Americana trio Lula Wiles reports on ‘what the world feels like now’

  • The roots trio Lula Wiles, from left, Eleanor Buckland, Mali Obomsawin and Isa Burke, perform in Lebanon's First Congregational Church on Friday night. (Courtesy photograph)

  • The roots trio Lula Wiles, from left, Eleanor Buckland, Isa Burke and Mali Obomsawin, have been playing together for about a year and half after the bandmates met in Boston. “We’re trying to deal with what the world feels like right now,” said Obomsawin, a 2018 Dartmouth College graduate. “At the same time we don’t want to get too preachy. We also want to represent experience.” (Courtesy photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 2/6/2019 10:00:37 PM

Between gigs with the folk trio Lula Wiles, bassist Mali Obomsawin likes to joke that she majored in “pontification” at Dartmouth College.

Well, maybe verbs other than “like” and “joke” might better apply.

“I felt like all I did at Dartmouth was explain and argue with privileged white boys,” Obomsawin, a 2018 graduate and an Abenaki Indian from Maine, said during an interview in late January. “I officially majored in comparative literature and government, and in both majors I felt that my real study was learning to express my long list of criticisms about American society and global capitalism.”

Through Lula Wiles, which performs at the First Congregational Church of Lebanon on Friday night, Obomsawin and bandmates and fellow Mainers Isa Burke and Eleanor Buckland have been alchemizing those and other frustrations with politics and culture into music for about a year and a half.

“We’re trying to deal with what the world feels like right now,” Obomsawin said. “At the same time we don’t want to get too preachy. We also want to represent experience.”

As they tour behind What Will We Do, their new album from Smithsonian Folkways Records, Obomsawin sings and plays her song, Good Ol’ American Values, with a Randy Newman-esque relish.

“He and bands like the Fugees are so good at evaluating ways of dealing with politics,” Obomsawin said. “I really relate to Randy’s satirical formula. To see someone turn that sensibility into art and into words was exciting and relieving.”

The trio, with Burke and Buckland both playing fiddle and guitar as well as singing, met at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, and began playing as a group in and around Boston.

“It’s a thriving community,” Buckland said. “You get to see and listen to a lot of different artists, and they’re very generous with their time and attention to yours.”

Among the performers they got to know in Boston was Norwich native Celia Woodsmith, who has carved out a niche in roots music by singing, writing and touring with the all-woman bluegrass band Della Mae as well as with her current rock band, Say Darling.

“She’s rocking it,” Burke said. “She’s been a great mentor. It’s great to have connections with musicians, especially with women further along in their careers.”

Woodsmith also has demonstrated, through Della Mae, that you can keep a band together while pursuing other projects. After the tour for Lula Wiles’ current album ends in June, Buckland will shift her home base to Nashville and Burke to New York City, while Obomsawin plans to stay in Boston. Thanks to technology, Burke said, “we’re very fortunate that we don’t have to live in the same place. We’re definitely committed to this band.”

That commitment will keep Obomsawin, whose mother lives in Hanover, from going to Dartmouth on Friday night for the winter concert of the college’s Barbary Coast Jazz Ensemble, in which she used to play.

“My first three years there, (longtime ensemble director) Don Glasgo introduced me to a lot of great musicians through the artist-in-residence visits,” Obomsawin said. “And my senior year, (current director) Taylor Ho Bynum was an incredible mentor. I’ve always played in both styles and improvised music, and Barbary Coast really opened up my mind.”

Those musical lessons have worked their way into Lula Wiles’ sound in ways that help the trio transcend folk-music stereotypes.

“You can hear broader influences, from jazz and other genres,” Burke said. “Being a folk singer can become like a costume, when you’re like Civil-War re-enactors. You want to honor the traditions, but you also want to be original.”

Which isn’t to say that you can’t adapt music that you like.

“Earlier today, we were working out harmonies for a new song,” Burke said. “Mali was really inspired by Queen.”

Lula Wiles performs at the First Congregational Church of Lebanon, at 10 South Park St., on Friday night at 7. For tickets ($8.50 to $18.50) and more information, visit lebanonoperahouse.org or call 603-448-0400.




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