Fox on the Run
Minneapolis’ Foxgloves Want You to Get Over the Female Band Thing Already
by Stephen Pitalo
The Foxgloves coalesced to make extraordinary music in the Americana genre, forever shelving the “all-female” moniker. Longing to be seen and heard for their engaging presence, rich instrumentation, compelling storytelling songwriting, four-part harmonies, and creatively reimagined covers, this band creates uncompromising music with a purpose. All members contribute vocals, but you’ll find Nikki Lemire on harp and autoharp; Maura Dunst on fiddle, mandolin, and guitar; Sara Tinklenberg on vocals and percussion; Liz DeYoe on guitar; and Steph Snow on the ukulele.
We asked the band, celebrating their recent victory as BEST BAND at the Blue Ox Virtual Band Competition, to sit down with us and discuss the Foxgloves’ sound, mission, and journey.
How did you get together?
Steph: I made an online post about forming an all-women Americana, country, or folk band.
Sara: Steph initiated a post in a private Facebook group asking if other women were interested in forming an Americana/country/folk band. A small group replied, and some dates were put out as options to meet. Steph, Nikki, Maura, and I were the first four to get together, and we met for drinks and snacks while discussing ideas and influences. After that, we went to Steph’s place to sing and play and get a sense of the styles we were all bringing in. One of the first songs that we played was one we still do today (Angel from Montgomery),
Nikki: When we initially chatted, we shared music/artists we loved, which helped lay the groundwork for what we wanted to create. We all come from different avenues in music, which is apparent in our writing. Our sound leans towards folk and bluegrass these days, but our desire for complex harmonies, themes, and arrangements often means our music doesn’t exactly fall into any particular genre. It is a variety show, and we love that.
Liz: I joined last year by responding to Steph’s Facebook post about looking for a new guitarist.
What’s the story of the band name?
Steph: The foxglove flower is a beautiful, poisonous flower found in the wild. One of my favorite flowers is the foxglove, and I frequently grow it in my garden. Living in Minnesota and playing roots music, many of us were leaning towards a nature-esque name. So, we threw out a bunch of different names, but this one fit us just right.
Nikki: Beautiful and dangerous. Feminine but with an edge. I think it sums us up perfectly.
What’s the best part of being in an all-female band, and what is the worst?
Liz: Best: I don’t have to deal with a male band member hitting on me. Worst: the all-women aspect being highlighted instead of our musicianship and being thought of as a gimmick.
Steph: Best: Understanding the difficulties and trials that many of us face or have faced. Worst: Not getting the same access/recognition as an all-male band.
Nikki: We do feel honored to be all-female, and we recognize that it is still rare in our particular circle, especially when we hear things like, “You were the first all-female group to play (a certain song).” Perhaps there will come a time when this question is posed to men in the same way.
Maura: We all had to work a little harder to get here, and now we’re in it together. That’s very affirming. But I think we get underestimated, or people assume that we’re ornamental. Our blood, sweat, and tears go into everything we do, just like any other band. I also think access is an issue. So much about a band’s early trajectory has to do with what doors will open for them. If you can’t get those doors to open, or you don’t even know where they are, to begin with, it’s that much harder to make the right moves. And representation matters. I’m always so proud and hopeful when I see little girls in the audience watching us play. It’s important for the boys, too, but it’s especially key for the girls to see themselves reflected in the people they watch on stage. If they only go to concerts with all-male bands on the lineup, it’s that much more of a leap for them to say, “can I play bass?” or “I want to write a song.” I’d love to see more bands, venues, and bookers be thoughtful about gender parity when putting shows together. Those little changes have a big impact over time. We’ve come a long way, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. I’m more than willing to roll up my sleeves. Anyway, long story short, put your daughters in guitar lessons.
What bands are your heaviest influences, and what is one the fans would never guess?
Liz: Tommy Emmanuel, Maybelle Carter, Gillian Welch
Sara: Indigo Girls, Lucius, The Staves, The Chicks, The Secret Sisters, The Wailin’ Jennys, basically female groups with heavy and rich vocal harmony.
Maura: Brandi Carlile, Lucius, Gillian Welch, John Prine, Jason Isbell, Lucinda Williams. I listened to Dar Williams obsessively when I was younger, then I lost track of her, but I caught a live stream of hers the other day, and listening to it all again 20 years later was interesting. I could see her influence all over my songwriting, even though I hadn’t listened to it in a long time. I’m not sure what influence fans would never guess. I’m probably pretty predictable in that way. I like a lot of bluesy stuff, which is different from what we play but not so dissimilar that it’s unexpected. I’ve been paying much closer attention to bluegrass fiddle players lately, and bands like Della Mae and I’m With Her, trying to study what they do. I’m a classical violinist trying to pass as a fiddle and mando player, so I am still figuring out what my style as a picker is, I think.
Nikki: I particularly like the mixed rhythm and unexpected synth colors creeping into music lately. We’ve been listening at my house to a lot of Low’s new album HEY WHAT, and King Gizzard’s Butterfly 3000, as well as Trousdale’s new EP What Happiness Is and Maygen and Birdwatcher’s Moonshine. I feel the influence of these on my writing recently.
Minneapolis has a thriving music scene in many genres. How do the Foxgloves fit in there? And does living in Minneapolis inform your songwriting?
Maura: We feel fortunate to live in such a musical city. The venues in the Twin Cities are so fantastic, and there’s a thriving musical world here in the flyover. There’s an awesome Americana scene here, which helps, and of course, there’s some great bluegrass in the Twin Cities. We’re not a true bluegrass band, but we flirt with the genre, so we’ve been able to connect with that world in a really rewarding way. Minnesota has been the subject of a few songs I’ve written, so I suppose it informs my songwriting that way. We do a song called “Have Mercy,” about surviving Minnesota winters, and a song called “Swede Hollow,” which is about a park in St. Paul. My songwriting is unpredictable — I can spend a whole day writing a song, not getting one line. The next week I’ll be scrambling to get something written down fast enough because a whole song is coming out fully formed, and I’m on the train or at work, so I can’t sit down with a guitar, and I can barely keep up with the rate at which it’s coming to me. So, I’d love to say that my environment informs my songwriting, but I don’t seem to have any control over it.
Nikki: Our city supports female musicians and women in the arts, and we feel proud to be a part of this community. Some movers and shakers here really inspire us and have invited us to stages we have felt so honored to play on. As far as Minneapolis goes, I often find that being out in nature, removed from my daily stressors, is what opens my mind. I usually write a song or two while sitting in the sauna or out for a hike or ski. The great thing about Minnesota is the wilderness is always less than 30 minutes away. It’s been a dream.
What is your favorite song you have written together?
Maura: We haven’t written together yet. Nikki and I did some co-writing over the pandemic where I sent her lyrics, and she put them to music. So far, it’s been mostly individual writers bringing finished songs to the band that we then arranged as a group. We’re hoping to do more collaborative songwriting going forward, so stay tuned.
Nikki: Of the songs we have done, my favorite to write on was “Wild River Honey.” I listened to the new Secret Sisters album and wanted to do something with a time change and a taste of mixed rhythm. I also misread the lyrics meant to be “Wind River Honey.” After I put the lyrics to music, I realized my mistake. We decided to keep it, but it still makes me laugh when Maura talks about her love of the Wind River Mountains. It should have been a song about that.
What is your favorite song to play live?
Maura: “Trouble.” I always get excited when I see that one on deck. I also really like “Swede Hollow” — it’s not one of our crowd-pleasers, but it builds in this powerful way, starting with a cool guitar part on its own and growing into this big, active sound with lots of moving pieces.
Liz: “Toledo,” “Wild River Honey”
Sara: I will always LOVE the storytelling and harmonies in some of our originals, like “Carmen” and “Rio.” But I have also been enjoying some of our “newer” songs like “Trouble,” “Toledo,” and “Wild River Honey” as they are up-tempo and tend to be crowd-pleasers.
Nikki: Tough call, but I’m going to say, “Unhinged.” It is on our EP, and it still gets a big response from the crowd, even though we’ve been doing it since the beginning.
How did you fare during the pandemic? Did you learn anything about yourself as a band because of the lockdown?
Liz: YouTube videos can get you far. The Blue Ox Virtual Band Competition (which we won.) was good, and we “played” quite a few virtual gigs during the pandemic. We all needed music more than ever.
Nikki: The isolation was good for us to build our song base. We spent the time working on the band logistics, writing, and looking at what sounds we wanted to lean into. After not rehearsing for so many months during the pandemic, we were ready to hold rehearsal time sacred in the spring when we could finally be together. We worked hard, and it paid off.
Maura: It presented some challenges, for sure. We first got together in the fall of 2019, so by the time we had a set worked up and a bunch of exciting gigs scheduled, everything just ground to a halt. There were some disappointing cancellations and tough calls about what we were and weren’t comfortable with. We absolutely wanted to follow guidelines and be safe, and that continues to be a regular conversation. I guess I’m proud of us for getting the ball rolling again. It’s hard to get going again after slamming on the brakes, but we did it, and 2021 exceeded our expectations as a band. You could tell that people were so hungry for live music and willing to do whatever it took to make it happen in a safe setting. There’s something so primal about people singing together and listening to music in a group — it’s bonding, healing, and rewarding. So, it was worth the wait.