Turn Me On: Della Mae

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The Grammy-nominated Americana powerhouse Della Mae have found themselves releasing their fourth album, the staggeringly satisfying Headlight, amidst a global pandemic and the effective caesura of live music.

In a moment when professional musicians are navigating how to best replace the touring-related income gained through ticket and merchandise sales, Della Mae is continuing to break new ground with an exciting band page on Patreon. While the crowdfunding platform has been helping content creators monetize their work via the subscription model since launching in 2013, there’s a sense of innovation in Della Mae’s effort to collectively reimagine the communal live music experience through digital engagement with an ever-growing community of appreciative fans.

Della Mae’s US tour in celebration of Headlight is currently postponed until the fall, when the outstandingly ambitious album will hopefully reach a deservedly enraptured audience. Headlight, released at the beginning of 2020, remains available in a variety of formats and bundles on http://dellamae.limitedrun.com/, and is continuing to reach Della Mae’s fans as the band continues to steadily grow their Patreon following.

Della Mae’s longtime lead singer, songwriter and guitarist Celia Woodsmith recently spoke with Rock Cellar about crafting Headlight, meeting John Prine, and the band’s Patreon family of “First Song Dancers.”

“I had heard of Patreon before this spring,” Celia shared over the phone from her home in Vermont. “But I had never really thought about Della Mae maybe using it. Now we’re looking at months and months of canceled shows. And we’re all at home. [Fiddle player] Kimber Ludiker and I came up with the idea of doing a band Patreon, sharing the burden of putting out content. Patreon has been really fun and weirdly intimate. We have over seventy members now who are each giving us a certain amount of money per month. That amount is, in my perspective, pretty affordable. It ranges from ten dollars a month to a hundred dollars a month, if people are feeling generous. Every day we’re putting stuff up.”

With rewards at various levels including new content daily, music lessons, life coaching, and “a monthly multi-tracked video collaboration by the band featuring a song of your choice,” the women of Della Mae are dedicated to offering a slate of excellent rewards at thoroughly reasonable prices. Twenty dollars a month buys membership into the “Della Mae Cocktail Club,” which includes access to a weekly meetup with  Della Mae and other “First Song Dancers,” the umbrella term for all of Della Mae’s online patrons, so named after one of the catchiest songs on Headlight.

“We’re building this little community online,” Celia says of the virtual gatherings. “We’re building a camaraderie. We try to be silly and talk about our experiences on the road. I now recognize people who show up every week in our video chats. I see them in their houses. I get to meet their animals. And talk about how are people doing. And what are they doing to get through this time. It’s a whole different world than just going to shows and playing for people. I come offstage and I’m pretty tired. Maybe I’ll go sign some albums and talk to people. But I don’t feel like I’m getting this level of understanding about who they are and what their lives are like that I’m getting to see in this Patreon world.”

Formed in 2009, Della Mae has spent the past decade establishing themselves on the national stage. They began as an all-female band playing “red hot bluegrass,” before charting an increasingly progressive course, both in their music and in the overall Tao of Della Mae. After their second album, This World Oft Can Be, was nominated for a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album in 2014, Della Mae recorded their self-titled third album with producer Jacquire King, three-time Grammy-winner for his work with Buddy Guy, Kings of Leon and Tom Waits. After a hiatus that saw several lineup changes and band members releasing solo and side projects, Della Mae regrouped in 2017. The ensuing act of Della Mae has included The Butcher Shoppe EP in 2019 and the genre-bending Headlight.

The first song from 2015’s Della Mae, “Boston Town,” found Celia writing about a moment in the history of American feminism in a way that foreshadowed Headlight’s focus on both recent and timeless womens issues. As Headlight blends Della Mae’s traditional bluegrass milieu with a variety of soul, indie rock, blues, swing, modern country and gospel influences, it’s karmically appropriate that Headlight effectively explores challenging yet vital themes including sexual assault (“Headlight”), infertility (“Waiting For You”), and several songs that deal with asserting your voice as a woman in spaces historically occupied by men (“It’s About Time,” among others). The desire to explore new ground in both their music and their lyrics came from a vision of Della Mae the band, and their team, shared upon the regrouping of Della Mae.

“We knew that we would get back together again. It’s just finding the right time for something like that to happen, and the inspiration,” Celia recalled. “That inspiration came in the form of our now manager, Michelle Conceison, and our booking agent, Barron Ruth, who works for Crossover Touring. They got together with us at this festival called the Festy, which was something that the Infamous Stringdusters started. They basically sat us down in a room and told us how much our band meant to them. And how much this band is more than the women in it. And more than any individual. Della Mae is kind of a beacon for younger, especially female, musicians. That we have something to say that’s important. It was really in that talk that I started to see this future kind of come into focus with Della Mae. And these two wonderful people who I really trusted, sitting down with us and telling us that we really meant something to them. We really got the band back together then and we started working on songs for a new album.”

As Della Mae was getting back on the road and writing the songs that would comprise Headlight, they restocked their merch booth and reinvigorated their relationship with Rounder Records with The Butcher Shoppe EP. Recorded with former members Jenni Lyn Gardner and Zoe Guigueno on mandolin and bass respectively, the album’s title pays tribute to the titular studio in Nashville, co-owned by the recently-departed songwriting legend John Prine. Celia was generous in sharing how Della Mae came to record an EP of fan favorites and their experience with Rounder Records, the band’s label since This World Oft Can Be.

“We got back together in 2017. And then we started playing more and more, and realized that we didn’t have anything new to sell or to promote. There were a lot of songs that people asked for again and again at shows. We didn’t want to put out a live album. We just decided we were going to record six songs. It was a very quick decision. We didn’t even tell our record label that we were doing it. We had it all done, all mixed, all ready to go. Then we said,’ “Rounder! Hey! We’re back. Surprise! We have this album. It’s all done. We did it ourselves. Do you want it?’ That was kind of a big moment for us and Rounder. Because they have stood by us through thick and thin over the last seven years. They’ve been just wonderful to work with. At the time we had done two albums with them. But we had just taken this hiatus and no one was really sure what the future looked like for Della Mae. That was a moment of saying, ‘Hey Rounder, we are back. And we are serious about this.’ I’m so grateful that they said, ‘All right. Sign us up.’ We did The Butcher Shoppe EP with them. Put it out on Rounder Records. I think that was the moment that they took us seriously, to know that we were ready to put out another album. And that next album was Headlight. This has been a long three years for us with a lot of changes. But more and more I feel like we’re headed in the right direction musically with a solid team behind us.”

Celia shared that while she had been Della Mae’s most prolific songwriter, dating back to writing almost every song on their debut album, 2011’s I Built This Heart, writing the songs that became Headlight was more collaborative. “I have written a lot for each album,” Celia offered, “Each time, I would say there were very individual efforts. I would deliver songs. We would decide if we wanted to do them or not. Headlight was a challenge for me. After just taking this hiatus and throwing a lot of my creative energy at my solo album, as well as this band that I’ve been playing with called Say Darling, I was kind of was wondering if I was scraping the bottom of the barrel with my songs. I felt like I needed more time to process different stories and different thoughts in my head before I could deliver more songs. Right when we were thinking about doing this next album, I just came out with it to the band and said that I wasn’t sure that I had it in me to deliver a bunch more songs. And that we were really going to need to do some co-writing. And we were going to need to look elsewhere for songs. That was a really hard thing for me to do. To admit that I wasn’t sure that I had it. That took a lot of soul searching and a lot of vulnerability.”

“But out of that came all these wonderful opportunities to start writing with other people,” Celia continued. “I got this chance to write with this wonderful guy named Mark Erelli. I also co-wrote a song with Kimber, which was really cool. Because that was not an experience that I had had with Kimber before. Then, just through fate, these songs just came out. Like ‘Headlight,’ I think I wrote it in November. We were getting ready to demo all of these songs in December. So that came kind of at the last minute. ‘I Can’t Pretend’ also came very, very quickly. That came toward the end as well. It was like my muse, just right when I needed the muse the most, just gave me these gifts. So this album, I would say, is the most collaborative. And I really think that is where its strength comes from.”

As Headlight was taking shape, Della Mae workshopped the songs on the album with a group of musicians from a variety of musical experiences and backgrounds. This helped the songs reveal themselves on their own terms, with less concern given to how they compared with the band’s previous work. “Our manager Michelle said, ‘Okay, you guys need to have a writing retreat at MOXE in Nashville. It’s a women-owned recording studio and living space,’” Celia remembered. “We went there and we just workshopped songs for about a week. And then at the end, Michelle says, ‘So, I invited about five or six musicians over. And you don’t really know them that well, or maybe at all.’ I had met [guitarist]Dan Knobler before. There were a couple other people. Jen Gunderman, she’s the keys player for Shery Crow, Dinty Child [multi-instrumentalist for Session Americana], Molly Tuttle. Jaime Dick [touring drummer for Rhiannon Giddens]on drums.”

Asked how this process influenced the evolution of Headlight, especially the decision to have prolific producer Dan Knobler (Rodney Crowell, Lake Street Dive) serve in that capacity here. Celia recalled, “We just played these songs a couple times. Maybe four or five times. We just played them for the hell of it. Just to see what they sounded like. With electric instruments. What they sounded like with a horn. Or with a flatpicking guitar. Just all these different sounds. That experience completely changed how I thought about who I wanted to produce the album. And what sounds I wanted on it. Never before have we sat down with a woman who is so good at playing the keys. She can make all these different sounds come out of her keyboard. And electric guitar with a full pedal board. And a full drum kit. It felt like we could just play. And experience the songs how they wanted to be experienced, rather than, ‘We’re going make bluegrass songs now. And we have these five instruments and that’s what we’re going to do.’ This just felt like play time. So it ended up being kind of a dress rehearsal for this album. That’s why we chose Dan. We felt that even though we invited him there just to play guitar in this jam, he kind of put his producer hat on some of the songs. He felt really natural. It was a really great way of finding out, ‘Do we click with these people, is the energy going to be right?’ That was very cool.”

One of the great features of Headlight is the memorable album cover, which perfectly complements the music while serving as a trenchant piece of art in its own right. When asked how it came to be, Celia shared, “I kept going back to the idea of us being like comic book superheroes. We all liked that idea of having this drawn vision of us. Another idea we had collectively was that we would be holding these symbols; the justice scales, an anatomical heart, an hourglass and a candle. These are all very meaningful with the messages that we have in the album. It just felt if we were to hold these items in a photo, it wouldn’t come across in the most authentic way. It pleases me in a way I don’t think we could have done in a photograph. It’s like our imaginations, and the superheroes inside of ourselves that we get to capture.”

As I had the incredible pleasure of speaking with Celia days after the passing of John Prine, it seemed imperative to ask about meeting him at a festival where both acts were appearing in 2016. “John Prine was such an influence on me,” Celia reflected. “I was able to meet him in Suwannee, Florida with Della Mae. I was so nervous, I was just shaking. He was just a total gentleman. We just hung out for a while. We were in his trailer. He was eating this ziti out of a giant aluminum pan. I told him something to the effect of, ‘I know a lot of people probably tell you this, but your music means so much so me.’  He said, ‘Yeah I’ve heard that a time or two.’ He was such a gentleman. We’ve really lost a complete titan in music. The body of work he left behind of us to sift in and take comfort from is so huge. So I’m really grateful for all of his songs right now. They’ve been very meaningful to me.”

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To turn yourself to Della Mae, go to DellaMae.com for a truly fantastic selection of merch and to get on Della Mae’s monthly email list, and https://www.patreon.com/firstsongdancers to learn more about Della Mae’s Patreon community and to become a “First Song Dancer.”

https://www.facebook.com/heyheydellamae/ is also a central hub for an on-going variety of live-streamed sets featuring various members of Della Mae, who are also on Instagram and Twitter @heyheyDellaMae.

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