The question is simple. “If I don’t go, how will I know?” But thoughts surrounding the possible answers become so complex in beautiful Lula Wiles song, it makes you hold your breath in anticipation of finding an answer. It’s how the music of Lula Wiles—made up of Ellie Buckland on guitar and fiddle, Isa Burke on fiddle, banjo, electric and acoustic guitar, and Mali Obomsawin on bass—hits you. The songs dig into the thoughts we may have at night, but use the social and community-building traditions of folk music to give hope. The trio took time to talk with me about their own hopes, before playing the Sugar Maple Music Festival at Lake Farm Park in Madison on Saturday, August 3.
Maximum Ink: What is at the heart of Lula Wiles and the great storytelling in your songs?
All: We are multi-instrumentalists, singers, and songwriters. We all had varied experiences in our formative musical years, but we really overlapped and first bonded over traditional music, and the folks who were being really creative with that genre––for example, Crooked Still and the Punch Brothers were really popular in our teen years.
We also bonded a lot over songwriters like our friends in the Stray Birds. We decided to start making music ourselves because the people we were lucky to know—folks who were already doing it like our peers, as well as heroes and mentors– encouraged us to just go for it. It was exciting to try it and to try and let go of the self-doubt.
MI: You started Lula Wiles while you were in college?
Isa:Yes, the band started when we were all at Berklee College of Music. It happened very organically, I think because we’d already been friends for so many years. It started with me and Ellie playing duo gigs around Boston, and then we asked Mali to start playing with us. Soon we realized, we’d become a band! I think part of the reason we’ve stayed together is because we already had developed friendships and a music community outside Berklee — we didn’t see this as just our “college band.”
MI: There’s a special story behind the name, Lula Wiles, too?
Ellie: Isa’s Dad came up with the name and it’s derived from the Carter family’s song “Lula Walls”. We were struggling to find a name we felt suited our band’s mischievous spirit, and in the song, Lula is quite wily. She’s pursued by the narrator of the song and when he asks her to marry him, the lyric goes, “She only turned away, and nothing would she say, that aggravating beauty Lula Walls.” We liked her vibe.
MI: You recently released a new album, “What Will We Do.” How would you describe it—and did you have a process for writing and recording it?
Isa: Our songwriting process has really evolved over the course of the band’s life. We wrote all the songs on our first album individually and then brought them to the band to develop the arrangement and instrumental parts. But our process became much more collaborative on our second album. A lot of the arranging (and even a bit of the writing — yikes) for What Will We Do was done pretty spontaneously in the studio. Generally one person is still the driving force behind each song — and that’s the person who sings lead — but we’ve started bringing each other into the writing process at the earlier stages. That both requires and builds trust. It was an exciting process but definitely stressful at times! We’re excited to continue developing our co-writing relationships.
MI: We’ll get to hear some of those songs at the Sugar Maple Music Festival! How would you describe a Lula Wiles show for someone who hasn’t seen the band?
Ellie: Well, we will definitely be playing lots of the songs from our new album, What Will We Do. Our drummer, Sean Trischka, will be playing with us and that’s a big part of our live show these days, in that we get to present the songs from the record that have drums, in the way we recorded them. We’ll also be playing some songs that are newer than the album…and yet to be recorded!
MI: Sugar Maple Music Festival is in the middle of a festival tour for Lula Wiles. How is it going?
Ellie: It’s going so well! It’s been exciting to play in new towns and to share our music with new audiences. We’re humbled by how well the record has been received. And yet, touring is really physically and emotionally draining so being on the road almost constantly for 6 months has certainly taken its toll. We try to maintain the balance with gratitude for what we’re doing, the human connections we make, and the meaningful experiences we have along the way.
MI: I’m also reading some music publications where you Lula Wiles is called a band that is certainly trending! I guess it means you are hot right now?
All: Haha. We are happy, and we only hope to keep the creativity and touring life in balance so that we can thrive in both while going forward.
MI: Are you thinking about long-term goals for Lula Wiles?
All: To keep making music that feels true to us and our varied & shared experiences, letting it grow as we do. Obviously, we hope our music can continue to speak to others, too.
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CD: What We Will Do Record Label: Smithsonian Folkways Recordings
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