As Crosby, Stills & Nash made clear in the ’70s: Who needs one lead singer when you can have three? Such is the case with Boston-based folk trio Lula Wiles, who will be returning to Caffè Lena this Sunday, May 5, to play songs from their sophomore album, What Will We Do. Taking their name from an old Carter Family song, the band, which consists of Ellie Buckland (vocals, guitar and fiddle), Isa Burke (vocals, guitar and fiddle) and Mali Obomsawin (vocals and bass), skillfully swap frontwoman duties, exchanging and playing off of one another’s distinct vocal styles and instrument lines (you’ll be in awe of their tight three-part harmonies).
Onstage, the three women perform around a single microphone, reminiscent of fellow Bostonians and recent tour-mates Darlingside, who also recently took the intimate Caffè Lena stage by storm. Now, it’s Lula Wiles time to shine. saratoga living caught up with the trio’s Ellie Buckland to talk about how the trio landed on their distinctive sound and what you should expect to hear at Caffè Lena.
The group’s name is derived from a Carter Family tune called “Lula Walls.” What drew you three to such traditional, rootsy folk music?
Well for one, we all grew up playing a lot of traditional music. Isa’s parents are folk musicians, so she’d heard the Carter Family from a young age—Mother Maybelle Carter [of the Carter Family], for instance, is one of Isa’s guitar heroes. And Mali’s dad is a jazz musician, so there’s also that kind of rootsy American music happening in her childhood. As for me, my grandmother was a bluegrass banjo player and my dad played some bluegrass growing up, actually, in Upstate New York. My grandfather’s from Schenectady and had a house on Lake George. So every summer, me and my whole family would be there singing a lot of songs and playing a lot of folk music on the porch.
I read that you three met at a summer camp years before the band was formed. Is that true, and how long have you all been making music?
While the band was born in Boston while we were at Berklee College of Music, it definitely started well before that. We all met in our early teens at Maine Fiddle Camp, which is an incredible, multi-generational, multi-instrumental traditional music camp close to Belfast, ME. So we spent a lot of time there together, playing traditional fiddle tunes.
And all three of you went to Berklee at the same time?
I was in my third year while Isa was in her second and Mali was in her first. And we just had to play gigs while we were students there. So we did, and that was the beginning of the band. [laughs]
Did you have any famous classmates or professors while you were there?
The professors I had, the influences I had—we all really loved our time at Berklee. An incredible person I worked with was Mark Simos, who’s a songwriting professor and also an old-time fiddler. He’s written numerous songs for Alison Krauss, Del McCoury and lots of bluegrass greats. He was [a great] resource [for] thinking about [how to write] new music but in a bluegrass style or in an old-time, traditional music style. But most inspirational of all to me is Bonnie Hayes, the Chair of the Songwriting Department at Berklee. She’s written so many songs for incredible people like Cher and David Crosby, but the most notable I think were two Bonnie Raitt songs: “Have a Heart” and “Love Letter.” Both those songs are on Nick of Time, which is one of my favorite Bonnie Raitt records.
What did you do differently in the studio for your sophomore album, What Will We Do?
We wanted this record to sound like it was just three people in a room playing music together. We didn’t want to be precious about the music; we wanted it to sound really organic and kind of earthier than our first record. Also [to answer] that question of “what will we do?”—the theme and title of the record—we wanted to represent that and really get that thought reflected intellectually and emotionally in the sound of the record.
I assume you’re excited to be returning to Caffè Lena to play this music.
For me, Caffè Lena has been on a list of legendary venues I’d love to play. To be on the same stage that Bob Dylan performed on is pretty epic, to say the least. We had an incredible time last show. It was our first time playing in Saratoga Springs, and we’re really excited to come back. It’s nice to play music in a room and on a stage where there’s so much history. In fact, my dad played Caffè Lena with a band he used to be in sometime during the aughts.
I realize you just released your album in January. But do you have any plans to record new material soon?
Yes, right now we have a bunch of new songs in our stacks. So at the show [at Caffè Lena], you can expect a lot of the songs from What Will We Do and definitely a few new songs, too. We’re playing them at our live shows now and we’re loving it.