The Wilderness of Manitoba: It’s just songwriting in the end

An accidental name, songs and sounds earned one mile at a time on cross-country tours, a mobile childhood, a mother’s albums — these are the players in the story and sound of Toronto’s The Wilderness of Manitoba.

As the band’s key member Will Whitwham speaks from his Toronto home on a winter’s day when it’s nice enough out to go running, the story of the evolution of the band’s sound over eight years and five albums emerges. Though he was born in Toronto, Whitwham grew up in Calgary, North Vancouver and London, eventually attending McMaster in Hamilton before coming full circle and returning to Toronto. In a juxtaposition befitting of TWOM’s musical shape-shifting, the songwriter worked as a financial planner for TD Waterhouse before plunging into music full-time.

Whitwham is the band’s anchor; he is the key songwriter and the only person to have lasted the full eight years. And while the band’s early albums were dubbed chamber folk, last spring’s The Tin Shop EP — which preceded September’s full-length Across The Dark — is a full-on, wistful, dreamy pop-kissed charmer that sounds like it would have been comfortable in a record collection nudged up against Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. And why not? Just as The Beatles went from Please Please Me to Across the Universe in eight years, so has TWOM evolved.

“I played in a heavier indie-pop rock band when I started this and I wanted to play more of a songwriter-focused kind of music. That was basically the only intent,” says Whitwham of why TWOM began in the first place. And as with many young bands, greenness was an asset, from the energy to the novice recording techniques.

“The first time we did an album in this house that I live in, we used a SM 57 microphone and we didn’t know the parts of the basement where we could get less static. It actually ended up being a low-fi, lower quality kind of sound, and then it seemed to suit that. As years went on so did the production ideas and the sound elevated. We tried to record something a little more radio friendly. But it’s just songwriting in the end, with most of the songs written on acoustic guitar over the years.”

When asked what radio friendly means in 2018, Whitwham admits he doesn’t relate to radio in this day and age at all, stating that radio friendly for him is still Fleetwood Mac. “Someone compared my songs to Steely Dan and the Alan Parsons Project and said, ‘I hope that’s not insulting.’ And I was thinking, ‘No, those are the exact bands I listen to and I wish that music was on the radio now.’ ”

Not a surprising statement given that Whitwham’s mom is a singer and piano player whose collection’s filled with Joni Mitchell, Carol King and Van Morrison. Her Donovan album, along with some Yazoo, Smashing Pumpkins, and My Bloody Valentine, are on his current turntable. Thus, he laments music produced “to grab you when you walk into Walmart. Great singers that don’t need to be Auto-Tuned, but they have to sound that way. That’s a total other monster that’s being created.

“The only thing you can do is write your best and be as honest to yourself as you can.”

The band’s name draws curiosity — it’s based on a friend of Whitwham’s who brought an art installation called The Wildflowers of Manitoba to Toronto; this name was misheard by one of the musicians, and the TWOM was christened. “We were making these low-fi, low quality folk recordings and I thought it was a creaky, creepy weird name because songs are like short stories and that was kind of the concept of TWOM and a series of short stories that were songs. And I decided to keep the name. TWOM is a quest motif.”

Accidentally enough, the name might also allude to wending one’s way through the landscape of the Canadian music industry. It often involves miles of winter roads and gigs at halls and bars in towns so small that their names slide away in memory and the rear-view mirror. Touring is both sweet and sour. “Lake Superior, when you are traveling west and leave Sault Ste. Marie, it still always takes my breath away,” Whitman says. But his breath was also taken away when their van suffered a hit and run and they owed a lot of money to the rental company. “Things don’t always go perfectly on the road and you just have to accept that as long as you don’t miss the show. That’s really all that matters.”

And like the wilderness, the band is constantly evolving. “It morphs and changes shape; Jenny (Berkel) and I do a whole duo show that I’m doing (at Block Heater).”

When asked how WOM is still standing after eight years, Whitwham says it’s partly to do with having a three-album deal and partly that he can adjust to the revolving door of musicians that have played in the band over the years. “It’s hard to keep a band together when people have so many different lives, and it’s been full-time sometimes but it’s been part-time at other times, so not everyone can commit to put some things aside and come on the road again.” Despite the flux of players (including a guest appearance by Rush’s guitar player Alex Lifeson on 2014’s Between Colours) and miles on the road, Whitwham soldiers on. “There’s been adversity, but I don’t know anyone who’s put out their fifth album that’s going to say it’s been pretty easy the whole time.”

(Photo courtesy Jason Cipparrone.)

The Wilderness of Manitoba play Block Heater at Festival Hall on Saturday, Feb. 17 at 1:00 p.m. as part of a multi-artist workshop, and at 8:25 p.m. at Studio Bell.

Mary-Lynn Wardle is a Bragg Creek writer who has been writing about her two passions, music and horses, for over 25 years in FFWD Weekly, The Calgary Herald, Swerve, Western Horseman, Western Horse Review and other publications.