Lula Wiles Flips Notions About American Folk On Its Head

Jan 27, 2019
Originally published on January 27, 2019 6:57 am

Isa Burke, Eleanor Buckland and Mali Obomsawin met as young girls at a fiddle camp one summer and bonded over their love of folk music. Now in their 20s, the ladies make up the folk trio Lula Wiles. Together, the women are giving folk music a new reputation with the band's sophomore album, What Will We Do, released on Jan. 25.

Many of the songs on What Will We Do dissect old archetypes typically found in folk. The song "Bad Guy," for example, turns male-female relationships on their head. Buckland says she wrote the lyrics of "Bad Guy" specifically to explore the folk tradition of murder ballads from the lens of female solidarity.

"If people aren't familiar with the folk tradition, there are just scores and scores of murder ballads across many U.S. folk traditions," Buckland explains. "In most of them, the man kills the woman because she either says no to his advances or they get pregnant and he's upset and so he brutally kills them both. It's horrendous. And we wanted to put a drop in the bucket of sort of settling score."

Some songs on What Will We Do serve as a reflection on the divisions in this country right now. As Burke explains, the trio's song "Shaking as It Turns" was initially inspired by the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va. in 2017 that resulted in the death of Heather Heyer.

"That event really shook me up," Burke says. "I was really trying to capture how I felt during that time... But it also nods to the fact that a lot of the problems that, I think, were weighing heavily on people's minds — things like white supremacy and questions of who this country belongs to and who gets to claim certain identities within this country."

Overall, the ladies decided to name the album What Will We Do because whether addressing gender roles and sexual assault or racism and politics, the question they've been left with is just that — what will we do?

"For us, 'what we will do' is write a series of songs that start conversations," Obomsawin says. "We kind of think that the best route to justice of any kind is demolishing and dismantling ignorance. And that comes through starting discussions."

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The all-female trio Lula Wiles is giving folk music a new reputation through the band's sophomore album "What Will We Do."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHAKING AS IT TURNS")

LULA WILES: (Singing) Is this land yours? Is this land mine? The fault lines crack and the fists, they fly. In the heat of the night, I touch the falling sky.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The three women met as little girls at a fiddle camp one summer and bonded over their love of folk music. Now the group's in their 20s. And in their new album, they speak to some of today's most pressing issues. Isa Burke, Eleanor Buckland and Mali Obomsawin are the members of Lula Wiles. And they join me now from Boston.

Welcome.

ISA BURKE: Thank you so much for having us.

MALI OBOMSAWIN: Hi, Lulu.

ELEANOR BUCKLAND: We're glad to be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So I have to ask. You met at a fiddle camp when you were little girls. I want you to take me back to that meeting.

BURKE: (Laughter) So this is Isa speaking. We went to this fiddle camp every year. When I first went, I was 11.

BUCKLAND: This is Eleanor. And I think I went when I was 12. And I'm pretty sure I met you, Isa, the second year I went. I do remember you teaching me a fiddle tune called "Old Yeller Dog Come Trotting Through The Meeting House." And that is one of my first memories of our friendship.

BURKE: Yeah.

OBOMSAWIN: And I - this is Mali speaking. I started going when I was 12 or 13. And I actually grew up in the same hometown as Ellie. So I knew her. I met her in swimming lessons.

BUCKLAND: Yeah.

OBOMSAWIN: But I remember in the dinner line...

BURKE: Oh, yes. I love this story.

OBOMSAWIN: I was complaining to a few of my friends - my camp friends - that I couldn't sing. And Isa turned around and was like, shut up. You can sing.

BURKE: (Laughter).

OBOMSAWIN: And that was how we met.

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I love that. It's a great story.

BURKE: Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm going to talk about this album. A lot of the songs on this album are about love and relationships, but they're not romantic songs. I'm specifically thinking of the song "Bad Guy" because it turns...

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Male-female relationships on its head. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAD GUY")

LULA WILES: (Singing) Followed her husband down into the glade. And I drew my dagger across his chest. And the wound I dug as deeply as his grave. How black his blood did flow. If I was the bad guy, would you love me less?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tell me about this song.

(LAUGHTER)

BUCKLAND: Well, this is Eleanor speaking. And it's about this concept of fleeing from a crime and confessing that crime to your lover, to somebody that's really important to you. And we set it to music specifically in a pretty old-time fiddle traditional murder ballad style of music because - and if people aren't familiar with the folk tradition, there are just scores and scores of murder ballads. And in most of them, the man kills the woman because she either says no to his advances or they get pregnant and he's upset. And so he brutally kills them both. It's horrendous. And we wanted to put a drop in the bucket of sort of settling that score.

BURKE: Yeah. And this is Isa speaking. I think we kind of wanted to explore the murder ballad from a perspective that made sense to us, which was one of female solidarity.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mali, you are a citizen of the Abenaki nation. And there's a song on this album that examines the exploitative relationship between cowboys and native people. Let's listen to that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD OLD AMERICAN VALUES")

LULA WILES: (Singing) Good old American cartoons, Indians and cowboys and saloons. It's all history by now. But we hold the pen anyhow.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tell me a little bit about this song.

OBOMSAWIN: It's about erasure and the relationship between native people and settlers. That line is definitely sourced in me growing up and not learning any Abenaki history or hardly any Native American history at all in school and having to really seek it out myself and do my own research. And, you know, I find myself noticing that when I go to bookstores, you know, native history is in a different section than American history, for instance. Right?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah.

OBOMSAWIN: And that seems like an enormous problem because that means that native history is optional. It's not a serious interest, right? It's elective, whereas American history is something that is important. And they are two separate things.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD OLD AMERICAN VALUES")

LULA WILES: (Singing) On these good, old, American values, there's a fortune to be made.

(SOUNDBITE OF LULA WILES' "HOMETOWN")

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You are all from rural Maine. And listening to this album and to the thoughts that sort of informed it, there seems like there's something that you really want to get across.

BUCKLAND: This is Eleanor. And one of the songs that I wrote primarily is a song called "Hometown." And it speaks directly to my experience and Isa and Mali's experience of growing up in rural Maine.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOMETOWN")

LULA WILES: (Singing) Your hometown shot in like a magazine ad, prom queen crown and a picket fence. Everybody's chit-chatting on the Main Street drag. They all know you from way back when. Flip the page, it's a broke-down dream. There's a truck in the yard and a bird in a cage.

BUCKLAND: So in the case of this song, what we were trying to say is that we feel like the American dream is broken. And yet, lots of rural people - and specifically conservative, working-class people and lower economic class - are still operating with the idea that the American dream can give back to them. And in fact, we think that it is mostly broken.

OBOMSAWIN: This is Mali speaking. I think sharing the stories that get erased and drawing attention to them and starting conversations about those stories is one of the primary goals of our album and what we're talking about with each other...

BUCKLAND: Yeah.

OBOMSAWIN: ...And with our friends, what we're worried about, we're losing sleep about.

BURKE: Yeah, what's on our minds, whether that's learning to be on our own when we've been heartbroken - there's quite a few (laughter) songs on the record about that - or the more overtly political songs. That's why we called the album "What Will We Do" because that's the question that we're all asking in a myriad of different ways.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT WILL WE DO")

LULA WILES: (Singing) What will we do if we marry a tinker? Oh, true lovers, what will we do then? Only sell a tin can and walk on with my man, and we'll yodel it over again.

OBOMSAWIN: You know, as musicians, we're sort of answering our own question - right? - like, what will we do? You know, people listening to the album will ask themselves that question. But for us, what we will do is write a series of songs that start conversations, hopefully, because we kind of think that the best route to justice of any kind is sort of demolishing and dismantling ignorance. And that comes through starting discussions...

BUCKLAND: Yeah.

OBOMSAWIN: ...And actually talking to each other and not stigmatizing each other or each other's viewpoints.

BURKE: Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mali Obomsawin, Isa Burke, Eleanor Buckland are the members of Lula Wiles. Their new album is "What Will We Do." Thank you all so much.

OBOMSAWIN: Thank you, Lulu.

BUCKLAND: Thank you. Yeah, we had a great time.

BURKE: Thanks so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT WILL WE DO")

LULA WILES: (Singing) What will we do if we have a young... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.