Nashville-based Americana duo WISEWATER has earned praise from the likes of Alison Krauss, Rosanne Cash, Mary Gauthier, and others for their lyrical honesty and clarity, infectious melodies, tight harmonies, instrumental virtuosity, and deep sense of groove. Members Kate Lee and Forrest O’Connor are two young, positive, worldly artists whose songs blend roots, country, rock, and progressive acoustic music in a refreshing and accessible way.
Wisewater is currently in the thick of writing material for their debut album, due to be recorded in late 2015. When they aren’t writing, they’re performing – for the last year and a half, they have toured across the country, hitting venues such as The Grand Ole Opry, The Station Inn (Nashville, TN), The Berklee Performance Center (Boston, MA), and Joe’s Pub (New York, NY). They have also shared the stage with Emmylou Harris, John Cowan, Mark O’Connor, Ricky Skaggs, Bill Lloyd (of Foster & Lloyd), and many others.
Their debut EP, The Demonstration, was released in November 2014 and reached #13 on the iTunes singer-songwriter charts. Featuring five original songs, the record was hailed as “strong and memorable” (The Nashville Scene) and prompted singer John Cowan to write:
O’Connor, the son of country fiddler Mark O’Connor, grew up in Nashville and from early on was exposed to some of the best in the business, including Dolly Parton, Vince Gill, Marty Stuart, and Steve Wariner. But after spending his high school years in western Montana, he opted for the academic route, packing his bags for Cambridge, Massachusetts and enrolling at Harvard University in fall 2006.
“I was lucky to be around so much incredible music growing up,” says O’Connor. “It’s wild how many of my heroes today were spending time in my house when I was a kid. A lot of it I probably took for granted. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had music playing in my head, but growing up I had a lot of other interests as well -- writing, journalism, film, politics, and some other things. When I graduated high school, I wasn’t really thinking about becoming a musician.”
But soon after arriving at Harvard, O’Connor met Jim Shirey, a thoughtful, quirky, brilliant songwriter from Virginia. The two instantly hit it off and started performing together as a duo -- O’Connor on mandolin, Shirey on guitar – at local venues, including the legendary Club Passim. “It was after I started playing with Jim that I realized how exciting and fulfilling it was to write a song, perform it, and watch people react to it,” O’Connor says. “That changed my outlook on everything.”
Meanwhile, 400 miles away in the small town of Webster, NY, Lee was establishing a name for herself as a vocalist and fiddler. “I discovered the fiddle when I was 9 years old, and I just fell in love with it,” she says. “Music became my life after that. I practiced probably five hours a day and gigged as often as I could during the summers and on weekends.” In middle and high school, Lee performed at festivals and in theaters and clubs throughout the Northeast. By the time she left home to study at Belmont University in Nashville, she had recorded three albums with almost all original material.
O’Connor graduated college in 2010, the same year Lee moved to Nashville. He co-founded an Internet startup called Concert Window and began performing throughout New England, both solo and as a member of several other bands. Soon after starting at Belmont, Lee played at The Bluebird Cafe as well as in various songwriting showcases around town. She also worked her way up the ranks in the string world became a regular performer at the CMA Awards and CMA Country Christmas Shows, singing and playing fiddle behind Rod Stewart, Keith Urban, Brad Paisley, Lady Antebellum, Sugarland, and many other major entertainers.
Then, in mid-2013, Nashville-based string arranger and producer Kris Wilkinson made the connection that changed their careers. A family friend of O’Connor’s and a mentor of Lee’s, Wilkinson noticed how much the two young songwriters had in common, so she introduced them via email. A couple weeks later, O’Connor flew to Nashville to meet Lee, and Wisewater was born.
“I knew we had something special the day we met,” says Lee. “Even though we were just sort of improvising harmonies to each other’s songs, our voices blended so well. I hadn’t really experienced anything like that before.” After meeting Lee, O’Connor decided to uproot his life as an entrepreneur in Boston to pursue music in Nashville. “Meeting Kate was definitely the tipping point,” O’Connor says of the decision. “It was one of the best things that ever happened to me.”
In January 2014, O’Connor bought an old car and drove down to Nashville to start writing and arranging material with Lee, who was splitting time between finishing her senior year at Belmont and opening multiple tours for country giant Don Williams. In early March, O’Connor won the Tennessee State Mandolin Championship in Clarksville, TN, and two weeks later, Lee and he made their debut appearance under the name Wisewater at 3rd and Lindsley in Nashville. In the summer, they recorded their first EP, The Demonstration, and for the rest of the year, they toured across the U.S., both as a duo (with Jim Shirey backing them up on guitar) and, in December 2014, as part of an Appalachian Christmas Tour with Mark O’Connor, Carrie Rodriguez, and Cia Cherryholmes.
Their schedule hasn’t slowed down in 2015. In June, after touring throughout much of the eastern U.S. in the first half of the year, Kate and Forrest made their headlining debut at Nashville’s legendary Station Inn to a packed house.
The future is looking bright for Wisewater. They’ve been writing a great deal of material with Shirey as well as with several Nashville mainstays, including Pat Alger and Bill Lloyd, for their first full-length album, due to be recorded in Nashville in late 2015. Wisewater is rising up the ranks, and they should be generating lots of buzz in the year to come.
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