Kick-starting their ten-year musical kinship as four best friends in college, the Virginia-based band has since evolved into their current fusion of soul, funk and indie-pop. Joining the blend of accomplished musicians in 2019, keyboardist Stephen Roach plays alongside bandmates Ryan Lipps (guitar), Nick Quillen (drums), and Matt Wood (bass), while frontwoman Erin Lunsford’s commanding vocals surge like a ball of fire.
Like many songwriters, Lunsford aspires to use her lyrics to impact those of all generations, and in doing this, she mainly derives from her own unique experiences. Whether it’s through her struggles with body-image and self-acceptance, or through her desire to address political concerns and highlight misogynistic environments, she vows to create a safe and inviting climate for her audience. And as a result, deep, interpersonal connections have the power to take place.
“Ray of Sunshine” is one of those songs whose main focus, main reason for existing, is to uplift. Dreamy, vibrant synths, rhythmically biting drums, The 1975-esque guitar riffs, and demanding vocal reverbs all play a part in elevating the track’s spirit and message, establishing a state of light, energetic alleviation for the stressors of the every day. If you ever need a wake-up call to get you out of a funk, this song is it.
The single stems from the woodwork of the band’s second full-length album set to drop in the Spring of 2022. Recorded this past summer and produced by Grammy-nominated producer Matthew E. White, the anticipated release brings forth their already thriving pop ambience.
I got to discuss the band’s story, the new single, and more with Erin and the gang.
Before you all met, who or what inspired you to start making music?
My family plays bluegrass music, so I was playing in family jams from a young age. Nick got started in church music as did Stephen. Matt was a marching band kid from the get go. Ryan had some family music going on too. Luckily, our music making lasted through college where we all met in a student-run recording label called ORecords (now called University Records).
What was it about the four of you that just ‘clicked’, and how did Stephen Roach eventually fall into the mix?
It was the mutual love of Donkey Kong and Funkadelic that bonded us from the start. All of us wanted to be students of music and servants of music. Erin’s powerhouse voice was a defining feature for our sound. Also, the guys were pretty punctual from the start, so we were actually able to get in a lot of practicing. Stephen joined the band in 2019 and fit right in with our goofy, hardworking vibe. He’s a career musician whose curiosity for all genres is constantly challenging our ears and our minds. Namely, Stephen loves to play 2000’s butt rock in the band van while explaining why it’s the best music ever made.
Other than your musicianship, what qualities do each of you bring to the table that makes for a cohesive band?
Matthew is the peacemaker. He’s eternally on your side, unless you’re in a group discussion and then he can only see both sides of the conversation. He’s got kind eyes and his incredible hair pulls enough weight for the rest of us to seem like we could be a cute boy band if we all tried harder. He’s also called “City-Daddy” because he drove our giant van into NYC for the first time.
Nick is the jester. He’s insanely funny, witty, and the consummate entertainer, but he’s also known for his honesty and insight. He keeps the rhythm rolling and the audience lolling.
Stephen is the butterfly. He’s adventurous and bold, but his musicality is detailed, thoughtful, and vibrant. He likes to fly high, but he also enjoys kicking back and watching his other bug friends. His eyes are bluer than anyone else’s.
Ryan is the barista. He’s punctual, tidy, and sleepy (hence the coffee). He’s the most consistent with color palette and aesthetic. He’s super generous with his gear and guitar expertise and will make you a delicious espresso if there’s enough time before we leave the house.
I’m the camp counselor. I am focused, hardworking, I handle the finances and I love a good ice breaker. Workplace moral and social cohesion are important to me just as much as our musical punch. Sometimes when the guys hand me the check they call me “Money-Daddy.”
All of these roles work together to make a functional artistic relationship. Plus we have a manager so that really helpsssss. Thanks David.
You’ve talked about how “Ray of Sunshine” was based on your Dad getting in the way of his own happiness, but I was curious if there was a significant moment where you got in your own way as well, and how you overcame it.
Oof good question! I had a dark moment in the beginning of the pandemic when my solo-album release tour was cancelled, my marketing plan was collapsing, and my album seemed like it was going to be a failure. I had to wade into those feelings for a while before seeing how to move forward. I really wanted to turn inwards and sulk, but instead I tried livestreaming shows and had a virtual album release. I ended up hosting a weekly livestream for five months March-July and tried to make the most of that awful situation.
Can you describe the creative process behind the single?
“Ray of Sunshine” began as a slower, more singer-songwriter vibe with just voice and guitar. I definitely wrote it thinking I’d play it for my dad eventually. But I took the song to Nick and Matt for a rehearsal and it immediately took on this more funky, R&B feel that opened up the song in a great way. Eventually the whole band was rehearsing on “Ray of Sunshine” in early 2020, but little did we know that still wouldn’t be the song’s final form. From November 2021 through July 2021, we sent “Ray of Sunshine” through the ringer of virtual workshopping. We totally rearranged the chords, chopped up the lyrics, upped the tempo, and added some 80’s instrumentation that put the song in a more modern pop space.
It’s been four years since you released your first full-length album, Thirst. In what ways has your music evolved, either through sound or lyrical message?
Thirst feels like my ex-boyfriend now. It was a solid relationship, I’m proud of what we built, and I definitely needed that experience to make me who I am today. But you should really see my next album… He’s fine, sophisticated, and a total evolution of Erin & The Wildfire’s sound. We’ve been changing and refining our sound since this band started, trying to find our own voice and I feel like we’ve finally landed with this latest album.
What was your experience like working with Matthew E. White on your upcoming album, and how did you get hooked up with him?
Matthew E. White was so fun to work with. He’s the perfect mix of jovial and business and he has great sensibilities. We hooked up with him through the Richmond music scene and had seen him at a couple live shows. We really admired the work he’d done on other albums including Natalie Prass’s The Future And The Past and hoped that he could help give our next album that special edge. There was a range of input from Matthew on each song – some tracks he didn’t want to change much and others we really put to the chopping block and reassembled with new arrangements. He kept us on our toes for sure.
Out of all the live performances you’ve done — with or without sharing the stage with other acts — which one had the most impact on you?
That’s a tough one because I can think of so many shows that left me feeling thankful/dazzled/excited. I’d have to say our album release show at The Southern in Charlottesville in October of 2017. It was a sold out show, which felt incredible, but also all of our friends, family, and incredible C-ville fans were there. It felt like a storybook coming-of-age moment where we grass-roots worked our way to this stage and then had our hardwork pay off. So much joy that night, plus lots of fun shenanigans on stage. (pizza costumes…)
And finally, how might Erin & The Wildfire finish off the year? 2022 plans?
We are finishing up the album this winter! I can’t wait for you all to hear this new music. It’s so special to us and so dynamic in a new way. We plan to finish up in the studio, finalize the mixing and then deliver this baby!! 2022 looks like : Single drop early 2022 – Album release – tour our butts off to promote the album – get super famous and play in Japan. <3
Photos by Christina Swanson