The seeds of Jaia Wilbour and Raina Gravatt’s musical partnership go way back, back to when they met in kindergarten at the Waldorf School in Viroqua. “We became friends right away,” Wilbour said. “We’ve just been best friends forever.”
It took some time for their music to bloom, with each taking her own independent path at first, playing at open mic nights at The Root Note in La Crosse until their paths brought them together in high school to form a musical duo, Anima. The name is taken from the Latin root from which “animal” comes from, and Anima is a word that for them carries deep meanings: soul, spirit, life, breath. It’s supposed to be pronounced “ah-nim-uh,” though people have come up with a lot of their own alternatives.
One big turning point for the two came when they started singing in harmony. The first time they ever tried it in public was during an Ed Sheeran song, “Give Me Love,” on The Root Note stage, feet away from where they are conducting an interview about their soon-to-be-released debut album, “Out in the Woods.” The reaction to the way their voices blended was strong and encouraging.
“We were getting a lot of crazy good feedback from our families,” Gravatt said, noting that just every time they’d get together they’d be asked to sing.
“It just kind of worked. We didn’t even really think about it very much,” Wilbour added. “At that point, I don’t think we even thought of ourselves as a real band. It was just an opportunity to make music together.”
After playing an open mic session hosted by Shawn Neary of Cloud Cult, they got another boost when they came to the attention of Driftless Books and Music owner Eddy Nix, who was just starting to book live music at the store.
Anima got a chance to open for a lot of touring acts at Driftless. That gave them the opportunity to hone their performances in a close-to-home, friendly environment, and now, at the tender age of 19, Wilbour and Gravatt already have had a chance to play with Barefoot Movement, Dead Horses, Natty Nation, TUGG, Rucksack Revolution, Eddie Danger, Auralai and many more.
They had done some casual recording over the years, but they connected with Auralai’s Nate Lehner and got a chance in February to spend four days working in his recording studio in Oshkosh. Until that point, the songs they’ve written have been presented by the two of them, both of them guitar players, with Gravatt sometimes adding keyboards. The chance to flesh out the songs with more instrumental colors and layers was exciting and a little scary.
“It was like a big jump, kind of an adjustment,” Gravatt said.
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Wilbour added that it took a leap of faith to open songs that had been theirs alone up to contributions from Lehner on guitar, Auralai cellist Stephanie Tschech and other guest musicians (including Gravatt’s brother, Lucas, who plays bass on all the tracks). “We really enjoyed hearing what they could bring to the songs,” Wilbour said. “The more that time went on, the more we came to love them.”
The two were very impressed with everything Lehner brought to the project, which included photography and videography in addition to his musical and recording production skills. “He’s a very multitalented human being,” Wilbour said.
The five contemplative pop-folk songs on “Out in the Woods” all feature Wilbour on lead vocals, though Gravatt also takes lead on a good share of the band’s tunes in live performances. The lyrics dig deep into weighty topics — human nature, healing, relationships, persistence in the face of difficulty — all through a lens that emphasizes connections to the natural world.
Anima’s core mission is “world improvement,” and the duo figures the best way to do that is through art. “I really just want people to find meaning in it, whatever meaning they need at the time,” Gravatt said of the new album. “Meaning that inspires them to make the world a better place. That personal meaning is important.”
“We really need that in the world right now,” Wilbour added, “to be inspired and hopeful and helping each other out.”
Anima will play a series of concerts celebrating the release of “Out in the Woods” starting with a rooftop show Saturday at La Crosse’s Charmant Hotel and a Sunday show at Driftless Books and Music, at which Gravatt and Wilbour will be joined Auralai’s Lehner and Tschech. On bass guitar for both shows this weekend will be Gravatt’s brother, Lucas, who was her first musical partner and a big influence on her. “He explosively emits art constantly,” Gravatt said of Lucas.
In June and July, Anima will perform in Winona, Minneapolis, Oshkosh and Madison before taking a swing out west to play in Colorado, Oregon and California.
Wilbour and Gravatt both are committed to pursuing music as a career and are contemplating possible expansion of their band to include other musicians. They’re looking forward already to their next chance to get in the recording studio and are determined to continually improve their musicianship and songcraft.
Though they’re serious about their music, they laugh when asked whether Anima could become a household name. “I find it hard to believe that would happen with the right pronunciation, but that would be cool,” Gravatt said.