Lula Wiles is more than a group of impeccable singers, songwriters, and instrumentalists. They’re three women seeking to bring to light the injustices of the world and confront them with their powerful voices.
The trio of Isa Burke, Eleanor Buckland, and Mali Obomsawin was founded around the fiddle, their journey beginning as teens at fiddle camp in their native Maine. A key part of their origin story, the camp is where the self-professed “fiddle jammers” became musicians, spending late-night hours performing together, fueling the spark that would one day turn them into a band. “Just by growing up in the traditional music world, fiddle camp was the first time that I saw a place for myself in that community, seeing young innovative folk musicians,” says Obomsawin.
Buckland adds: “Old-timers in Maine have a really strong sense of culture and history and pride in where they’re from. I feel like that’s also part of what is folk music.”
That spark turned into a tangible dream when they reconnected at Berklee College of Music in Boston as performance majors. It was during these formative years they built on their lifelong roots in folk music while honing their songwriting skills. They proved their worth with their 2016 self-titled debut, demonstrating lyrical wisdom and musical precision beyond their years. Their new album, What Will We Do, out Jan. 25 on the esteemed Smithsonian Folkways label, follows suit.
In addition to composing the lyrics and melodies, they played all the instruments on the record and co-produced it with Dan Cardinal — roles they’re intentional about bringing to the forefront.
“The way people talk about Joni Mitchell, they talk about her singing and her songwriting and how it’s so beautiful and relatable, and not that she self-produced most of her albums. If more people had talked about Joni Mitchell being a producer, there would be more women producers,” Burke observes. “If people don’t see themselves represented, it doesn’t even occur to them that they can do certain things.”
This sort of keen observation is reflected in the trio’s songwriting, particularly on What Will We Do. A song titled “If I Don’t Go” tackles the pressures women face in relationships, inspired by Buckland’s experience of trying to conform to her partner’s vision, while “Shaking As It Turns” conveys the feeling of the world crumbling around them in the aftermath of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. While they effectively comment on timely topics at the global level, the trio remains aware of the plight of the rural communities they were raised in. A song titled “Morphine” addresses the nationwide issue of drug addiction with particular focus on rural areas. The subject matter stems from a personal place, the singers drawing inspiration from family members who have experienced drug addiction and the stories of Obomsawin’s mother, a midwife who works with pregnant women who are addicted to drugs. “We really wanted to be able to talk about it and convey rural pain and how people deal with it in a way that was sensitive and not belittling. We wanted to expose the complexity of it,” Obomsawin says.
Its sister song “Hometown” looks at rural life from an even deeper perspective. To continue the reflection on drug abuse, Buckland researched the subject to attempt to better understand why people in rural places turn to methamphetamines at such a high rate.
“How do we write this song that is supportive of my family members who already are in this situation or think really different than me about this situation? How do we bridge this division with care?” she remarks about the process of writing the song, which also addresses poverty, political divisions, and the lack of opportunity that exists in small towns. “The overarching point of that song is trying to bring to light that the American dream is broken and there are so many people in this country that still believe in it and think that’s it real and then feel really disenfranchised when there’s no actual evidence or outcomes that support that idea,” Buckland continues. “Those songs are approaching these hard ideas and concepts and painful truths, we think, with compassion. We’re passing judgment on the system that produces these conditions and not on the people that fall victim to it.”
Their perspectives converge in the album’s title, a question, they note, that many people were pondering in light of social and political turmoil in recent years. The trio admits they didn’t set out to make a protest record. But their astute observations of society and desire to speak out about them came to the surface in the insightful project. What Will We Do is not simply a statement, but a call to action from a group of women who seek to improve the world they so brilliantly perceive.
“What will we do? We will write this album talking about these issues and processing these last couple of years and conversing with the politics of today,” says Obomsawin.
Buckland adds: “I think our goal with this record is to have people be thinking about these things and maybe be motivated to start thinking about it, or what can they do to be a conscious and engaged citizen of the country and of the world, because we want to be those people.
“We’re just really proud of the music that we can make as a band of three women.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Lula Wiles is No Depression‘s Spotlight band for January 2019. Look for more stories and music from this trio all month long!
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