Once the frontman for Grand Rapids folk-rock outfits Watching for Foxes and Winnow, Joey Frendo has since moved to Oklahoma where he’s carving out a career as a solo artist. The Local Spins interview.
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EDITOR’S NOTE: As Local Spins celebrates its 10th year covering West Michigan’s music scene, the online magazine will roll out some new features for 2022, including ‘Artist to Watch’ profiles of emerging regional artists. Today, we debut ‘Whatever Happened To.’ The series digs into what became of high-profile West Michigan artists and bands who’ve moved or disappeared from the scene. Find out what they’re up to now. We begin with writer Enrique Olmos’ profile of Joey Frendo of Winnow and Watching For Foxes.
When the video call materializes from pixelated dots to a clear image, Joey Frendo is pictured outside on his patio cracking a cheap beer on a warm Oklahoma night.
His wife, Lizzie, cradles their newborn daughter, Charlotte, in the background of the kitchen. Their dog, Ray, can’t decide if he wants to be indoors or outdoors, so Frendo frequently steps away to let him in (and out).
Frendo, originally from Fremont, spent his early years as a songwriter kicking around Grand Rapids. He founded and fronted the hard-touring, ever-changing folk-rock collective Watching for Foxes in 2015.
Without wasting any time, the band hit the road soon after winning first place at the Walk the Beat Festival in Grand Haven. Spending long hours rolling down the American interstate in a ragged 15-passenger van, Frendo has paid his dues and then some.
On late-night drives, he’d often volunteer to take the captain’s seat. Without a working radio, he was relinquished to singing a capella country songs while his bandmates slept in a pile in the back.
“I wouldn’t trade that time for anything. It was a really formative time. And if all I do for the rest of my life is write songs for a very small audience to hear, I think those lessons will be something that I can be proud of in a lot of ways,” Frendo says.
“Being on the road, having that communal exchange and living that way is magical. The small victories and the things that you can’t control, making the best out of them. We tried to do it the right way. A lot of bands push through or they crumble. Not that we crumbled, but it just became too much.”
The band found rising success with headlining hometown shows and opening slots with national acts like Joseph, Penny & Sparrow and The Trews. They performed at recognized venues like Stubb’s in Austin, Schubas Tavern in Chicago and White Oak Music Hall in Houston.
Watching for Foxes later morphed into Winnow, a songwriting duo centered around Frendo and guitarist Jared Meeuwenberg. The duo released an EP, performed at Meijer Gardens and opened for acts like Drive-By Truckers.
LEAVING WEST MICHIGAN FOR TULSA AND ITS STRONG ROOTS MUSIC SCENE
In 2020, Frendo and his wife moved to Oklahoma after Lizzie got a job in Tulsa. Since then, he’s watched the seedlings of his songwriting craft blossom into that of a veteran storyteller.
Relocating has allowed Frendo to “start fresh” and hone his craft amid a strong music scene for singer-songwriters “in the roots music realm.”
Frendo released his debut solo EP “Stone Mason’s Son” last fall, and he’s become a regular at hallowed Tulsa venues like Mercury Lounge. He picked up piano and guitar. Currently, he’s fleshing out demos for his next record.
“The EP really started with ‘Lordstown’ as an idea of this holy, Midwestern experience I wanted to catalog. I wanted to challenge myself to make short stories that could fit in some sort of order. But could also exist on their own,” Frendo says.
LISTEN: “Lordstown,” Joey Frendo
“Stone Mason’s Son” is a beautiful collection of carefully curated songs revolving around the trials of blue-collar life. It’s laced with haunting pedal steel guitar, weeping fiddles and roaring harmonicas.
The record was recorded at Jake Kalmink’s Zeeland studio, The Stooge. Frendo played piano and guitar, while guest musicians included Jefferson Rinck, John Nowak, Max Brown, Colter Wall, Pony Bradshaw and Esme Patterson.
The stories on the album and Frendo’s writing were deeply affected by the death of his mother. She passed away after battling cancer right before his move to Tulsa. It had a profound effect on him, both as an artist and a son.
“I remember one of the last moments where I felt like she was really there. I was sitting in the room playing my guitar for her. She smiled and nodded her head. Her passing has driven me closer to finding out the things that are important to me,” Frendo says.
“It’s brought me a greater understanding of my life’s mission and purpose. I think a lot of the way I’ve handled grief is by processing my emotions through my art.”
Frendo opens another beer. He’s drinking Grain Belt, a new favorite. His other go-tos are Miller High Life, Coors Banquet and Lone Star.
“I think beer can be a conduit for people to kind of let themselves get lost in something that’s bigger than themselves,” Frendo says. “I don’t really drink at all before playing shows anymore. But as a patron of music, I’m absolutely gonna have a few cheap beers. I think it becomes a part of the ritualistic nature of live music.”
Looking ahead, Frendo plans to continue growing roots and shaping his craft in Tulsa. The new songs he’s written and recorded dive into themes of love, both romantic and familial.
“I think my perception of love over this past year has changed so much because of being in a new place with just my partner. This next record will be a meditation on that. It’ll be about the love we have for somebody else and what that love ultimately speaks about ourselves,” Frendo says.
“It’s that push and pull of how loving somebody else affects our own story. The standard for me now is to simply make the best record I can make at the time.”
VIDEO: “Stone Mason’s Son,” Joey Frendo (Dogtown Studio, Grand Rapids)
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