I met Maddie Witler at IBMA 2018 and she was definitely one of the stand out instrumentalists. She appears multiple times in the IBMA vlogs I posted on YouTube and I knew I had to get her on the website sometime in the future. Lucky for us, her band just released a new album, Smoke & Ashes. So Maddie was nice enough to talk with me about The Lonely Heartstring Band and her time playing bluegrass.
I know this is the first question you get asked at every interview, so let’s get it out of the way. Your groups name, ‘The Lonely Heartstring Band’, is unquestionably a nod to the Beatles. How did the band begin and what are the origins of the name?
The band formed when one of us got hired to put together a band for a wedding gig, the groom was choosing the band and wanted a five piece bluegrass band playing Beatles tunes. We were all at Berklee at the time and had played together in various combinations for a while before this, but this was the first time this group of five got together. We really picked apart those Beatles tunes and tried to faithfully reproduce the sounds and arrangements from the record; I ended up playing a lot of drum parts, banjo mostly played piano and guitar parts, fiddle doing sustained electric guitar and organ parts, we were very committed and we learned a lot. You can still find our first EP on band camp that has a lot of these tunes. Because we had put so much work into the music we started booking a few gigs under the name, Beatlegrass. That name was obviously a bit of a shoebox so we soon brainstormed a new name that would work for a Beatles cover band, but would also allow us to do something else, thus, The Lonely Heartstring Band.
Smoke & Ashes is your second album with ‘The Lonely Heartstring Band’, what growth and change has the group seen since the 2016 release of Deep Waters?
I think we’ve all grown a lot as people and as musicians since that first record. We recorded most of Deep waters in January of 2015. We’ve toured a lot since then. Personally, I feel there was a lot I learned about what’s important as a musician by playing shows so regularly. We tend to expect a lot of ourselves technically and musically with our shows, and figuring out what was needed to maintain that night after night has been very educational, and I think that sense of confidence and intention comes out in the new record. We also have wider ears than the last time we wrote and arranged material for a record. We listen to a lot of music as a band on the road and most of it Isn’t bluegrass. We listen to just about every genre, but I feel what probably resonates the most with the band as a whole is song based music, with good production. Andy Schauff, Tom Petty, Ray Price, Stevie Wonder, Willie Nelson, Peter Gabriel, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Hot Rize are all artists who’ve gotten a lot of air time in our van over the past few years. We tried to keep this in mind when writing and arranging material for the new record. it’s a balance of trying to be open to using any arranging or writing technique that we’ve learned from our favorite music, and doing things that play to the band’s strengths with our instrumentation and abilities. We also had great help on this record with Bridget Kearney producing, and Dave Sinko engineering and producing a bit as well. I’d say being able to have humans and musicians as talented as those two on our team is some kind of growth.
Obviously you have no qualms about moving away from a traditional bluegrass sound. In a genre that often spends more time looking backwards than moving forwards, how do you deal with being labelled ‘bluegrass’ when you’re obviously saying something new with bluegrass instrumentation?
That’s a tough one that I think about a lot. I know and love bluegrass, and to me most of what we do is not bluegrass. It’s definitely heavily influenced by bluegrass, but it’s also heavily influenced by a lot of other things.
I find if I’m talking to someone who doesn’t know bluegrass I would say, “we’re a progressive bluegrass band.” If I’m talking to a bluegrasser I might say, “We’re a progressive acoustic band.” We’re hard to pin down genre wise, but to most of the world we’d register as a bluegrass band. I recently heard someone arguing that (Punch Brothers) Antifogmatic is bluegrass to them. At that point the question is, “is it possible to have a band with our instrumentation that isn’t bluegrass?” Mostly we just try to make good music, and you can call it whatever you like.
I know firsthand that you’re an excellent mandolinist and guitarist. How did you get started on these instruments and what was your first exposure to bluegrass?
Thank you! I got started playing music on the fiddle actually, when I was 9, playing in Texas style fiddle contests, they’d always have a picking division at those things so I got a mandolin when I was 12, mostly so I could play in those competitions. Those contests we’re really my first exposure to fiddle music, and occasionally bluegrass, depending on the event. From 12-14 I was mostly a three finger style banjo player, but then at 14 I was asked to join a band on the mandolin and that changed everything. I got obsessed with the mandolin, and with Chris Thile, and playing bluegrass, and the mandolin has been my main tool of musical expression ever since. Eventually I got into more traditional bluegrass and got into players like Bill Monroe, David Grisman, Sam Bush, and Tim O’brien.
I played some electric guitar in high school but didn’t really play guitar until I was 19 or 20. I was into bluegrass and wanted to be able to play some guitar, so I started out working up only Tony Rice breaks. Learning the guitar as a whole instrument seemed too daunting to think about, but learning only Tony Rice style guitar made it seem more manageable. I did that for a few years until eventually I started trying some other stuff and working on the guitar more broadly. I play arch top guitar on two of the tracks on the new LHB album, I find that very fun and it’s a good excuse to bring a guitar on the road with me.
It seems like all of the young pickers I meet now studied at Berklee College of Music. Can you tell me a little bit about the Berklee scene, how it shaped your playing and what studying music there was like?
Berklee was a great experience. The academic side of things was great, I studied with people like John McGann, Julian Lage, Joe Walsh, and Darol Anger. I learned how to read, write and arrange music for various ensembles, how to conduct, how to sing solfege. I remember counterpoint being a favorite class, and I definitely use a lot of those concepts when thing about improvisation. I also just got a lot of great thoughts on musicality, humanity, and professionalism from older musicians who had lived a life in music. The community of students when I was there was really amazing and that was as important to my musical education and college experience as anything I did through Berklee itself. It’s very cool to look out into the bluegrass scene and beyond and see so many friends from Berklee doing well. As a whole it was a really important time of musical and personal growth for me and I’m very grateful I had the opportunity.
As I saw at IBMA last year, you are no stranger to the late night jamming scene. What are some limitations you see in players that can lower the quality of a jam? And what would you suggest bluegrass musicians work on to become more well rounded players?
Well there’s a lot of things one can do to lower the quality of a jam so I could answer this a lot of ways. I’d say mostly it all comes back to listening. I hear a lot of players playing too loud, or too much, or not fitting their playing to the situation. When I’m feeling best about my playing in a jam or on stage, is when I can get to a place of listening to the band or jam as a whole, like I’m listening to a record, and ask myself “If I were some other mandolin player on a record, what would I want to hear?” That means making sure you’re quieter than the singer or whatever instrument is playing a break (and sometimes that can mean not playing at all), and making sure your rhythm and back up parts are concise and deliberate. Nothing should be on autopilot, every moment in a song is different and so you should always be aware of how you fit in to the overall sound. Remember that you can’t make other people make sonic space, but you can choose to make it yourself by playing less.
I know you’re a big Tony fan. We played all of Church Street Blues together in a hallway and you played it much cleaner than me, so you can’t deny it. Top three Tony Rice breaks and why?
As I mentioned earlier, I love Tony. Probably the single most influential bluegrass musician for me. Hard to pick just three but I’d say:
Orphan Annie, Church street blues. These two breaks are just great examples of melodic “C” position Tony. Some beautiful stuff in these.
Spanish Point, Bela Fleck’s Tales from the Acoustic Planet Volume two. Much later in Tony’s playing career, really creative different sounding stuff from him. Bela said that for this record Tony would do a single take, then go sit in his car and listen to Miles Davis, he’d then have to be convinced to come back inside if Bela wanted another take.
Key Signator, DGQ20. There’s so much good Tony with the Grisman Quintet, this solo from a live version of the Darol Anger tune Key Signator is one of my favorites. Fast, loud, creative, but so Tony.
What does a practice routine in the life of Maddie Witler look like? What are you working on right now?
There have been times in my life when I’ve done several hours a day of very organized practice. These days I tend to be a little more scattered. If I’m working on the mandolin I’ll usually just improvise for a bit, If I feel like it and notice some technical issues I’ll do some right hand exercises or scales but mostly I just play music. I really like playing along to records. These days when I’m home I probably practice other instruments as much if not more than the mandolin. Guitar gets some time, and my latest practicing project has been electric bass. I’ve been transcribing some Motown (James Jamerson) bass lines as well as learning some Joe Dart stuff and whatever else catches my ear. I really like the bass and it’s been fun to learn in a different genre of music.
When your name comes up in conversation the comment I hear time and time again is that you have incredible time. Your mandolin chop is a metronome. How much time did you spend listening to a metronome in order to become one and how can the rest of us become metronomes too?
Haha well that’s very kind. I have spent, and continue to spend, a lot of time with the metronome. Good time is one of the things that gets me the most excited in music, and the mandolin is a good instrument for that. Sam Bush’s chop on Cash on the Barrelhead from Dolly Parton’s The Grass is Blue gives me chills every time. I heard several teachers and heroes talking about how important good time was and I really took that to heart. Teacher, and Berklee String Department Head, Matt Glasser has said, “There are bad musician’s with good time, but there are no good musician’s with bad time.” Soloing and technicality are great and important, but it’s all meaningless if you don’t have good time, and you’re going to be playing rhythm most of the time anyway so embrace it, and do it well.
If anyone wants to keep up with ‘The Lonely Heartstring Band’ and hear the new album Smoke & Ashes where should they go? Any big shows or festival appearances on the books for 2019?
Lonelyheartstringband.com is the place for all your LHB news including our tour schedule. We’ve got some nice festivals this summer. Father’s Day fest in CA, Redwing Roots in VA, and Green Mountain Bluegrass Fest in VT are one’s I’m particularly looking forward to. I also recently moved to Brooklyn, NY so you can find me playing around there with various folks. I’ve also been teaching some Skype lessons recently and if people are interested in that they can reach me at Maddiewitler@gmail.com.