The Wild Hymns headline benefit concert at The Depot on Saturday
I’ve heard of battle hymns. And I understand the idea of church hymns, although I no longer sing them. But until I spoke with Megan Woodland Donley – frontwoman of the York-based band The Wild Hymns – I had never considered the idea of a hymn for the wild.
“We’re reclaiming the word hymn,” Donley says. “It actually means, literally, ‘song of praise.’ And it can mean praise of anything; it doesn’t have to mean praise of a deity. It’s a song of praise to the wild, and to me that means freedom, openness and nature. Music is sacred, but not in a religious context. It’s something that connects us all, opens us up and helps us handle our lives. To me a song – any song – is sacred in that way.”
Singer/songwriter Donley has performed under a variety of monikers during her time growing up in York, including Little Bird (her solo work) and Megan & The Wheelmen. Her latest project, The Wild Hymns, is a six-person band featuring Donley; guitarist Jeffrey Hewitt (Donley’s husband); percussionist Steve Witmer; co-vocalist Krystle Seitz; bass guitarist Christopher Towson; and pedal steel guitarist Clem Foust. The band officially formed in March and released its 12-track self-titled debut album in late November.
“When we started recording the album, it was as Little Bird – just me with Jeff and our drummer Steve accompanying me,” says Donley.
The album was recorded in the home studio of Mike Couch, guitarist for local band Hexbelt. Couch put Donley outside in an Airstream trailer, with cords running underneath the door and back into the studio.
“I wasn’t in the same room as the three of them, so that was really interesting and challenging – a testament to our connection because usually you have to look at each other for cues,” she says. “You don’t always play it the same way or whatever, and we somehow did that.”
A few months later, the unique sound of The Wild Hymns began to develop, as harmonies and bass lines were added to the recordings. It took more than a year to complete the album – a time frame Donley says she’d like to shorten the next time she enters the studio.
Although Donley has recorded smaller projects, this is her first full-length album – and she wanted to make sure people could get their hands on a physical copy.
“I’m kind of old-school. I do get some music online, but usually if I really want a record I’ll go buy an album or CDs,” she says. “To me, that’s important, even though I know a lot of people will just download it. I still really like having the tangible album where you can look at the picture and you can read the tracks. It just gives a different feeling, and I think it also shows a little piece of the artist.”
Right now attending a show is the only way to get your hands on a copy of the album, which isn’t available for sale online yet.
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The music of The Wild Hymns is ethereal indie with a folk-jazz twist. I asked Donley how growing up in South-Central Pennsylvania influenced her songwriting.
“I definitely think there’s an influence of the land and nature and the rural energy of where we’re from,” she replied.
Donley grew up in a suburb of York, playing outside in backyards. She spent summers at her grandparents’ cabin in the Poconos, and the album’s cover art shows a haunting image of Donley standing in a pine grove outside that cabin.
“I like that you don’t know it’s me, necessarily,” she says. “There’s that kind of mystery element that we like to play around with a lot.”
Donley discovered Joni Mitchell when she was about 14 years old – an influence that runs deep through The Wild Hymns album. She says her Mom loved Mitchell, and Donley became a fan when she heard the album Blue.
As a teenager, she listened to Bob Marley, Billie Holiday, Stevie Wonder and Led Zeppelin III repeatedly.
“I don’t know if you can necessarily hear a ton of Zeppelin influence in my singing or anything,” she laughs. “But maybe it’s in there somewhere. I mean, they sing a lot about nature and stuff.”
What all of these artists have in common, she claims, is their authenticity and rawness. It’s this same authenticity that makes The Wild Hymns’ debut album so compelling.
Donley graduated from Dickinson College, where she majored in art and art history with a minor in religion.
“I never did the whole professional studying music thing,” she says. “It was always very self-taught.”
When not working on her music, she contributes to the vibrancy of downtown York as the owner of Lotus Moon Yoga Studio on North Beaver Street. And this past October, she married bandmate Jeffrey Hewitt.
“Jeff and I actually played in different projects together before we were a couple,” she says. “Since we’ve become a couple, the past few years have definitely shifted. Our deeper connection has definitely strengthened our work – I write the songs, and he brings them to life.”
Donley is excited to continue collaborating with the whole band.
“Jeff and I are continuing to write more together, and Krystle is one of my biggest new influences,” Donley says. “She has a very different sound than I do and we talk about this a lot. She tends to push it vocally – very Dolly Parton, but also very James Brown.”
Although Donley tends toward a softer, more restrained voice, collaborations between the two emerge throughout the album, particularly on the song “I Will Shine.”
“I’m excited to get her stuff on there and continue being influenced and inspired by another singer and writer … since I’ve been kind of doing it alone for so long,” says Donley. “It’s challenging to work with another person but it’s so cool to let go of ego and allow bigger stuff to come in through collaboration.”
Over summer and fall, The Wild Hymns have played in and around York and the surrounding area, including Wrightsville, Dallastown, Glen Rock and Marietta. Donley is thinking about setting up a small tour for the summer of 2015.
“We’ve never toured as a band,” she says. “We usually just play locally. Occasionally we’ll travel a couple hours to play a festival or something but I think because we haven’t had an album it’s been really hard to reach out to people. This album is a really good representation of our sound. I’m excited for people to hear it and to hear what they think.”
The Wild Hymns headline a benefit concert for the York County Literacy Council at The Depot (360 W. Cottage Place, York) on Saturday, January 10. Also playing: Hexbelt, Dana Alexandra, Macy K and the Oven Fresh Hot Delicious. 8pm doors/9pm show. 21+. $5. Click here for tickets.