By Zach Schepis
Photo Courtesy of The Wandering Lake.
“Well I’m moving to Arkansas, and I don’t know anybody so I guess I might as well learn the guitar.”
Those are the words Brian Kupillas thought aloud as he packed his bags, loaded up the car, and sped off from Kansas to a new home. Up until that point he’d fiddled around some on his brother’s bass. He practiced rhythm guitar on and off too, but what Kupillas really desired was a creative nudge towards more serious songwriting.
It turns out throwing caution to the wind can be the best remedy against the deadly quicksand many artists know all too-well: stagnancy.
The change of scenery turned out to be far more than a musical palette cleanser; the Mississippi-kissed prairies ultimately embody the very songs themselves. The songwriter’s first full length album, Wend to Why, plays like it tumbled down from the side of the Ozarks. Breezy yet intent, Kupillas’ spirited offering of electric-tinged folk has a way of summoning sentimentality and nostalgia without ever becoming weighed down by it.
It’s like a stroll down your favorite childhood trail, pausing for a moment at each pass to take everything in before giving it all away again.
“I always feel strange talking about this stuff,” Kupillas admits with a breath of modesty distinctly his own. “Writing this record, the natural world here in Arkansas became a part of it. It was all written and recorded here; all of the people that the songs tell about live here.”
No man is an island, the saying goes, but it doesn’t say anything about water. As Kupillas’ labor of love, The Wandering Lake presents an apt description for the music it spins: self-contained yet seemingly without borders. Listeners can revel in songs that will yield new layers of meaning with each lap through.
The effect is largely due to the songwriter’s fondness for wordplay. It’s an homage to folk artists who have come before, sure (Kupillas freely acknowledges Bob Dylan as an early hero), but perhaps poetry finds itself more at the helm of the singer’s echoing harmonies.
Kupillas began writing as a fourth grader and hasn’t let up since. He studied both English and poetry in school, where a relationship with one of his professors had a profound impact on the longevity of his creative process.
One day, the students were at their desks, each scribbling away with the task at hand. Simply enough, it was to write a poem. Then it was time to share.
The teaching assistant approached Kupillas’ desk and read his poem.
“I’ll never forget it,” the songwriter reflects. “[The professor] said to me, ‘this sounds like a bad pop song.’ That hurt really bad. I wanted to make sure it never happened again.”
It’s safe to say that the lake has wandered far beyond days of amateurish lyricism. Still, Kupillas laments how quickly most people will write poetry off before giving it a chance. They might tell themselves they don’t know how to read a poem, or get lost in where and what the different breaks are and mean.
But once you give a poem a melody, Kupillas points out, it all becomes a lot easier to remember.
From a songwriting standpoint, Wend to Why might come across as a solo affair, but the sum of its parts helps to create the album’s feeling of wide-open skies. Jack Lloyd and drummer Mark Osmond–both musicians Kupillas met while living in Kansas–made this charming feat possible.
Lloyd owned a practice space nestled in the heart of an old Methodist Church, a cramped little Sunday school room. Every day from noon to midnight the three would converge in the familiar haunt and make as loud of a ruckus as they wanted. Some days were short-lived, but others stretched into the wee hours of the country mornings.
Kupillas only had two weeks of time off of work to record the album, so the sessions exhibited an air of frenzied diligence that might seem to belie the carefree rollick of the material. Six days a week, averaging 10 hours a day, in a room with no air conditioning that boiled with the intensity of a sun-stroked cauldron… Kupillas knew he had to bring the songs together right there and then.
He did. What’s remarkable more so is the conviction with which some of the performances were captured. Take “Oh Sky,” for instance. It’s perhaps the most character-embodying track off the record, with the right blend of gradual catharsis, spacious voicings, and harmonies that seem to beckon from far away.
While writing the song, Kupillas knew Osmond was the only one meant to play the drums on it. He couldn’t exactly put his finger on why; he just knew that his friend’s style was the perfect match for what he could conceive.
Then magic happened.
“It’s funny, because he’d never heard the song before,” remembers Kupillas, “and yet it was one of those rare moments where he nailed the whole thing in the second take. I wrote it for him and he got it immediately. It was really special.”
To hear the rest of our interview with The Wandering Lake, tune into this week’s episode of The Discovery Corner.
Or interpret the band for yourself by clicking here.