by Ryan Wilkinson
photo: Benjamin Lieber
Since their origin as a long-distance composition project between college friends, Tree River has never tried hard to promote their music, preferring to write for themselves rather than for any particular audience. With long, complex songs about abstract concepts, writing music was more of a puzzle than a way to engage with the outside world – but after two full-length albums about meditation and black holes, the band is ready to have some fun on their new EP, Garden.
“I think Garden is, in certain ways, a new beginning for us,” Trevor Friedman (the band’s vocalist and guitarist) muses when I ask what inspired the EP’s distinctly brighter sound, compared to their previous work. “For most of the first two records, Phil and I were in different cities and creating music that, once we got together as a band, would fully realize into the big rock songs that they were meant to be. But writing Garden we were all living in New York, we had a band together, and we were practising a lot. So the songs on Garden, and the songs that we’ve worked on since, have been constructed with that intention”
Guitarist Phil Cohen describes the shift in mentality between 2016 LP Dark Matter and now: “In the previous records there’s this sense of trying to stuff songs with so many ideas and noodles and guitar riffs at the same time… I think that our first two records are more like art pieces than a band writing huge emo-rock songs. And our songs since feel a lot more tangible and organic.”
The two give a good chunk of the credit for their transformation to the addition of Zac Pless on drums and Julie Rozansky on bass, creating a stable band in one place rather than two writers working with a rotating cast of live show band members. “It wouldn’t sound 60% as cool if it was just the two of us making all the creative decisions,” Cohen asserts. Having the whole band in the room to build on what the two songwriters were doing has taken their writing to places they never would have found on their own, they explain, and the excitement in their voices is palpable: “There’s this very cool momentum that we’re trying to capitalize on, like we’re trying to top ourselves. We’ve written a ton of songs in the last six months, and there’s this sense of ‘Okay, what sort of flavor are we going for now, how do we make it sound fun and lush and big as possible and still seem emotionally honest?’”
That emotional honesty is the key difference in Garden. While any piece of art will have the life and emotions of its creators injected into it in one way or another, Inward and Dark Matter were written about difficult concepts – the latter, for example, ends with its protagonist being sucked into a black hole and turned into “pure matter”.
It’s from that point that Garden begins with opening track ‘Lotus’: a deep void, as Cohen puts it, “a weird psychological space where you’re stretched in a million directions, indecisive, unable to do anything useful or worthwhile because you don’t really know where to begin.” From that beginning, the EP transforms over five tracks into the story of a relationship, from loneliness to first meeting, through hardship and ultimately to a strong, loving bond.
In the overall narrative of Garden, Friedman and Cohen see ‘Lotus’ as a sort of dawn, a dark place before the sun rises. “‘It’s really about being alone, and having writer’s block, not being able to engage. And ‘Sun’ is about being willing and open to meeting someone,” Cohen explains. “It uses this protracted metaphor about being in the wilderness, or being this feral, wild creature, and some sort of life-changing event or an intimate relationship with someone forces you to leave the wilderness and become a little more domesticated, a little less wild.”
The metaphorical morning of ‘Sun’ leads into the EP’s high noon and lead single, ‘You’. Cohen describes it as the record’s honeymoon phase, a “rush of uncertainty where anything is possible.” Honeymoon phases don’t last forever, though, and this one is no exception – the following track, ‘Pearl,’ finds the hypothetical couple discovering the flaws in their compatibility and questioning their relationship. But don’t worry – there’s still time for a happy ending.
“It’s not throwing up your arms in defeat, but it’s like ‘you’re imperfect, I’m imperfect, but there’s something here worth fighting for,” Cohen says, adding that he wrote Garden’s closing songs about the emotional work that ultimately makes a relationship strong enough to last. “‘Pearl’ is about being scared to admit that you’re dependent on that person, and ‘Strings’ is just having the courage to be fully in love. And there’s a darkness and a scariness to falling in love, and it’s okay to just let yourself submit to it. It really is an album about love.”
Like any good love story, this one is based in reality. Friedman says that ‘You’ was partially written about his own love life: “The song is definitely inspired by one human being that I’m currently with and I love, but really it’s a blend of a song about her and a song about the ideal partner.” The blend of concrete and abstract is how it got its name, in fact: “I don’t know if you’ve ever had this experience where you meet someone and you sort of have these fantasies, like ‘what might this look like forever?’ The song is embracing that energy, and allowing it to empower you. It’s called ‘You’ because it could be whoever reads that.”
“It’s not called ‘Female Proper Noun,’” Cohen jokes, because they wanted to break down the barrier between artist and listener. Or, as Friedman puts it: “It’s called ‘You’ because I want the person listening to it to think, ‘Oh. Me.’” The need to keep lyrics from getting too specific goes beyond personal taste or a desire for privacy, however. It’s necessary for the way that ‘You’ blends a story from real life into a more general concept, and that blend of personal and conceptual writing has been integral to Tree River’s writing since the beginning. “Our whole project is kind of about duality and balance, and this is one example of balance I’m interested in – the singular ‘you’ and the universal ‘one,’” Friedman elaborates. “I’ve always been really interested in balance, and ways of bridging two seemingly disparate entities, bringing them together.”
In case you needed any more proof that duality is baked into the band’s DNA, it even inspired the project’s name: “Tree and river are two different sides of the same dialectic, where a tree is the part of you that is strong and giant and enormous, but rooted into the ground and not free,” Friedman explains. “Whereas the river is the exact opposite; it’s the part of you that’s flowing and free and changing, but it has no consistency and no substance. It has no core self. And so Tree River is about that balance. Once I started getting into that, it really informed a lot of our song structure – I would write one stanza about the tree and one stanza about the river, and the song itself is a way of integrating the two.”
With a band name like Tree River, an EP called Garden and other references to nature peppered throughout their discography, it’s pretty apparent that the two songwriters draw a lot of influence from the world around them. “Nature is universal – I think that nature speaks to me because it imbues a lot of powerful concepts and experiences,” Friedman remarks, drawing comparisons to bands like Weatherbox and Mount Eerie. It’s a writing tool he’s been moving away from as the band’s style changes, however: “Early on, using nature to write songs was a creative vehicle I was able to really run with. And even though I may never be able to fully give up my dependency on nature as a metaphor, I think more and more the songs are about the human experience.”
Writing more human songs has been a rewarding challenge for the duo. “It can feel scary to give up the security blanket of using obscure natural references and writing about the world around me instead of myself, but I think that it speaks to where we are as a band, to be able to tap into our own real-world experience,” Friedman says with an audible smile in his voice. “I think that we are very much an emo rock band from Brooklyn, rather than some sort of fantasy project.”
Cohen adds that what has worked particularly well for them with Garden has been writing to engage with their listeners, rather than just to impress them. “When you try to impress, you don’t end up impressing anyone except yourself in this very fleeting moment. Making things tactile and approachable, and intimate and emotional and easy, those end up being the songs that have the biggest impact on people,” he believes, and Friedman agrees: “This album now is about love and humanity, and being a raw, imperfect person. And I think that that resonates with people more easily.”
With a newfound fanbase blossoming practically overnight after the release of ‘You’, it seems like they’re right. Garden may be as solid and earthy as its name implies, but rather than getting bogged down in metaphor, it uses that base to launch into songs that are as emotionally deep as they are fun, as impressive as they are engaging – in other words, songs that feel real, and genuine, and human. Tree River may be three releases deep, but with a balanced mentality honed over the years, a full band finally writing together, and the courage to bring real stories into the mix, they’re just getting started.