The indie-folk band that now calls itself Distance Walk started as a one-time group. The musicians came together to back singer-songwriter and clawhammer banjoist Barry Osborne when he was scheduled to play his cycle of folk songs based on the poetry of Depression-era writer Lorine Niedecker in fall of 2019 at Swallow Hill Music.
The gig went well; the musicians sold out the venue. Osborne was joined by Olivia Shaw on fiddle, Yoni Fine on guitar and Niki Tredinnick on vocals, clarinet and percussion. They all got along and started playing shows around the Denver area. During a gig at Mutiny Information Cafe in early 2020, without the time to perform the lengthy Niedecker song cycle, they changed things up and created a more expansive indie-folk sound.
“There were two or three folks in the audience, friends and whatnot, who had seen all three of our shows,” Osborne says. “They were just talking about how our sound was evolving from a more verse-chorus-verse folky kind of thing to where the songs are breathing more.”
That show happened in early March, as COVID-19 started to shut down any hope of further live gigs, at least in the immediate future, and it seemed like the quartet might not continue. Over the next couple of months, however, Osborne kept writing, and he had the idea to record some songs at home. But the songs wanted for contributions from his friends and bandmates.
“Over the summer I went into the studio with everybody, one at a time,” Osborne says. “Even though we never got to practice in person, just through sharing tapes and meeting over the phone and a lot of texting, we put this EP together.”
The five-song self-titled album marks a stylistic departure for the group. While the Niedecker songs Osborne wrote previously had a more academic vibe, the new compositions and their lyrics were born from musings he had while on long walks in his Mayfair neighborhood and during time spent on his porch picking the banjo to stem his anxiety. Those walks are also where the band got its name. He retained his clawhammer style of banjo playing, but says his old songs just weren’t connecting to him anymore in light of how terrible the world seemed over the past year.
The new songs address the pandemic and the upheaval it caused, and Osborne sees them as the band’s “letter to the world” about what we were going through in 2020. That’s not to say they're written in the tradition of a punk song. You won’t hear any tracks called “COVID-19 can burn in hell.”
Osborne doesn’t just rail against the virus; rather, his lyrical approach is oblique. He wanted the songs to have an obscure quality, but not be so cryptic that no one can get a sense of what they're about.
“Old-time folk songs are, a lot of the time, kind of obscure,” he says. “I think of songs like ‘The Cuckoo Bird’ or “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground.” Those tunes are talking about hardship or difficult relationships or difficult times, but they aren’t coming at you directly. The song “Come a Little Bug,” for example, came about when Osborne was playing his banjo. His cat, sitting on his lap, spotted a bug in the yard and leapt off his lap and ate the insect, as a cat is wont to do.
“In my head, really quickly, it inverted to this bug. This COVID virus was flipping the tables on our society,” he says. “This little bug was causing all this upheaval.”
The song “Whisper” came about after a conversation in March with a neighbor whose wife is an ICU nurse who had been off for several days but was returning to the night shift. He wrote the lines: “Mama’s going out tonight. Watch for her in the morning light.”
“That was kind of one of the first times the hospital she works at was expecting to flip from things as usual to ‘We might really start getting hit heavily with COVID patients,’” Osborne says. “I wasn’t trying to explain it, but get my head around 'Your neighbors are going into this dangerous unknown situation.' Fortunately, they're doing fine.”
Osborne adds that he took further inspiration while he was writing after the death of two friends last year who he knew from college in Madison, Wisconsin, where he was also a member of the music scene. One friend in particular always told Osborne to “banjo that shit up.” He’s gotten a tattoo with that sentiment to remember his friend.
“It’s really weird to grieve when you can’t hop on a plane and go to your friend’s memorial,” he says. “Those folks were really on my mind when we were doing these songs.”
Distance Walk's debut EP is available at Bandcamp. For more information, check out the Distance Walk website.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the band's name. We regret the error.
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