Willowbranches (Interview)

Carnation Lily Lily Rose by Willowbranches


Willowbranches is the nom de plume of Salem, MA resident Ryan Walter. His debut EP, Carnation Lily Lily Rose, showcases a sonic sensibility and understanding of place which belies the freshness of his discography. Painting vivid landscapes of beauty and intrigue through expressive play and experimental ambitions, Walter has created a truly enjoyable EP that is sure to appease fans of modular synth and ambient electronica. I reached out to Willowbranches to know more about where the music was coming from.  


Hello, Willowbranches! How are you today? 

I’m doing well. Happy to be a part of this.

You recently released your debut EP Carnation Lily Lily Rose, could you tell us a bit about your musical or artistic history prior to this release?

So, although the album was recorded relatively quickly (over the span of about 3 months), I tend to think of it as being a few years in the making, specifically around the time I really started to get into modular synths, about five years ago. Prior to that I had played a lot of guitar, labored on a project involving samplers that I eventually scrapped, experimented with soft synths and even a few hardwired synths, but modular is what really opened me up and allowed me to find my voice. It just felt so immediate and personal; it was a musical instrument that felt the way I always wanted my music to sound — rough-hewn, perverse, maybe even a little off-putting — but, always vibrant, surprising, and full of depth. I suppose to a certain extent that could be said of any instrument, but modular is the thing I connected to and continue to connect to.

The press info on the album states it was “performed in a highly personal, improvisational style.” and I can feel that. Perhaps it’s my illusions of Salem, but I imagine someone in the attic of a gothic townhouse bent over synths and summoning ghouls on a winter’s day. Could you talk a little about the spark that drove you to create this EP? And for the audio nerds, could you offer us some insights into the production?  

Well, you’re not so far off … the album was recorded in a historic townhouse (ground floor), during a record snowfall winter, in Salem, with synths, and while I may not have succeeded in conjuring ghosts, it certainly wasn’t for lack of trying.

The spark behind the EP was really two things.  One, finding a mentor who really believed in me and my work. That was huge. Two, on the advice of that mentor, simply deciding that I was going to release an album. You know, when you’re working on music by yourself, especially with hardware that isn’t necessarily connected to a DAW or recording apparatus, it’s really easy to sit down, play a patch, find some compelling moments, but in the end decide it’s “not good enough to record” and walk away.

The difference came when I made a conscious effort to see those sessions as working toward a goal of finishing music and building off of what came previously each time, rather than just thinking “well, whatever happens, happens.” I know it sounds simple, but adopting that mindset of, “I’m working on my album — what’s the next step I need to take to do that?” really made the process seem doable, like just a bunch of little steps, rather than this epic thing that had to materialize as complete and singular from thin air. And, of course, the accountability of having someone who has been through it helping you along.

In terms of the production, it was recorded using a Moog Matriarch and a Make Noise Strega. One of the things I love about the Matriarch is that it has tons of output options, so I was able to run one version of the signal into Ableton to record, but also run a copy of the signal into Strega for further processing and record that as well.

You mention that Carnation Lily Lily Rose is a study in contrast, could you elaborate? 

All my favorite music, and all my favorite art, really, tends to hold space for extremes. I love that chiaroscuro quality, the light and dark, the romance and the horror, I’m an easy mark for that sort of thing. One of my favorite records of all time is Xiu Xiu Plays the Music of Twin Peaks, so go figure…

But for this record specifically, one of the things I loved about pairing Matriarch and Strega is how easy it made moving from sweet synth tones to crushing distortion. The Matriarch is so full of life, it’s bubbly, effervescent, floral, brimming with sweetness if you push it the right way. The Strega has this darkness to it, a real violence if left unchecked, it can totally overwhelm with noise and grime. So, blending those two instruments became a signature of the album’s sound and it’s something I think you can really hear on the title track, the way it moves from lilting melody to total harmonic distortion. When the composition is structured in such a way that it can contain both, that kind of contrast is endlessly thrilling to me.

You also mention being inspired by John Singer Sargent, and a section of his artwork is used on the album cover. I know it’s a vague question, but in what way do you think the musical and visual worlds reinform one another? 

I don’t know if I can address all music and all visuals, but I can say for me that music and painting feel very closely related. You know, Sargent is so often pegged as a portraitist, but I see him as an expressionist, especially in the work on the cover, from which the album title is derived. He’s painting flowers and hedges, but the tones are so vivid and the brush strokes so fluid, that at some point it all just becomes color and motion. That’s how I like to think of music composition — having just enough of a structure, just enough to hang onto that you can feel when it starts to break apart, but the breaking feels more like a release than a mistake, like the music always wanted to saunter off into that dark corner, and as an artist you just have to let it.

What’s next for Willowbranches?

I’m taking a bit of break, figuring out what’s next. I’m hoping to start working on a new project this fall with a release sometime next year. If you want to stay abreast of what I’m working on, you can find me on Instagram (@willlowbranches)