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The Band Lula Wiles Formed A Quarantine Pod. A Folk Protest Album Came Out Of It


Isa Burke, Mali Obomsawin and Eleanor Buckland all work together. And like many people, they pivoted to remote work last year when the pandemic arrived.

ELEANOR BUCKLAND: It was a lot of sending files back and forth and FaceTime calls.

MALI OBOMSAWIN: We all had to sort of relocate and move out of the cities that we lived in during the pandemic. And I had just moved out of New York City.

ISA BURKE: I'm no longer in Nashville, for the record (laughter). We would send each other, like, our thoughts on what the others had written. But we also had some kind of regularly scheduled calls to, like, check in and talk about different songs that we were working on.

KELLY: That's right. The work that Isa, Mali and Eleanor happened to do together is a band, a folk trio called Lula Wiles.


LULA WILES: (Singing) And we could talk on the phone all night. Maybe we could get it right.

KELLY: Eventually, they did form a quarantine pod. And for a few weeks last summer, they moved into a farmhouse-turned-studio in rural Maine. That's where they all grew up. They brought their Google Docs and their voice memos, and they made an album.

BURKE: It was a strange way to make a record, but I think it yielded some really cool stuff that we might not have thought of.


KELLY: The record is called "Shame And Sedition." Like all their work, it draws from a long tradition of folk music as protest. And as it turned out when they gathered at that farmhouse last June, there was a lot for them to sing about.

BURKE: I think a lot of this record was made from a confrontational, uncomfortable space in which transformation was happening. There's so many elements of that that, I think, you have to kind of really do some excavating within yourself before you can try to create change out in the world.


LULA WILES: (Singing) Everybody wants to be connected to something bigger. All in all they want their paradise to grow to such a figure. It's improbable.

BURKE: Do you want to jump in, Mali?

OBOMSAWIN: Yeah, I was just going to say also in the particular time period when we were recording, we recorded, you know, over the weekend of Juneteenth and, you know, the week surrounding that. And obviously, at that point, George Floyd had been murdered, and the Black Lives Matter uprisings and protests were, like, in full swing throughout the summer. You know, even before, I guess, the actions of the summer and the spring, we were really in that space of trying to confront within ourselves what our blind spots are and what privileges we all hold, respectively.

KELLY: So point me toward a song where we hear this playing out.

BUCKLAND: Could we talk about "Television" for a moment?

KELLY: Yeah.


LULA WILES: (Singing) Everybody's buying when they're selling division, and it's all waiting for you on your television.

BUCKLAND: This is Eleanor speaking. And I had a very chaotic document of some scrambled lyrics. And so we wrote the song over the weekend, and it was recorded by Wednesday. And it was this really intense experience of creating that.


LULA WILES: (Singing) The riveting show.

KELLY: I'm struck by a couple of things, one very specific line and very not scrambled lyric, who points the camera? Who points the gun?


LULA WILES: (Singing) Who points the camera? Who points the gun?

OBOMSAWIN: I think that often, the media does a lot of curating of what exactly is seen and how things are presented, and I really wanted to talk about that in an explicit way. You know, during those - the BLM uprisings and everything, we saw the phone recordings - right? - of people taking it into their own hands to try to document injustices that are happening. And then the media came back a lot of times with, you know, explicit footage of cops kneeling and, you know, cops hugging protesters and all this stuff. And I think it's the marriage of the media and law enforcement.


KELLY: The very first song on this album, "In Dreams" - I read that it was inspired by James Baldwin.


LULA WILES: (Singing) How am I supposed to know what to do with it, what to say, what to play up or play down? Ooh (ph), freedom.

OBOMSAWIN: So this is Mali speaking. I wrote that song. The song was really inspired by actually going down the YouTube rabbit hole of watching a lot of James Baldwin speeches. I think I said this in a quote. So I don't mean to quote myself.

BUCKLAND: (Laughter).

OBOMSAWIN: But I think I just said it the right way that time that he had such an incredible way of expressing profane realities, right? And I feel as an Indigenous woman, an Abenaki woman, I experience a lot of profane realities and cognitive dissonances.


KELLY: Mali, you are Native American. The other two of you are white. And I raise that because your writing and singing about, you know, race and protest to do with race and this whole national reckoning that's been underway. And I wonder how each of you thought about your road to engaging in that national conversation. Like, how do you find a toehold in?

BUCKLAND: This is Eleanor speaking, and I'm so glad you asked that question. And I think definitely a big part of this record - this idea of being in the space of discomfort, of growing and really looking at oneself. And, yeah, as you say, I'm white, and Isa is white, and we both have really wanted to not take up the microphone and space of telling stories that aren't our own but trying to support and uplift those stories. And, you know, as a band, that's really important to us.


LULA WILES: (Singing) I would take you there. I would make you care about people like me and my friends. Do you really want the world to end? Do you...

BURKE: This is Isa speaking. I think that for me and I think for Eleanor, too, like, one thing that I come back to a lot is that, like, I'm really - you know, I'm really grateful to Mali for how gracious she has been in, like, educating her white bandmates. There's so much that I didn't know. In the way that I present myself publicly, I don't ever want to act like I'm an expert on anything really (laughter).

BUCKLAND: Yeah. If I can jump in - this is Eleanor. I agree with everything Isa said. And I think it's not just as well, like, publicly but also in our interpersonal lives, it's really trying to take accountability for those things I've done in the past and might continue to do and that it's not about never being wrong. It's always about learning and acknowledging that harm potentially.


KELLY: Well, this was a pleasure. Thank you, all three of you, for taking the time and talking to us.

BURKE: Thank you so much for having us.

OBOMSAWIN: I really appreciate.

BUCKLAND: Thank you.

KELLY: Eleanor Buckland, Isa Burke and Mali Obomsawin - they make up the band Lula Wiles. Their new album is called "Shame And Sedition." It's out tomorrow on Smithsonian Folkways.


LULA WILES: (Singing) Do you hear the shimmer of the sharpening blade? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Mano Sundaresan is a producer at NPR.
Sam Yellowhorse Kesler is an Assistant Producer for Planet Money. Previously, he's held positions at NPR's Ask Me Another & All Things Considered, and was the inaugural Code Switch Fellow. Before NPR, he interned with World Cafe from WXPN. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, and continues to reside in Philadelphia. If you want to reach him, try looking in your phone contacts to see if he's there! You'd be surprised how many people are in there that you forgot about.