We Are The Willows
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We Are The Willows

Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States | Established. Jan 01, 2007 | INDIE

Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States | INDIE
Established on Jan, 2007
Band Alternative Pop




"A Musician Writes A Soundtrack For His Grandparents' Love Story"

Peter Miller is the principal songwriter and lead singer of the Minneapolis band We Are the Willows. For the group's new album, Picture (Portrait), Miller wrote songs inspired by more than 350 letters sent to his grandmother, Verlie Miller, from his grandfather, Alvin Miller, during World War II.

In an interview with NPR, Peter Miller describes the moment his grandfather first saw Verlie Branstner. It was in November 1941 in rural Minnesota, and Alvin was 20.

"His siblings had told him about Verlie Branstner, that she was really beautiful and he had to meet her," Peter says. "And so he took a job splitting wood for Verlie's father. They called him in for lunch, and that's when he first saw my grandma."

Peter Miller wrote songs inspired by letters his grandfather wrote to Miller's grandmother.
Peter Miller wrote songs inspired by letters his grandfather wrote to Miller's grandmother.
Peter Miller
Peter recounts this moment in "Turpentine to an Open Wound," a song he says contains lines that offer the most literal representation of his grandfather's written words. He says many of the letters his grandfather wrote to Verlie included memories of the first time he saw her.

"He's later talked about it like his heart fell to the floor and he was overwhelmed by her," Peter says.

The following June, Alvin and Verlie went on their first date: It was Alvin's birthday, and he drove Verlie to work. They continued to see each other that summer, meeting to go for drives.

"In some of the letters, he talks about kissing her, and that she would say that they needed to take five-minute breaks from kissing," Miller says.

Months later, Alvin left with the Army to fight in World War II. "He asked my grandma to marry him before he left," Peter says of his grandfather. "And she said no on the grounds of, like, they still didn't know each other well enough."

So for the next four years, Alvin and Verlie wrote to one another. Alvin couldn't include much detail in his letters, like where he was stationed exactly or what he was experiencing. At times, their correspondence was scattered.

"He tells her that she doesn't have any obligations to him, that she's a free person and can decide what she wants for her life," Peter says. "And if that was to not be committed to him, that was her choice. But they kept writing and they kept corresponding. I think there was something there that was drawing them together."

Some of Alvin's darkest correspondence comes from his time in the South Pacific.

"There's a period of time where he started signing off on all of his letters with his military ID number. You know, literally the line, 'With love from me,
37322636,' " Peter says. At other points around this time, he said that he's been called everything but his name over the last few months. I just have to imagine somebody in that situation: How do you understand yourself?"

Decades later, Peter lived with his grandparents while attending college. "My grandma would invite me over to their side of the house for supper every night," he says. "And every once in a while, she'd get to talking about these letters. I'd always tell her that I wanted to read them someday. And she'd always respond, 'Oh, you don't want to read those. They're so boring!'"

Verlie Miller got around to asking Peter what possessions of his grandparents' he might want when they pass away. He told her if it wasn't too much to ask, he wanted the letters. So when Peter graduated from college, she gave them to him.

Peter says he could only read one or two of the letters in a sitting. "It was kind of a lot to take in," he says. "Suddenly, I had this access to who my grandpa was as a young man, only ever having known him as my grandpa. In some ways, it was interesting to see how similar he was, but also interesting to see the ways in which he was different. That would re-inform how I understood him."

Alvin Miller died two years ago. Peter had been spending up to 30 hours a week taking care of him. He says that in writing the album Picture (Portrait), "I wanted a chance to have other conversations with him. ... This seemed like the best way."

After the war, Alvin spent time in San Francisco before returning to the Midwest and seeing Verlie again. "He said that he kissed her so hard that she wanted to marry him," Peter says.

They continued to write while Alvin was working in Minneapolis and Verlie was living farther north.

"Literally, the last letter that I have of his is a week before their wedding," Peter says. "And he's writing her to say that he just got a haircut, he's taking the bus up to northern Minnesota, and that he'll see her really soon."

Before writing the album, Peter asked his grandmother for permission, and he brought the album to her when it was finished.

"She listened through to the whole thing," he says. "And she said that I captured my grandpa's voice — and that she feels like she's stepping back into time and reliving these things." - NPR Morning Edition

"WE ARE THE WILLOWS- Dear Ms. Branstner"

Picture [Portrait] is the second album from South Minneapolis six-piece, We Are the Willows. All songs on the album, including today’s MPFree, were based on a collection of 350 letters written by frontman Peter Miller’s grandfather while he was stationed in the Southwest Pacific during World War II. The letters were written to Peter’s grandmother, and they serve as the foundation for the lyrics’ exploration of family, separation, life, and death; talk about a concept album! The bold, orchestral proportions of these often euphoric songs do justice to their grand themes. Records like this one don’t come around very often. - BBC Radio

"This Musician Based An Entire Album On 350 Letters Sent Between His Grandparents During WWII"

Peter Miller, the frontman for Minneapolis-based band We Are The Willows, recently finished his second album, Picture (Portrait), which tells the story of his grandparents meeting and ultimately marrying after World War II.

The album is slated for release on Nov. 4 via The Homestead Records.
Peter , who lived with his grandparents while attending college, had heard about the 350 letters his grandparents exchanged during WWII and eventually was given them on his graduation day.

“[My grandfather] had heard about [my grandmother] and he wanted to go see what she looked like, so he made a deal with my grandmother’s dad to chop wood for him,” says Miller. “And when he saw her, he was immediately magnetized.”

Alvin Miller met Verlie Branstner in June 1942, and, in November of that same year, was drafted in the Army and sent to the Southwest Pacific. For the next four years, he and Verlie exchanged over 350 letters, both uncertain of their future together.

And even after Alvin returned home, he ended up working in Minneapolis while Verlie lived in a small town about 150 miles away, so they continued to write letters until they finally married and spent the rest of their lives together.

Unfortunately, only the letters sent to his grandmother survived, as his grandfather couldn’t physically carry all the letters he received and had to burn or bury them.

In 2009, when on the tour for his first album, Miller began reading the letters and taking notes in his spare time. “They’re really potent and it’s hard not to get really emotionally engaged in them and it’s exhausting, all that to say that the process took way longer than I thought it would.”

“As I read more letters, and became more invested in this person that my grandpa was, thoughts came more together in later years. I was one of my grandpa’s primary caretakers before he passed away, and that kind of reignited the project.”

“Because they didn’t really know each other that well before he left, my grandparents built this relationship from afar. Reading the letters, I just hear my grandpa’s voice — I can hear him responding to things that my grandma says.” - Buzzfeed


My Tinder inbox is empty, all those love-letters I received in secondary school are bundled at the bottom of the wardrobe, and the last three text messages on my phone are from my mother and Dominos pizza. I’ve not been on a date in years and I’m pretty much convinced that romance is just an idea sold to you by Moonpig and coffee table books; something that always happens to the protagonist in a film but never in real life. Romance is dead.

One man who’d disagree, though, would be Peter Miller, lead singer of We Are The Willows and one of the lyricists behind his band’s concept album Picture (Portrait). The record, which is released on November 4th, is based upon love letters his grandparents exchanged during World War II. The lovers met a few months before his grandfather was drafted into the army and the pair ended up getting married after the war.

Fearful of soldiers giving their locations if letters fell into enemy hands, wartime love notes were heavily censored by the Army. With anything remotely factual ruled out, this led to soldiers having to talk more about their feelings than most would be comfortable with - including Peter’s grandfather. His letters ranged from expressing amazement at a sun on a rainy day to dealing with his relationship with his own father. Throughout the musical adaptation of the letters comes a sense of quiet romance that can warm even my cold dead heart, with lines like “Dear Ms Branster, you are on my heart and you were from the start”.

When the war was over, Peter’s grandfather was deployed back to the USA but forced to destroy his share of the letters, because he couldn’t carry all of them back with him. All that remains are the missives sent to his future wife. These were the letters that Peter was given as a present for his graduation. While spending years touring as a solo act, he read and re-read the letters, attempting to capture the magic of the letters and his grandfather’s voice.

I chatted to Peter about how letters written before he was born inspired an album, what his grandparents thought of it, and whether the romance really is dead.
Photo by Graham Tolbert

Noisey: How did the idea for the project form?
Peter: I lived with my grandparents while I was going to college. They offered me a small basement apartment attached to their home in exchange for cheap rent and chores around the house. They invited me over for most every meal and every once in a while my grandma would talk about the letters my grandpa wrote to her while he was stationed in the South West Pacific during the war. I was immediately interested in these letters. My grandpa was a very quiet, kind and peaceful man. He only spoke when he needed to. I saw these letters as an opportunity to get to know him more.

What did they say about the letters over dinner?
They talked about them in a pretty un-romantic way actually. They said they were pretty boring and that at the time they didn't really know each other all that well. Though after reading them, it's clear they got to know each other through the letters.

When did you get a chance to read them?
After I graduated from college my grandma gave me the letters. I read them over the course of five years in my spare time. I read the greatest amount of them while touring on the first We Are The Willows record (A Collection of Sounds and Something Like The Plague) and follow up EP (Places). I was touring as a solo act and essentially lived in my van. I had a lot of time before shows and would read a few letters, make notes and let them sink in.

When did you decide to use them with music?
I began thinking of the letters as having musical qualities shortly after I began reading them in 2007. I didn't really begin writing the songs until 2010 when I began touring full time.

What was it about them?
I found that, just as with songs, the letters had dynamic shifts and changes. The more I read, the more that became apparent to me. It then became a matter of trying to capture that.

How was that process?
It was really interesting because, like my grandparents said, the letters could actually be a bit boring at times because, really, there wasn't much to talk about. Not only did they not know each other well, but also, with the Army’s censorship, there wasn't much my grandpa could say about where he was and what he was doing. It also meant that he couldn't really talk about how he felt about what he was doing in the war. The really special parts were little things, read between the lines.


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Any in particular?
One really powerful moment was in a letter where he was writing from a beach somewhere in the South West Pacific. It had been raining on and off for days and he was getting a glimpse at the sun setting between rain showers. He wrote that the weather there is as undependable as his father is. His father was an alcoholic and squandered a good deal of their money. As heartbreaking as that was to read, it was also really special to get to know my grandpa in that way. It was meaningful to know what he was going through, and what sorts of experiences were informing his life.

How did your grandparents meet?
My grandpa had heard about Verlie Branstner (my grandma) from his siblings. He heard that she was the prettiest girl around. He volunteered to chop wood for Verlie's dad just to get a look at her. He thought that she lived up to the hype. They first met in their church parking lot in Wadena, MN in November of 1941. He didn't ask her out until June of 1942. In many of his letters he expresses regret for being too timid to ask her out before that.

Were they still around to hear the record?
I was able to play some of the songs for my grandpa before he passed away. My grandma has heard the whole thing. I was incredibly nervous for her to hear it. I went to visit her and we listened to it together. She says she loves it and she thinks I captured my grandpa's voice perfectly. Hearing her say that made me feel like a million dollars.

Were you worried about their reactions?
Yeah, big time! I mean, I had asked their permission to write songs about them, but I was worried about overstepping my boundaries or taking conceptual turns they wouldn't approve of.

How have other family members treated the project/recordings?
Everyone has been really supportive. My grandpa was the cornerstone of our family. We all revere him and his life so much and I think they see that this album, these songs, exist to honour that.

Did you feel like you were adapting a book through having to change a piece of writing into song lyrics?
Yes, I think that’s essentially what I was doing. There is a good deal of my writing voice in the songs, but it was always a goal to keep true to my grandpa, his voice and his story.

Finally. Do you think romance really is dead?
My grandparents' relationship has caused me to think a lot about how love and romance relate to proximity, scarcity and access to information. The conditions under which my grandpa was writing were certainly not ideal for courtship. His letters were strictly censored and often times he didn't even know if she would receive his letters. If she did, he wouldn't receive her response until months later. Could you imagine not knowing whether someone's feelings for you have changed in the months that you are waiting for their response? How much of feeling something has to do with that feeling being reciprocated?

What about in the modern age?
Today, we can know a lot about a person before we even talk to them! We can look online and find that they like the same music, studied abroad, volunteer at a food shelter, have a sister, etc. But when we do talk to them, we can expect to hear back from them very quickly (or discern their interest by their lack of communication). Also, we have a much larger pool of partners to choose from. There aren't only 4 or 5 potential partners to choose from. There are thousands! Another factor about today is that there is dramatically less social and biological pressure to find a partner.
So, when I consider the parameters for our relationships today and contrast them with the parameters for my grandparents' generation, it leads me to believe we can actually know people more than they could at that time. We have higher access to compatible partners. In that sense, when a person finds another to partner with, it is because they know them well enough and are in love enough to choose to be with them. Our choice to be with someone is more informed and therefore maybe a bit more true.

The beautiful, confusing, amazing thing about my grandparents' generation is that they chose to be with someone on such different grounds. They didn't have the same access to information and computability. Love was more of a choice than it may be now. - Noisey

"Video Premiere: We Are The Willows - "Dear Ms. Branstner""

We Are The Willows, one of our 12 Minnesota Bands You Should Listen To Now in our ongoing 50 States Project, has been hard at work since we last caught up with them in 2013: they’re set to embark on a tour throughout their home region, and their forthcoming album Picture (Portrait) Pt. 1 is set for release this fall.

The album is based on 350 love letters written by frontman Peter Miller’s grandfather during World War II, and the video for album track “Dear Ms. Branstner” is no less personal than the subject matter. Working with Zach Johnston, who is also a musician in PHOX and the firect of several music videos, We Are The Willows’ latest video uses family photos to illustrate the story of the song.

“I felt a bigger responsibility making this video than I normally would with other bands,” said Johnston. “This song and album are about Peter’s family, and the pressure to honor that story and create something universal was very real for me.”

The result is a beautiful and timeless visual that goes hand in hand with Miller’s narrative.

“Just like the band did with their songs and arrangements, I simply painted over these old memories and slides something modern and vibrant,” said Johnston. “Hopefully to make this old love story feel just as alive as it did fifty years ago. It’s like the moment when you look at your parents or your grandparents and see them not as your elders but as grown up kids.”

Check out the video for “Dear Ms. Branstner” in the player above, and view We Are The Willows’ upcoming tour dates below. Picture (Portrait) Pt. 1 is set for release on Nov. 4.

We Are The Willows Tour Dates - PASTE magazine

"12 Minnesota Bands You Should Listen To Now"

Once the solo project of Peter Michael Miller, We Are The Willows is now a six-piece orchestral-pop band with pedal-steel, violins and cello. Their upcoming album, due out this fall, is based on more than 350 letters Miller’s grandparents wrote to each other during World War II, where his grandfather served in the South Pacific. “The songs will be an attempt to understand and communicate notions of love, life, death, and mundanity in a time of national and personal crisis,” he writes on the bands website. - PASTE magazine


Picture (Portrait) pt. 1 (11.04.14)

Places EP (7.01.11)

A Collection of Sounds And Something Like A Plague (11.24.09)

A Family. A Tree. EP (10.6.09)

Bravery EP (2007)



We Are The Willows are an orchestral indie rock band based out of South Minneapolis. The 6-piece ensemble features songwriter/frontman Peter Miller’s unique countertenor voice and guitar, supported by Jeremiah Satterthwaite (guitar), Leah Ottman (violin/voice/keys), Hilary James (cello/voice/keys), Travis Collins (bass), and Josh Mckay (drums).  We Are The Willows craft dynamic, intimate songs with instruments and voices combining to create energetic rhythms and intricate melodies. Their heartfelt arrangements evoke shared nostalgic feelings of love and loss.

The band's last album, Picture (Portrait) received praise from the likes of  NPR, BBC radio, Noisey, Brooklyn Vegan, Buzzfeed, and USA today.  The band spent 2014-2016 touring North America with appearances at SXSW, Tree Fort Music Fest, Summerfest, as well as supporting Blitzen Trapper, S. Carey, and Matt Pond PA.

In the last year the band has been working with various producers around the midwest and has released three singles including, "The Prettiest Please", which was produced by Mike Noyce (Bon Iver, Tallest Man on Earth) at Justin Vernon's home studio, April Base.  

The band will be releasing their next full length in the Spring of 2020.  

Band Members