In a genre perceived often as primarily white men singing country songs, Lula Wiles strives to represent a more diverse view of Americana. A trio of women from rural Maine; Isa Burke, Eleanor Buckland, and Mali Obomsawin question the world we live in with poignant clarity and expressive lyrics. Sitting down to talk with us about their new record, What Will We Do, Isa Burke leads us through her songwriting experiences and how the band’s past lead them to who they are today.
Isa Burke On Growing With Americana
“I think my parents definitely had a huge influence on my playing style and the kind of music that I make. My parents are both professional musicians and teachers, playing a variety of different music, sort of all under the folk umbrella. Really super traditional folk and also more contemporary, singer-songwriter folk. So when I was younger, I thought folk music was sorta lame, I was like ‘Oh, this is music for older people, this is the music my parents love.’ I liked it, but I didn’t really see a place for myself in that. I just associated it with my parent’s generation.
“Then when I went to Maine Fiddle Camp, which is where I met my bandmates, that was the first time that I saw younger people playing that music and carving out a place for themselves, innovating with their own musical ideas within a traditional music framework. Which every generation has done, but it took me until I saw people my age doing that to really kind of get it. I wanted my dad to teach me some more fiddle tunes and all of these old songs my mom has been playing my whole life. I wanted to learn more about those, so I kind of reconnected with the music that my parents were playing. That was a big turning point for me.”
On Co-Writing For The First Time
“On this new record, What Will We Do, there’s a lot of co-writing, which we didn’t do on our first record. That was definitely a new thing for us, and one interesting element of that was that Ellie and I write, think, and talk about songs in kind of the same way, because we both went through the songwriting program at Berklee College Of Music, which is a great program. We both learned so much from that.
“It was a little scary at first to start co-writing with my bandmates after writing songs on our own, but it went really well. Then, Mali brought a really cool perspective because she didn’t go through that same program that we went through, and she was newer to writing songs than both Ellie and I. She has all this background in jazz and studied comparative literature in college, so she has a really different perspective and sometimes that would come out. I always compare it, when you start co-writing with your bandmates, to starting to date your friend. I think having a whole new dimension was a little bit scary at first. Writing songs is such a vulnerable and personal thing and, you know, and we are so close as bandmates and as good friends, that it sort was like “Oh duh.” We are all really supportive of each other, so I’m really excited about writing. It sort of stretched all of us as writers, and it definitely did bring us closer, which was cool.”
On Using Songwriting To Process Emotions
“We called the record What Will We Do because a lot of these songs are written to process things that are going on in the world. So I think figuring out how to process everything that we were observing and feeling through our songs was a really great growing process for me because it helped crystallize the idea that I can use my songs to process my own experiences, not just in the realm of sad love songs. Which, you know, I’ll keep writing those until I die. I know how to use my songs to explore my own political consciousness too, and that’s definitely a valuable thing to start doing.”
On The Reoccurring Political Themes Within The Album
“I think, as you can hear on the album, a lot of these songs are more political in nature, dealing with some weightier topics than our first, which is mostly about love songs. Love songs can certainly be weighty, but I feel like it’s harder to write a good song when you’re dealing with political or social justice issues. It can be hard to write about that in a way that’s not preachy. I think that we didn’t really set out consciously to make a political record, but Obama was president when we wrote our first record and we were all still in college. I think our consciousness has just shifted in those few years or so.
“With all of our more political leaning songs, I think we didn’t even realize that this is what we were trying to do until after we had written all the songs and were looking back at the album. What we try to do is focus on experiences. You know, we’re all from Maine, we’re all from small towns. The place Ellie and Mali grew up is very rural, and you feel like there’s a lot of misrepresentation of rural life and judgment of rural people. What we are trying to do with a lot of the songs on this record is represent that way of life without judging them and without making a proclamation. Just, here’s what this experience is from what we observed. I think that’s how we tried to foster empathy, by representing experiences whether they are our own or the people that we have observed. Representing them accurately and hoping that that presentation will be thoughtful looking forward.”
On Women In Producing
“One thing that I am particularly proud of on this record is that both of our albums were co-produced with someone else, but I think on this record, the three of us felt more confident in this co-producer role. Our co-producer Dan Cardinal is amazing, we totally adore him, and he had so many great ideas for how to shape the record, but he was also really willing to let the band drive the bus. I think that I felt more confident in my role as a producer and I think that’s something that’s really exciting to me. Especially because there are so few women producers in people’s view of consciousness, that’s definitely something I wanted to emphasize as our goal as instrumentalists and producers and arrangers on this record.”
Their new record, What Will We Do, is out now through Smithsonian Folkways Recordings and available anywhere you get music.
Portions of this interview were edited for clarity and length.
Photos by Dan Tappan.