Hailing from Michigan, May Erlewine, Rachael Davis and The Flatbellys’ Lindsay Lou have all carved successful careers as individual artists. But an invitation to sing together left both audiences and the trio stunned, leading directly to the formation of The Sweet Water Warblers.
Specialising in three-part harmonies and with a set-list that spans gospel, bluegrass and soul, the three multi-instrumentalists (mountain fiddle and banjo, uke, guitar and double bass) released their debut EP, Without You, in early 2017, and now follow the release with their debut UK tour – which includes an appearance at Towersey Festival, Oxfordshire, on Monday 28 August 2017.
Between planning for the transatlantic trip, and her own solo dates, Rachael found time to chat to folking.com.
You all have pretty successful and distinct solo careers. So what bought you all together?
There’s a music festival in northern Michigan [Hoxeyville Music Festival] run by friends of ours. In 2014 one of the presenters of the festival, Kristen Robinson, asked if we’d all be interested in doing a trio set on the main stage. We all happily agreed and worked out a 45 minute set of some of our songs. During the set, half way through our first song, we realised that something special was going on. We decided to keep it up, so we booked a tour, then made an EP called With You that was released in January of this year!
Did you approach Hoxeyville initially a one-off performance? Or did you envisage Sweet Water Warblers has having a longer life?
When we were working up a set for Hoxeyville that first year, we didn’t envision it becoming a project until we saw the feedback that Evans received from that show. After that day we were like “Well, we HAVE to make a record now!”
For the uninitiated, how would you describe your sound?
I’d say we’re traditional roots music in three-part harmony. We play traditional folk, blues and gospel along with original songs influenced by all those genres.
You’re all based in, or have roots in, the mid-west state of Michigan – would you say that you’re influenced by the state?
Yes! There is a stronghold of traditional American folk music in Michigan. The Great Lakes have attracted so many different types traditional music from across the world throughout history. So the traditional music that thrives in Michigan comes from so many cultures that it has created its own style of traditional music. The other aspect of that is the community of musicians this tradition had given birth to. It is a family. A broad village of music connected through numerous traditional arts festivals and events. Our music comes from the Michigan tradition, as does our philosophies on music and art being an invaluable contribution to the world around us.
What’s your favourite track on the EP, and why?
That’s a tough one! I’m not sure how the other gals would answer, but, personally, my favourite is House of Amazing Grace, only because I’ve wanted to record that for so long. I got the idea to sing Amazing Grace to the tune of House of the Rising Sun ages ago, but never had the right opportunity to do it. And with singers like May and Lindsay, this was exactly the opportunity I was holding out for. I love how the track turned out as well. It’s raw and unrefined in the best way. Accessible and hypnotic.
You’re all accomplished singers AND multi-instrumentalists – what’s the division of labour when you play live? Who does what?
There’s a bit of a rotation of instruments when we play. On stage we’ve got two guitars, a banjo, a fiddle, an upright bass, a ukulele and various auxiliary percussion instruments and they all get passed around as the show progresses.
What strengths do you see in the other two band members as bringing to the trio?
We are all lead singers in all of our respective bands, always singing the melody and leading the band while others sing harmonies and accompany us. But each of us secretly wants to be the side guy, singing harmonies and playing back up. And I think that each of our strengths is singing harmony. It turns out that this is the perfect element for band dynamic.
I know Lindsey made an appearance at Celtic Connections earlier this year, but is this the band’s first trip to the UK?
Lindsey had toured with her band, Lindsey Lou and The Flatbellys, in the UK several times. I toured in England and recorded with a friend in Wales about a decade ago and haven’t been back since. And I think this will be May’s first trip there!
As part of your trip, you’re visiting Towersey Festival, which has its roots in traditional [UK] folk music – is it a style of music you’re familiar with?
Oh yes! One of my favourite bands is Fairport Convention and I consider Sandy Denny one of my biggest influences. I know May has an affinity for John Martyn. I know these musicians are more from the British folk revival era, though. The old British Isles music shows up in some of our individual repertoires sometimes. My mom used to play Black Jack Davey and other centuries-old folk songs from England, Ireland and Scotland on the dulcimer when I was growing up.
Are there maybe any artists on the bill who you’d be keen to check-out?
I am not familiar with most of the bands in the line-up, which is so exciting to me! I’m so looking forward to hearing music that is new to me!
What are your plans for The Sweet Water Warblers now?
We just released our EP this year and May and Lindsey both have new records that they are rehearsing within a year. May is releasing her latest in fall of this year, Lindsey is releasing the next Lindsey Lou record next January, and I’m working on my next record – due out August 2018. After that I’m sure there will be discussion about a Sweet Water Warblers full length album. And I sure do hope we get to come back to the UK again and get to share our music for a bunch of new audiences!
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Artists’ website: https://sweetwaterwarblers.com/
‘Tell Him’ – live: