#LetTheGirlsPlay: Introducing South Haven, Country’s New Firestarters
South Haven are preparing for a music video shoot, and they’re freaking out a little bit. Not all of them are equally anxious, but as a group there’s a lot of chatter about — you guessed it — what they’ll wear.
Song integrity, building a catalog that defines their sound and experiences, and taking baby steps in leaps and bounds instead of tiptoes are of utmost importance to this all-female quartet. But right now it’s about the new jeans Maddie Walker sent to her manager’s house and his frustrating rule that no one can wear dresses tomorrow. The news seems to affect Nicolette Mare most. The dark-haired New Yorker (far right in the photo above) is the only one of the group in a sundress at the moment.
“I just wanted to be Taylor Swift, ever since I was 13,” she admits, pulling at her curls.
“We all have a little hippy streak in us,” Brit Willson, the oldest of the four, adds — her torn jeans, open-sided shirt and turquoise jewelry proving her point.
South Haven are so new it’s difficult to find their website or Twitter page (@WeAreSouthHaven). They were brought together from four corners of the country, each bringing a unique sense of artistry and experiences, each hoping the sharp corners of their personalities will fit with the other three. Thus far it’s been nothing but roses. Wilson and Ray Taaffe (from Capistrono, Calif.) were first. Walker, a high school senior from Iowa, and Mare joined last fall.
“I’m very surprised by how quick our friendship grew,” Mare says. “I was nervous at first coming into a girl group that already kind of knew each other and I was kind of the new girl.”
“For the four of us, and with Todd (aforementioned manager Todd Cassetty) guiding us, I just feel like we can’t go wrong,” Willson, an Avril Lavigne and EDM-influenced Oklahoman, adds. The blonde in the neon is the most laid-back of the group. She makes decisions easily, while others, like Taaffe, agonize over every detail.
Balance is the key to South Haven’s success, and nowhere is that better exemplified than in song. They quickly recorded five songs early in 2016, and their trademark is the way they harmonize and trade lead vocals. There is no “lead singer” on anything they write and record. Like One Direction they alternate lines, but the comparisons between these two acts start and end there. Moving forward they hope to write everything they record. All four identify as songwriters first.
“I grew up thinking there was something wrong with me,” Taaffe (auburn hair) says, “because I felt everything so deeply and so intensely that I remember sitting my mom down and saying like ‘There’s something wrong with me!’”
“The first time I ever sang the first song I ever wrote this weird thing happened," she remembers. "I was like ‘It doesn’t even matter what so-and-so thinks or what’s going on. Here’s my little piece of surrender.’”
Mare has a similar experience, and she admits songwriting is a way to deal with recent tragedy and heartache. Wilson embraces the idea of making an impact on someone else’s life the way songs like Blake Shelton’s “Mine Would Be You” do on hers.
“We all have different outside influences but I think that when it comes to what we want to represent as South Haven, we have a very clear direction,” Taaffe says.
“Little Black Dress” symbolizes that direction. The group wrote the song with producer Jason Afable during a marathon writing session that began as a gab-fest and ended with an empowering lyric for women in a relationship. This omnipresent theme is popular among artists in this #LetTheGirlsPlay series, but May’s featured act of the month has a unique spin.
"I got my heels on / Red lips and my hair done / But it's not for you though / Hell no, baby you ain't worth the time / I got the bass loud / Ain't nobody gonna turn me down / Wear whatever I feel like, skin tight / Just me and my / me and my black dress tonight."
A benefit of working within a group is passing on lyrics you don’t feel. Someone else can sing something you can’t relate to, South Haven say. They embrace the comforts of collaboration. “It’s really supportive,” Walker, an American Idol Season 14 finalist, explains. “You would think that having four girls there could be some sort of cattiness but it really ends up like ‘Oh, this is a really good line, I think it would fit Nicolette.’”
A fan-favorite called “Jimmy Choos” exemplifies country-sass, while a song like “One Night Stand” shows heart and depth without sacrificing strength. It’s a love song that defies the title. Finding an emotion that all four can lean into is easier than you would think. Even if one-fourth the quartet is reeling from a breakup while the other three are floating in love (a hypothetical situation thus far), that one girl can set aside her current state of affairs and find love in her journal.
South Haven are a new act, but not green nor naive. Walker’s experience on American Idol (she finished 10th) and Mare’s time on The Voice (eliminated from Team Adam during the Battle Rounds in March 2015) plus Cassetty’s label and management experience are assets that should help them bound past other up-and-coming acts. All-girl groups are sprouting up like April azaleas in Georgia, a result of (or reaction to) the very issue Song Suffragettes and #LetTheGirlsPlay was set up to combat. Women were struggling in country music, so they’ve banded together. There’s comfort in numbers.
“One thing that I learned being on The Voice is believing in yourself and confidence is key to succeeding,” Mare says. “I think that I was really hard on myself on The Voice and I think that’s what got me eliminated very quickly.”
Walker admits she never watched her episodes of American Idol, but she’s forced to watch Song Suffragettes performances or rehearsals. Cassetty makes the girls do it, and while all four hate it, they admit it’s beneficial. Remaining unique within the group is important and something their manager encourages, so while he says “no dresses” before the “Little Black Dress” music video shoot, he doesn’t make demands that push them outside of his “Be you!” mantra.
That means something very different for these four individuals. Mare wakes up early. Wilson is the one asking “What do you want to do?” at 2AM. Walker will sleep until 4PM if you let her. Taaffe is the most introverted, admitting she’s not a great communicator unless she has a pen or pencil in her hand, but it's Mare who's hiding hurt currently. Her grandfather died one month ago. He's the reason she sings, she explains, before Walker calls him "their guardian angel."
They all agree on songs they record, eventually. A new song called “No Amount of Lonely” was decisive until they cut it. Now it’s among their favorites to share with fans.
“When I can see a music video in my head the first time I hear a song those are the ones I wanna cut,” Taaffe says. “That’s such an easy song for all of us to get into on stage.”
The same is true of "Firestarters," the quartet's debut music video. This is their introductory video, but it's just a peek through a door that's just starting to open.