Fall in love with The Wandering Hearts
8th June 2019
Ahead of their appearance at the Black Deer festival The Wandering Hearts AKA Francessca Whiffin, Tara Wilcox and AJ Dean speak to Eileen Leahy about how they got together and why they’re putting a 21st century spin on classic country music
One of the must-see acts at this year’s Black Deer festival, held at Eridge Park over the weekend of June 21-23, is The Wandering Hearts, a talented trio from London who are currently enjoying huge success on the Americana and country music scene, both here and in the US.
The band, which got together four years ago, is made up of singer Tara Wilcox, Francessca ‘Chess’ Whiffin and AJ Dean. All three sing lead vocals and Chess and AJ also play the mandolin and guitar respectively. Each of them grew up on a fairly varied sonic diet but they admit that their collective love of country and folk is what united them.
“We all loved The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, Van Morrison, James Taylor and Fleetwood Mac and then started getting into contemporary country acts like Carrie Underwood and Shania Twain,” Chess explains.
“I have Scottish roots and Chess has Irish ones so there was a lot of folk influence in the mix too,” adds Tara.
“We got together through mutual friends,” says Chess, who was born and brought up in Cranbrook. “We’d heard about each other in passing and we somehow all ended up in a room together. It was just the weirdest moment because we started singing and playing together and it was like we’d been doing it for years. We were immediately in each other’s heads and we’ve never really lost that feeling. We had an immediate connection.”
Such a serendipitous start was further gilded by the fact Americana and country-inspired music is enjoying a huge renaissance right now, as the success of last year’s inaugural Black Deer festival, where they also played, testifies. Why do they think that this genre is so popular right now?
'We started singing and playing together and it was like we’d been doing it for years'
“I think there’s a real thirst for music and storytelling right now,” continues Tara. “Pop music has got very good at talking about struggles that really impact people like depression and anxiety thanks to singers like Billie Eilish and Julia Michaels, but musically it’s still on one level.
“We grew up listening to singers like Bonnie Raitt, Whitney Houston, Celine Dion and Dolly Parton who had all amazing stories and voices and they experimented with their vocal range. If you don’t hear that as a child you won’t emulate it. There’s something really freeing about hearing music and getting lost in it and that’s probably why Americana is such a big thing right now.”
Their signature laid-back contemporary country sound has led to The Wandering Hearts releasing their first album Wild Silence to critical acclaim in 2018. On the back of that they then bagged a UK tour supporting fellow Americana musicians Ward Thomas earlier this year and also have a number of festival dates both here and in the States this summer.
The DJ and hugely influential country music aficionado Bob Harris is also a big fan of theirs, which has seen the band being played on heavy rotation on Radio 2 and snapping up gigs at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire and also supporting Jack Savoretti on his Forest Live tour.
So what do The Wandering Hearts think makes them stand out in a pretty crowded contemporary country music market? “When people hear our harmonies they say it sounds like we’re family. The three of us have got this sibling-like connection. It was as weird for us as it was for everyone else when we started singing together. To have that connection was kind of amazing.
“Our music really lends itself to lots of instrumentation but it doesn’t follow the same linear pattern all the time, which is quite nice as it keeps things fresh and brings a different perspective to things.”
The ability to make a traditional genre like country sound relevant to today’s listening audience is clearly a key element of The Wandering Hearts’ success to date, but so are the lyrics they write too.
“People often ask us what’s our formula for writing and we don’t really have one,” Chess smiles. “The way we write doesn’t make a lot of sense, the way we got together doesn’t either, but we just don’t question it.”
“The only thing I can liken it to is when you fall in love,” Tara states. “You can’t explain why out of all the people in the world you are drawn to that one person. So you think let’s not look for a problem, let’s not question anything. I’d say that being in a band is the nearest thing to being in love.”
And it’s clear that all three of them are simply loving their time in the spotlight right now.
“We’ve been doing the Ward Thomas tour and an indie record store tour at the same time and we’ve been in the States for a month working with different producers to see where we want to go to with our new songs. We have about 70 written so need to whittle them down!
“We did our first tour last June and were lucky enough to play the Late Night Jam event at Ryman auditorium in Nashville. It’s known as the ‘mother church’ in country music and we ended up there thanks to the support we’ve had from [American country singer] Marty Stuart. He really took us under his wing.”
“We got to play alongside legends like The Byrds, John Pryne and Margot Price, it was just so bonkers!” laughs Tara. “Then the next day we played the Grand Old Opry [also in Nashville] then Gracleand. It was just amazing! I mean that was our first ever international show out of the UK!”
Yet despite all the amazing opportunities and experiences The Wandering Hearts have had so far, they still seem to be pretty level-headed about things: “We try to appreciate and celebrate every little thing as it comes, every little milestone because the next one’s not guaranteed,” says Chess.
“Our manager summed it up years ago when he told us to ‘clock everything and every moment’. He said, ‘if I’d have told you two years ago you’re going to have played all these amazing venues in America and release an album, you wouldn’t believe it’.”
“But it’s also important to note that the three of us are such great mates and are so lucky to have one another,” Tara adds. “AJ’s one of the girls and I guess we’re like one of the boys too. You just feel so good on stage together, like you’re in a gang –the best gang.”
For tickets visit: www.blackdeerfestival.com/tickets/
Facing the music...
On dealing with the pressures of fame
Try not to question it, that’s our mantra. If you start to think about the gravitas of a situation like playing the Ryman Auditorium with all those legends you’d freak yourself out. It’s best not to over think things. We opened BBC Proms in the Park in front of 40,000 people last summer and weirdly we were more excited than nervous.
On why Americana and country’s so popular right now
There’s a real familiarity to it and the next generation is saying ‘oh my mum and dad listened to that back in the day’. It’s a bit like fashion in a way, everything comes back round. People want to connect with music that really means something.
On their look
Chess: We’re very much in control of our look of what we want to wear. AJ is very unique in his style! I think it’s important as a band to have this uniform identity but in that to have an individual look too because we’re all quite different characters so!
Tara: We’ve worked with some lovely people but ultimately we know what works best on us. Often Chess will wear a tight flared trouser and top and I’ll wear a dress…
On being at Black Deer
We met Gill and Debs three years ago when we were at [the late] Tom Petty concert at British Summertime in Hyde Park. They were really early days for us and Black Deer was just a small idea in Gill and Debs’ heads at the time, so to see them do it and to then be part of it by playing last year was just so wonderful. They are just amazing women.
So who do The Wandering Hearts want to see?
Kris Kristofferson: we grew up listening to him
Larkin Poe: a bit punky, a bit rocky but really blues and rootsy
The Staves: such inspiring girls, we can’t stop listening to their music
Band of Horses (pictured above): they are going to be really cool
Jessie Buckley: we can’t wait to hear her doing the songs from her film Wild Rose
Art Direction: Lee Smith | Photography: Craig Matthews | Hair & make-up Louise Large @louise.muahair | Location: Salomons Estate