Grand Rapids Americana band The Crane Wives are known for the emotion and the energy brought to the listener in both their live show and in their recordings. As Emilee Petersmark and Kate Pillsbury, the original duo who formed the group, told me after their show at The Livery, their pursuit is not simply about music, but about family and lifestyle.
Emilee and Kate met as students at Grand Valley State University. Though both were solo musicians and ran in similar crowds, it was in the financially tough years following college that the two really bonded. Both worked for the same Chinese restaurant in the area, a job experience they each described as terrible. It was in the difficulty of that job that they connected and embarked on making music together.
“We worked there together and in our shared misery, we became much closer than we had been,” Kate said.
Writing together in their free time from work, they started to create a catalog of songs. They quickly discovered that the normally painful process of collaborative songwriting was easy when working together. They would finish a number of songs they had each started previously on their own and took their music to a live audience as The Crane Wives.
“Our boss found out that we played music,” Kate said. “And we encouraged her to let us play music on Friday nights.”
Though their initial reception was not positive, the union of their individual skills in lyricism would prove fruitful. Both Kate and Emilee relayed tales of writing songs as early as childhood. Emilee recalled diving into songwriting during her middles school years. Kate, whose father was a songwriter, has handwritten lyrics going back as early as age six. Together, they wove together emotional lyrics and tales that individuals of any background could connect with. As the band grew in size, the music evolved beyond the Americana sound, urging the listener to sing, foot stomp, and dance.
The band would eventually grow to a five-piece. Dan Rickabus and Tom Gunnels, both known from the Grand Valley campus and the local music community, joined the family as a way of uniting their various musical projects. Ben Zito found his way into the band after acting as their sound engineer for a number of shows and playing bass while helping them create an album. Gunnels would leave the band in 2015, pushing the remaining members to stretch their musical skills to complete The Crane Wives sound.
The unification of the four members of The Crane Wives goes beyond that of musical collaboration. Together, they have set out to pursue not only music, but a particular lifestyle, treating their creativity as a career and their band as a family.
“Being in a band, we always equate it to being married,” Emilee said. “It’s such a very delicate chemistry.”
“Our lives are dependent on each other,” Kate said. “Whenever someone takes a weekend off, we all take a weekend off. We carefully architect our lives around each other.”
The members regularly “check in” with each other, making sure the entire band is satisfied both with their creative progress and with the lifestyle that has come out of existing in a full-time band. They have put a deliberate focus on longevity, as opposed to more lofty goals of stardom. They recalled their experience at Folk Alliance International in 2015, in which they met with people in the music industry who highlighted the more practical aspects of life as a musician.
“They want numbers,” Kate said. “How many fans do you want to draw to a show? How many shows do you want to do in a year? How much money do you want to make at a show?”
“Making it means something different when you realize this is a job,” Emilee said. “I want to be able to do this every day and live financially secure.”
The Crane Wives are well on their way toward those goals. They have traveled throughout the country, slowly and practically growing their fan base. They pursue their music in a way they keeps a focus on staying healthy, caring for themselves, and for each other. The music they are creating continues to evolve, with two solid albums in as many years, including 2015’s “Coyote Stories” and 2016’s “Foxlore”, both showing they have plenty to say with their music.
“Our goal is to do this for our lives,” Kate said. “Because we love each other.”
You can follow The Crane Wives, find tour dates, and check out their music, including all three of their albums, at thecranewives.com.
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These piece created in part for Justin’s weekly column in Off The Water.