As FeRn Whale, Tom and Angela Sheppard are married to the music – and each other.
The Ypsilanti, Mich., husband and wife indie “meditative” folk rock duo started playing together seven years ago in the metro Detroit area and have built a lasting musical and personal partnership.
“We just have totally different roles when we play together so there’s not much of any conflict,” said Tom Sheppard. “Angela does all the writing. I support her writing by coming up with parts to go with it, but she does the singing. I set everything up and carry all the stuff, which I like to do.”
Together, they carry equal parts of FeRn Whale’s musicianship, which includes writing, recording and performing their own material and playing regular gigs at local venues, including Plymouth Rock in Plymouth and Northville Winery and Brewing Company in Northville.
Earlier this year, FeRn Whale released their latest single, “Cocoon,” a soothing indie folk rock anthem focused on a personal transformation coinciding with spring’s arrival. They recorded the single on reel-to-reel tape at Royal Grand Studios in Redford last year with producer and friend Mike Bush.
“I think I was having moments of just how we’re all in this journey of life, and there’s no direct path or exact pathway for each person, but I guess the idea of just that really cool things can happen over time,” said Angela Sheppard. “You have to just give it time. That’s the biggest idea I was focusing on.”
As the primary songwriter, Angela Sheppard shaped “Cocoon’s” lyrics, melody and music for several months before finalizing them in late 2017. Then, Tom Sheppard added a bass line and kick drum to package the rest of the single.
“If I don’t think about it too much, then somehow there’s a flow to it,” said Angela Sheppard, who credits Feist, Prince and the Grateful Dead as FeRn Whale’s major musical influences. “If I think too much, then I feel like I get writer’s block. There’s a range of time. That’s the nice thing about phones, too. If I have like a random idea, and I don’t know why, but it might be something that I imagine could be a chorus, then I’ll just hit the record button and roughly record it, and then come back to it.”
For FeRn Whale, nature is a recurring theme that’s woven throughout their lyrics and music. The Sheppards are currently writing another nature-themed song called “Rabbit Bones,” which has an energetic, folksy feel to it.
Angela Sheppard started writing the song after seeing a set of rabbit bones in their backyard. She’s compelled to write about the everyday, random events that happen in nature.
“Everybody deserves good things. We see it in nature, we see it in politics,” said Angela Sheppard. “We see it in life where not everyone has an equal opportunity. There are a lot of things out of balance.”
New Band Moniker
Angela Sheppard’s love of nature also inspired the band’s new FeRn Whale moniker. Previously, the Sheppards were called “T&A,” which was short for “Tom & Angela.” The new “FeRn Whale” moniker replaces any potential misconceptions fans may have had about the previous “T&A” name.
“We’re really into science. We really like whales, mammals, plants of all kinds,” she said. “I think we were just trying to figure out what which words sounded good together.”
The Sheppards also decided to stylize their band name differently by having a capital “R” in “FeRn” to make it more unique.
“When I was typing it out, it looked like Fem Whale, which I liked that name, too,” Angela Sheppard said. “I thought the ‘R’ would stand out more. It’s another thing that we have to play around with fonts – things are visual.”
Like his wife, Tom Sheppard also sees the value in a unique group name. “My band used to be called Baked Potato, but it’s a problem with search engines,” he said. “That’s something good about FeRn Whale. There’s nothing else.”
Before they were “T&A” or “FeRn Whale,” the Sheppards started playing music while growing up in metro Detroit. Hailing from the Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti area, Angela Sheppard grew up in a musical family with a mother who sang to her, a father who played guitar in bands with friends and an aunt who played at The Ark in the 1960s.
Angela Sheppard took piano lessons while growing up, studied classical vocal programs at Schoolcraft College and Wayne State University and developed a love for jazz.
Meanwhile, Tom Sheppard grew up in Northville and learned to play violin through the Suzuki method at a young age along with his sister. While growing up, he added guitar, piano and drums to his instrumentation skill set and earned an instrumental music education degree.
“I always knew I wanted to be a drummer,” Tom Sheppard said. “I started playing drums in school bands when my parents finally gave in and got me a drum set. I kept playing violin, too. It wasn’t long after that I started playing in a band with my friends. I still play with the same friends since middle school.”
By 2009, the Sheppards met at a Westland bowling alley when Angela sang backup vocals in a mutual friend’s band called Big Livy. Tom was the drummer in that same band.
“We were around each other more through that band,” Angela Sheppard said. “We would meet in Toledo or just outside Toledo and have practices and played mostly in the metro Detroit area, cities like Livonia and Plymouth.”
By 2013, the Sheppards were married and playing together as a duo. They celebrated their five-year wedding anniversary on June 28.
Local Live Shows
Three years ago, FeRn Whale started playing Grateful Dead tribute nights every Thursday at Northville Winery and Brewing Company. For each Dead tribute set, they play an actual set from the past.
“It’s usually the same date in history,” said Tom Sheppard, who saw the original Dead perform 32 times before Jerry Garcia passed away in 1995. “We definitely play the ‘70s more. It seems like ’72 and ’77. We tend to play those more than the other years, like the ‘80s or ‘60s.”
In April, FeRn Whale expanded their repertoire to include open mic nights for emerging and established musicians every Wednesday night in Northville. They welcome and jam with musicians who play almost any type of genre, including classical, blues and rock.
“We had a friend of ours, John Heath, he was in Trembling Earth. I think he used to play in Ann Arbor, but he’s up from Georgia. He did a solo, but he’s got great writing, too. It’s nice to have Tom there, too, and if people want to say, ‘Hey, can you play this? Can you play a blues shuffle?’ Tom can get in and help.”
FeRn Whale also hosts open mic nights on Tuesdays at Plymouth Roc and performs at Nico & Vali Italian Eatery in Plymouth. “We just perform a dinner show (at Nico & Vali), and then a friend of ours paints there live,” Angela Sheppard said. “He paints while we perform.”
In the coming months, FeRn Whale will continue to write, record and perform new music. They’re experimenting with different types of music to evolve their sound.
“I think that might be one of the trickiest things for me is figuring out what genre,” Angela Sheppard said. “I definitely see a strong folk influence mixed with rock even with a dash of punk. That one I was trying to write about the rabbit bones I was just thinking of the Violent Femmes when I was writing it. Something kind of dark.”
They’re also planning to make a promo video and add more live shows in metro Detroit soon.