After releasing two LPs of crisply rendered, emotionally captivating alt-country, the leaders of Dogwood Tales faced an impasse: To band or not to band?
“We couldn’t really get our feet rolling with always having this ‘we’re a band, we’re not a band’ thing,” says Kyle Grim, half of the Harrisonburg-based, founding singing-and-songwriting partnership behind Dogwood Tales. Despite the fact that they’d been performing as a five-piece for some time, with Jake Golibart on drums, Danny Gibney on bass and Stephen Kuester on pedal steel, and despite significant creative and studio contributions from those members, Grim and fellow founder Ben Ryan struggled to break the mold that formed when they started performing as a duo at ages 17 and 15, respectively.
“We kept trying to cultivate a band sound,” Grim recalls, “even though Ben and I were keeping this ownership of everything.”
All that changed in 2020, when the group set their sights on new recordings that would lean into their strengths as a collective, and into influences — the shoegaze of Slowdive, for one — that flew under the radar on the two full-length Dogwood Tales albums, 2018’s “Too Hard to Tell” and 2020’s “Closest Thing To Heaven.” The group brought a new, more expansive mindset to the Oakhurst, New Jersey studio operated by Erik Romero, who also helped make the group’s LPs. Ben Ryan remembers “just letting go of some boundaries, and really just playing the music together in the room, too. [That’s] where we captured a lot of that space.”
Two main sessions at different points in 2020 yielded material they’d eventually divide between a pair of EPs: “13 Summers 13 Falls,” which came out in late 2022, and “Rodeo,” which is slated for release on Friday, May 12. The first single from “Rodeo,” titled “Stranger,” is out now, as is the preorder for a vinyl disc that brings the two EPs together in one WarHen Records-backed package.
Style Weekly: What inspired you to split the new recordings into two EPs?
Kyle Grim: Even though we thought about it like an album, it kind of was two different moments in  and a lot of different thoughts on each side of it… All the little things that come with releasing music — the worry and self-doubt things — [we could] maybe breeze by that a little easier by splitting it in half.
Ben Ryan: I think it was fun to think of them as EPs… It just felt right. And [with] our last two releases [we] were just thinking of them as albums.
KG: It felt good, and it gave us energy. Putting out an album is always some kind of big-stakes thing, and I was like, ‘I don’t really feel ready for it, in some ways, and I just want to get these moving,’ because they’d been on our chest for so long. And it felt cool as a whole piece, because they were thought about in that way, and then split, so it was cool to bring it all together on the vinyl.
Your sound seems to be getting bigger. Is that something you aimed for in the studio?
BR: During that period, especially if I can remember the studio sessions, we naturally went into that spacey direction together. It felt like a very band-oriented thing. Me and Kyle have been longtime lovers of ambient music and spacey music, particularly shoegaze [and] a lot of the 1990s stuff. It just naturally came out in some of our songs.
KG: We think about things with a bit more edge a lot of the time, and it felt like we were always dulling things down a little bit with Dogwood Tales. We’d be like, ‘Oh we can’t do that. We gotta stop that.’ Meanwhile, me and Ben are both heavily into ambient music. Jake, our drummer, builds guitars — he built my Jazzmaster [guitar] — and he does lots of cool noisy things. Danny, our bass player, has been in a million different kinds of bands and knows that kind of stuff. Stephen immediately, his sound on pedal steel, [had] so much space that we really resonated with. It just felt like the right direction.
Your songs are typically credited to Dogwood Tales, as opposed to a particular songwriter. How collaborative is the writing process?
KG: “Stranger” was maybe the biggest example of that… We really liked these parts and ideas but didn’t know where to take it. It was always a fun thing to play, and honestly when we started playing it, I feel like we were trying to replicate a Neil Young kind of vibe, like a “Harvest” thing… There was a level of levity to the sound of it that I didn’t really expect that ended up being really nice.
BR: A little poppy, and indie-folky.
KG: It was definitely the most outward-built song. We started with really [bare] bones parts and started playing it and it started building into something. Ben started playing that arpeggio and Danny grabbed the Höfner [bass]. It just all started coming together in a really cool way… And I will say that Erik had a really big hand in that song. That was one that really needed some attention. And there was some insecurity with that levity, like “This feels cool, [but] I can’t really tell.” He was so gung-ho about, “This is one I really want to try to navigate with you all.” It was immense… That was the most help we’ve ever had outside of the five of us on a song.
BR: He’s so music-minded that he saw a different perspective than we did, and was like, “Try this.” And we were like, “Whoa, this is dope.”
“Stranger” conveys a pretty troubled internal landscape. What inspired the song lyrically?
KG: A lot of the lyrics were written during 2020. I was trying to navigate a lot of anxiety at that time in my life. I’ve always been full of existential questions, like anyone else, and it had been getting to me for a while — probably since 2018 — but I started having panic attacks pretty frequently in 2020. I’d never had it be as severe as it was. I was on the couch for like a week when I started getting them…
I went back to my parents’ house because of how anxious I was feeling, and I hadn’t gone to my parents’ house for longer than a night in years, and I was so freaked out. I thought I was dying. I went to their house and stayed for a few days. I remember playing my mom that song and crying a lot because I was like, “Wow, I really feel this way…” It’s a little raw in that sense to me. I was throwing a lot of thoughts and feelings out and not really knowing where they were going to some degree, but trying to give a little bit of a picture in the chorus. It was a cathartic experience of getting something out that really needed to get out, even though I didn’t know what it was.
To hear “Stranger” and preorder “Rodeo,” which is out on Friday, May 12, visit dogwoodtales.bandcamp.com. Dogwood Tales will perform release shows at the Golden Pony in Harrisonburg on Thursday, May 25 and at the Southern in Charlottesville on Friday, June 9. They’re also scheduled to perform at the Camel in Richmond on Thursday, June 22. For more information on all of the band’s upcoming performances, visit dogwoodtalesmusic.com.