Needtobreathe’s Bear Rinehart Struggled with ‘Toxic’ Ambition. He Learns to Chill Out With Solo Project Wilder Woods
Going into lockdown may be the best thing that could’ve happened to Bear Rinehart. The Needtobreathe front man was fresh off of touring behind the first album for his new solo project, Wilder Woods, when he holed up with his wife and children. With no outside obligations, he took to writing early each morning in his home studio, and recording each afternoon. It was something he’d never done before.
“Covid, for me, was the craziest writing job I’ve ever had. I ended up writing maybe 80 songs in the year when we were home and couldn’t be on the road,” Rinehart, 42, says over the phone, from his home in his Franklin, Tennessee, outside Nashville. It was the first time he’d written music without the pressures of an album or tour cycle in mind. “I just decided, I’m gonna get in here and just write whatever I want to this morning, whatever gets me going.”
It was a relaxed approach, but one that proved unusually productive. That frenzied period of writing has already borne fruit in the shape of two different albums: Needtobreathe’s Into the Mystery, released in 2021, and his second effort as Wilder Woods, Fever/Sky, out now on Dualtone Records. The results are vibrant, upbeat, and propelled by a freewheeling positivity that sees Rinehart deploy his raspy roar of a voice with easy confidence. No surprise, then, that cutting the album felt personally transformative.
“This is the first time I felt like I’ve made a record that was, in some ways, easy to make,” Rinehart says. “Because I followed my instincts, and I didn’t think about what songs are gonna be singles. I wasn’t worried about the ends justifying the means.” When he recorded 2019’s Wilder Woods, he felt burdened by the desire to differentiate the new project from Needtobreathe. This time, he says, he allowed himself to loosen up. “It’s a bit more natural. It just feels right.”
Writing in lockdown, however, meant going deeper within himself. Being so used to the treadmill of touring, Rinehart hadn’t had this long to sit with his own feelings for the better part of two decades. He wasn’t prepared for the revelations that came forth.
“I was shocked at the natural feedback that I had with myself,” Rinehart admits. “Like, whoa, you’re lonelier than you think. You have stuff you need to deal with that you’re gonna pass on to your kids if you don’t deal with it.” Then nearing the age of 40, he’d spent half his life sacrificing everything for the sake of his career. “There were a lot of years there where, if you would ask me, would you cut your hand off for success? I’d say, ‘Oh, take it right now.’ I cared that much about what the band was doing. And, obviously, that’s a toxic way to be.”
One of the key lessons he took from that self-reflection was the need to say “no.” “When we first started the band 20 years ago, you have to say ‘yes’ to everything,” he says. Trying to get Wilder Woods off the ground before the pandemic threw him back into the same mindset. “A lot of those feelings came back up,” he adds. But now he had extra motivation to seek a healthier balance: “I’m not gonna be out there [on the road] for nine weeks without seeing my kids. That’s gonna wreck me. And that’s gonna make the work not as good.”
Inevitably, that new perspective on family and fatherhood shines through on Fever/Sky, beginning with the very first track, “Maestro (Tears Don’t Lie),” a fist-pumping retelling of the night he met his wife. The album ends breathlessly with the paternal advice of “Make Your Own Mistakes,” which grew out of the nightly bedtime stories he tells his boys. “It’s really kind of a note to my kids, but not really. It’s also a note to me,” Rinehart says. Such dual-purpose lessons have become a familiar part of parenthood for him. “You’re always telling them something when, really, when you zoom out, you’re telling yourself the same thing — things you wish you would have learned.”
Many of these songs have the feel not only of imparted wisdom, but of simply granting permission to feel — and to feel good. (As someone once said, “It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.”) There’s the swooning self-affirmation of “Be Yourself,” the scuzzy self-rebuke of “Be the Man,” or the world-is-your-oyster optimism of “Go Ahead,” which trades the album’s rootsy funk and R&B for a flanged-out, new wave guitar hook.
But the bluesy confession of “Patience,” shot through with self doubt and regret, may come closest to summing up the journey that Rinehart’s been on.
“I think a lot of us are sort of born adventurers and dreamers. And, you know, reality happens, life happens, and you start hedging your bets,” Rinehart says. “Ultimately, I’m trying to say something with the music that’s inspiring to people. I’m not trying to teach by any means. But I am trying to say, hey, maybe you’re kind of floating along the surface, and that seems OK. But maybe there’s something better.”