This past spring, the Los Angeles-based band the Wild Reeds played several gigs at the South by Southwest music festival to packed houses and critical acclaim. But perhaps the real sign of music industry arrival came when the indie-folk-pop group was invited to perform at Willie Nelson’s legendary annual Luck Reunion, an exclusive event held on the country icon’s property about 35 miles outside of Austin, Texas.
“There were all these great musicians there, including Shovels & Rope and Conor Oberst,” says the Wild Reeds’ Kinsey Lee, calling from the road. “We were the little guys on the bill, but it was awesome to have attentive people in the audience.”
Also awesome was the venue itself. Nelson’s storied Lone Star spread is in the unincorporated community of Spicewood in Burnet County. Luck is a re-creation of an Old West town situated on Nelson’s ranch. Originally dubbed “Willieville,” it was built as the main set for the 1986 film “Red Headed Stranger,” a period drama based on Nelson’s iconic 1975 album of the same name and starring Willie and Morgan Fairchild.
The authentic set includes a windmill, bank, Opry house and jail.
“It’s very cool,” reports Lee about the town of Luck. “There’s even a saloon and a little chapel.”
Getting tapped as talent for the Luck Reunion is the latest coup for this band on the rise. The Wild Reeds is fronted by singers and multi-instrumentalists Lee, Mackenzie Howe and Sharon Silva. The three women — who all share lead and harmony vocal duty — are joined by Nick Jones on drums and Nick Phakpiseth on bass.
The sleek and shivery vocal work of the three singers is on full display on the Wild Reeds’ fine new release “The World We Built” (Dualtone), a blend of folk, alt-country, experimental pop and indie rock. Lee, Howe and Silva all contribute material.
“We have three different songwriters in the band with three different musical tastes and backgrounds,” says Lee. “We’ve found a lot of freedom creating what we each want. It makes our music a lot better when we’re not trying to put it in one genre. Our audience is very excited about the fact we cross genre lines quite often. They enjoy having a bunch of different sounds in one band.”
The group’s work is heartfelt and emotionally direct, from the bittersweet and lilting “Everything Looks Better (In Hindsight)” to the sweetly rendered atmospheric pop of “Capable.”
“We put a lot of hope in our songs,” Lee says. “Even in the darkness, we always try to sew in a little piece of hope. People are really taking the work to heart. When we talk to fans about all their diverse situations and how our music helped them get through, it reminds us of why we do what we do.”
Lee draws inspiration from her own life when it comes to songwriting. Her plaintive and pulsating “Fall to Sleep” was written a few years ago when the singer was worried about the future of the band.
“That song came from a place of being extremely tired,” Lee says. “It came from a place before we had any help with the band. We were wondering if we were wasting our time trying to make a career of this. We would go to our 9-to-5 jobs, drive home, rehearse and go to sleep. Then we’d get up in the morning and do it again. I was trying to figure out where I was supposed to be spending my time. The things that fulfilled me weren’t necessarily the things making me money or keeping me healthy. It was a really stressful and emotional time.”
It’s safe to say the band’s prospects have greatly improved since those uncertain days. its 2016 EP “Best Wishes” met with critical acclaim. A three-song set on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert in late 2015 racked up more than 800,000 views on YouTube. That appearance brought them a passel of new fans.
“A lot of people saw us around town for years, but when we did that concert, we were legitimate,” laughs Lee. “We got a lot of support from the Tiny Desk community and still get fans who first saw us on that show. People really love the idea of discovering something themselves. Tiny Desk is a great way to do that.”
The tie that binds the band’s sound is the ethereal harmonies the three women achieve on stage and in the studio.
“The one thing that glues us together is our harmony,” says Lee. “It doesn’t really matter if we’re making rock, pop or country tunes. The harmonies are what really identifies us.”
The Wild Reeds formed as a trio in 2009 in Azusa, Calif. Howe and Silva were students at Azusa Pacific University, majoring respectively in global studies and music. Lee attended nearby Citrus College where she studied advertising.
The women were first introduced to one another as concertgoers at the legendary West Hollywood music club the Troubadour. “We all met from watching music together, which is actually pretty cool,” says Lee. “I met Sharon at a Lisa Hannigan show and Mackenzie and Sharon knew each other from a Langhorne Slim concert. Meeting at those shows was a link between us.”
At the time, all three were performing solo at open mics and college parties. Over time, they began backing each other at different gigs. Things changed when they joined forces for a one-off performance at a fundraiser.
“After the show, somebody asked us, ‘Why aren’t you a band?’ A band with three lead singers was something we had never thought of before. We wondered, ‘Is that even possible?’ We had just been backing each other up for small shows under each other’s names. But once someone suggested we form a band, we thought, ‘Why not?’ That’s when we started the Wild Reeds.”
Today, the women remain dedicated to constant rehearsal to maintain the power of their harmonies. As friends and performers, they’re also unabashed supporters.
“We are very emotional on stage,” says Lee. “When someone does something amazing, we acknowledge that. We are each other’s cheerleaders.”