The critical feedback for The Wilderness of Manitoba’s latest album When You Left the Fire has been nothing if not consistent. The same descriptors reappear: a lush, folk album with 1960s influences and rife with dense harmony and nature imagery. Coming up with a catchy sub-genre for them, however, hasn’t been as easy.
“I think we’ve gotten ‘chamber-folk’ and ‘slow-core,’” singer Will Whitwham said in a phone interview from his Toronto home. “I’m waiting for ‘sad-core’ myself.”
Indeed, melancholy and general longing are themes that weave through the album and the Manitoban’s conversation with one of the Toronto five-piece’s principal songwriters, but you couldn’t call it whininess. Their loping songs in minor keys are more about remembering the past or grasping the future than bemoaning the present.
“I think melancholy should actually make you happier. If you listen to Red House Painters, those sad songs actually make you feel better because it’s singing about the fragility of life and sometimes you’re just like, ‘I’m happy to be here then, because who knows what’s going to happen?’”
That’s what The Wilderness of Manitoba’s songs reach for — the bittersweet and to be emotive on both ends of the spectrum. For Whitwham, that hopefully translates to their live shows. “I think we’re 50/50. We’re part reflective and we have [ . . . ] these songs that are by no means heavy, but they’re louder, make people move and just make people feel good.”
Given the band’s name and its origins, their upcoming show here at the West End Cultural Centre has certain significance. “We just hope that people are okay with the fact that we’re not directly from there [ . . . ]. The Wilderness of Ontario just didn’t have the same ring to it. Too many things happened at once that were like, ‘This has to be the name.’”
While still thinking of names for their new project, a friend of guitarist Scott Bouwmeester was curating artist Noam Gonick’s exhibition called “Wildflowers of Manitoba.” Bouwmeester believed the piece was called “The Wilderness of Manitoba,” which they liked, and the name stuck. It was after a month or two of playing and recording that Gonick himself wrote them.
“He said, ‘A friend of mine said that he heard you doing an interview saying your name was partly inspired by my piece. It’s ironic to me because my piece was inspired by surreal folk music, listening to bands like you, all these harmonies and things.’ And he said, ‘I hope you guys come to Winnipeg soon so I can see you.’ And we thought, ‘Wow, that went well. If we had actually not screwed up and stolen the real name, it probably wouldn’t have been such a nice email.’”
So, while woodland imagery abounds in indie band titles — see Fleet Foxes, Wolf Eyes and touring mates The Mountain & The Trees — Whitwham is not all that concerned with the similarity.
“I think that’s just the people we are. Living in this house, we have a garden in the back and a shed-like barn area where [we] throw shows and have bands come and play. I mean, we’re a little more old-school in that kind of way. I think it’s a very romantic thing to always want to be around nature. But you know, it’s also a pretty lonely and scary place too.”
The Wilderness of Manitoba play the West End Cultural Centre with The Mountains & the Trees, July 31 at 8 p.m.