Della Mae first came together in Boston in 2009 as fiddle player Kimber Ludiker gathered together the driving guitar and strong lead voice of Celia Woodsmith, with the instrumental and vocal talents of mandolin player Jenni Lynn Gardner, and guitar and banjo ace Courtney Hartman. Bringing diverse musical backgrounds and experience together they bonded over a shared love of bluegrass, and spotting a gap for an all-female band, Della Mae became one of the first on the circuit. They had the musical skills required for high energy performance, and they quickly gained a reputation on the live and festival circuit.
A self-released album, I Built This Heart was released in 2011, and it proved enough to bring them to the attention of Rounder Records with whom the girls duly signed. The first fruit of this new partnership was This World Oft Can, an album released in 2013 that proved a hit with critics and music fans alike, going on to win a Grammy nomination for Best Bluegrass Album. As promising as all of that sounds Della Mae were just hitting their stride with some adventures just over the horizon that would push the band onto a whole new level.
In lots of ways nothing much changed, they continued to work hard, touring non-stop, and winning a growing audience over with every show. But then came the invitation to serve as cultural ambassadors as part of The U.S. State Department’s American Music Abroad programme. In that capacity they took extended trips to a number of far flung countries including Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan Uzbekistan, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, playing concerts, working with local musicians, and working with children.
As lead singer Celia Woodsmith explains, “It’s become a big part of our lives, and we’re proud to be part of it.” By her estimations they travelled to 15 countries in 2014 and she continues, “It’s been incredible connecting with people who don’t know a lot about American culture, and learning about their music and having them learn about ours. It’s really opened our eyes as people, and as musicians, and hopefully it’s had the same effect on the people we’ve met on these trips.”
Ed Helms, in his astute liner notes, comments that the principal benefits of widening your horizons this way are found through opening your eyes to the wider human condition. It also offered more than just a chance to connect with different cultures, as Celia explains, “What those trips have done for band morale has been invaluable. It’s strengthened our camaraderie, and it’s helped us become a better band and taught us about performing under hard circumstances. We could have come home from that first six-week State Department tour and just said ‘OK, the band’s done.’ But we came home feeling totally inspired, and wanting to create those kinds of connections with people in our own country as well.”
So it seems the band have a renewed vigour, and now for their second eponymous album, Rounder have paired them with producer Jacquire King (Tom Waits, Josh Ritter, Punch Brothers, Of Monsters and Men). The producer clearly tuned in the new confidence sweeping through Della Mae and found ways to push and challenge them. Celia confirms, “The whole experience was so inspiring and so much fun, and Jacquire changed the way we think about recording. None of us had ever worked with anyone like him before, and he really forced us to rethink a lot of our assumptions about how we make records.”
More revealingly Celia adds, “Jacquire doesn’t mince words, and he’s really good at challenging you in a way that makes you want to rise to his expectations. He cultivated within me a different style of performance that I didn’t know that I had, and I think that he did that with all of us. He said, ‘We can’t make a half-assed album, we’re gonna give every ounce of ourselves to these songs,’ and I think we did.”
The whole thing was recorded at the legendary Sound Emporium in Nashville, a studio that, down the years, has produced some great records. Additional musical support was provided by noted upright bassist Mark Schatz and Elephant Revival frontwoman Bonnie Paine, who contributes percussion and musical saw on several tracks.
Celia has highlighted three key differences in their approach this time around stating, “One big difference on this album is the emphasis on the groove, which is something that people maybe don’t notice consciously, but which is so important. That’s something that we hadn’t really focused on before, but this time we felt that it was absolutely essential.” Secondly she adds, “We also put our instruments through amps in the studio, which is something that we’d never done before.” And thirdly, “When we were recording our vocals, Jacquire would have little chats with us: ‘What are you thinking about when you’re singing this song?’ ‘What does this mean for you?’ ‘Who are you thinking about?’ We wanted people to hear our raw, real voices, and I wanted to try to get live takes down, and Jacquire was totally on board with that. If things sounded a little funky or weren’t quite pitch-perfect, we were ok with that.”
One other development that probably should be noted is that mandolinist Jenni Lyn Gardner and guitarist Courtney Hartman also step up to the mic to take their turn as lead vocalists. The former sings Phoebe Hunt’s Good Blood, whilst Courtney sings Long Shadow, which she co-wrote with Sarah Siskind.
The record certainly possesses great energy, and it starts in spectacular style. The intro to Boston Town is deceptive as the mandolin cuts a pretty riff across the rhythm guitar. However, the clue is in that guitar as it pushes the beat and, as the song unfolds, Celia’s voice grows in power and rage as the tale of exploited mill workers making a stand unfurls like the “Labour banner” of their Union. Celia sings, “What more can you take from me? I own my hands and my dignity.” It’s a jaunty enough tune, but the promise of insurrection is convincing enough and although historically set, sounds very current in its thinking.
Evidence of that ‘groove’ they were seeking comes to the fore in Rude Awakening, a song that seems to mix elements of the perils of being on the road with, with a hint that their recent adventures have opened eyes. You can read it either way as Celia sings, “Nothing like culture shock to shake your brain, ‘til the places look the same.” The girls’ harmonies are to the fore as the mandolin and fiddle lock into the breakdown. The song has a gospel feel, almost as if invoking a higher power for the strength to get up and do the gig all over again.
There are more groovers in Della Mae’s take on Phoebe Hunt’s Good Blood, which Jenni sings very well indeed. The fiddle takes on a Cajun lilt as the song bounces along with a great bassline and a really nifty guitar break. Shambles is bluesy and quite brilliant, a break-up song that pulls no punches. Over another great walking bass line, the chorus offers the sassy put down, “Why do you say sorry baby? When I’m finally up and gone, well I’ll leave it to you to make sense of the shambles you’ve made of yourself, while I’ve carried on.” On the blues tip, there’s also a cracking version of The Stones’ No Expectations, from Beggars Banquet, which features some excellent slide guitar and carries the right mix of louche decadence and heartache.
Not every song requires the same rhythmic thrust, however, and their other cover, a version of the Low Anthem’s To Ohio, is a case in point. It still manages to be powerful in its portrayal of loss and longing. Built around Celia’s strong lead are some fabulous harmonies and a gorgeous breakdown, with another great guitar solo and some mournful fiddle. Can’t Go Back has a nagging simplicity at the start, echoed in the refrain, “if you never go, you can’t go back again,” but gets its dynamism as the tune develops into a more wistful air with first guitar then mandolin to spike the emotive melody. The same could perhaps be said of For The Sake Of My Heart, although the pace here slows for an achingly tender slice of gorgeousness, as Celia sings lines like, “for the sake of finding my way again, I must be in this place alone.”
There is real variety here as well, and there are three notably different songs. There’s the delightful, up-tempo, old-timey romp of Take One Day, which contrasts against the following Long Shadow. The latter is of course sung by Courtney, who has an interestingly different tone, while the song has some clever tempo changes as it summons ghosts, striving through the long shadows of night to the dawns light. Finally High Away Gone is the most striking of all, with its droning backdrop and call and response. It’s a clever piece that returns us to the struggles for a fair share of the opener, but with an eerie quality, as it connects with the ghosts of the dust bowl and the spirit of the earth, which is under attack.
The press release is not wrong in placing Della Mae alongside such stellar acts as the Avett Brothers, Punch Brothers, the Lumineers, and Hurray For The Riff Raff, as this eponymous album is simply excellent, capturing the quartet at the top of their game. Their singing and playing sounds, honest, vibrant and exciting and a great set of songs seal the deal. Okay! So they’ve had a little help to get there, but whatever the forces and experiences that have gathered together in the making of this album, it should be clear that Della Mae are a band to be reckoned with. As Celia says, “In some ways, this album’s very different from what we’ve done previously, but it’s self-titled because we feel like it sounds as much like us as anything we’ve ever done.” As is plainly obvious here, that turns out to be a very fortuitous thing indeed.
Della Mae are also an excellent live band and are due for a tour staring on July 19th at the Summer Tyne Americana Festival in Birtley. Note the dates in your diary and underline them as a ‘must see!’
Review by: Simon Holland
Della Mae is released July 10th
Della MaeOrder via Amazon
Jul 19 – SummerTyne Americana Festival Birtley,
Jul 20 – The Bullingdon, Oxford,
Jul 21 – The Musician, Leicester,
Jul 22 – Waterfront Studio, Norwich,
Jul 24 – Festival Country Rendez-Vous, Craponne-Sur-Arzon, France
Jul 25 – Ramblin’ Man fair, Maidstone,
Jul 26 – Nell’s Jazz and Blues, London,
Jul 28 – Manchester Academy 3, Manchester,
Jul 29 – Oran Mor, Glasgow,
Jul 30 – The Twa Tams – Southern Fried Festival, Perth,
Jul 31 – The Salutation Hotel – Southern Fried Festival, Perth,
Aug 01 – Perth Concert Hall – Southern Fried Festival (Dolly Parton Tribute), Perth,
Full Tour Dates here: http://www.dellamae.com