Backseat Harmonies, Happy Accidents, And The Rise Of Wild Child
Originally published on Slant
In a few weeks, thousands of buzz-worthy bands will descend upon Austin, Texas, hell-bent on playing as many showcases as possible, meeting as many new fans (and maybe industry types, if they're lucky), and "breaking," whatever that means in 2016.
Wild Child will have considerably less distance to travel, and perhaps slightly less pressure on their collective shoulders, than many of those other hungry, road-weary groups. The Austin band has already dominated the blogosphere many times over with their spin on charming chamber pop and belt-it-out indie folk. They've released three albums since 2011, with each release adding new textures and showcasing even more fully realized compositions.
At the center of the seven-piece band are lead songwriters and singers, Kelsey Wilson and Alexander Beggins. I caught up with Kelsey to talk about life on the road, the local Austin music community, and what it's like mining personal tragedies for beautiful songs.
SD: Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like?
KW: I grew up in a small river town an hour south of Austin called Wimberley. I was homeschooled and I had six brothers and sisters, so it was kind of a weird, homeschooled Von Trapp family on the river all day. Our parents made us all pick instruments to learn. I did the whole classical violin thing my whole childhood. We just hung out in trees all day, swam in the river all day, and wrote music.
And, [bandmate] Alexander [Beggins] grew up in Houston, Texas. Kind of a big city. He had a music room where his dad had every instrument in the world and he just played sports, a normal kid. We were very, very different, but the one thing we had in common was our love for this particular kind of music that we could make together.
SD: How did you guys first meet?
KW: There was was this guy from Copenhagen called The Migrant who wanted tour. He wanted to base it out of Austin, but he didn’t have a band. He randomly met a friend of ours playing drums in a coffee shop and kind of asked him if he knew other musicians around town. He brought me on to sing harmony and play violin and then he brought Alexander in to play accordion and banjo and ukulele. He kind of plays everything. And we met in that band.
We went on a two month tour all around the country — neither of one of us had ever been on a tour, or been in a band really — and we both were kind of just running away from our lives at the same time. So we met on that crazy adventure and started writing songs together in the backseat with a little ukulele. Neither one of us had ever written a song before that we could sing.
We just couldn’t by ourselves. We’d never been able to finish anything. And so within the last two weeks of that tour, by the time we got home, we wrote every song that was on our first record, Pillow Talk. It just kept happening. We put down the right one and then it would just be done. It was so easy and so much fun and we figured out that one of us could do everything that the other couldn’t. It was so natural.
By the time we got back home, we were neighbors here in Austin and were like, "Well, I guess we should put a band together." And then we did and we just haven’t stopped since.
SD: How important is Austin to the band? How has the city influenced you as musicians?
KW: It’s been huge. There’s just so many talented people and they’re all working way harder than you are. If you want to stand out or get anywhere in a town that’s so crazy about their music and who they stand behind, you just kind of have to say yes to everything all the time. It’s inspiring.
Every time we go on tour — it could be a month, four months, or even a week — you come back to some new, amazing band that you’ve never heard of and they’re way better than you. There’s a lot of pressure, but you just work so hard.
When Austin does stand behind you, they put you on their festivals, SXSW and ACL and Austin Music Awards, which for some reason helps you everywhere. But a festival outside of Texas can be like, "Oh, they won three Austin Music Awards." I didn’t think that would mean anything, but the support of this city in particular got us on our first national tour. It was us, Shakey Graves and another Austin band called Marmalakes. We called it the "Outside City Limits Tour" and we just sent these little Austin bands out on the road. It’s really cool, the support you get here. You get health insurance if you play music here.
SD: That’s amazing.
KW: I know, it’s amazing. It’s such a cool city for what we do and the fact that we’re able to get out if at all is really special.
SD: How was touring with Shakey Graves?
KW: Oh, we tour together about once a year. We actually started together. Got our first residency together in like this shitty, pink, glittery bar. It was a Monday night residency for a couple months, back when it was just Alexander and I, and then just Ale solo, so we’ve been doing this together for the last six years. It’s really cool to get to meet up on the road and play the same festivals.
SD: You talked about writing songs in the backseat of the band, on the ukulele. How has your process changed from Pillow Talk to now? Do you do anything different?
KW: With this last record, this was the first time that we finally had the group of musicians who had played together long enough that we could rewrite the songs for the ukulele and our voices, and then give them to the band and see what do you want to do with it. The frame is always the same. It just happens so quickly, it’s hard for us to stray from it. He comes up with a riff and then the melody, I just know what I want to happen on it, and then we figure out the lyrics together and it’s just done.
We’ve been that way, just perfect half and half kind of thing. But now when it comes to the rhythm and strings and everything, we won’t arrange it all ourselves. We just bring it to the band and be like "Okay, here’s the melody. Do what you want with it and see what happens."
SD: Where did the name Wild Child emerge from?
KW: It kind of goes along with everything that happened was an easy accident. We’re not singers, we weren’t writers, we didn’t want to be in a band at all. We were hiding in the background with our instruments.
Alexander was in this band called Grand Child and he had these stamps on the Migrant tour. He was just stamping every green room, every bathroom, everywhere with an Austin band, Grand Child.
Once we sat down and wrote one song together, and within 24 hours had six complete songs that we really liked, someone took a picture of us riding together in the back of the van and made the joke, "If you guys start a band, you should call it Wild Child." And it was kind of like, "Yeah we’re never going to do that. We’re not going to sing in front of people, these songs are not for anyone."
But then it just kept happening. We were like, "I guess we have to start a band and we have to call it Wild Child." It just all kind thrown onto us.
SD: Just like a happy accident.
KW: A very happy accident, yeah.
SD: What role has the Internet played in terms of getting your music out there?
KW: It’s huge. With our first record, we recorded it all ourselves just in like closets with rented equipment. We had no idea what we’re doing or how to make album, how to record a song. We had just started writing music for the first time months before. We released it ourselves on the Internet. There’s no label, no money, no anything. It started getting picked up just by blogs, then shared to other blogs and eventually, I guess it got to the top of Hype Machine. I don’t even have Internet at my house. I know nothing about Internet, so everyone was freaking out. There’s like three songs in the top 10 most most blogged about songs on the internet.
That happened right before SXSW, so all of these people are coming to Austin and they were checking Hype Machine to see what all these people are talking about and who’s going to be there. And so, we’re just getting hit up by all these labels and all these people, "Who are you guys, what are you doing, why is everyone talking about you?" And we didn’t have a team, or a manager, or publicist. We were just like, "I don’t know what we’re doing, we don’t have any plans, we’re just writing songs."
It’s been slow and steady since then all because of that Hype Machine love and people blogging and sharing our first record. It’s been this magical, slow and steady build that by the time we were ready to release this third record, we decided we were ready to get on a label and meet some extra, outside help. We have this whole, huge solid foundation and international fanbase all because of the internet. It gave us much more clout in the industry. So we’re just like, "Hey, we built this thing by ourselves thanks to small indie music blogs and people taking the time to listen and share," which is amazing that you can do that. You don’t need a giant label to get out there. You just need the right song and a couple people to start talking about it.
SD: I love that. You guys tour a lot, when you’re on the road what kind of music do you like to listen to? Who are some of the acts right now that you really dig?
KW: Another dear friend of mine is a man named Rayland Baxter. He just put out a record called Imaginary Hands that we can not put down.
Alexander knows all the hip, new stuff. I’m still stuck on Motown. I can’t get over Otis Redding, Steve Wonder and Aretha Franklin. Now everyone is saying Leon Bridges is trying to bring it back, but he’s not. He’s just doing the same thing, so I can’t keep up. Everyone who knows I like Motown is like, "You should check out Leon Bridges.” He’s not bringing it back, he’s just doing the same thing without making it different at all. It’s just that college kids nowadays don’t know Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, and Ray Charles and so they think it’s this brand new thing and it’s not.
Alexander listens to everything hip and new and cool. It does interesting stuff for our writing because we’re totally split down the middle. But Rayland’s really a good one, and Margaret Glaspy.
SD: What would you say is the most difficult part of being a professional musician?
WC: The touring. Touring is rough because you really, once you’re out it just makes more sense to keep going because it costs so much more. And we’re a band of seven people, so that’s a lot of mouths to feed, beds to buy. It’s so expensive to tour that you have to take the nine hour drives everyday and crash on people’s floors when you can. It’s just a tough thing to do.
Me, personally, I don’t go to bars or festivals. I don’t like crowds. It’s a weird environment for me to be in. If I’m home, I’m just home gardening and hanging out by the river. I’m not going to a venue or anywhere. You can get tired. Just the idea of personal space, you just let go. For three months, you can reach out and touch the same six people. For three solid months, you’re going to be stuck in close quarters and you’re going to be dirty, and you’re going to be tired and you’re going to be a in a perpetual state of hungover for so long.
But, you kind of forget about that at night when you’re playing because there’s a crowd of people smiling and singing along with you and they’re so glad you’re there. It kind of ruins the image if you’re like, "Oh, we drove 14 hours to get here and didn’t sleep and Sadie has the flu and my throat’s torn up and we’re really tired and want to go home."
But, every crowd you go to, to them it’s this one special evening that they’ve been waiting for, they got tickets for, they’re going to come out and see this band. You don’t want to think about the fact that they do that every night somewhere else. It’s your special experience with them. You just kind of forget about it and have that night with those particular people which kind of makes it all better again. It’s a weird cycle.
SD: What would you say your favorite part about being a professional musician is?
WC: It's the people you meet. Whether it’s a fan or a musician that you’re a fan of, you’re just so connected to people now. And the touring world is a lot smaller than you would think. There’s amazing bands in every city, but you go around the country twice and you’ve met them all. And you have to host them in your city when they come through, and like, "Oh, if you want to record in Georgia, we know this studio in Savannah you’re going to love. Or if you’re going through Brooklyn you should stop by here and they’ll give you free food or a guitar." The community is such a cool, generous family all over the place and you get to meet some really amazing people.
SD: What kind of recommendations do you have for places that you need to stop by while we’re in Austin for the week?
KW: My only advice for SXSW is don’t plan for anything, because you can’t. It’s the most stressful, ridiculous, unorganized, crowded time of the year. If you have a plan, it’s going to take you all day to make that one plan happen. So have zero plans, walk around the city and just follow people, listen to people, just find out about things on the street. The festival will just take you everywhere you should go. You’ll just be walking down the street and a gang of bicycles will be riding by and be like, "Hey, there’s a secret Andrew WK show and they’re giving out free Lonestar and moonshine." And you’re like, okay, get on your bike and you just go. It’s that kind of festival. That’s my advice just don’t plan at all.
SD: As a professional musician, you get tons of inquiries for interviews and the like. Does it ever get weird talking about yourself?
KW: Always. The weirdest part is like we’re in a strange position where we can’t write a song that isn’t entirely honest and about exactly what we’re going through. Every single song is essentially a page out of our journal and it can be really brutal and really rude and super honest. That’s why it's that there’s two of us, because if we get too uncomfortable — like with this last record it had to do with my personal life and it was just really obvious and just out there. That’s kind of how we get through things that are happening and that’s how you connect with other people that are going through the same thing. It’s this beautiful exchange where you’re surrendering this personal exchange and how you feel about it and then you get to turn that horrible, emotional experience into this big, sweaty dance party eventually and that’s what’s amazing.
But, having to sit down, like, "Oh, we can tell this song is about this" and "We know you wrote this song about this," and you can’t just write a fluff song about dancing and partying and having a good time. If we’re going to write a song, that’s because we have to get something out of our heads and off our shoulders. They’re all quite heavy, but I think the only reason we can do it is because there’s two of us. I can be like. "Oh, he wrote that one," and if his girlfriend is mad he can be like, "Oh, she wrote that one, that’s about her thing." I definitely got too honest and personal with this last record.
SD: You think so?
KW: I mean, yeah. You do have to be careful. We had all the melodies, everything was finished but the lyrics. And I had two weeks to finish all the lyrics, and in that two-week period, I broke off a five-year engagement, his parents got divorced, my parents got divorced, my pregnant sister got a divorce. It was like this weird thing in the universe where all of these things just ended and it all for the same reason and it was this weird, dark, "okay-that’s-how-the-world-works" and this is how I’m going to wrap my mind around it. It was what I needed at the time and it all just spilled out so quickly, and by the end of it I was like, "Alright I feel good, I feel better."
We recorded it two years ago, but now having to get back into that headspace every time I sing a song is really rough. Like even if you are entirely okay, totally over it, it’s been years, you’re a different person now, you can’t just fluff your way through a song that’s that heavy and emotional for you. You just have to get back in that headspace and keep it alive unfortunately. It was good lesson for me to learn, but I don’t think I’d do it again.
SD: And you have this added element of people belting it back to you.
KW: It’s cool because it helps them connect to it and maybe they went through the same thing, or a process that’s similar which makes it worth it. But, a little too heavy for me every night. And that’s really what you have to do.
SD: What’s up next for Wild Child?
KW: We’re writing now. We’ll start recording in the next couple months, and then yeah, soon. Probably next year. We kind of put out a record every two years as a rule, so we’ll just start recording now.
SD: What kind of advice would you give to a young songwriter or a young musician who’s kind of just getting into it?
KW: Don’t shelve anything. With our first record, we put 15 songs on it. Every song we wrote, we just put it on the record, and the ones that I liked the least are the ones that still pay the bills. You never know what people are going to gravitate toward and what’s really going to connect you with people. You can’t say that one song is better or worse than any other song. There is no right and no wrong. Just put it all out there. In the beginning, don’t worry about it much, it really doesn’t matter.
This interview has been slightly edited for clarity.
Cover photo courtesy of Wild Child