High up in the Catskills, Woodstock in winter is so snow-padded and soft “it sounds like someone put the world on mute”, explains AJ. This was where The Wandering Hearts – AJ Dean-Revington, Chess Whiffin and Tara Wilcox – recorded their self-titled album early on in 2020.
“It was on the Ashokan trail and had the most incredible views,” Chess says of the intimate studio where they recorded their sophomore album. The eerie-beautiful landscape of statuesque hemlocks heaving over a frosty lake made it look “Tolkein-like and magical”, says Tara. It was within that hallowed musical space, a sacred ground on which musical history was made, that the band created what we now hear today – an album which captures the essence, spirituality and vitality of the surroundings in which it was made. The twangs of a 1930s Recording King tenor guitar, loaned by the local whose mountainside clapboard farmhouse the band would jam in after daily recording sessions, dapples through the 12 tracks.
Adding a further layer of authenticity to their late-60s Americana-folk, music legend Marty Stuart and his wife, country star Connie Smith, gifted a song to The Wandering Hearts; the elated ‘Dreams’. The chugging rhythm, laid down by Marty on the mandolin and guitar, lends the record a hickory-smoked grit. Recorded at the legendary Cash Cabin in Hendersonville, a little upstream from Nashville, ‘Dreams’ carries both a history and a message of hope for the future.
Harking back to the enchanting melodies of Fleetwood Mac and Simon & Garfunkel, along with the barnstorming rigour of more recent acts such as Jade Bird and The Lumineers, this record bursts with joy and speaks of coming together to share happiness. As The Wandering Hearts put it on ‘Build a Fire’: “Why don’t we build a fire, bigger, brighter”.
The haunting, folksy ‘Over Your Body’, with harmonies redolent of The Mamas & The Papas, deals with the delights of letting go: “There’s no coming back to you, you should never come back for me”. And over ‘Gold’s thundering drums, the euphoric lyrics promise of spiritual healing in a volatile climate: “all of the broken pieces of your heart are made to be filled with gold”.
Known for their seamless harmonies, the trio’s vocals – AJ’s grittier rasp, Tara and Chess’s clean boldnesses – lustrously entwine throughout the album. Whether hushedly surrounding one microphone on the intimate ‘Lullaby’ or belting in tandem on the uplifting ‘On Our Way’: “We’re on our way now, this broken moment is a fracture in time”, an unbroken spirit melds it all together.
The Wandering Hearts are driven by a desire to get as real as possible, and they needed the perfect team behind them in order to do so: “We needed to shift to maintain our authenticity,” explains Tara. Woodstock’s depths and giddying heights reflect in the album, thanks to producers Simone Felice and David Baron, who provided what Tara calls a “safe, super positive space which felt almost spiritual in its focus. We knew it was going to be special as soon as it was confirmed”. The “incredible analog recording gear” on offer also helped shape the sound, and Simone and David’s openness to trying out new sounds meant “we would suggest something, and they would never consider it wrong, always encouraging us to try it out.”
The result is a celebration of life, new beginnings and shining through a darkening world. For such a vivacious record, death creates its shadows. ‘Dolores’, a lamenting acoustic track, is as much inspired by the life and untimely death of The Cranberries’ Dolores O’Riordan, as it is the lack of acknowledgement of people’s trauma that is still prevalent in today’s society.
Chess had read a Rolling Stone article about O’Riordan on the way into the recording session: “And as soon as I arrived, I felt the need to share it.” The others responded, Tara says, in part because “we were going through a lot and it was so good that we had each other. My mum would always say ‘everyone’s fighting a battle you know nothing about’” and this mantra runs through the song, both by illuminating O’Riordan’s story and promising no-one need swallow their pain. This uncomplicated kindness forms the heart of this record. Even when AJ rasps “I’ll be dead and you’ll be gone, but I’ll be right next to you” on ‘Tell Me When I Wake Up’, it’s a commitment, rather than a threat.
Living through a series of seismic global events culminating in the devastating Coronavirus crisis, The Wandering Hearts found that taking in the huge, ancient scenery of the Catskills helped them to realise that “we’re all just on this rock hurtling through space”, as AJ puts it. Though the writing session for ‘Stardust’ started with melancholic news of a young woman passing too soon, the mood turned hopeful as the band focused on all the life still left to live. This comes through no better in ‘Never Too Late’, where new dreams, dances and laughs are heralded in its euphoric, instantaneously catchy chorus. The band managed to wrap on the record just in time to get one of the last flights out of the US before the implementation of a travel ban, and their gratitude for this, and so much other luck at a time of its scarcity, is genuine and heartfelt.
The Wandering Hearts met in 2015 almost by chance through mutual friends and were discovered by their now management company just 26 minutes after uploading their first ever demo to SoundCloud, recorded only the second time the band had met to rehearse together. A record deal quickly followed and the band went on to win the prestigious Bob Harris Emerging Artist award at the 2018 UK Americana Awards.
The ensuing success of their debut album ‘Wild Silence’ led to two years of festival circuits and a personal invitation to Tennessee from Marty Stuart, where they made their US debut at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium and Grand Ole Opry in the very same week, making them the first British band ever to do so. The band went on to open Hyde Park’s BST Festival for Tom Petty and support Lukas Nelson in the UK, and Justin Townes Earle and Larkin Poe across the US.
Writing for the follow-up began almost immediately, with the band jotting ideas down and jamming on the road between shows. Once back in London, they headed to their studio at The Premises in Hackney to write and record the foundation of the album.
From the seed of those early writing sessions, the self-titled album grew – a reviving and authentic sound from The Wandering Hearts, bringing their kindred spirits, kind souls and wise thoughts, along with the magic of Woodstock, to fans old and new.