JULIE VITELLS namedrops Fezzik as one of her songwriting influences. You remember Fezzik: the friendly giant in The Princess Bride played by André the Giant, who's always making up a rhyme to the last thing somebody said. "I'm kind of a word nerd," Julie says. "My head is always rhyming things."
Julie, originally a banjo player and now the singer/guitarist for What Hearts, was ensconced in Portland's old-time music scene when she tried her hand at writing a pop song. "It totally happened by accident. It's been the steepest learning curve," she says. That one song led to more songs, which led Julie to asking her sister Sophie Vitells to play violin and Karin Nystrom to sing harmonies and play guitar.
"We did that for a year," Julie says. "And then I met Sarah [Fennell]; we wanted to find a drummer and Sarah was looking for another band, and it automatically got a tiny bit more serious because Sarah doesn't do anything halfway." They began recording an EP, Songs from Marjorie—named after the bus where Julie wrote her songs—when producer Skyler Norwood suggested they bring in Courtney Sheedy on bass. "He figured we should bring in a girl bass player to keep the vibe consistent," Julie says. "These girls are my really good friends, and I really like spending time with them, so it's been a really big, really fun part of my life to be in a band with them."
Now the five-piece What Hearts have released their self-titled full-length, recorded by Point Juncture, WA's Victor Nash. It's a subtle and charmingly ramshackle record, built around Julie's immediately engaging songs, which she delivers as if whispering directly into the listener's ear. The group's honey-like harmonies are bolstered by stark, ghostly arrangements and a vivid, windswept sense of nostalgia. "I've been a lot of places that have affected me really strongly," Julie says, "like Albuquerque, where we grew up for the first part of when we were kids. I have really strong, powerful memories of that, and also where my dad's family is from in Israel. I've done a lot of outdoors work all over the Pacific Northwest, too. I get really strong attachments to places, and that comes out in anything that I write."
Some of the old-time folk background has crept into What Hearts' unusual blend, but there's also a hint of the muted, unraveling-sweater sound of early Belle and Sebastian on certain songs, while others follow that rutted, rambling road of journeyman folksinger Michael Hurley, who Julie mentions as another big influence. She's self-effacing about her own abilities, seeming happily surprised she's in a group this talented. "I don't mean to sound obnoxiously like, 'Oh, I'm so naïve!' But oftentimes I have to be like, 'Courtney, how do I play a B-flat minor?' And she'll show me. I don't have a very comprehensive knowledge of guitar or typical song structure."
It's clear that Julie has a native knack for songwriting, though, and What Hearts are offering something strikingly different—and fantastic—in Portland's often beige-sounding folk-pop scene. "I really like the random sound combo that we've kind of settled into," Julie says. "You could say that it's put together by someone who doesn't know how to play music! Because it's kind of true. Even still, I want to keep expanding. I want to become a better guitarist, I want to do more collaborating, I want to become more professional and proficient."