Lucky And Stubborn: An Interview With Erin & The Wildfire

by | Aug 16, 2022 | MUSIC

Hourglass Sessions co-founder/director Tyler Scheershmidt and I arrive early to our interview with Erin & The Wildfire. We’ll be talking to the band’s namesake, Erin Lunsford, and her close friend and drummer, Nick Quillen. Walking up to the door of Lunsford’s Richmond townhome, we are greeted by David Mount, the band’s longtime manager. Looking around, I’m overwhelmed by the presence of no less than two dozen different vining plants, hanging at various heights in front of every available window. Lunsford meets Scheerschmidt and me in the hallway and ushers us into a sitting room at the front of the house. Though I haven’t asked for refreshment, she insists that I take a pamplemousse-flavored (i.e. grapefruit) seltzer water. When I comment on the beauty of her plants, and then tell her about mine, she insists on taking a cutting from a vine I particularly admire, giving it to me, and telling me to take it home and propagate it. 

As Scheerschmidt and Lunsford catch up reminiscing on the gigs that they have worked together, there is a knock on the door. In walks Nick Quillen, dressed fancifully and cracking jokes about my choice of seltzer flavor. We all take a seat with our various bubblies in the front sitting room, as Lunsford and Quillen begin telling me a little about their background. 

Originally from Botetourt County, Virginia, Lunsford grew up in a family that played bluegrass music. She took an interest from an early age, picking up guitar and banjo around the age of nine before moving on to piano at age 11. After high school, Lunsford moved to Charlottesville to attend UVA, originally on a pre-med track. However, she quickly made the switch to study Music and Psychology. She met Quillen while a part of a music group called O Records at UVA, a music support group that provided support and performance opportunities for emerging artists. 

Hailing from Waynesboro, Quillen began playing piano as a child, taking lessons from the chain-smoking organist at his local church. Growing up in the church, Quillen was in the church choir for a majority of his childhood, before taking band classes in his middle school. He obtained his first drum kit at 13. Making his way to Charlottesville, Quillen attended UVA to study Music and Economics.  

Joined by Ryan Lipps and Matt Wood, the four began playing together in and around Charlottesville while still in school. As graduation loomed for the members of the band, they were pondering their next move. Their keyboardist quit, and while looking for a new member, they noticed that almost every prospective musician was from Richmond. Having played here many times while in school, they decided that coming to Richmond, with its large and dedicated music scene, was the next logical step to get out of their college town and expand their careers. And so, in the fall of 2018, the band made the move. 

Listing among their influences Vulfpeck, Donny Hathaway, and Emily King, Erin & The Wildfire’s first studio album, Thirst, is absolutely drenched in old-school funk, and one would be forgiven for thinking it was by some band that opened for Funkadelic in 1976. Characterized by Lipp’s quacking guitars, groovy affected bass lines provided by Wood, and Quillen’s unrelenting shuffles on the kit, what really sells the whole schtick is the authentic horn arrangements, played by Garey Dorsey and Austin Patterson. Another highlight is Lunsford’s soaring vocals, which go from quasi-operatic belting down to barely audible low growls, then all the way back up to head voice runs, and are reminiscent of an early Stevie Wonder. 

Their second record, Touchy Feely, stands as a bit of a left turn, and really shows off the influences of Emily King on the band. The quacking guitars and affected, groovy bass lines take a step to the side to make room for atmospheric synthesizers — presumably provided by newcomer Stephen Roach, who began playing with the band in 2019. With Lunsford now affecting her vocals and providing multi-tracked harmonies, the change in style is felt heavily. The music is in full 80’s synth pop mode, and what puts it there is the change in Quillen’s drumming, from the tight shuffles on Thirst to more cymbal/hi-hat focused beats and his classic 80’s reverb/delay-accented snare hits. This formula shows on songs like “Ray of Sunshine,” “Rich,” and “Sleep so Easy.” However, the band cannot seem to help themselves, returns to first-album form rearing their heads as early as the second track, “Wake Up.” This song opens with another quacking guitar lick from Lipp, paired with one of Quillen’s new 80’s style beats. However, Quillen makes a similar callback in “Whatever You Like,” where he falls back into tight shuffles, now contrasted against the newer, synthy sound of the rest of the band. 

Erin & The Wildfire collaborated with Hourglass Session to make a one-shot live music video of their song “Little Me,” from their new album, Touchy Feely. You can watch their Hourglass Session above. Read below for our interview with Lunsford and Quillen, where we talk about the recording process, streaming music, and what it’s like writing for multiple projects. 

You all are prominent players here in Richmond, and you obviously made quite a name for yourselves, but what do you think of the Richmond music scene?

Erin Lunsford: The scene is challenging and really talented, so we feel like we’re always being pushed to be better, to think more creatively, and to make our content in our shows as engaging as possible. There’s so many people in the scene that we admire so much, like Butcher Brown. I feel like there’s all these like big brothers that we look up to, so talented and give us something to strive towards, but they’re also reaching back down and trying to pull people up with them, whether that’s through teaching or just letting us open for them, which has happened a couple times. The scene is really welcoming, really rich with talent, and we feel really lucky to be a part of it.

Nick Quillen: I think one of the biggest things for me is the difference between being here and in Charlottesville. In Charlottesville, when we had other local bands release a record, or I’d go to a show or something, I found myself thinking a lot, “Maybe this is good, but it’s not really my thing.” There’s a sort of brand in Charlottesville, of jazz at Miller’s, and then the rest is kind of singer-songwriter stuff — which, like Erin was saying, we kind of got away from. So here, it’s pretty common for us [to] like a friend’s band, or someone that we know in the music scene to release something, and we’re all like, “Yeah, this is good.” And that’s a great feeling that motivates us to push ourselves and do better. 

It’s never fun when your peers release music you don’t want to listen to.

NQ: But at the same time, when they do release good music, it makes you go, “Ah, damn you!” Pretty much everyone that we know here is so nice, and a lot of them are very accessible, to the point where you can go, “Man I really like this thing you did.” You can just reach out to that person and be like, “Let’s talk about this thing you did. How can I apply it to what we’re trying to do?” Great artists steal — that’s what they all say. 

Well, you all make fantastic music. But was it always that way? What were the first few years of playing in this band like, and did you ever feel that there was a moment where you had some sort of break, or where some event propelled you to another level? Because you have thousands of monthly listeners online, and you’re playing with acts like Sammy Rae and the Friends, who I saw you open for at the National, and a few months before that I saw Sammy Rae open for Lake Street Dive.

NQ: That’s actually how we got the gig: seven or eight years ago when we were just getting started playing in New York, we met someone that we played with a decent amount, and became friends with them, and her bassist is the bassist for Sammy Rae. So, when [Sammy Rae] came to town, they were looking to borrow drums for the show because they didn’t want to rent them or something. I don’t know exactly what happened, but they needed a drum set, and so I got a text that said, “Hey can we use your drums?” And I was like sure, and I brought it to [the Virginia Credit Union Live venue at Richmond] Raceway, and they got me and my girlfriend tickets to the show. And I just tried to be like, “Hey, next time you come to town, we would love to play with you.” And that started that conversation.

Photo by Tristan Williams

On the other side of that, I don’t want to speak for everybody else, but I don’t know that any of us feel like we’ve broken through what has felt like a ceiling that’s been over us. I think maybe the biggest ceiling is doing this without having to have other jobs. I know that not that many people get there. And obviously we’re very proud and happy with what we’ve accomplished, but I think part of the reason we’re still together is that we’re all very stubborn. Unless you’re in a band that takes off right away, I think you really need that for most of your members, or creative differences happen and you decide you don’t want to do it anymore.

EL: And to circle back to the first part of your question, the first few years of us getting started were really nose to the grindstone. We were playing three-hour shows every weekend at whatever circuit of bars, like Roanoke, Harrisonburg, Staunton, Charlottesville, Richmond.

Playing a lot of covers?

EL: Oh yeah. We had originals right off the bat, because when we first started we took my solo singer-songwriter songs and applied a band. And some of those made it onto our first EP, but we don’t play any of those anymore. It was really grueling, it was a grind for the first few years, and then we started to be more selective, play ticketed shows, work our way into venues that we thought were a good fit, and it would help us grow our following. Also, there have been a couple milestones that I think have advanced our career. Almost all of those milestones have been festivals, like Floydfest, Lockn’ Festival, Rooster Walk, we played CMJ Festival in New York City, and we made a lot of connections with that one too. Anytime we play a festival, it seems like we meet so many people, and then there’s already so many people in the audience that you immediately gain fans — whereas at a ticketed venue, you’re reaching out to people who are already aware of you. I think Nick makes a good point that as soon as we can just play music for a living, we’ll have maybe made it.

So do you have day jobs? And do they give you the freedom that you need to be able to pursue this?

EL: Of the core four of us, the two of us who are not here have strict 9-5s. Matt [Wood] just got promoted — congratulations! They don’t have as much flexibility as we do, but they are still really dedicated to the band, and try to prioritize our timing as much as they can, which is really generous, considering they only get so much downtime. And I teach voice lessons, and I do most of them on zoom these days because of the pandemic, so I can pretty much rearrange my students as needed, and it’s very flexible. Then I also have a solo project. 

NQ: I have an eBay resale business, where I go to auctions, estate sales, and sometimes thrift stores, and recently I’ve also been making an okay amount of money investing in a pretty conservative but sustainable way. I also have been working on learning Java so I can maybe make some coding money too. I’ve never been great at having a normal job, and I know to a lot of people that sounds like a copout, like I don’t want to work, which to a certain extent is true. I think you might be kind of a crazy person if you want to work, unless it’s at something that you’re very passionate about, and then if it weren’t a job you probably wouldn’t call it work. 

I was surprised to find out that you had a solo project, because to me y’all are Erin and the Wildfire, so I thought that this would be your solo outlet. But then you also have Erin Lunsford, which is your more singer-songwriter project, and I want to hear what the difference is between the two of them with a focus  on the writing process; how does music come about for Erin in the Wildfire, and how does music come about for Erin Lunsford?

EL: The difference between them is Erin Lunsford is more Americana, and sometimes I play my banjo, which says Bluegrass to a lot of people. Erin and the Wildfire is indie-pop or soul. Erin and the Wildfire has no Americana, but Erin Lunsford has some pop and soul, indie stuff. So when I’m writing things, they all come from the same pipeline, pretty much, and if I feel like they’re going to be a good fit for Erin and the Wildfire, I usually pitch them. The way we’ve been writing things recently and through the pandemic is we make demos online and then send them around. So I’ll usually send stuff that way, and a lot of them don’t end up with Erin and the Wildfire, so I’ll sort of reclaim them as Erin Lunsford stuff. That’s happened a few times in the past couple years, where I’ll pitch something, and kind of mock it up, and then I end up keeping it as just voice and guitar.

Photo by Tristan Williams

For Erin & the Wildfire, do the other band members bring songs, or is it pretty much all your music that then they flesh out?

EL: It’s a lot of my songs, but in this most recent record we tried to make it even more collaborative. People would make an original just from their idea, and then we would pass it around and take turns adding something to it. That worked really well with a song that Ryan wrote called “Wake Up,” from the Touchy Feely album. He wrote that, but it was just guitar and drums, and then he uploaded it online. I took it and added a melody, rearranged a bunch of the sections, and then we ended up arranging and writing parts as the group too. But that’s one where he really generated the initiative. Most of them are ones that I write and then we arrange as a group, burn to the ground, and then build it back up.

You did play the singles and EP game for a while, which makes sense because that’s what streaming platforms and social media reward, but your first album didn’t come out until 2017 even though you had been releasing music since 2014. When did you first realize that an album was coalescing, or did you set out with the idea of creating one in mind? 

EL: Thirst, the album that came out in 2017… we had been writing songs from 2014 through 2016, and then we went to Montrose to record that one in January 2017.

NQ: I do remember for that one that we took a month or two where we probably had five of those songs, and then we took some time away from playing live to get together a lot and write stuff in a more concentrated, “we’re going in this general direction” kind of way. To answer your question, from what I remember, it was like, “We’re going to make an album because that’s what bands do, so now we need to write it,” more so than, “Well, we’ve got enough for an album now.”

How was the experience, in terms of recording, different from your first album to your second album?

EL: There were a lot of things that were different, but actual time in the studio was probably the most similar part, because we were there for seven days each time. The first album was quite a bit longer, so for “Touchy Feely” we were still in there for seven days – or eight days, I guess, because we did an extra one. But we spent way more time per song, and also came in with a lot of our sounds and parts ready to go. But because we were kinda fresh into recording, for Thirst we were just nose to the grindstone, recording constantly, 12 hours a day, just trying to get everything recorded. Because it was about 13 or 14 songs, I think. We did drums and bass and guitar all in a room for the first three days, and then overdubbing, and it was a very mathematical, “just get it done” kind of thing. There was no producer, and the way I think of it creatively is that the process was a little dry. There was a lot of creativity going into the writing ahead of time, but the recording and production was more of a checklist to get it done as quickly as we could, because we were using all of our money for the studio time. For the second album, we put in a ton of work ahead of time in terms of the sounds, and gave a lot of thought to the production ahead of time. We also had a producer who helped us achieve what we wanted to sound like.

I noticed that you are releasing your second album on vinyl, but you did not do the same with your first. What made you come around to that decision? 

EL: It’s kind of a milestone. We wanted to try it, and I love listening to stuff on vinyl, and collecting vinyl. Also, I think there’s a quality to certain kinds of music that really comes across when you listen to it that way. Maybe that’s just a placebo and it’s all in my head, I don’t know. 

NQ: Well it’s a lot more intentional. You kind of have to commit to it, and I think it’s more okay now for everyone to do it. Back in 2017 and earlier, my perception was that — and I don’t I don’t mean to throw him under the bus — I think back then, Matt was also like, “If we’re recording on a digital medium, if it is going into a computer not into a tape deck, then that’s not what vinyl is for.” I don’t remember if that’s what he was saying, but that’s what I remember feeling, and at the time he was sort of the expert that I knew. He was the first one of us to really have a serious collection.

Now it feels like a missed opportunity if you don’t. Why not? If you’re going to have a piece of physical media why not make it, in my opinion, the longest lasting and the most meaningful? The songs are physically bumps and ridges on a piece of wax. New cars don’t have CD players anymore, and if you’re going to listen to it on the go, it’s going to be streamed. We still have the older fans that like a CD from time to time, but I think if you’re going to sell physical media, it just makes sense.

The last thing I wanted to know is when will you feel that you have succeeded, or do you already feel that you have? Are there milestones you’d like to hit, goals that you’d like to get to, or do you just not like to quantify it in that way?

EL: I feel like in some ways we’ve already made it, because every time we have the privilege of being on stage in front of people we get to connect with them and share a message. When you listen to Touchy Feely, a lot of it is about body positivity, and just being true to yourself. Radical self-love, and stuff like that. In the past we’ve played a handful of shows that were in new places and new venues we had never been to, and they weren’t the best turnout. But at one, a woman came up to me and she’s crying. She had her two daughters with her, and she was like, “What if you didn’t do this? What if I never got to hear this music? I’m so glad that you were here and you shared this message with me today.” And then I started crying too.

Moments like that, where people are moved by your music, or somehow changed by it, makes me feel like we’ve totally made it. My bank account would disagree, but I think that’s not why we’re in it anyway. We wouldn’t have been in it this long if we just wanted to make money and not have any heart in it. It would be nice to get to a point where we just had studio time to mess around with, and buy equipment that would be an experiment, or pushing the bounds of our creative time. But we’re getting there, and with every project we get a little closer to what our dream scenario might be, so it definitely feels like it’s the journey not the destination.

Also, a shit-ton of Spotify plays would make me feel like we got there.

NQ: A song on a TV show, or like an apple commercial. Something like…

EL: The Stranger Things remake in 2040.

NQ: [Laughs] Something one rung lower than the cultural phenomenon of Stranger Things. There was a moment — it was a while before Thirst, I think — where we were in a very early stage of, “Hey, you’re on the short list of songs for this untitled Zach Braff project.” I don’t know what it was, and obviously it didn’t happen for us, but that kind of thing. I think I’d love to do SNL. Although I know that my chances aren’t high even if we blow up, because it’s not Nick and the Wildfire, if I could transition into also having a comedy career at the same time, that would be great.

Photo by Tristan Williams

One final thing: tell me about the Hourglass Session, and what making it was like, because the school is a great location. The whole theme was very funny; all those balloons were crazy.

EL: I think it’s the best music video we’ve ever made. I think it’s beautiful. It wasn’t really what we had in mind necessarily, but I was really proud of the way that it looks and the way it sounds. We were originally going to have a live audience and make it a school talent show, but when we were planning this originally it was August of 2021, and it was like, “Yeah, COVID’s over I think, so we can definitely have people in the audience. Let’s call 100 people as extras!” Then, as we were getting more into planning, it was like, “Cool, Delta variant. So let’s have balloons instead of people.” That’s where the balloon thing came from.

NQ: If I can just take a moment to say: we’ve done a lot of live session type things and, like, 95% of them are complete garbage. The biggest reason, for me, and why I knew Tyler was the real thing, was that he brought a sound guy. It blows my fucking mind how many live sessions things are out there, and I guess it’s because mostly they’re doing a lot of solo singer-songwriter stuff that doesn’t require much more, but a lot of them out there just like to make something look really nice, and then it sounds like total garbage.

EL: Or you get there to the live session, like we did a couple in New York back in the day, and one of them they were like, “Cool, we’re so excited to have you guys.” But when we were loading in our stuff, they said, “Oh this is acoustic. You can play this little hand drum, and… did you bring an acoustic guitar? Because you can’t plug in.”

NQ: On top of that, I was also blown away by how good Tyler made it look. He’s got the gear, the know-how, the vision, and really the whole package.

Check out Erin & The Wildfire’s Hourglass Session, and all of the videos from this season thus far, on RVA MAG TV. Touchy Feely is available for preorder on vinyl from their website, and is available for streaming on all the major sites for that sort of thing.

Andrew Bonieskie

Andrew Bonieskie

But you may call me Bones. I'm the Associate Editor of RVA Mag, and a writer and musician living in Richmond, Virginia. After graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2020 with a Bachelor of Arts in music and a minor in creative writing I have gone on to score feature and short films, released a book of poetry, an album of original music, and perform lead vocals with the band Pebbles Palace.

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