By David Templeton | From the July-August 2021 issue of Strings magazine
Singer-fiddler Lucia Pontoniere admits that she rarely, if ever, gets bored, even during the deepest isolations of the COVID-19 pandemic. “I always have music,” she says. “Music is always there for me.” With her 2020 calendar suddenly empty, Pontoniere—one-third of the innovative, harmony-nailing folk band known as the Ladles—found she had much more time to play: one silver-lining in an otherwise stormy year. That knack for finding the positive in a needle-stack of negative pretty much defines the attitude of the Ladles as a group—with guitarist-singer Katie Martucci and banjoist-singer Caroline Kuhn—as clearly as it characterizes Pontoniere herself.
Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area and having begun her classical education at the age of six, Pontoniere found herself at a crossroads at the age of 15, a difficult time she confronted by literally improvising her way through it, boldly switching from classical music to more alternative styles. “I just had this impulse that, as a musician, I really needed to learn to improvise,” she says. “And also, I’m a very non-competitive person, and I think I recognized that the classical world was a little too intense for my personality.”
Even the band’s critically acclaimed new album, Springville Sessions, is an illustration of the ability to face harsh disappointments and turn them into unexpected opportunities. Indeed, Springville Sessions, which may never have happened were it not for the pandemic, is now being hailed as one of the best acoustic recordings of the year, a reality Pontoniere accepts with a mix of gratitude, delight, and wonder.
Tell me how Springville Sessions came to be. It sounds as if it wasn’t originally in the cards for 2020.
That’s right. Last year, we had a lot of plans for touring. But obviously, none of that came about. The only thing left on our calendar that actually, miraculously, still came through was a three-week residency at the Springville Center for the Arts in Springville, New York. When we got there, we had a lot of songs we’d already written that we wanted to work on. So we said, “Why don’t we just record these songs informally?” We thought it would be for friends and family maybe, and for the people at the arts center where we did the residency, because they were so wonderful.
You went from concept to recording in less than three weeks?
Yes. We did. We spent two weeks working on the songs, and then in the final week we had a friend come up from New York City to engineer everything. We were all were tested and quarantined and everything beforehand. So he came up to record the songs, and it was just the four of us. We had this space, which was an old chapel that had been converted into a performance space. It had wonderful acoustics, perfect for our kind of music. We really got into it. We were spending 14 hours a day in there—we are all perfectionists—and it was sounding even better than we expected. By the end of it we all started saying, “Um, this is a real record. It’s really not just some little tossed-off thing.” We decided to give it a regular studio release. But no, it was never the plan to record an album of new songs in 2020. We were going to be too busy touring.
Aside from working on the recording project, what else were you doing during the residency?
Not much. They put us up in this great house, and we were mostly just working on music. We did have a couple of outdoor distanced performances. There wasn’t a ton we could do. The original idea had been for us to spend our time working with the community on different musical things, but with COVID, that wasn’t possible, so those three weeks became this gift—all this space and time to just work together on our music.
The folks at the center must be pleased at how it turned out, with an album named after their town?
I think so, yes. They were amazing, just super supportive. They kind of made it all happen for us.
The circumstances required you to be pretty spare in your approach to the songs you recorded, with no additional musicians or production bells and whistles. Did working that way help you discover anything new in your sound or maybe reconnect with something?
Reconnecting is definitely a good word for it. We are a trio, but in recent years we’ve added a bass player, and then an electric guitar player, who would tour with us. Our previous album had a lot more musicians on it. So this was kind of like reconnecting with that early sound we had, which was just very acoustic. It was like, “Wow! This feels familiar, but also very different.” We’re a bit older now, too. So it felt like our sound had had time to simmer, and cook into this amazing stew or something, sonically.
How did you all meet and decide to form the Ladles?
We met at New England Conservatory in 2014, when we were all in the contemporary improvisation program. We were, at that time, the only three undergraduate women in the program, so there was a natural gravitation toward each other, and we started playing together. It was a very natural progression that we became a band over time.
Is it true that you took your name from a prank alteration of a restroom sign?
[Laughing] Yes. In the building we were in, the “Ladies” room door said “Ladles.” We thought it was hilarious, so that became our name. There is a picture of the restroom door to prove it.
All three of you sing, and your harmonies are just stunning. Have you always been a singer?
It’s funny, because singing was not really on my radar at all. I went to school to study violin, and I graduated with a degree in violin, and I never thought of myself as a singer until we formed the Ladles. I always knew I could sing harmony. That’s always been easy and natural for me. But it was through being in this band that I really discovered my voice, and ultimately found myself as a songwriter. But it took me a long time to even be able to self-identify as a singer or a songwriter, because so much of my self-identity was rooted in being a violinist.
Does your vocal blend come naturally, or do you have to work hard to make it sound so easy?
We do work hard. Like I said, we’re all perfectionists, so we will spend hours on matching and crescendos and perfecting each and every little thing. But there’s another side of it that’s more the “wow factor,” which is our specific blend. I think it is very natural, and it’s surprising, because on our own, our voices are all pretty different. But there is some thread of continuity in them that creates a very special unified whole. Sometimes when we sing in unison, actually, that’s when I go, “Whoa,” because we sound like one person. It’s very rare, I think. You usually only hear that with siblings, so it’s pretty awesome.
Is there anything you’ve learned about playing the violin from learning to sing with Katie and Caroline?
Any form of study in music will inform whatever else you are doing musically. And so, vocally, it has helped me so much with improvising, because when you sing you have to breathe. With the violin, you don’t have to breathe the same way. You can play these run-on phrases that don’t have a lot of shape. So I learned a lot. I went to New England Conservatory for just one year, and there was one exercise that has really stuck with me. You’d improvise singing a phrase, and then you’d put that onto your instrument. It was meant to break the gap between what naturally comes out of you musically, and the kind of restrictions you might be putting onto your instrument, any physical or mental blocks you might have that prevent that authentic musical voice from coming out of you. Your voice is so close to who you are, that if you can do it without judgment, and then put that same feeling onto your instrument, it really helps to start connecting your instrumental side with your natural musical leanings. That was really helpful for me.
So, what’s next for you and the Ladles?
The future is a little bit of an unknown, because of, you know, COVID and everything. But we’re hoping that gigs start becoming available, maybe in the fall. We’re just taking a little moment after this album and its release and everything. Then we’re going to reevaluate, and when things start feeling a little more possible, we look forward to getting out there again. We can’t wait. We’re definitely ready to share our music in person again.