“We were ready to try something new,” Celia Woodsmith says of Della Mae’s eponymous third album and second Rounder release. “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.”
Della Mae expands upon the musical achievements of the group’s widely acclaimed, Grammy-nominated 2013 breakthrough album This World Oft Can Be, which established the multi-talented female combo as a potent musical force. With a sensitive yet assertive approach that’s steeped in tradition yet firmly rooted in the present, the four versatile instrumentalist/vocalists draw from a bottomless well of rootsy influences to create vibrantly original music that conveys the band’s expansive musical vision with timeless lyrical truths and an unmistakably contemporary sensibility that places them alongside such roots-conscious young acts as the Avett Brothers, Punch Brothers, the Lumineers, and Hurray for the Riff Raff.
Since its formation in 2009, the Boston-bred, Nashville-based outfit has established a reputation as a charismatic, hard-touring live act, building a large and enthusiastic fan base while racking up massive amounts of critical acclaim with its first two albums. Now, Della Mae finds the foursome embracing a fresh set of musical challenges with eleven compelling new tunes that embody the musical and emotional qualities of the group’s prior output while venturing into uncharted creative territory.
Della Mae’s renewed sense of mission is reflected in the emotional intensity and musical invention of such new originals as “Boston Town,” “Rude Awakening” and “For the Sake of My Heart,” as well as vivid, insightful readings of the Rolling Stones’ classic “No Expectations” and the Low Anthem’s haunting “To Ohio,” which showcase the quartet’s world-class musicianship and deeply expressive harmonies, as well as Celia Woodsmith’s subtly commanding lead vocals. Mandolinist Jenni Lyn Gardner and guitarist Courtney Hartman also step up to the mic to take memorable lead-vocal turns on “Good Blood” and “Long Shadow,” respectively.
“Maybe the songs aren’t all that different from what we’ve done before, but there was a whole different mindset to how we went about recording them,” Woodsmith notes. “For me, this is the emotional record, the one where you work with every ounce of your being to pour that feeling into the music. We tried to be mindful of how the songs would fit together, and we chose these songs because we wanted to explore some different emotions and different textures and present a slightly different version of ourselves than people have heard previously.”
Della Mae’s boundary-pushing direction is the product of the musicians’ fortuitous collaboration with producer Jacquire King, an iconoclastic sonic visionary who’s won Grammy awards for his work on such landmark albums as Tom Waits’ Mule Variations, Norah Jones’ The Fall, Buddy Guy’s Blues Singer and Kings of Leon’sOnly by the Night.
The producer’s talent for capturing creative chemistry and spontaneous moments of inspiration proved to be an ideal match for Della Mae’s vocal and instrumental skills, which were augmented on the album sessions by noted standup bassist Mark Schatz and Elephant Revival frontwoman Bonnie Paine, who contributes percussion and musical saw on several tracks. The album was recorded at Nashville’s storied Sound Emporium, and mixed at the LBT/Blackbird Studios.
“The whole experience was so inspiring and so much fun, and Jacquire changed the way we think about recording,” Woodsmith says, adding, “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.”
The resulting album honors the musicians’ roots in bluegrass, folk, and rock while staking out a distinctive, organic sound and style that are wholly Della Mae’s own. The band’s revitalized approach is reflected in the musicians’ compelling new compositions, and in the raw immediacy of their vocal and instrumental performances.
“One big difference on this album,” Celia observes, “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. So we would spend hours and hours trying to get the groove right. We also put our instruments through amps in the studio, which is something that we’d never done before.”
Della Mae’s edgier vibe is also reflected in the immediacy and authority of the group’s voices. “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,” Woodsmith explains. “If things sounded a little funky or weren’t quite pitch-perfect, we were ok with that. 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?’
“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.”
Although they maintain a busy touring schedule, Della Mae has also found time to serve as cultural ambassadors in the U.S. State Department’s American Music Abroad program. In that capacity, they’ve undertaken a series of extended trips to Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Brazil, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, playing concerts for local audiences as well as collaborating with local musicians and participating in children’s music-education programs.
“It’s become a big part of our lives, and we’re proud to be part of it,” Woodsmith says of the group’s work as musical diplomats. “We went to 15 countries in 2014. 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.
“What those trips have done for band morale has been invaluable,” she adds. “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.”
Della Mae was also chosen to perform in Washington, D.C. in June 2014, as part of a special naturalization ceremony hosted by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, at which new citizens from 15 countries were sworn in by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Della Mae’s efforts to use music as a unifying force are consistent with the adventurous, open-minded attitude that they’ve maintained from the time that fiddler Kimber Ludiker originally assembled the group. Although they came together in Boston, the young players all brought diverse backgrounds and considerable musical experience to the project. After initially gaining a reputation for high-energy live performances in clubs and festivals around the country, Della Mae expanded its reputation with the self-released 2011 debut album I Built This Heart. 2013’s This World Oft Can Be proved to be a sensation with fans and critics alike, earning the group a Grammy nomination for Best Bluegrass Album.
Now armed with a passel of dynamic new tunes and a renewed sense of purpose, Della Mae is eager to get back on the road and introduce their new music to their loyal admirers.