What will we do? For Lula Wiles, the trio made up of Isa Burke, Eleanor Buckland, and Mali Obomsawin, the question is central to the creation of their music—and it’s the title of their new album. “We wanted to make an album that reflected, in a current way, what we are all staying up late thinking about and talking about over drinks at the dinner table,” says Obomsawin. “What is everyone worried about, confiding in their friends about, losing sleep about?” On What Will We Do, the band’s sophomore album, the trio’s voices burn, twist together, mingle, and rise like smoke signaling changes to come. But anchoring that delicate touch is a mastery of folk music —and a willingness to subvert its hallowed conventions.
Long before they were in a band together, the members of Lula Wiles were singing folk songs and trading fiddle tunes at camp in Maine. “All of us were lucky to have access to the folk music community at a young age,” Burke says. “The music traditions that we’re drawing on are social, community-building traditions.” On those warm summer nights, playing music was just plain fun. But the members of Lula Wiles carry those early lessons of community and the meaning of shared art with them to this day, as they seek to create music that questions cultural virtues, soothes aching wounds, and envisions a better world.
Lula Wiles came of age in Boston, in the practice rooms of Berklee College of Music and the city’s lively roots scene. In 2016, the band self-released Lula Wiles, a sensitive, twang-tinged collection of originals. Since then, they have toured internationally, winning fans at the Newport Folk Festival and the Philadelphia Folk Festival, garnering acclaim from NPR Music and a Boston Music Awards nomination, and sharing stages with the likes of Aoife O’Donovan, the Wood Brothers, and Tim O’Brien.
Now, the release of What Will We Do on Smithsonian Folkways Recordings places the group squarely in line with some of its deepest influences, from the protest anthems of Woody Guthrie to the trailblazing songs of Elizabeth Cotten and Hazel Dickens. (Even the band’s name is a twist on an old Carter Family song.)
Going into the recording sessions with engineer and co-producer Dan Cardinal at Dimension Sound Studios in Boston, the members of Lula Wiles knew how they wanted this record to feel: intimate, warm, with the edges left rough. “We really wanted this album to sound like three people making music in a room,” Buckland explains. The songs on What Will We Do draw their power from small moments captured in real time, like the scrape of pick against string or the collective inhale at the start of a verse. The musicians take turns in different roles––Burke and Buckland on guitar and fiddle, Obomsawin on bass, all three singing—but no matter who’s playing what, they operate in close tandem, buoyed by the nimble touch of drummer (and frequent collaborator) Sean Trischka. In carrying on the folk ritual of innovation, they infuse their songs with distinctly modern sounds: pop hooks, distorted electric guitars, and dissonant multi-layered vocals, all employed in the service of songs that reclaim folk music in their own voice.
At its core, What Will We Do is an album centered around songcraft. The lyrics are sharp and the melodies finely wrought. You can hear, too, a growing maturity, a widening worldview. These aren’t your typical lovesick country tunes. “Last night we held a lie between our lips/ Another dead-end kiss,” Buckland sings about the end of a relationship on “Love Gone Wrong.” These are songs of stinging insight, of weary acceptance, of growing resilience.
The songs on What Will We Do speak to the issues of the day, even as they riff on folk music’s tropes. “Is this land yours/ Is this land mine/ The fault lines crack/ And the fists they fly,” Burke sings on “Shaking As It Turns” in a nod to the country’s deepening political divisions. Obomsawin punctures cowboy song nostalgia on “Good Old American Values,” a searing rebuke of American expansionism: “Good old American cartoons/ Indians and cowboys and saloons/ It’s all history by now/ And we hold the pen anyhow.” Sometimes, the best thing to do with an old idea is to turn it upside down.
That’s not to say that no traditional material made it onto What Will We Do. The title track is an Irish ballad—although the band couldn’t resist adding a twist of their own. Says Burke, “We wrote the verse about marrying the banker and redistributing all his money.” Lula Wiles brings new perspective to age-old traditions––above all, the people’s practice of sharing their communities’ struggles through songs. The band exists in the tense space where tradition and revolution meet, from which their harmonies rise into the air to create new American music.