I’ve been following Lula Wiles for quite a while. When it caught my attention that Isa Burke was part of this group…my ears perked up. Always been a fan of Susie Burke and David Surette and I had heard stories of their talented daughters busking in downtown Portsmouth. So it didn’t take much for me to take a listen to Lula Wiles and to applaud them at any given opportunity. All three members of this group – Isa Burke, Ellie Buckland and Mali Obomsawin—bring many strengths to the band but first and foremost is their genuine ability to make a joyful sound. Harmonies galore.
Here’s a great video of Lula Wiles which demonstrates their fabulous sound.
Going back to the beginning, you were two and then you became three. Can you talk about how the band formed and how your sound evolved?
Ellie: The spark for this band was harmony singing! Isa and I were so excited to play songs and sing them in harmony, so at the beginning the duo sound was really focused on that. We had grown up at Maine Fiddle Camp together, so we were what you’d call fiddle pals. While we’d played lots of tunes over the years, the first time we sang together was really magical.
Isa: When Ellie and I were playing as a duo, we didn’t really think too hard about developing a sound; we just wanted to sing songs together and we did that in a very natural and organic way. I think it wasn’t until Mali joined us that we really started to feel like a band, and we started being more deliberate about our sound, our arrangements, our original songs and our interpretations of others’ songs. The harmony singing, though, has stayed at the center of our band’s musical identity.
Ellie: When we asked Mali to join us for a gig in July 2013, it was such a big shift musically, creatively and interpersonally. When two become three, there’s so much that can happen! For us, after a few trio gigs, we knew right away that having Mali on bass was a good fit. Since then I think our sound has evolved towards contemporary folk. With an additional voice and a bass, we’re able to arrange and write in a more expanded way, which is really exciting.
Did you take any courses at Berklee that profoundly impacted the way that you thought about music?
Isa: Absolutely. I have no idea what kind of musician I’d be if I hadn’t attended Berklee, because it completely expanded everything I understood about music. I learned to think about rhythm in a much deeper way through my fiddle lessons with Matt Glaser and Bruce Molsky, as well as my studies of old-time music with Mark Simos. A lot of the way I understand melodies and lyrics in songwriting came from my studies with Bonnie Hayes. She was also the person who made me start thinking about recording and production as a songwriting tool as well, and I think a lot of what I learned from her came out on the Lula Wiles album. I think the best thing about Berklee was the constant immersion in so many different styles of music, and being able to interact with people who were digging deep into music in such a huge variety of ways. You can’t help but pick up a ton of new ideas just by exposure and osmosis. I could go on and on about this!
Did you start out playing cover songs? If so, I want to know which ones?
Ellie: Yes we did! Arranging has always been my favorite part of being a musician… figuring out how to work parts and musical roles together in the best way is really interesting. Back when we started the band, Isa and I rehearsed in my tiny 3rd floor bedroom in Jamaica Plain and some of my favorites I remember playing were “Young Man in America” by Anais Mitchell, “Harlem” by Maya de Vitry (The Stray Birds), and “The Way It Will Be” by Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings.
How do you work together…do you all write? Do you write alone and share with the others? Or do you sometimes write all together?
Ellie: Up until this point writing has been a solo activity. We all three have different writing processes, and for us, that’s very personal and somewhat vulnerable. Personally, the place I go when I write songs tends to be kind of dark, so I like to go down into that proverbial cave alone, haha! Once we have a song draft, we usually bring it to the band and workshop it. Sometimes that means just arranging it for performance, and sometimes we realize there’s still some work to be done, so the writer will go back and do some revision. For instance, my song “Don’t Ask Why” was almost done when I played it for Mali in my kitchen one day. We talked about what I was feeling and trying to say with the song and in the end, she wrote the lyrics to the bridge. Going forward, we’re really excited to start collaborating in our writing. In June, we spent a couple days on Cuttyhunk Island, for a gig at a writer’s retreat, and took one of my songs with 1 verse and a half-finished chorus and all worked on it together. For me, it felt really good to expand my process somewhat and stretch my writing muscles in a new way. We can’t wait to see what comes of future collaborations.
Did you start out playing open mics?
Isa: Not as a band, but individually, yes. Some of my most formative musical experiences were at a monthly open mic at the Black Bean Café, a restaurant I worked at in high school which was owned by the parents of a friend. The open mic was run by a local musician and music teacher named Chip Harding, and he fostered a really great community of young people who would regularly perform and often ended up collaborating with each other. I played regularly at that open mic throughout junior high and high school, and that was where I really started to develop my identity as a musician and a performer.
I do know that you were quickly adopted as venue favorites at Club Passim (thank you, Matt Smith). Were those early shows life changing for you?
Ellie: Completely. We feel hugely appreciative of Matt’s support. At the beginning of our band’s life, he emailed us about once a month asking us to open shows for artists such as Rose Cousins and Mike + Ruthy. (Matt used to joke that we were the “house band”.) Matt has a keen sense of which artists will fit well together, so we were able to form connections with new audiences and strong friendships with some of these musicians. It felt like a truly organic development as a band and of a local following. And every show was like a masterclass in performance, so we were really able to work on our craft, and develop our sound as a band over those couple years.
You weren’t always called Lula Wiles. Can you tell us the story behind the story about your band name(s)?
Isa: When Mali joined the duo, we knew we needed a real band name, and after a lot of deliberation we settled on The Wiles, as in “feminine wiles”. Shortly after that, we were contacted by another band called The Wiles, who (to put it mildly) strongly suggested that we change our band name. So we went back to searching for good band names that weren’t already taken, which is one of the most difficult tasks on earth. We wanted to keep the word “wiles” in the name, both for continuity and because we identified with it, and my dad actually came up with Lula Wiles. It’s a play on the title of a Carter Family song, Lula Walls, in which the title character is described as an “aggravating beauty.”
So what’s next for Lula Wiles! Do tell!
Isa: We’ve been working hard this summer, traveling and performing a lot. Mali is going back to school, so things will be slowing down a bit over the next few months, although we’ve still got some exciting things coming up. We’ll be hitting the Midwest for the first time, opening a few shows for our friend and hero Aoife O’Donovan. In November, we’ll be playing some shows with our friend Anthony da Costa, who’s an unbelievably brilliant songwriter and guitarist who’s also touring in Aoife’s band. We’re also very excited to be off the road so that we can work on new music, for Lula Wiles and for other projects as well. Ellie and I each have our own electric solo-project ambitions.