As far as gigs go, Erin & The Wildfire has been to the mountaintop – literally and figuratively.
The indie-pop group with a standout namesake vocalist has graced some of the biggest festival stages Virginia has to offer, from FloydFest and LOCKN' to Rooster Walk and the Red Wing Roots Music Festival. They’ve also recorded a set for Mountain Stage, the nationally syndicated radio show produced by West Virginia Public Broadcasting and distributed by National Public Radio.
The band’s next hill to climb? Finding the same rarefied air in the studio. With their Matthew E. White-produced sophomore album, “Touchy Feely,” it sounds like they’ve found it.
The band’s four-person core membership – singer Erin Lunsford, guitarist Ryan Lipps, bassist Matt Wood and drummer Nick Quillen – met a decade ago as college students living in Charlottesville. They remained there until 2018 as they built a following around tight and soulful performances buoyed by Lunsford’s impressive vocal range and skill.
“Primarily, what we’ve had going through the existence of the band is a live show [rather than] recorded music,” Lipps says. “What we’ve done much, much more is play live shows.”
“Our shows are totally transformative in terms of making fans and actually connecting musically with our audience,” Lunsford says.
The group’s reach got a big boost after gaining a foothold on the festival circuit.
“Especially FloydFest in Southwestern Virginia,” Matt Wood says. “We played that one summer  and we went back to our regular lives afterwards, and [were] playing bar and restaurant shows, and it became a regular thing where every time we’d play, someone would come up to us after the show and be like, ‘Hey, I saw you at FloydFest … That’s why we’re here tonight.’”
Moments like those instilled a commitment to making every show count, and making each one unique. “We always feel bad playing the same old stuff,” Lunsford says. “Every time we have a show, we’re [thinking], ‘What are we doing that’s different this time?’”
Sometimes that means learning new cover songs. At their last Richmond engagement of 2021, a headlining set at Brambly Park Winery, the group delivered pitch-perfect takes on songs by Prince (“I Wanna Be Your Lover”) and Vulfpeck (“Back Pocket”). Other times, they’re trying out new original material. While workshopping songs on the road is a tried-and-true way of prepping for recording, there’s risk in locking in an arrangement too readily.
“[With] songs that you’ve played live for years,” Quillen says, “it can be tough to come up with things that will be interesting in the recorded medium, because it’s a totally different animal.”
“That’s how our first record went,” Lunsford says of the band’s debut LP, “Thirst,” from 2017. “We had this catalog of live songs and we put them to a track. There wasn’t the sparkle that we feel with this album, where we were very intentional with the sounds and the arrangements.”
Matthew E. White played a big part in finding that spark.
- Christina Swanson
- Originally a hit in Charlottesville where they met, Erin & the Wildfire have been making inroads in Richmond since the start of the pandemic.
The Wildfire orbit had been drifting closer to White’s for some time. Three of the core four band members moved to Richmond within a month of one another in summer of 2018, and an appreciation for the music of Spacebomb signee Natalie Prass put White on their radar. The band would share a stage with Prass as part of a River City Roll bill in 2019.
“[White] first came to our attention because we love Natalie Prass’ most recent album,” Lunsford says, “and we were kind of obsessed with ‘Short Court Style.’ Still am. And we were like, ‘How do we get these sounds into our music?’”
First came an extensive demo recording process in which Lunsford and company wrote and reworked songs remotely. Nick Quillen, who served as editor for the cover videos that kept the band active during the early pandemic, saw an opportunity to contribute in new ways: “When we all established, ‘Okay, we’re all going to be inside, in our homes for the foreseeable future,’ in a way I was kind of excited, because as a drummer, it’s harder for me to contribute to other parts of the song that aren’t drums when we’re playing things in a room.”
“Touchy Feely” employs a swirling mix of acoustic and synthesized sounds, mining the past in order to usher in a new chapter. “Sweet Thing” is Quillen’s self-described “attempt at doing something with lo-fi programmed drum stuff.” “Ray of Sunshine,” released as a single in late 2021, started with a singer-songwriter arrangement, but keyboardist Stephen Roach pushed the sound in a refreshingly retrospective direction.
“He took a pass and added some '80s synth horns,” Quillen recalls, “and immediately once I heard that, I [thought], ‘We can make 'Ain’t Nobody'[a song by Chaka Khan].”
“We love ‘Ain’t Nobody,’” Lunsford says. “The way that all of those parts fit together is such a dream. It’s not too busy, it’s the perfect combination, the sounds are really interesting, and also super-'80s sounding, so we were inspired by that.”
The 1980s pop band, Toto, and the venerable vocalist Steve Winwood (Traffic) were also reference points from the outset. But it’s one thing to have a specific sonic palette in mind, it’s another to find the target when it’s time to record. The difference between a hit and a miss can be the result of barely perceptible in-studio decisions. This microphone instead of that one. How an audio signal is processed. That’s where White came in.
“We brought him all the demos,” Lunsford says, “and he helped us put the gloss on. We were like, ‘We like this sound. How do we do that?’ And he had all the answers.”
White also helped with new arrangements for the older compositions in the set of songs, and with keeping things moving forward during summer 2021 recording sessions, which were largely split between Montrose Recording in Richmond and White Star Sound outside of Charlottesville.
“Matt White knew how much time we had to make the record,” Quillen says. “Prioritizing things and keeping us on track, on budget … It’s really good to have someone behind the desk [saying], ‘I’ll write down that was a good take.’ Some things you don’t think about until you’re in there. You could end up wasting a lot of time.”
The passage of time weighs heavily when you’re aiming to make a high-polish record on a budget. It’s also front-of-mind when you’re looking to make up for what feels like lost time.
“I’ve been [living in Richmond] for three, four years, and only a year and a half of them have been normal,” Matt Wood says. “We were well established in Charlottesville, then moved here, and now it’s like we basically have to rebuild that whole brand.”
That’d be enough of an uphill trek without a global pandemic placing a pause on live performances.
“We had a residency at the Camel,” Wood says. “We had played some pretty big shows. We did Friday Cheers, RiverRock. We were getting all these good events and I feel like we were starting to get a little bit of momentum behind us, and then the pandemic happened.”
“We’re getting back out there with this new record,” he concludes, “so not only are we new to the city, it still kind of feels, we have something new to show for it.”
The heightened care brought to the “Touchy Feely” recording process mirrors the intent Erin & The Wildfire brings to building a fanbase that values inclusion. The mission is stated right there on the band’s homepage: “E&TW aim to make their shows a space where the audience will feel safe and accepted.”
The lyrics Lunsford writes, especially on songs such as “Shape” and “Little Me,” reflect on the importance of self-acceptance, and the singer makes sure concertgoers have the context they need for the message to sink in. “I talk about ‘Shape’ right before we play it,” she says, “and I’m very explicit about what this is about. ‘You are all welcome here. You are beautiful as you are.’ Hopefully that extends to the audience for the whole show and beyond.”
Another song on the new album, “Then I Changed,” actually started out as an ode to weight loss, written at a time when Lunsford was dieting and working with a trainer with the goal of thinness. Three or four years away from writing that song, she doesn't think that way any longer, she says.
"I’m very anti-diet culture and not afraid of being fat, and not afraid of varying body sizes," she says. "At the time, I was like, ‘I can change my body, because that makes me strong.’ And now, ‘I have changed my mindset, because that makes me strong.’”
Erin & The Wildfire performed at the National in late February, and the feedback Lunsford received online showed appreciation for the affirmations she shared during and between songs. “[The messages] were so sweet – about how much the music meant to them, and ‘Little Me,’ and body positivity talk onstage,” Lunsford says. “People saying, ‘I needed to hear that.’”
While still tied to an in-person performance, notes like those show the band is already succeeding at generating more enthusiasm online. That’s the goal Nick Quillen has in mind.
“The metric that will make me think ‘Oh, this is actually kind of hitting’ is if people show up to our shows just having heard the music online, which means either word of mouth starts working for us in places that we can’t spread it [ourselves] or algorithms really start working for us.”
Given the group’s ability to touch the hearts of listeners, it seems only a matter of time before both are on the rise.
Erin & The Wildfire’s new album, “Touchy Feely,” comes out on April 1. A release show will take place at the Camel on May 21. Doors open at 8 p.m. and tickets are $15. For more information, visit thecamel.org/event/erin-the-wildfire.