Erika Lewis is known to most as the vocalist for the traditional jazz and swing band Tuba Skinny from New Orleans but started busking on the streets before joining several bands including The Magnolia Beacon and The Lonesome Doves who have plied the same path of classic country to cosmic Americana to dreamy indie-folk as this solo effort, A Walk Around the Sun. Now confident enough to record under her own name, Lewis displays not only her versatile vocal talents but her songwriting prowess here. Produced by John James Tourville (The Deslondes), the project features 11 originals exploring the gray areas between love and loss, joy and grief, longing and contentment. Tourville and Lewis bring musical flourishes to the project as he plays multiple instruments, primarily pedal steel amidst sweeping strings, swirling organs, background vocalists, and the occasional guitar solo, all laid down at The Bomb Shelter in Nashville with Andrija Tokic at the helm.
Lewis, having now relocated to Asheville, instead comes across so clearly, confidently, and beautifully, especially considering that she was staring at voice-threatening thyroid surgery that could damage her vocal cords and end her musical career. Maybe the strength of the record attests to the notion that it could be her last. Yet, there’s not one hint of fear and instead, she brings immediate comfort with the opening “Take my hand” in the gorgeous waltz “A Thousand Miles,” a tune that lies somewhere between Southern gospel in its hymn-like structure but Laurel Canyon in its sweeping cosmic feel. “If You Were Mine” is a yearning love song where her voice just floats above the steady beats of Megan Coleman, Tuba Skinny’s Shaye Cohn’s Wurlitzer, and Tourville’s twangy telecaster. Lewis’ voice is so dreamy here and on “First Love” that it’s difficult to envision at times that this is the very same singer of blues and swing with Tuba Skinny.
After those similar tender snapshots at mid-tempo, the velocity kicks in with “Loser,” the joyous, fiddle-driven, bouncy album single. It could be taken as the will to move on from a broken relationship or the need to get away, in this case from New Orleans, but she submerges the pain and regret into an uplifting vibe with a voice so clear that it evokes singers such as Laura Cantrell, Gillian Welch, or even early Linda Ronstadt. She follows that, soaring with the refrains of “take me home” on “Running Wild” as Tourville and crew supply twang and more. She settles down into a pensive, ethereal mode in the title track, essentially a simple piano ballad strengthened by the background vocalists. “Hearts,” is in a similar dreamy mode, buoyed by the harmony vocals of Claire Hubbard and Tourville’s banjo.
Just as the sonics had settled down, she throws us a curveball with “Unsatisfied,” edging into a bluesy rocker, punctuated by Jim Hoke’s harmonica, Cohn’s haunting fiddle, and Tourville’s various instruments. “Wild Thing” is a country rocker, buoyed by Mike Hicks’ B3 and Tourville’s telecaster. In keeping with the sequencing, Lewis doesn’t just alternate slower and faster tempos, she couples them together so we can almost count on two ballads after hearing a couple of upbeat tunes. That’s what happens with Billy Contreras’ strings featured on “First Love” and the closing “Thief and Liar,” where Lewis once again reveals her wondrous high register vocals to the accompaniment of Cohn’s piano and Coleman’s glockenspiel, underpinned per usual by Tourville’s pedal steel.
From Lewis’ lovely vocals to solid songwriting, stellar musicianship, and sonic production second to none, this is a highly crafted effort. Now that Lewis has a new and different music scene to explore in Asheville, can we expect her to go in a string band direction next? Wherever her muse takes her, we’ll be paying even more attention based on this gem of an album.