Wondering all about Wonderly
Because musicians Jim Brunberg and Ben Landsverk work for other people and their projects — quite successfully — it's quite rewarding to do something for themselves.
So, on the brink of releasing their first album of narrative songs Jan. 29, the five-song EP "Story We Tell Volume 1," the duo known as Wonderly couldn't be happier.
"We wanted to finally get a full project of our own stories and narratives out there," Brunberg said, "as a little bit of play on how we're experiencing reality in this strange messed up year (2020)."
Brunberg's and Landsverk's resume as a duo includes scoring films and making music for podcasts. They've done about 50 projects together. But for once, it's all about them.
"We have an album, and we've released several albums in physical form or digital, but none of them with narrative songs. These are songs with words that tell the story," Brunberg said.
Added Landsverk: "Our first album was half folk songs and half soundtrack music. We've done entire albums of soundtrack music. This is the first one with 'big' songs."
The EP's offerings include a groovy interpretation of legendary skyjacker D.B. Cooper, a soulful tribute to self-care featuring Portland soul legend Ural Thomas, and an ELO-meets-Elliott Smith bop about a troubled dude named Steve. The ideas came from a since-derailed project they had titled "True and Tall Tales of the Pacific NorthWeird."
The duo recently released a video for "Bayocean," a song about the early 20th century Oregon Coast community, once deemed "Atlantic City of the West," that eventually became a ghost town. They tell the story of the city through the eyes of longtime resident Francis Mitchell. The video was animated by artist Karen Wippich, with images supplied by the Oregon Historical Society.
"It fell into the ocean by the 1950s; by 1952, it was just a spit," Landsverk said. "When it started falling into the sea, (Mitchell) started going insane. He'd go down to the beach every day with a wheelbarrow and try to rebuild the beach." Mitchell died in an insane asylum (in 1965).
Doing the song and story was just part of the "most fun we've had" doing music, Landsverk said.
"For me, this is the most fun thing we do," Brunberg added. "We work with interesting people on weird projects. This is the least stressful and most fun, especially during the pandemic.
"These songs are focused on our own spin that we give our stories."
Brunberg and Landsverk certainly have stayed busy, even through the pandemic.
In the past, they've performed and recorded with Smokey Robinson and Jefferson Airplane's Jack Casady and collaborated with a handful of prominent musicians, including Throwing Muses' Kristin Hersh, Laura Veirs and Liz Vice.
They've made names for themselves creating music for podcasts, including The New York Times' "The Daily" and "Dear Sugar Radio" (with Portland author Cheryl Strayed), TV shows such as animated comedy "BoJack Horseman," and movies, including the 2019 documentary "At the Video Store" starring Bill Hader and John Waters.
Recently, they scored The New Yorker magazine's seven-minute documentary on political red sweater-wearing celebrity Ken Bone called "The Highs and Lows of Ken Bone's Fifteen Minutes of Fame."
Oh, and here's something else they do: Brunberg founded and still helms Mississippi Studios music venue, which has been a challenge during the pandemic, co-hosts the podcast "Roam Schooled" with his two daughters, and tends a farm outside of Portland. Landsverk plays as a session musician and musical director and founded and leads the drop-in pop choir Low Bar Chorale, which has put out digital content during the pandemic.
Wonderly "is our main project," Brunberg said. "But some weeks go by before Ben and I get to spend an entire week scoring a film. We did a film a couple weeks ago for The New Yorker (Ken Bone project) almost completely remotely. We missed each other.
"It's what we love to do, work together. What's magic for us is when we're working together as Wonderly. It's our original songs that we write together, we sit down together and pick up whatever instruments (are) inspiring to us; Ben will pick up the bass or viola and I'll do piano or sax, and we'll sit there and write this (stuff)."
They use real instruments for their podcast/movie/TV work and some synthesizers. "We do cheat," Brunberg joked. "I like to call us a workshop orchestra. 'It's better if you didn't see that sausage made.'"
Brunberg said Mississippi Studios has held its own through providing takeout food, as the building had been purchased and remodeled by his group (and not leased) at 3939 N. Mississippi Ave.
"We're going to make it, no retreat, no surrender, we've got too much into it," he said. "We're at the low point right now. We do the takeout food thing and that helps, but it only keeps a small tiny part of workers employed. I miss my peeps." He doesn't envision live events until September, "until everybody's vaccinated (for COVID-19) and it takes everything to ramp up."
Landsverk said Low Bar Chorale has continued doing songs as "O Solo Low Bar," inspired by Italians singing from balconies during the pandemic. Each week, he engages musicians virtually for a sing-along.
"When it becomes safer, and lockdowns ease, maybe we go to back yards," he said.
The musicians played in bands together and then formed Wonderly five years ago.
"One thing we've not done a lot of, because it doesn't particularly inspire us, is ads," Landsverk said. "Sometimes our music has been placed in them. The one time somebody asked us to do an ad, we dragged our feet, and we did a terrible job for the guy."
Said Brunberg: "It was a thankless and soulless thing. We weren't good (at pitching product). We're not even good at pitching ourselves. But, if there's a story involved, suddenly we both hear music in our heads."
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