Interview: How The Wandering Hearts added the 21st Century sound of Woodstock to their music

Marty Stuart got them on the Ryman but Shepherd Bush’s Empire is also a special gig.

Bob Harris has always been a bit of a sucker for harmony vocals over the years and he has been quite a supporter of Wandering Hearts, who currently comprise A J Dean-Revington, Francesca ‘Chess’ Whiffin and Tara Wilcox, as is Marty Stuart who arranged for their first American date to be a support slot at The Ryman. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with the whole band over Zoom to discuss their earlier career momentum, how COVID impacted their career and how much they enjoyed recording their new self-titled second album ‘Wandering Hearts’ in Woodstock with Simone Felice and David Baron.  What was also clear from the interview is just how in tune all three are, and this wasn’t so much because of what they said but how they were able to join in seamlessly with each other’s comments, and they also explain that it is the combined sound of all three voices that prompted them to get together in the first place after years of working separately in the music and theatre business.

How are you all? I hope you and your family and friends are all OK and coping with the challenges of COVID?

Francesca ‘Chess’ Whiffin (FCW): We are well and healthy.

Tara Wilcox (TW): And two of us are fully vaccinated.

FCW: I’m younger so I will be getting my second jab[laughs].

You had established a significant career momentum before COVID, how have you managed the impact of lockdown on your career, time and finances?

FCW: You know what, I think it is kind of only really now we are starting to do a little bit more that it is starting to sink in that we have lost quite a bit of momentum, because during lockdown everyone is in the same boat and it isn’t so obvious.

TW: There is a lot of solace that it wasn’t just us, and during this time we have been able to reach out to friends and just go “This sucks, right.” [laughs]. Now we can enjoy moving forward together.

There is a debate about the economic impact of streaming for artists, but SoundCloud helped kickstart your career so what are your thoughts on the new technology?

A.J. Dean (AJD): Yeah, that is an unusual one and I think it is such a useful tool, for everybody, and things are changing and you kind of have to be aware of that, and I think there is still a lot where we haven’t yet made boundaries or rules for, so I think everyone is still finding their way with that. It is encouraging to see the inquiry have the kind of effect and attention it has because it is something that needs levelling out, not just for musicians but songwriters, composers and every musician who has played on a record and never got paid, so it is welcomed it is getting discussed and put under a bit more of a microscope now. Hopefully, there will be some positive changes that will be good for everybody.

How did you all get together and how do you maintain your togetherness?

TW: We all met through friends of friends, there was a couple of people that introduced us, and when we got together we had no idea what we were doing or what that meant or what it was. We were all in different places and at different points in our lives, and looking to do something different, something new. We all needed a different creative outlet, and we were all working within music singing in one way or another. It just worked for whatever reason, something just clicked. We had all sung with choirs when we were younger, and in groups with family friends and siblings, and when you can find that person you can sing with it is really special. In your head, it is like they know your every move before you even do it, and that became apparent in that first rehearsal we had together, that first meeting we had. We just thought it went really well so let’s just do it again, and we just carried on meeting when we could as we were all doing different jobs. One of us had written a song and we put it on Soundcloud and within 27 minutes our now manager messaged us and picked us up [laughs].

FCW: We often talk about chemistry in terms of relationships, you go on twenty dates and it is nah, nah, nah and then sometimes you meet that person and it just works, and it is a weird thing because we have all sang with loads of people before and it was like that was fun, that was cool, but you can’t explain why it worked, it just did. The nearest we have all come to a falling out was when we had to change our name, we signed our record deal and they said you can’t be called what we were called, you need to pick a new name. That was like five years ago [laughs].

What do you each bring musically to the band, are you interchangeable or do you have specific roles?

AJD: We just all bring joy and happiness [laughs].

FCW: We all have our strengths in lots of ways, I don’t know but I think that what it comes down to is the same harmonies. What we have when we do that is not necessarily something you can teach easily, so to find like-minded people who can sing, and want to sing, that way and in that style is quite amazing when you think about that. We are all very different characters which is also why I think it works. If we were 3 Taras we would be on time for everything and be really organised if we were three mes, I don’t know.

TW: Drunk probably [laughs]

FCW: And if we were three AJs then we wouldn’t get anything done [laughs]. So that is also why it works because we are all really quite different characters, and I don’t think anyone would naturally put us together.

AJD: Considering the way we sing, we harmonise and it requires twice as much listening as it does making a noise. The more we are in tune and listening to each other the more harmonious everything is [laughs].

You have made some waves in America and Nashville and that happened fairly quickly. How did you manage to do that?

TW: Marty Stuart [laughs].

I know he did, but how did it all come about?

FCW: We had seen him at C2C, and he was just joyous.

AJD: I just loved that show. We went to watch, didn’t we, and it was a night he was on and he just blew us away. It was after that our agents got in touch to see if we were available to support him on his UK tour. One of the first gigs we played on that tour was when Marty sat in on our soundcheck, he kept asking us to play more songs.

TW: Do you remember that fear, because there were a couple of songs we really needed to soundcheck, we had done like nine songs but there were two we didn’t want to do when someone like Marty Stuart is watching.

AJD: Afterwards he came to our dressing room and asked if we would like to support him on some dates in the US, which just happened to include The Ryman, The Grand Ol’ Opry and Gracelands.

Playing the Ryman as your first gig in American could have gone horribly wrong.

TW: We hadn’t let ourselves believe it, we were like maybe they won’t let us in, you hear stories about visas, maybe someone will just screw us over.

FCW: It is all too good to be true [laughs].

TW: We were all jet-lagged and it was like 3 o’clock in the morning by the time we played. I don’t think any of us really realised what was happening until we got to the end of the two songs.

FCW: I think we may have been only meant to play one song, but we played ‘Fire And Water and ‘Burning Bridges, and I don’t play mandolin on those songs but I was like hey, it is only Marty Stuart he plays mandolin very well so I will leave him to that for the Ryman show. I hadn’t sound checked my mandolin, and he came on stage and got the crowd on our side instantly when he introduced us, they were in the palm of his hand so it meant they were in the palm of our hand. The audience were going to support us whatever came out of our mouths.  When we finished ‘Burning Bridges’ you could literally hear a pin drop, and someone captured it on film and we just heard somebody go “Wow.” And everyone got on their feet and started applauding. I don’t think each of us would have believed it had happened if we hadn’t seen the video afterwards. None of us could believe what was going on, and Marty was just like “Sing my favourite song.”. I was like “But Marty, I haven’t sound checked my mandolin”, and he was like “Just use mine.”. It was this incredible historic artefact, with all these incredible people who have scribbled their names.

TW: Marty was like “Don’t scratch it.”.

FCW: I was really worried my belt buckle would scratch it, but I think he was being sarcastic because it was covered in scratches, and that was the point. That was our international debut in America and I think because we hadn’t done much in Europe.

TW: We had only done Switzerland.

FCW: We just kept going back to America because people wanted us to go back and there seemed to be a bit of an audience starting to grow out there for us. That has just been a natural thing over the last few years that we have built on, and as you say unfortunately COVID has caused us to lose a bit of momentum as well. We are going to try and get back out there this year if we are allowed and they open up the borders, and we will try and get the ball rolling again like everybody else. We are very lucky we are in the position we are in at the end of this pandemic, we have our support team around us and they haven’t given up hope in us [laughs].

AJD: 20 percent of nothing [laughs].

TW: It may sound cliched, but we know we are very lucky.

You recorded your second album in Woodstock, which is another iconic location. Why go there and was there any sense of history from Dylan, The Band etc?

AJD: We had had it in mind for a very long time, but when it came to making the choices we were able to just tie it together and go out and record there, I mean, that was just a real break when it all came together. Being in Woodstock, being in the area and being behind this music room where we could practice our songs ahead of going into the studio was a luxury I don’t think we had even anticipated. It worked out so fortuitously for us because we were like hey we have these songs let’s record and it was only at the last minute you’d go “No, we should do them like this instead.”. And that would then become the definitive version. It was a beautiful place.

TW: It was quite magical, and when we turned up it was like Bedford Falls from ‘It Is A Wonderful Life’, a snow-covered town and we would go for these walks. We were in the middle of the Catskill Mountains, it was just like frozen lakes, and it was -18C so anyone out was bundled up and very friendly. We just sort of hold-up altogether. It really was quite magical. When we went out I don’t think we thought it would be a magical experience, we just thought it will be cool to make the record there.

FCW: There was something about it, it was a really spiritual type place and I think that feed into, and influenced, maybe not all the songs on the record, but certainly some of them. Also the production and the intros and all the stuff we hadn’t worked, on like the instrumentals. All that stuff we were playing around with that made the record was all so inspired by where we were and the place we were in. That is really cool because it feels that it has totally captured our memory of that time.

Did you record before the pandemic?

FCW: Yeah, we finished on the 13th February, or something, is that right?

TW: No it must have been later, the end of February.

AJD: That’s right.

FCW: We flew home on the 13th March and we snuck in. I remember the Wednesday before the UK lockdown we were thinking we will just stay out here, we have loads of festivals everything will be OK, and everyone at home is scrambling for toilet rolls.

TW: We had flown to Tampa a few days before we came home, and everyone was using masks and anti-bac and we were just what is this, I think they thought we were a bit mad [laughs].

What are the songwriting dynamics of the band or is it simply a matter of everybody jumping in, as and when?

TW: Pretty much, there are no rules as such. Sometimes it may come from an article one of us has read, sometimes it will be a melody or a lyric or concept someone brings in, sometimes it is a whole chorus or verse that someone brings in and sometimes it comes from us chatting, There isn’t any rhyme or reason, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

FCW: Sometimes it may feel like therapy as we chat through something [laughs].

AJD: We may not always get a song out of it but we always feel better [laughs].

What did David Baron bring to the album?

TW: He is a genius.

TCW: He is amazing and one of the loveliest guys, it just wouldn’t have been the same without him.

TW: No, definitely not.

TCW: Simone Felice and David Baron just work so well together, and it wouldn’t work without one or the other.

TW: David is just so patient and gives the best vibes, just so positive in everything he does, just so joyous.

AJD: He will get a great idea out of whatever we give him. We can give him just scraps of something and he will just be bing, bing bing, and just go nuts and make something incredible. They have different perspectives that just work so well together, and their personalities are so complimentary. They were bringing something totally unique to it with whatever they did, and we were like we will just indulge them.

What is it like going back to songs now that are effectively eighteen months old?

TW: It is a weird one because some of the songs are way more than eighteen months old. We had had such a long wait between album one and album two, it felt like for lots of different reasons it was just getting longer to get to that point. When you said it must have been frustrating to lose that momentum, it really was because we had had such a quiet, for us, 2019 because we were thinking April 2020 for the album release and it won’t change now. Of course, the only thing that could have stopped it was a pandemic [laughs]. Rather than feeling tired or fatigued with the songs we are so grateful to be able to get them out because we have seen so many people leave this industry. There are tour managers with normal jobs, sound engineers that aren’t doing it, songwriters who aren’t, so if the songs feel tired it is up to us to make them feel new.

TCW: A lot of people have asked us whether we wrote those songs during lockdown because there are so many that are about seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, and through dark times you can get stronger together and all those kinds of messages. It just goes to show.

TW: Yeah, and even if there wasn’t a global pandemic going on when we wrote it, there are always going to be troubles and obstacles, problems and good times and bad times.

TCW: Essentially that was the album, a diary that we had written over those years that we needed to hear, express and write, and so nearly three years later for some of those songs they are still just as relevant, and maybe even more in a different way now.

TW: Even for us those songs have taken on a different meaning and I think that is just luck [laughs].

AJD: This is the pandemic and we have been separated in different parts of the country geographically and communicating back and forth with lots of Zoom calls and what have you. The times we got on together and played through the songs has been different to the normal album cycle where it is a case of here’s the songs and you play them to death, they still feel new because the album is not out yet and we haven’t played them as many times as we might have done.

What made you all want to become musicians in the first place, who were your influences as musicians?

TCW: For me, I grew up in a musical family, my two uncles would sing and play guitar and write songs, and it was just like every family gathering at weekends was just all I ever knew they did. They probably had other jobs but in my head that is all that they did, they sang and wrote songs and they were the entertainment. It was all quite folky, and I just grew up with that being fairly normal. I was talking about this recently, and I think I never really saw anything else because I was like that’s what I want to do. I was old enough at that point to know that I could sing, though I didn’t know how good I was, and I just carried on and every avenue whether that was theatre, open-mic nights, singing in choirs when I was younger, whatever it was I was just singing. When I met these guys it was like this feels like what I’ve been leading to, you know, all of my choices up to that point were leading to this. It all just seemed kind of fortuitous.

AJD: Rome, that’s how it goes doesn’t it [laughs]?

TW: There was nothing else I was really good at really, though I quite liked English. People would ask me what my backup plan was, and I remember that I didn’t really have one. I was just like I want to work in music, I don’t really mind what it is, it could be teaching or performing, but I don’t want to ever have a normal job. I remember doing work experience in an office, a kind of 9 to 5 in an office, and the walls were kind of thin and an old ‘80s style, and there was a tiny metal kind of window, I remember it very clearly and thinking the greatest fear in my life is that I will be bored. That was a really clear fear, and I genuinely envy people who can say “I love my 9 to 5.”, that is like an early death to me. Doing music there are no guarantees, there is nothing stable, right normal or sensible in it, it is just there is nothing else for me.

AJD: I’m kind of the same pretty much I guess. I just didn’t like doing anything too academic though I am interested in lots of things. I was a super, super shy kid and I re-discovered Elvis Presley and rock’n’roll music again and that gave me a weird false confidence. I threw myself into everything even though I didn’t understand it, and inside I was this deeply insecure terrified little boy [laughs].

Do you have any plans for the remainder of 2021, or is it just a case of taking any opportunities that come along?

TCW: We will say yes to everything we can, and we are going to try and get back out to the states as they open up the borders. We have a big tour coming up in September, and that is going to be really good fun. We doing that acoustic and it will be just us 3 and our lovely guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Lee. We have also been writing a lot of new stuff over the last year I guess, and we have just announced a big tour for next year and we are really looking forward to it because Shepherd’s Bush Empire has been on our bucket list of venues for a while. We have seen so many people there,  and now I can say I’ve seen our name up there, I can see it is going to happen. It is very, very cool and that is happening in May next year. There are loads of things to be keeping us busy, and to look forward to.

Your momentum is building again, have you given any thought to where you will record your next album?

TCW: Probably just here.

TW: Yeah, my flat.

TCW: No plans yet but I think we will be making it in the UK, just because who knows about travel bans and things like that. We are certainly thinking about and starting to make plans for that side of things, which is exciting.

At AUK, we like to share music with our readers. What are three of your current favourite tracks or artists?

TCW: I’ve been listening to Allison Russell’s new record ‘Outside Child’ which is amazing.

TW: Thea Gilmore is mine at the minute.

TCW: Natalie Hemby has a new one coming out.

Finally, do you want to say anything to our UK readers?

TCW: We feel very lucky to have been so loved and supported by the team at AMAUK, our fans and the audience and AUK readers. It is a wonderful kind of family to be part of.

TW: It is a nice home they gave us.

TCW: Yeah, I felt we were a bit homeless until americana found us. We love being part of it, we love performing and attending all the events. Everyone has been really nice.

AJD: It has been kind of a hard couple of years and it is nice getting back out there and bringing it all to you.

The Wandering Hearts’ ‘Wandering Hearts’ is out now on Cooking vinyl.

About Martin Johnson 399 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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