The Rise of Wicked Sycamore: A Conversation with DC’s Folk Power Trio

Nina Goodman
By Nina Goodman / November 7, 2019
Wicked Sycamore (Photo Credit: Bethany Carmella)

DC Music Review had the pleasure to catch up with the all-female folk-bluegrass group Wicked Sycamore (featured photo by Bethany Carmella). This trio consists of Juliette Bell on guitar, Lainie Gray on mandolin, and Madeline Waters on cello. We had a great conversation with them as we talked about the breakthrough year they are having and what's coming up next on their horizon.


Nina Goodman (NG): Hi everyone! Thank you so much for taking the time to connect. So for introduction purposes, tell me a little bit about you. From the start, who are the members of the band and what do you play? 

Wicked Sycamore (WS): Hi, and thank you so much for talking with us! So in the band, we have Juliette Bell on guitar, Lainie Gray on mandolin and vocals, and Madeline Waters on cello and vocals. Each one of us plays a multitude of different instruments - piano, bass, percussion, ukulele, banjo, and octave mandolin to name a few — so we like to add those in when we can.

NG: Very cool. I love when bands can be versatile with instrumentation.  Do you play different instruments when playing together or do you tend to stay with Juliette on guitar, Lainie on mandolin, and Madeline on cello?

Wicked Sycamore (Photo Credit Joel Richard Scott)

Wicked Sycamore (Photo Credit Joel Richard Scott)

WS: We almost always perform in the mandolin-guitar-cello setup, although we write and jam together on a bunch of different instruments. We feel strongest in our current arrangement because it covers so much ground. The mid-range guitar is the body of our sound, the mandolin is percussion and melody, and the cello offers both bass and melody with real sustain. With the right mindset, limitations can breed invention and we like that challenge.

Logistically, it’s also the easiest! In cases where there is only a brief changeover between bands at a festival or a busy gig, the efficiency of transporting and sound-checking only three instruments cannot be overstated. We hope to get to a place one day where it feels appropriate to travel with additional gear for performances but we’re also equally as thrilled to explore every nook and cranny of our current instrumentation in the meantime.

Wicked Sycamore (Photo Credit Joel Richard Scott)

Wicked Sycamore (Photo Credit Joel Richard Scott)

NG: I'm glad you mentioned the beauty of those three particular instruments together. It really feels that each of you are lending a specific voice and personality to the music. And you have the chemistry to bring it to that next musical level.

Speaking of chemistry, you three strike me as friends who are super connected both on stage and off. How did you all meet?  

WS:  We often get the comment that it looks like we are having fun together, and that’s the truth!  We met in 2015 when musicians we knew were looking to bring their idea of an all-female funk rock band to fruition. That group experienced quite a few personnel changes but the three of us remained constant and by 2017 we understood that we wanted to explore our shared acoustic interests in a more intimate ensemble. We’ve been off running ever since!

NG: We see a lot more all-female or womxn bands in DC these days. When creating your band, did you intentionally want all women players? 

WS: We feel thankful that our paths crossed in the Baltimore music scene a few years ago. We are simply three musicians who get along easily and work well as a team, who also happen to be women. It is powerful to see women working together to build each other up in any setting, so we proudly acknowledge that this sense of support and collaboration is a part of our message. Although it is not necessarily by design that our current lineup is all female, we do embrace the opportunity to express our perspective as one unified front. 

NG: I love that answer. And here's something I'm always curious to know from bands on the rise. Are you full-time musicians or do you work a “non-music” job and also play music professionally? And how do you balance your music with other life obligations (e.g., income, partner, work, family, etc.)? 

WS: We all have full-time jobs outside of the band, although some of these careers are still tied the DC music scene in a way (like at Strathmore and Chuck Levin’s). With this, we have to be strategic about our time together and our time apart. We have the necessary trust in each other to be intentional and productive with our band rehearsals and personal practice. We’re also the best of friends in everyday life so if we weren’t playing music out professionally, we would still be jamming, hiking, cooking, and seeing concerts together anyway! Our partners love music as much as we do and have been nothing but supportive along the way, so quick shoutout to them!

NG: How would you describe your band/your music style? 

WS: There are strong elements of blues, jazz, and funk within our contemporary folk style. We play what we like (and we truly do like it all) but we just happen to play instruments typically found in a bluegrass band. We’re sure that some audiences see our band in appearance and then expect us to play a certain genre of music only, so it can be a lot of fun to circumvent those expectations. Anything can be funky if it manipulates things like time signature, tempo, groove, and backbeat in the right way!  

Wicked Sycamore performs at Charm City Bluegrass (Photo Credit: Jordan August)

Wicked Sycamore performs at Charm City Bluegrass (Photo Credit: Jordan August)

NG: This past year seems like one of a lot of growth.  You won this year's Charm City Bluegrass Festival Battle of the Bands competition and got to play at DelFest. Huge congrats on that! What else is coming up for you?

WS: We've had a fun ride this year and would love to thank the team at Charm City Bluegrass for their support of local, up-and-coming artists.

Looking forward, we’re so excited about an upcoming show on the Main Stage at Gypsy Sally’s on November 13th! This is a particularly special one for us because we get to bring the Pennsylvania-based band, Serene Green, who were also featured as new artists at DelFest over the summer. We became fast friends with these guys, bonding over the intricacies of certain musical arrangements, and we can’t wait to share this night with the DC community. 

Wicked Sycamore performs at Charm City Bluegrass (Photo Credit: Jordan August)

Wicked Sycamore performs at Charm City Bluegrass (Photo Credit: Jordan August)

NG: That's especially lovely because Gypsy Sally's, a mainstay in the DC scene for the past several years, is closing soon. Every show I've been to there is special, but now so even more. 

It's great you'll get to play that stage. What do you hope that audience members take away from your shows?

WS: We hope that anyone leaving a Wicked Sycamore show has experienced an entertaining sneak peek into our band dynamics. As people, we love the push and pull of life - the ups and the downs - so we try to put that same flow into our live performances by carefully curating set lists that straddle the line between the free-form nature of certain jam genres and other more through-composed pieces. As friends, we enjoy feeding off of each other’s energy and hope that this comes across in a real and genuine way onstage. Simply put, we love when audience members have as much fun as we do!

We recently took part in a performance run of youth concerts across Western Maryland and West Virginia that was sponsored by the DelFest Foundation. After one show, a middle school aged girl came up to us and said that after seeing the three of us women onstage together, she knew that she wanted to perform. Moments like that are particularly special.

 

Wicked Sycamore - Growing Roots

Wicked Sycamore - Growing Roots

So I've listened to your EP “Growing Roots” which was nominated for Best Folk Album at the WAMMIES. It is heartwarming, infectious and often high energy, and at times deeply personal. You're currently working on a full-length album due out in the spring. Tell me more about that!

WS: We’re thrilled to be headed back in the studio! We love albums that are woven together around an overarching narrative instead of albums that play out like a collection of disjointed singles, so we are already constructing that motif for ourselves with new material.

We will be working again with producer Collin Warren at Tonal Park Studios, but the biggest change this time around is our own confidence. We are beginning to really understand our strengths as a band and are definitely more comfortable leaning into those things than we were one or two years ago. We like to work with producers who can build a sonic landscape for our music on record that feels both earnest and natural. Our sound can be quite nuanced at times and it relies heavily on the actual tone and timbre of our instruments and blended voices, so it has been important to find people who can capture this and present it in a way that comes across as honest instead of highly produced.

Wicked Sycamore - Growing Roots

Wicked Sycamore - Growing Roots

There will be some studio exploration on this new project for sure and we look forward to bringing in a few select guests but we are still so in love with how acoustic music sounds when created all in real time that we don’t want to stray too far away from this home base. Records are ultimately just small snapshots in time and we are excited to take a picture of where we are today!


NG: Tell me more about your songwriting process.

WS: Our songwriting process changes to fit each song, but it typically starts with a single concept from one of us. That concept can be as small as an isolated lyric or melody, or as large as a fully composed demo track. The first person will lay the groundwork, and then all of us will mold and shape it together as it grows. Every idea is worth exploring, so we explore until we end up with something that excites us all. Some arrangements fall together quickly and naturally, while others evolve over time. Workshopping things alone and together helps inform our final cohesive sound.


NG: As a group, who are your biggest musical influences?

WS: Stylistically, we are heavily influenced by bands like The Punch Brothers and the women of I’m With Her (Sarah JaroszAoife O’Donovan, and Sara Watkins). Their technical prowess is laudable, their songwriting is emotive and visceral, and their sense of collaboration is inspiring. At heart, we are just three devoted fans of music. We enjoy a good rock concert as much as a funk dance party, as much as a tight jazz trio, as much as a sweeping chamber orchestra, and so on. 


NG: And who are some local DMV area artists that excite you?

WS: Who should we be looking out for? We feel lucky to be friends with so many talented people around DC! Artists like The Dirty Grass Players, Nicole Saphos, Oh He DeadBumper JacksonsDave ManleyDennis Turner, The Remix, Ghost SugarGriefcat, Isabelle De Leon, Gina SobelMary-eL, and Elizabeth II come to mind.



NG: That's an amazing list if I may say so. Truly, we are lucky to be in a city with so much musical passion.

So back to you all. Where is your head at these days? What’s your focus right now and where are you looking to go, musically?

Wicked Sycamore (Photo Credit Bethany Carmella)

Wicked Sycamore (Photo Credit Bethany Carmella)

WS: We have a few band mottos that tend to guide our focus. Lately it has been to “improve ourselves, stay open, and lead with gratitude.” We’re just focused on being the best collaborators with each other that we can be. Every success or opportunity that we’ve encountered so far is a direct result of this collaboration and our deep sense of friendship and respect. There is absolutely nowhere to hide with instrumentation like ours so we’re always challenging ourselves to make even the smallest details matter. For us, that means a thoughtful approach to dynamics, harmony, space, arrangement, lyrics, and story arcs. Musically, we’re just continuing along this path which allows us to share our unique perspective through writing and performing.

Wicked Sycamore (Photo Credit Bethany Carmella)

Wicked Sycamore (Photo Credit: Bethany Carmella)

NG: And last question: what about looking forward, into the next few years? What do you see on your horizon as a band?

WS: Our only concrete goal moving forward is to keep playing; and as a result of that to become better friends, better bandmates, better musicians, better songwriters, and better people. With each change in season, we like to reflect back on the modest or grand goals we’ve achieved before looking to the future. We are not in any rush. So instead of fixating on a singular task, we focus on retaining an open and connected mindset and putting ourselves into scenarios with like-minded people. We are onboard for anything that allows us to continue playing as a band and with other artists who inspire us. Playing festivals is probably the most enjoyable opportunity for us at the moment, for that very reason!

NG: Well I think we are all onboard with you. I simply adore your sound and can't wait to hear the new album and catch your show at Gypsy Sally's on November 13th

Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me and letting us get to know you better. 

WS: Thank you so much for letting us share with you, and thanks to DC Music Review for your efforts. The scene would not be the same without you guys. 

NG: That's very kind. We feel exactly the same about you!


Feature photo by: Bethany Carmella


Performance Details

Performance Details

Performance

Details


Wed, November 13, 2019

Doors: 7:00PM

Show: 8:00PM


3401 K Street Northwest (Water St.)

Washington, DC 20007

(Google Maps Link)


$8 -  General Admission




Additional Resources

Additional Resources

Additional

Resources


To learn more about Wicked Sycamore, please see the following resources:

  • Bandcamp (Where you can purchase Growing Roots)
About the author
Nina Goodman

Nina Goodman

Nina Goodman is a music lover, dancer, artist, keyboardist, and an avid ukulele player. You may even see her up on stage performing with local DC bands. Above all, Nina is a fierce supporter of the Washington DC local music scene. Nina's talents are mostly behind the scenes where she maintains and curates our event calendar and conducts interviews with local artists. If there is music playing in the DMV, you can expect to see her attending or at least making sure that our audience knows about it.


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