No Second Fiddle

Ellie Buckland, Mali Obomsawin, and Isa Burke from Lula WIles
Photograph courtesy of Lula Wiles

Folk trio Lula Wiles brings its breezy vocal harmonizing and sharp picking, bowing, and plucking back to Maine for this summer’s Kingfield Pops.

By Joel Crabtree
Singing and songwriting trio Lula Wiles is, at its core, a group of summer-camp friends from Maine. Ellie Buckland and Mali Obomsawin both grew up in Farmington and met in their early teens. Their parents ran in local folk-music circles, and both girls spent summers at Maine Fiddle Camp, in Montville, where young musicians learn to pick up songs the old-fashioned way — by ear, without sheet music. At fiddle camp, they met Isa Burke, from South Berwick, and the three hit it off, personally and musically.

Eventually, Buckland and Burke went to Berklee College of Music, in Boston, and Obomsawin headed to Dartmouth College. Buckland and Burke, who both play fiddle and guitar, started performing around Boston as a duo and then, three years ago, recruited their old camp pal to play bass. Their self-titled album dropped last year, and they now tour nationally, even as Obomsawin is still wrapping up her degree at Dartmouth. This month, they return home to Maine to play the annual Kingfield Pops festival.

Obomsawin was occupied with coursework when we called on a recent afternoon, but Buckland and Burke had time to chat about the music that’s been such a big part of their lives since they were camp kids in Maine.

So none of you are named Lula Wiles. What gives?

IB: My dad came up with the name actually. We’d been “the Wiles” for a short period of time, and then we learned that there was another band with that name.

EB: But we loved the idea of keeping “Wiles.”

IB: I used to always joke about using my feminine wiles on people. We were thinking of all the possible variations on that. A lot of them were taken. So my dad suggested Lula Wiles, which is a play on the name of an old folk song by the Carter Family called “Lula Walls.”

EB: We get emails saying “Hi Lula.” In our Twitter bio, it says: “None of us are named Lula.”

How did you arrive at the airy-but-rootsy sound that’s on your first album?

IB: I grew up hearing folk and traditional music through my parents and the people they were playing with, but then I came to Maine Fiddle Camp and heard Crooked Still and other groups, and the big lightning bolt for me was hearing young people innovating with the music that I’d already been hearing my whole life. It was kind of like, “Oh, this isn’t just music that old people play.” It’s a living tradition, and there are people my age — you know, cool twentysomethings — who are playing this music.

EB: When I was younger, I was really into Alison Krauss. I really liked Michelle Branch and the Dixie Chicks. Those pop sensibilities paired with the folk stuff from my past, and it’s been a melting pot.

IB: I find that I’m really influenced rhythmically by traditional music in my songwriting. A lot of folk music and traditional music rhythmically isn’t quite as square as pop music. There’s like a random extra beat somewhere, or a missing beat, or three bars of four-four time. Things like that I really like to incorporate into my songwriting.

How much of your musical sensibility traces back to your childhoods in Maine?

EB: My whole life I’ve done a lot of hiking — Tumbledown, Mount Blue, Bald Mountain. That whole part of Maine around Weld is so ruggedly gorgeous. And I actually had a very profound musical experience on top of Little Jackson Mountain, singing an a cappella song with two of my good friends, singing this song into the wind. I feel like I’m often inspired by the Maine landscape.

IB: My love for performing really developed at Maine Fiddle Camp. There’s a spirit there where you’re just making music that feels good to you, not music that you think will sell a lot of records.

You guys have a pre-Lula Wiles history with Kingfield Pops. What’s special about this event?

EB: Mali and I have both played at different times at Kingfield Pops: we played with the Franklin County Fiddlers (a folksy spinoff of the Mt. Blue High School Orchestra) and we both played with our dads individually. We’re really looking forward to playing there again, because I grew up going every summer, even when we weren’t playing. We’re honored to be included.

Be honest, aren’t audiences better in Maine than in Boston?

EB: Playing in Maine, it feels like coming home. Now that’s true of playing in Boston too, but it’s a different kind of thing. When we play in Boston, a lot of our musician friends are there. But when we come home to Maine, our parents’ friends are there, and kids that we used to babysit are there — and they’re in high school now!

The 15th annual Kingfield Pops is Saturday, June 24, at Kennedy Farm. $25–30 (free for attendees under 18). 127 Salem Rd., Kingfield. 207-265-7677.