The Waymores’ photo credit Lindsay Garrett
The Waymores Take Us Inside ‘The Stone Sessions’
The Waymores are releasing their next full-length album, The Stone Sessions, on April 8th, via Chicken Ranch Records. Real life couple and musical duo Kira Annalise and Willie Heath Neal have made The Waymores sustainable through a hefty amount of touring, and starting several years ago, Kira Annalise began dealing with vocal challenges requiring surgery. Finding a way to finish The Stone Sessions while navigating the need for further surgery would have been enough of a mountain to climb, but The Waymores also adapted to working remotely with their band for the first time.
The result is a very warm, very focused collection of songs with an infectiously defiant air. As a whole, the album covers pleasantly varied territory in terms of theme and tempo, but songs like “Even When,” which debuted on Americana Highways, and “Heart of Stone” deal with that core sense of determined identity which really sets the tone for the collection. I spoke with Kira Annalise and Willie Heath Neal shortly before they resumed live shows after a three-month break while Kira recuperated from her latest surgery.
Americana Highways: I understand that you’ve had vocal surgery and were hoping that it would be straightforward and enable you to move forward with recording and performing, Kira, but that isn’t how it worked out.
Kira Annalise: About seven or eight years ago now, I had my first surgery. We’d been touring quite a bit around Texas in two week sessions. I wound up with vocal nodules and had surgery, and everything was great until touring in 2018 and 2019. The nodules came back and I had my second surgery in February of 2020. We hoped things would be lickety split, and took 30 days off before we started scheduling shows. Only later was I told that I should’ve taken two months off.
Getting back on the road undid everything that had been done and I developed nodules again. We started recording this album at the end of 2020, and luckily we had a good Producer who was helping me with vocal couching throughout. We just pushed as hard as we could to get everything recorded. Sometimes we were a little surprised at the notes that I could hit, since nodules basically cut your vocal range in half.
Willie Heath Neal: Sometimes we would have to make sure, when a vocal session was coming up, that we didn’t have anything else going on two or three days beforehand so we could make sure her voice was strong enough. She was having surgery in November and her voice was giving out, so we were really trying to get these tracks done.
Kira: I also had steroid injections directly into my vocal chords while we were recording. I do not recommend that. That gets 0/10. We did that about three times to get me through. It was helpful, it was just terrible. When I had the surgery on November 4th, we took three months off. Vocally, I feel very strong right now, and our first show back is soon in my hometown of Marietta, Georgia. I have a lot of good techniques in place now, but sometimes overwork is just overwork, so we’re both trying our best to take some days off. That’s already proving quite difficult. It’s hard to turn down work and it’s a blessing to have the work the way the world is right now.
AH: It seems like going through all this would have been grueling at any time, but for it to be going on in and around the pandemic period must have made it that much crazier. The timing for recording and getting back on the road was so much more specific versus medical needs.
Kira: It was definitely a struggle. Willie was really great. Some nights he’d play three songs to my every one. He’d say, “You don’t have to perform at all.” But we really both love what we do so much that it was such a difficult decision to make. Having to take this much time off also gives us both such an identity crisis, because if we’re not on stage, who are we? I am really looking forward to getting back to work.
Willie: One of the things we’re trying to work towards this year is to play fewer shows and higher calibre shows. We play a lot of shows. Sometimes you’re playing showcases, but sometimes you’re in juke joints playing for three hours in smoky atmospheres. You have to play where you can get the work, but we’d like to play bigger shows and fewer shows.
AH: I think a number of people are beginning to think that way and it’s all about making the lifestyle more sustainable for everybody.
Kira: That would be great!
AH: Let me reassure you, by the way, that this album is beautiful, and I never could have told from these recordings that there were such vocal struggles going on. It’s so polished, too, with a lot of intention and care.
Willie: We were so worried because it was so different this time. Every time we’ve made an album before, everybody could be in the same room, saying, “Try this. No, let’s try this.” It was a different world this time. We were in the studio with our Producer, and we’d do a scratch track, scratch vocal, out some bass on it, then send it over the wire to our drummer. Then he’d do another part, send it back. That could take a whole day, or a whole week. It got very discouraging at times, because you couldn’t feel that album magic like you can in the studio.
Kira: There’s a camaraderie that comes from creating music with our bandmates and teammates in person. But our guys did great. They are such stellar players, and stellar guys anyway, that they really took the hardship in stride.
Willie: Fortunately, they are our band, and we have had stage time with those guys, so we know each other in a playing environment. Now that we listen back to it, I feel like you’d never know that we weren’t in the same room. It feels like we were.
AH: Yes! It really does. I can see why there might be a fear there that the sound wouldn’t be as warm under those circumstances but that previous experience together really shines through.
Willie: “Warmth” is the right word. It was hard not to start to have an assembly-line feel. When we started this, we were in lockdown and thought we’d just make one track and release one single. That went so smoothly that we thought, “Let’s do an entire album.” But sending things to each other via e-mail began to feel like you were ordering songs off Amazon!
AH: That’s hilarious.
Willie: This was definitely the most difficult album I’ve made because it is a new world now, and we’ve had to figure it out fast. But I am so proud of how it came out.
AH: I have heard that you all have a pretty big sense of humor in your live shows. Is that just something that happened naturally, or is it something you prefer to focus on in a live setting?
Willie: It just happens that way. I learned a long time ago, when I first had a record deal with Chicken Ranch, and I would play those lower Broadway Nashville shows, that if you made people laugh, they stayed. Kira naturally has that too, so it’s a lot of that back and forth in lighthearted fun. It’s just organic. There’s a lot of fresh material that gets thrown at you every night once you start engaging with the audience. We’re just funny. [Laughs]
Kira: We’ll be the first to tell you how funny we are. [Laughs] I didn’t really play music before I met Willie. He kind of taught me everything about music, and especially about this genre. When we started performing, it was really easy to fall into that natural stage presence. I knew that if I could make the audience laugh, we were all just friends, and it wasn’t nearly as nerve-wracking. It takes the fear out of the stage somewhat. We do sometimes get too giggly and have to remind ourselves that we’re there to play music with our friends. But it’s a great problem to have.
Willie: We have a humorous reputation, but we play a lot of serious and beautiful songs, too. We learned a lot of that from Townes Van Zandt, who would play the heaviest song you’ve ever heard, then tell the corniest joke. We can write some heavy music, but if an audience comes in from a nine to five job, they don’t need you to tell them a fifteen-minute story about how depressing the song is. They know that from the song. We have to lighten the mood some when we play a live show.
AH: In terms of this collection, I think there’s some humor there, too, but it also just has a lot of energy. There’s a certain kind of attitude to it that’s almost challenging the world with a certain point of view. The story aspects seem to culminate with a position like, “Hey, I’m a human being. Deal with it!” I feel like people need to be real about human failings and forgive themselves right now, particularly.
Willie: That’s right, and if you’re losing sight of that, you’re losing sight of Country music. You tell that story, and then you ask that forgiveness from God, or from your wife…
AH: I know we premiered “Even When” here on Americana Highways. That one has a really interesting perspective because it has this whole implied story that people can imagine or project themselves into. It has this attitude we are talking about, kind of like, “I’m not dead yet! No matter how bad things get, I’m still not running back to that person!” It’s a positive feeling to say that.
Kira: When writing it, with the first line of that song, I had someone really specific in mind when writing it. As Willie came into the writing process, and we completed this song, it became this amalgamation of all these characters in both of our lives who had done us wrong or not had faith in us. Even though certain relationships ended in such rough ways, you still ask yourself, “Damnit, why do I still miss this person?” Some people just aren’t worth missing, but you still do, because you have those memories. But it’s just not worth having them in your life any longer. I feel like we both really pulled from different experiences.
Willie: That’s the beauty of telling a story through a song is that it can take many paths. It might start in one direction, then it’s going to branch out with other emotions, stories, and characters.
AH: It sounds like the experience of the song gets bigger for you while working on it.
Kira: For sure. It went from trying to talk myself out of missing someone into a “not yet dead” aspect, which I really loved writing by the end of it.
Willie: The song says, “If I have my bare minimum necessities, I am fine without you. I’ll get by. No point in my lowness or loneliness is going to bring me back to wanting you in my life.”
AH: It really feels like checking in with yourself, asking, “What is it that I actually need now?”
Kira: Willie and I have both spent a fair amount of time and energy cutting toxic people out of our lives, and some of that went into our first album together Weeds. This ties into the same topic. I am more empathetic about it, but Willie is the opposite of me.
Willie: Yes, sometimes you do have to check back in with yourself and wonder why a relationship ended. Then, when you’ve gone through the facts, you have to say, “Nope, it was absolutely their fault. Yep, I did the right thing. It was not on me. It was them.” [Laughs]
AH: Sometimes we really need to hear that! Some of that difference between you might relate to the song “Heart of Stone,” which gives two very different positions. Something I love about that song is that it doesn’t present any easily solutions to differences like that.
Kira: Honestly, I never really viewed it as a problem that needed a solution.
Willie: The funny thing about that song is that Kira have been together for fourteen years, but we’ve only lived together for five years. We’re often on tour, and she’s got a teenage son, and her mother needs her help. She’s always trying to keep her family together. Her heart is so big, and her heart is always hurting if someone is upset. When I hear that someone’s upset, I don’t care.
One time after a tour, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, how big her heart is, that she doesn’t even have time to love herself because she’s so busy loving everybody else. I thought about how harsh I had become. The song just wrote itself. I picked the guitar up, wrote a chorus and a couple of verses, set up the recorder on my phone, sent it to Kira. I knew she was home fixing all these problems. She changed some words around and it was done, just like that. It was a lament to her. She’s healed my broken heart and she’s constantly taking care of everybody’s heart but her own.
AH: I like that song even more now, having heard the story. It is so real. I’ve known several people who are so soft hearted and constantly helping other people that you want to sit them down and say, “Stop! Take a rest!”
Kira: I’m working on it. I’ve done some self-work during the pandemic. I still want to help every person, every animal, and everything, but I do give myself some time now. Willie definitely helps with that.
AH: Relationships of every kind can help people balance each other, though that comes with its own difficulties.
Willie: It’s a delicate thing.
Kira: You don’t want your constructive criticism to be taken as just a criticism. But after fourteen years together, Willie and I can turn to each other and say, “Maybe you should consider this.” Willie is very kind-hearted as well, though he doesn’t let it show.
AH: By the way, I really love the way that song showcases your voices, and we can really hear what’s interesting and original about each of your vocal approaches.
Willie: That’s one of our favorite vocal tracks on the album. My vocal there is my scratch vocal. When I went back to do my actual vocal part, I liked my scratch vocal way better. The scratch track had more sincerity than when I learned the song and drilled it into my head. I might have been singing it better later, but I believed the scratch vocal more than the other vocal.
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