With harmonies derived only from the genetic intricacies of a brother-sister duo, Zak and Lena Kendall have evolved from homespun, family-oriented folk music to deliver roots-revival styled sophistication for a hyper-conscious generation. The Kendalls, beloved within their quickly expanding fandom as GoldenOak, were raised in part by the western Maine landscape.
GoldenOak began as two children playing around backyard bonfires and was more firmly established with their 2016 debut, Pleasant St. In response to their coming-of-age chronicle, Dispatch Magazine coined the duo "one of Portland's most important upcoming bands." As purveyors of age-old tradition sharing contemporary messaging, the pair has landed spots on stage with Lady Lamb, The Dustbowl Revival, The Ghost of Paul Revere, and The Mallett Brothers Band.
Following their most recent project, Foxgloves—named 'EP of the year' by the Portland Music Awards—their sophomore full-length, Room to Grow is GoldenOak's most cohesive collection yet.
Creating Room to Grow felt like a research project. Instead of turning research into a critical analysis, Zak produced an analytical work of art backed by empyreal folk music. As a student of human ecology in college, his songwriting contains front-line accounts of the current situation.
"Art isn't a dumbed-down version of climate issues," he says. "It's okay that I'm not writing a book. There's a place for music and art in climate conversations, and turning research data into art still does these ideas justice because that's an important way to convey information and knowledge to push these issues to the forefront and make positive change."
"Falter," Zak's pride-point as a songwriter, details the uniquely human quality of corruption. Reminiscent of a late 1960s protest tune, the track perpetuates the irony of political money etching its name in geological history and the implications of the most privileged people continuing to expand their carbon footprint, endangering less responsible populations in more fragile ecosystems.
"It was a crazy process of learning and rethinking my songwriter knowledge, avoiding a crutch," says Zak. In that vein, his approach developed in a new way, putting himself in the path of inspiration rather than his previous practice of awaiting a brilliant spark to overcome him. This meant reshaping an intentional process-focused style of songwriting.
"I had this romanticized view that the song would take me to where it wants to be rather than me pushing the song to where it should be," he explains. "I think I almost had too much faith in the song."
Zak and Lena recorded the album at Monico Studios—a repurposed barn situated between rolling farmland outside of Portland. GoldenOak began wrapping up sessions the week Maine saw its first case of novel coronavirus. They did not return to the studio until June to add vocal overdubs, leaving several weeks for contemplation.
"It was an interesting time to bring my mind back to that place we started when the pandemic now consumed everything," says Zak. "I had difficulty not writing the pandemic into the record. As much as I thought about that, it wasn't the path that we started on, so it shouldn't be where we ended."
The product is an inclusive call to action. Putting fears and facts to song, rather than tucked away in private corners of academia, provides greater accessibility to the public, those more vulnerable to the implications. Engineered by Ryan Ordway and Dan Capaldi, mixed by Ordway and Sam McArthur, and mastered by Adam Ayan, GoldenOak's second studio album is a kinetic tribute to the untamed nature of climate change.
"Only One" encapsulates climate anxiety. An anthem for the people on the front-lines of the fight for our planet tackles burnout and feelings of helplessness or solitude in battle. At the end of the bridge, the track glistens with Forrest Tripp's trombone-induced kaleidoscopic imagery. Lena hopes the delicately balanced soundscape reminds friends and listeners of what they're fighting for.
Bassist Mike Knowles and drummer Jackson Cromwell add levity to Zak's guitar and Lena's clarinet. The orchestral set paints an ethereal portrait of nature's beauty, offsetting the impending doom behind their lyrical findings.
Lena's brazen vocal offerings from "Little Light '' upend the 'Doom's Day' darkness of the album, alleviating the defeatism that threads throughout the diagnostic tracklist. Zak and Lena sat down on the last night of the project to pen one of the few songs they co-wrote on the album. Dan Capaldi's chugging percussion suggests the journey is just beginning, but Christian Bertelsen's bright trumpet contribution celebrates the distance covered and hope ahead.
"It sheds light on both ancient answers, looking to the past and how can we move forward, and to the future at things like renewable energy," says Lena. Zak adds, "Indigenous people in the US have been living sustainably for forever. And we need to look to them to be the leaders of this because they have a lot of answers."
The album closes with the title-track, which hits home for the mid-twenty-something artists as a more frequently discussed topic. "It's an intense feeling when you find the person you want to spend the rest of your life with, somebody you want to have children with," Zak explains.
"But with this research or the social justice issues highlighted this year, and the pandemic, sometimes I feel like 'how could you even think about bringing kids into this world?' I probably will not die from climate change because I'm privileged and I live in the United States, but it will seriously impact my children's lives."
Somewhere, buried in damning data, is a glimmer of hope—despite the present challenges, society is still looking for room to grow. Zak says, "I'm never going to give up looking for hope, for an answer to this question. I'll always seek that space for my unborn child to thrive in a world."
GoldenOak’s new album is due June 25th. GoldenOak hopes to reconnect with their fans in the New England festival circuit this summer, the hallowed ground where the duo first found their footing. Their entrance single, "Islands," will introduce the concept collection on April 2nd, setting the tone ahead of symbiotic duo’s Room to Grow.
"This record contains several reasons to fight climate change," says Lena. "But overall, it's about continuing to find the reasons why, and here are the stories we can learn from. Room To Grow reminds us that there is a way forward."