When I first saw Lula Wiles perform at World Cafe Live earlier this year, they made a point of the fact that no one in the band is named Lula Wiles. According to a video put together by their label Smithsonian Folkways, they used to go by their full names on stage (Isa Burke, Eleanor Buckland, and Mali Obomsawin) but decided that was a mouthful. They went by The Wiles for some time, citing their own "feminine wiles," but when threatened with emails from another band with the same name, they added the Lula. This came from the Carter Family's "Lula Walls," a song about an "aggravating beauty, who, when the narrator asks her to marry him, she simply does not respond," recounts Mali.
This story could not encapsulate the sound of Lula Wiles more perfectly—a name formed out of serendipity and a combination of the old and new, some tradition infused with new zeal. However, as Eleanor tells me over the phone just as the band is about to board a plane home from Denver, they still get "a lot of people saying, 'Which one of you is named Lula?' Either sincerely or as a joke, and I always want to be like, ‘Dude, you’re the fourth person this week to make that joke. Has it not occurred to you that this is not an original thought you’ve had?'"
The folk roots band came together at Maine Fiddle Camp, where they practiced their instruments and harmonies together, and they later attended Berklee College of Music at separate times. Eleanor dropped out, Mali transferred to Dartmouth College, and Isa graduated. They remained based in Boston after they were done with college, however, with Eleanor and Isa playing as a duo for a time.
"That was sort of built off the vocal chemistry [Eleanor] and I had as singers," Isa says. "There was this late–night jam at fiddle camp where we felt there was this really instant vocal blend, and we realized that we loved singing together. Once we started playing with Mali, and realized that we had become a band and wanted to be more serious in our pursuit of sound. Then we started singing in three–part harmony and that felt pretty intuitive, too."
Their 2019 album, What Will We Do?, makes good use of that harmony, all three singing on every track, with Mali on the upright double bass and Eleanor and Isa on guitar and fiddle. The name for their album comes from a traditional Irish folk ballad, revamped for three parts and performed a cappella, the three of them exchanging vocals throughout in glorious tandem. Although fairly authentic to the original song, the band added a verse wondering what they would do if they married a banker, singing, "Only take all we can, share the money 'cross the land/ And we'll yodel it over again," in a snarky reference to modern sensibilities.
Bringing those kinds of 21st–century ideas into traditional forms has been part of Lula Wiles from the beginning. Mali is an Odanak Abenaki, and brings her views on Native rights into the band's songs, such as in "Shaking as it Turns," which begins with the lyric "Is this land yours? Is this land mine?/ The fault lines crack and the fists they fly" in response to Woody Guthrie's classic "This Land Is Your Land." In an essay written for Smithsonian Folklife, Mali addresses her concerns with this song head-on.
"Woody Guthrie’s protest anthem exemplifies the particular blind spot that Americans have in regard to Natives," she writes, "American patriotism erases us, even if it comes in the form of a leftist protest song. Why? Because this land 'was' our land."
When asked if the troubling sentiment of this song ruins the folk icon for her, Mali responds, "I definitely want to push back against the cancelling culture of like, 'Oh, he wrote this one song that’s anti–Native, so therefore he’s cancelled.' That’s not really what we’re about, and for me, not really effective activism."
Instead of vehemently calling others out for sharing ideas like this, though, Mali instead suggests stopping to remind people of how their language can erase Indigenous peoples from American culture. A more contemporary example of this erasure comes from the common phrase "nation of immigrants" in response to the border control and anti–immigration reform.
"It’s so annoying when people say ‘nation of immigrants,’" says Mali, "because it erases the right to exist, of this land’s original people, who were not immigrants."
"That really speaks to basically the white European experience," says Mali, "because most other groups that immigrated, or were brought here from other places, had a lot of pushback from the American government."
Mali is a strong advocate for reminding others of Native Americans' continued existence, and acknowledging that this land was inhabited before colonizers arrived. It can be difficult at times, however, because Native American erasure remains an issue in even progressive circles. Eleanor adds to this, that "certain things we recognize as anti–black or misogynist or homophobic, [but] anti–Native isn’t as close to the forefront of our minds as other kinds of discrimination."
They address this erasure of Native Americans in their song, "Good Old American Values," with verses like, "Good old American cartoons/Indians and cowboys and saloons/It's all history by now and we hold the pen anyhow/Drawing good old American cartoons," which references the widespread caricaturization of Native Americans in popular culture.
However, not all their songs handle such politicized topics. Their song "Hometown," describes a vignette of going back home and seeing your house in a whole new light, and "Bad Guy" is a new take on the murder ballad, about a narrator taking revenge on her sister's abusive husband. Eleanor sings with an animalistic growl, "If I was the bad guy, would you love me less?" One of their more up–tempo songs, "Nashville, Man," details the desire for a response from the narrator's distant lover with an urgent tone in Mali's voice.
That loneliness can also be found on the band's two new singles, although both are of vastly different sounds. "It's Cool (We're Cool, Everything's Cool)" is an eccentric song featuring electric guitar and cantankerous drums, based on an on–again, off–again relationship Eleanor struggled with. It was written during what the band calls a "song lodge," where they challenge themselves to write as many songs in one day as possible.
"I was scrolling back through my texts with this guy and I came across a text that said, 'It’s cool, we’re cool, everything’s cool,'" Eleanor laughs while recounting. "And I realized that is, just, a song! So I wrote a bunch of lyrics, and I was like, 'Maybe this is dumb, and maybe it's cool, I don’t know.' I brought it to the band, and was like, 'Okay, this is either the stupidest song I’ve ever written, or maybe the most brilliant?'"
On the other hand, "You Only Want Me When You Need Me," the B–side to "It's Cool," is a slow, end–of–the–night country ballad that sounds like it could've been penned by Willie Nelson. The band handles the languor here with just as much grace as they do their folk–rock jams or more bluegrass–inspired songs. Throughout their music, from sad songs about emotionally distant partners to biting indictments of American colonialism, the band brings their traditional upbringing to it all, but couple it with their distinct voices to make something truly original.
"Yeah, What Will We Do has really political songs on it, but we’re also women in our 20s trying to figure out what is going on with our dating lives," says Eleanor. "We don’t wanna be limited by music that we’ve made before or by the label that we are signed to, we wanna make music that is true to our experiences, whether that's songs protesting the erasure of Indigenous people, or protesting boys."
Lula Wiles will be stopping through Philly on Nov. 19, 2019. More info and tickets can be found here. "It's Cool (We're Cool, Everything's Cool)" and "You Only Want Me When You Need Me" are available for streaming now.
Note: This article was updated at 2:00 pm on Nov. 10th, 2019.