What began as a request from a friend and a mutual admiration society is now a bona fide supergroup. Made up of three of the area's most sought after singer-songwriters, the Sweet Water Warblers are the power trio otherwise known as Rachael Davis, May Erlewine and Lindsay Lou, and they'll take the C2G Music Hall stage as part of their fall tour Thursday, October 6 at 8 p.m.
You've probably grown used to thinking of the three ladies in the context of their bands and solo careers. In the past, Davis has come to town as part of Shout Sister Shout and on her own, and Erlewine often plays with her husband, Seth Bernard, and is likewise an accomplished solo artist. When she's not playing upright bass and adding her clear voice to the Warblers' three-part harmony, Lindsay Lou can be found on tour with her Americana quartet, Lindsay Lou and The Flatbellys, recently honored by NPR's Mountain Stage for giving one of the top 12 live performances of the year.
So back to that friend request - it went something like this: Kristin Robinson, the co-founder of Wellston, Michigan's Hoxeyville Music Festival, asked the three women if they might, as a favor to her, consider performing a set together at the 2014 edition of the folk fest, rotating through each other's songs. According to Davis, whom I caught up with via phone recently, the answer was an obvious one: friend request accepted.
"We were like, 'Oh yes, we want to do that anyway," Davis told me from her home in Nashville, which she shares with her husband, Dominic Suchyta (bassist for Steppin' In It) and her children, Virgil and Lela May. "We were already big fans of each other. It was a mutual admiration society, so saying yes to Kristin was a no-brainer."
There wasn't much opportunity to rehearse. The three mutual admirers basically got together back stage and made a list of each other's songs they already knew. Soon it was crunch time. They took the stage and, as often occurs when musicians of a feather play together, magic resulted.
"We didn't hash out parts or pick a position or decide who was going to sing lead or the low harmony or anything like that. We just went up on stage and played, and after the first song, it was like, 'What just happened? How did that work out so well?' The audience sort of went crazy, and we all agreed we had to do that again and soon."
The Sweet Water Warblers were born, and since that fateful set two years ago, they've played several three- and four-gig tours. They've also recorded an EP scheduled to drop this coming January. If the band's formation was a Sunday stroll down easy street, however, the recording of their debut was anything but. It was more a comedy of errors. A comedy of errors with a ghost story thrown in.
Everything began auspiciously enough.
"We played another Warblers set at the same music festival a year later, and after that we decided we should tour," Davis said. "The minute we announced the shows they sold out. It was crazy. Our first gig was at The Ark in Ann Arbor, and following that show we all agreed that we had to make an album."
"The end of that first night turned into our first production meeting," Davis continued. "It's funny. In a band of just women things can get done so easily. We're all individuals, obviously, but we work together like a well-oiled machine. The efficiency is what I'm talking about. It's impressive."
The three agreed to launch a Kickstarter campaign, and the funds came in quickly. Fans were clearly eager to hear more from the Warblers, and the Warblers were happy to oblige. They decided to record the EP in the historic home studio of one of Davis's friends, an engineer who shared their vision for a no-frills, low-budget sound. Everything seemed perfect.
"We knew that it would be easy to record us," Davis said. "We just wanted a really live thing, and all we needed was a nice sounding room and one really good microphone that we could sing and play around. A cinch, right? And then my producer friend was free and ready to work with us, and she's a woman, so there we were, about to record an all-lady project in Nashville, Tennessee where, let's be honest, sexism is still kind of a thing. We couldn't wait."
It didn't take long for things to go south. First, the engineer was running a day behind schedule, thanks to a previous project. She had to spend a day gathering equipment. Then, the tracks the ladies recorded in the beautiful, character-filled home studio were full of weird noises - pops, cracks, and whistles that seemed to come from nowhere, even from mics that weren't plugged in.
"There was some sort of ghost-in-the-machine thing going on," said Davis. "We just could not get a clean track, so at the end of the evening we decided to go to a different studio."
Not their best-laid plan, but still, the ladies were still excited to record. Enter more problems - a sound board operator who hadn't mastered their particular room's configuration, the perfect microphone working one day and failing the next, a lack of energy, general bad vibes.
"Even the sound guy felt it. He was like, 'We need to listen to what the universe is telling us here,'" Davis said. "So we went to a bar and tried to relax. The bartender could tell by our faces we were exhausted and discouraged. She gave us some free drinks. It's Nashville, right? So she was probably in a band, too. We took a breather, and then we called everyone we could think of, trying to find a new space."
Long story short, the Warblers ended up at a third studio, one famous for recording bluegrass artists, and everything, finally, came together like clockwork. The magic they'd created two years before in their first outing came back to them, and they recorded five tracks in less than five hours. All that's left to do are the overdubs, which they plan to take care of now that the busy summer folk festival season is winding down.
And, in the meantime, audiences can catch the ladies doing what they do best - performing live, around the region and around one a mic, their voices and instruments - guitar, fiddle, upright - blending in effortless beauty.
"May and Lou are my two of my favorite people to sing with," Davis said. "We have our own instincts and intuition, but what's wonderful is how in sync we are. This past weekend at the Harvest Gathering we were doing a set with Josh Davis [no relation, of Steppin' In It fame] and again, we hadn't rehearsed. We just started singing our parts automatically, and they were all different but in complete harmony. Our default setting seems to be singing harmonies that go well together without ever having to talk about it. It's the best thing, singing with two other people and have what comes out sound like one voice."