Secily, “were would we go from here?”
They elected to go big. Where usually a band would write and rehearse an album, then find a producer and a studio, they decided to work backward. Being big Brandi Carlile fans, they inquired about tracking their next release at Carlile’s Bear Creek Studio.
To what Kate calls their “excitedly terrified surprise,” they’d soon booked a week at the Seattle studio during the last week of February 2017. That gave them less than a month to field a band, choose a name and write some new songs. “We didn’t know who was going up with us until a week-and-a-half before we left,” says Secily. They managed to assemble a tight five-piece group comprised of friends and previous collaborators who could travel during that window. The band name came from one of them, a luthier.
“Winter Grain” describes the ideal woodgrain for instrument-making: durable, lovely and resonant. “It gets that grain from the tree having pulled its nutrients into the roots and into the sap, to harden itself for the winter, to survive. Then, when spring comes, it uses those nutrients for a growth spurt,” Kate says. As it happened, it proved a sublime metaphor for the transitional period all the bandmates were going through, which included addiction, breakups and the death of a spouse.
The next step was to write some new songs. Kate & Secily sent demos of material old and new to Bear Creek’s Ryan Hadlock (Foo Fighters, The Lumineers, Vance Joy), who suggested the five tracks that became the Bear Creek EP. Through Hadlock, the band secured the services of Grammy-winning mastering engineer Gavin Lurssen (Johnny Cash, Lucinda Williams, Ryan Adams). The songs, propelled by Kate’s mellifluous vocals—in exquisite harmony with Secily’s, turned out as enduring, fetching and deep as a guitar forged in the winter grain. Opening with the defiant, bluegrass-infused “Breaking Glass,” the EP delves into lust (“Don’t Force It”), regret (“The Fare”), having the courage to live (“Solitary Trees”) and finding the strength to go with it (“The Wall”).
“When we came back with this beautiful-sounding EP, it only seemed right and natural to say, ‘Let’s go big again,’” Kate says. So, instead of booking a release show at one of their usual venues, they thought outside-the-box. Teaming up with Salt Lake’s Clark Planetarium, Winter Grain produced what may be the first folk-rock laser-light show listening party, à la Laser Floyd. The June 2017 show was a hit, earning the band a “Best of Utah” award from Salt Lake City Weekly, who described the event as “a full-immersion multimedia experience that made the music more immediate and present, engaging multiple senses and causing eruptions of gooseflesh.”
Afterward, Winter Grain’s members scattered, being committed to various other musical projects. They didn’t regroup until November, when they were invited to perform at SLUG magazine’s monthly showcase, “Localized.” Once more, Winter Grain thought big, adding four more members to the stage.
Once again, life zigged instead of zagged. Kate and Secily had sensed a big change coming. Initially, they thought it might be another album, or perhaps another unique event. In August 2018, they released the three-track EP At Pale Horse Sound, produced by Greg Downs as his studio and once more mastered by Lurssen. It’s the first Winter Grain release to feature songs written by all three members. The tunes find Winter Grain sounding as though they’ve been hanging out in Laurel Canyon, palling around with Crosby, Stills & Nash (whose “Helplessly Hoping” the band covers live). And, with them expanding their sound to include Secily’s ace electric guitar work, as on the brooding “Rivers and Ridgelines,” they’re reminiscent of darker Fleetwood Mac.
While the new EP is, in fact, momentous—there was another, bigger change in store. Shortly after completing the EP, Winter Grain decided to move to explore music in another city, namely Los Angeles. It made sense, because Secily had already lived there, and knew people. She learned she could teach music at the Manhattan Academy. “The California National Guard there is in massive need,” Kate says. The morning after their final show, Winter Grain left Salt Lake City for L.A.
The band had five gigs booked before they even arrived, and are already working on songs for their third release. “It feels right, and it’s a good fit,” Kate says. “And it’s exciting. I think that’s a sign on an easy move: When you look at it, it doesn’t feel like labor; it feels like the next great step in your adventure.”