The Folky Folklore of Lady Apple Tree

The Folky Folklore of Lady Apple Tree

In the lead-up to her debut EP, Lady Apple Tree — that’s singer-songwriter Haylie Hostetter — talks to us about her musical beginnings, a hectic tour schedule, the influence of folktales, and her exciting new moniker

Image credit: Jacob Boll

Haylie Hostetter is a wanderer.

When she gets on the line, she’s tearing through the Californian heat in a tour van, somewhere between Ojai and San Francisco. “The show was great,” she enthuses, taking a moment to ask drummer Pierce to turn the stereo down a smidge. “We played it at Deer Lodge, which is an old cabin-style venue. It was really nice.” That seems a fitting stage for Hostetter who, as Lady Apple Tree, spins intricate folk tales reminiscent of Joni Mitchell or Linda Perhacs.

As one-half of Will and Haylie, Hostetter explored the American folk tradition; as Lady Apple Tree, she makes her own mark on that long and storied history. Haylie herself has patiently built a deep and abiding love for her folk forebears, and Lady Apple Tree channels that passion into striking originals, tender, restrained, and earnest.

Her self-titled debut EP is an auspicious beginning, centering soft-spoken songs that explore classic folktales and plumb the depths of romantic yearning. In the lead-up to her first collection of original work, we spoke to Haylie about her journey to Lady Apple Tree, covering The Lovin’ Spoonful, deriving inspiration from the wild women of folklore, and fusing intentionality with learning on the go.

This is kind of like the first of it,” says Hostetter of the ensuing tour. “I'm out with Sam [Burton] right now, which is a lot of fun. We got the whole band together.” Burton is a fellow Los Angeles transplant; he’s touring his sophomore record Dear Departed, awash in shades of Jackson Browne and Harry Nilsson, with Lady Apple Tree as support. “I have a brief moment in August just to get everything together, get organized with merch and logistics stuff, and then I'll be out on the road on September 3 to go on the East Coast,” she adds, showing no signs of fatigue. As Haylie waxes on her journey to Lady Apple Tree, it seems a story best told with routes.

I guess it's kind of a winding road,” begins Haylie, tracing her musical passion. “I grew up in… I wouldn't say a musical household, in the sense that none of my family are really artists specifically, but they all have a love for music.” Those formative years, soundtracked by her mother’s tender voice, unknowingly set Haylie on her musical path. “She had a really nice voice and was always singing to us,” she recalls, “and one song that really stands out to me is ‘Lemon Tree’ by Peter Paul and Mary.”

In middle school, I developed my personal tastes,” she continues, “and I discovered a lot of the indie bands of the time, like The Strokes, or White Stripes, Black Keys, that whole world.” It was only after leaving her quiet North Californian hometown that Haylie discovered her musical identity, one coloured by the rich history of Los Angeles itself. “The folk thing started more when I moved to LA, and I met my then-musical partner Will, and we would just sit around practicing songs that we both knew, traditional songs, to learn harmonies.” As that rapport grew, so too did her love of those classic tracks. On 2022’s Sing Folk, the duo’s only record, Will and Haylie dived into the Great American Songbook, cutting stirring renditions of tracks from Dylan, Van Zandt, Baez, and the Carter Family.

A romantic split cleaved the Will & Haylie project, though by then, the tracks that comprise the Lady Apple Tree EP were already laid, produced by Will Worden himself. “It's definitely a concept,” says Haylie of the quasi-solo mantle. “I think it's a nice umbrella concept for not only an external character for myself, but it's great as a collective group… like, whoever is contributing to the project of Lady Apple Tree can fall under that.” Inclusive though the project is, Haylie was drawn to the name by a combination of memorability, euphony, and rich thematic subtext. “I feel like it captures the whimsical and archetypal nature of the countryside where I grew up, [and] the fundamental elements of not only creativity, but also human nature,” she adds.

The kernel of the idea came from Women Who Run with the Wolves, a famed 1992 analysis of the ‘wild woman’ archetype. “In that book, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, the author… [wrote] 'farmers have oftentimes referred to their apple trees as ladies,'” she explains. “That's where the song came from first, and then over time, I ended up just going by that.” The titular track, in which Hostetter embodies “a wanderer, a lover, a searcher,” is a plea for sustenance, respite and restoration. “There's a lot of symbolism in apples and apple trees over the course of human history, like the Tree of Life, or even like Apple computers,” says Haylie with a laugh. “It really represents knowledge and fertility and ideas and femininity, and almost a simpleness… a simple nutrition to life.”

It was in transit, on a tour not dissimilar to this one, that Lady Apple Tree carved out her unique arrival. “It was kind of spur of the moment,” she says of her debut single, inspired by a band conversation about prospective covers. “Sam suggested it, he was like, 'No, Haley, you should do ‘Didn't Want To Have To Do It,’ because we had been listening to that song a little bit on the car ride.” That track, an aching eulogy to a wilted relationship, holds a timeless resonance. “It was kind of a poignant time for me to sing that song specifically, because it was when I had gone through my first breakup,” she explains. “It hit home for me too, you know… it's a helpful song for that.”

The song, and Haylie’s impassioned rendition, resonated just as much with audiences. “I forget which specific show it was, but we tried it out, and people loved it,” she recalls. “It was a growing interest, we would play it at every show.” In the moments before her trans-Atlantic trip to support Weyes Blood throughout Europe, Haylie decided to take the cover to the studio. “It seemed like a good opportunity to record the song,” she recalls, “so I was like, 'This would be a good song to just kind of record ourselves and release independently before I go on this tour, so that people have something to listen to.'”

It’s uncommon for a career to open with a cover, but Didn’t Want To Have To Do It provides a snapshot into Lady Apple Tree’s mission. Hers is a passion steeped in the songwriting excellence of yesteryear, skilled at bringing modern vitality to classic palettes. It’s an approach that bleeds into the original tracks that comprise her solo debut which, by way of coincidence, were recorded in a way not too dissimilar from the tracks of her influences and idols.

My past partner and music partner, Will Worden… he had a friend whose grandfather was Patrick Williams,” she explains. Renowned for his work with Frank Sinatra, for whom he conducted Duets and Duets II, and in film, where he scored pictures such as The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas and Cry-Baby, Williams often worked from his Santa Monica home. “He had a recording studio at his house that had just been sitting under dust for a long time, since his passing,” says Haylie. “Being at the house a lot with our friends, we were just like, I don't know how we could pass up the opportunity to record what we have there, just because we couldn't really afford to pay for a studio.”

The opportunity posed a challenge: Haylie and her friends had never before worked an analogue studio setup. “We have one if we can figure it out, and we did that to the best of our abilities,” she says with a laugh. “It was all of our first time recording, which was very interesting. It was a learning process for sure, because it was Will producing it and our other friend Hunter Watts engineering it.” The old-school setup, though a lucky coincidence, helped imbue Lady Apple Tree’s wistful folk tunes with an unreplicable warmth. “It actually gave it a nice, endearing sound, and I also really liked the sound of tape, just having a very unique quality to it,” muses Haylie. “It's almost like each recording you take on a machine — especially the one that we used, which is very old and has a personality to it — each recording has a very unique tone when you run it through something like that.”

The result is a warm timbre, one that leaps forth from the very first moments. “The first song on the EP is called "Round and Round, I'm excited to [release] that one,” says Haylie. A bittersweet remembrance, the track — itself a round, with the melody caught in a dizzying circle — taps into a folk history almost a millennia in the making. “It's more stripped down than the other songs that I've released as singles, and I was kind of inspired by Joni Mitchell on that song.”

On Silver Hands, a spring-tinged band number, Haylie regales us with The Girl Without Hands, a German folk tale collected, revised, and published by the Brothers Grimm in the early 19th century. Once again inspired by Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ Women Who Run With the Wolves, Hostetter sings to the titular maiden, mutilated by a devilish bargain but saved by God’s grace. Interestingly, the tale itself opens on an apple tree: an impoverished miller gives over his bountiful tree to the devil in exchange for riches, only to discover he’s accidentally promised the demon his “beautiful and pious” daughter.

I definitely finish a song and it's done,” says Haylie of her approach. “The structure, the melodies, and the chords usually all stay the same, but… I feel like I have a hard time nailing down one sound for the song.” The compositions cycle through arrangements, each bringing a different atmosphere to the songs. “I feel like, ‘this could be like a really cool stripped-down folk arrangement,’ or ‘this could be a really cool full band, rock-and-roll sound,’ you know? I feel like there's a lot of ways that a song can manifest.” Lady Apple Tree explores the softer side of Hostetter’s arrangements, but the light musical fare still quietly swings from more solitary cuts such as Round and Round and So Long, to restrained band pieces such as And There She Was and Flame, backed by pedal steel, 12-strings, and layered vocal harmonies.

As Haylie tells it, time on the road has only furthered her taste for heavier, richer arrangements. “I don't want to tie myself to one specific sound because I feel like that's kind of binding,” says Haylie of those recent explorations. “I think that after doing stripped-down music for so long, I was just kind of ready to break out of that and dive into the world of a full band arrangement. I don't think I'll ever fully let go of writing a nice mellow song, or a nice heartfelt song. I think that's where the root of it is, you know: if you can't play the song in its pure form, is it really a good song?

With that philosophy in mind, it’s not hard to see Lady Apple Tree as a statement of intent. Mellow and moving, it introduces Haylie as a skilled writer with not only a delicate pen but a beautiful voice. “I'm excited,” she says of the then-pending release. “I mean, I've been sitting on this music for a really long time, so I think that for me, I'm mostly excited to just get it out into the world and start the flow for the rest of it to come.” For now, that seems to mean the road, with Lady Apple Tree embarking on a long and winding daisy chain of stages and shows, but she’s quick to discuss what’s next. “We've been recording,” says Haylie, the tour rapport with Sam Burton’s band fuelling those studio sessions. “[We have] four songs at this point that are almost finished, that are newer and have a more full band, country rock-and-roll type sound.”

The road to Lady Apple Tree was long, but it’s only just the beginning. A product of passion and a testament to talent, Lady Apple Tree marks the first solitary steps of an artist born to ramble. The wanderer, though sure of their mission, never truly knows their destination, and on her debut EP, Haylie leaves little doubt as to her instincts. Wherever she wanders, be sure to follow.

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