After a string of EP’s and albums with her band, Erin & The Wildfire, Erin Lunsford has released a new solo album called The Damsel. While The Wildfire’s records seem to be explorations in everything from soul, R&B, and even funk to Americana and blues, Lunsford seems to have found her solo voice in the latter, more down-home roots sound. Although this new album dwells mostly in the Americana and folk realms it also hearkens to the previous soul years of her band, particularly in Lunsford’s powerhouse vocal stylings. The Damsel is a powerful and deeply personal album about navigating singlehood and loneliness with power and poise.
According to Lunsford, the title of the record is “meant to be kind of ironic – like a reclaiming of the word ‘damsel’.” In the age of feminism and personal empowerment for women, the archetype of a damsel feels antiquated and obsolete, even counterproductive, but Lunsford had a different spin on the word. “When you think of a damsel, you think of a single woman who is kind of helpless. I wanted to reclaim it. Just because you’re alone doesn’t mean you’re helpless,” she said. “And there’s nothing wrong with singlehood.”
In addition to themes of personal empowerment, vulnerability and being a single woman, the album also has a through-line of homage to Lunsford’s family. Lunsford explained that the cover image has several tie-ins to her family. “The umbrella in the centerfold was my grandfather’s, and he got it in Japan when he was in the Korean war,” she explained. “The necklace I’m wearing was my grandmother’s… and the earrings I’m wearing on the album cover are from my cousin.”
The album’s debut single is “Virginia Brother,” which she says was chosen as a single “purely for sentimental reasons.” “It’s about my younger brother, who lives in my hometown, Fincastle, and we released it on his birthday,” she said.
Lunsford’s family informed other songs on the album as well. “The song ‘Wherever You Are’ is about a conversation I had with my mom when I told her I wanted to move to Richmond from Charlottesville,” she explained. “I got out of the car after that conversation and wrote it all down.”
The other two singles that were released before the full album were “27 Summers Down” and “How Many Birds.”
“I thought ’27 Summers’ was really representative of the album theme as a whole,” said Lunsford. “It’s talking about missing my hometown, being fine with being single, feeling really strongly tied to my family and missing them, and talking about the physical scenery of my upbringing.” “How Many Birds” was chosen for a more practical reason. “[It’s] the most produced song on the album, with the most instrumentation — it’s got a full drum kit — so I thought it would appeal to a lot of people.”
The Damsel was recorded in Richmond at Scott’s Addition Sound. “I worked with an engineer, Stewart Myers, who I’ve worked with several times,” said Lunsford. Myers, who co-produced and mixed the album, also contributed bass to some tracks. Lunsford worked with a variety of other musicians to flesh out the album’s sound, including every member of her group, The Wildfire.
Christina Swanson, Lunsford’s visual collaborator and curator for the album, took all of the photos for the album cover as well as the cover photos for the three singles from the album. The creation of the album’s imagery was a fully collaborative process. “We had conversations about how we wanted to style it and the colors we wanted to have,” said Swanson. “It was about picking out feminine colors and feels, but also making sure to position Erin in a way where she felt very powerful.”
Lunsford feels that Swanson’s input was crucial to shaping the album’s overall focus. “Christina was super instrumental in helping me figure out what the message was there,” she said. “Along with the idea of the title, I wanted to appear vulnerable, but also fierce.” The photo of Lunsford on the cover has her, in her own words, “appearing kind of exposed… and still being strong,” which is an apt summation of The Damsel as a whole.
“Vulnerable and fierce” are two words that may seem unusually juxtaposed, but they perfectly encapsulate this record as a whole. The vulnerable subject matter and personal lyrics at times read more like a private diary entry than a song, but Lunsford’s fierce and powerful voice is a strong contrast, making for a brilliant and harmonious dichotomy. “You can still be beautiful… and vulnerable while still being a single damsel,” she explained.
Lunsford took the visual component of this album much further than just the album cover. Swanson had the idea to have original artwork made for each song on the record; this concept eventually became a visual album that acts as a companion piece to The Damsel, especially with the album entering the world during a time of social isolation.
“The idea was, how do we create a way to support the visual arts community?” Lunsford explained. “I found a way to keep things going with live streams. I have this awesome platform to be able to connect with my fans still… but a lot of visual artists don’t have an outlet right now.”
The first artist Lunsford and Swanson brought in was Jessica Camilli, a Richmond artist who made the original print that Lunsford used for The Damsel‘s t-shirt design. “[Camilli] has been in the Richmond visual arts scene for years, so she really helped connect us to curate a list of people,” said Swanson. “We really wanted to focus on artists who were women, gender non-binary, or artists of color. We were really trying to have a diverse group of artists take a stab at these songs.”
Lunsford and Swanson hope to eventually hold a live gallery showing and exhibit for the art created along with the album. Since Camilli coordinates monthly art displays at The Camel, the goal is to display all of the works in The Camel when Lunsford plays her in-person album release show. Ideally, artists will be able to display and sell originals and/or prints of the artwork they created for The Damsel.
Over the course of creating this assembly of related artwork, Lunsford and Swanson have developed a strong partnership and assembled a highly effective and cohesive team of creators. “The point of the whole project has been to connect people, bring people together, and have a collaboration between groups that we wouldn’t necessarily see otherwise,” said Swanson.
With the expansion into a fully-realized collection of art to accompany the album, The Damsel has grown into something much larger than Lunsford’s music alone. Instead, it has become a collective effort around which the creatives of Richmond can coalesce. Lunsford also worked to set up a charitable component of the work through Culture Works RVA, a non-profit organization that provides grants to local working artists. Culture Works’ COVID-19 relief fund has already given grants to over 100 artists in the Richmond area, and support generated by The Damsel has the potential to push their giving even farther.
Of course, with the album being released in the midst of a pandemic, there’s sure to be some adverse effects. How does The Damsel cope with the pandemic all on her lonesome? “Initially it was pretty devastating,” Lunsford divulged.
Her disappointment was for good reason. As ambitious as Lunsford is, you better believe she had big plans for 2020. “I had a whole tour planned for April and May to release [The Damsel],” she said. “I had specifically blocked off time from band dates so that I could take some time to tour solo… I had set up three full band shows. But I’ve kind of had to pivot to online stuff to try to keep people engaged with my music and promote the album that way.” She’s been as diligent about this pivot as she’d originally intended, playing weekly live streams and connecting with fans through social media.
Regardless of the ways social isolation has thrown a monkeywrench into her plans, Erin Lunsford has outdone herself with the comprehensive multi-media project The Damsel has evolved into. She’s proven herself not only as the powerhouse vocalist and badass woman that Richmond already knows and loves, but also a sensitive and highly conscious artist with an uncanny ability to organize and execute her bold, complex ideas and sophisticated arrangements.
The Damsel is a stunning album, a personal and autobiographical record of what it means to be a single woman in the modern world. But it is also a meeting place for thinkers, painters, sculptors and creatives of all kinds to interpret and imagine Lunsford’s lyrics, and to explore her inner world with their own eyes and hearts.
Top Photo via Erin Lunsford/Facebook