For Gus Wenner and Scout Willis, a twist of fate determined their musical relationship. The pair grew up as childhood friends in Idaho and reunited when their paths intertwined at Brown University, at which point Wenner (son of Rolling Stone founder Jann) and Willis (daughter of Bruce) formed a folk-rock band heavily influenced by classic country music. The musical duo will be putting out a self-titled debut EP, featuring both musicians’ raw, powerful vocals, before the end of the month. A full-length album is on the band’s radar, too, but finishing up at Brown is a top priority for Willis (who has one more year to go). Hopefully, we’ll hear a bit more of the band’s Patsy Cline-meets-Bob-Dylan style in the meantime.
We spoke with Gus Wenner and Scout Willis on re-connecting, making emotional music, and speaking a universal language with their fans.
ILANA KAPLAN: How did this project start? I know you guys grew up in Idaho and were reunited. How did you both decide to get in music?
SCOUT WILLIS: We were interested in music separate from each other. We met at school. I wasn’t really playing much music, but we started playing together. We realized that there was something really cool going on there.
GUS WENNER: I think that, since Scout and I had known each other since we were really young in Idaho, it was really familiar. When we started writing music together, it was extremely natural. I think in most parts because we had known each other as kids.
KAPLAN: How long did you guys live in Idaho for?
WILLIS: Well, I was born there and lived there until I was 8.
WENNER: I would just spend the winters there. I grew up in New York City. I spent a lot of time there. My Dad kind of lived in Idaho.
KAPLAN: You’re obviously both from pretty famous families. How did that influence your interest in the arts?
WENNER: Scout, do you want to take this one?
WILLIS: Well, just growing up, I saw my parents doing what they were doing. I saw everything that went along with it; all of the bullshit, the stress and invasion of privacy. It always seemed really horrifying to me. I never wanted to pursue anything that would put me in that line of fire. It was only really when I started playing music with Gus that I realized that stress could be worth it. Despite what your parents do, if that is something that you want to pursue, you have to make that decision yourself.
WENNER: I think in my case, I grew up with so much music around. I had the good fortune to be able to see bands when I was young and be around people who could teach me about so many different kinds of music. They made me discover what I love and how I want to express myself through music. Those are things that make it really natural for Scout and I writing together, because we connect on that level.
KAPLAN: You guys have such a great vibe when you sing together. What’s the most interesting feedback you’ve gotten so far about the connection between your voices?
WILLIS: It’s been really incredible. I remember one of our first shows, we played at this pseudo-folky environment on the outskirts of SXSW. We played this one really incredible show with candles all around and everyone sitting on the floor. It was the first time that we had a big emotionally dramatic effect on the audience. There were people crying while we were performing. Gus and I were completely overwhelmed, and we were taken by surprise how positively people have reacted to this music. We’re doing this because we love it. When we hear that our songs spoke to them or touched them in a certain way, it’s so satisfying in a way I never imagined.
WENNER: I think that initially it was our friends and family and that was obviously so emotional to put ourselves out on the line for them and show them something we worked so hard on and labored over emotionally and physically. It was incredible to have them give us a good response and whatever. When we started, we went up to Canada and played shows in Toronto to rooms full of complete strangers and kind of connect with them and have them come up to us afterwards how affected they were by the music; that was really surreal and amazing. It really made me and Scout feel how much performing live allowed us to speak this universal language with people we know nothing about. It was really cool.
KAPLAN: Definitely. Who have you guys been inspired by? There’s a little bit of country, rock and folk music in your songs. Where does this all come from?
WILLIS: Gus and I have such varied and diverse music tastes. It can fluctuate on a daily basis. Gus and I are both very fond of older country music. A lot of Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline, so that’s where vocally it comes from. These older country singers.
WENNER: I’m influenced by Graham Parsons and Levon Helms, from that kind of same country and blues tradition. As we started to play live more and more with our full band, our set has gotten really raw musically. I’ve gone back and listened to a lot of power trios and stuff. The band has been a big influence: incorporating the drums, bass and tying it all together. Definitely with more of a band, and not just Scout and I sitting there. I would definitely say country music has influenced our songwriting.
WILLIS: It’s been a longer process. It started with Gus and I and a guitar. When we recorded, we had to figure out and learn how to incorporate all of those other elements. I think the tracks that we’re recording now are a marker of where we were when we were in January. Since then, I think we’ve grown, changed and have become better musicians.
KAPLAN: How did you start this project?
WENNER: It started when we were at school. I was just working on a song that I was just writing by myself. Scout was just walking past and I just called her over and asked her to help me finish it. We just clicked. Then we decided to continue writing together.
WILLIS: Last December was when we started writing really seriously and working towards an album.
WENNER: Yeah. Eventually we would set aside two-hour periods, three times a week to sit down at my kitchen table and write songs. It turned into so much more than that because we would talk for hours. It was all a part of the songwriting. We would be up late at night sitting, listening to music and playing. My favorite part of the process so far is how natural the progression has been. It was all a very slow progression up to where we are now: playing live.
KAPLAN: Have you guys garnered any comparisons to She and Him? That’s immediately what I thought when I listened to you guys play.
WILLIS: I think it’s the comparison that they’re one the only male-female performers out there right now.
WENNER: I’ve never heard that, actually, but I could see what you’re saying.
KAPLAN: There’s a first time for everything. Are you guys coming out with a full-length after your EP?
WILLIS: I have one more year at Brown. So, we’ll see. We’re going to keep working, and I’m going to go back to school. We’ll see how it goes from here, I guess.
WENNER: We’re going to work hard and write. I think we’re going to wait a little before we come out with it. We want to write a bunch more songs and keep getting better before we come out with something longer. We’re really excited to do that.