interview by Michael McCarthy
“Black flowers grow in a garden / I put them all in my vase,” sings Rebecca Lovell on “Freedom,” one of the most powerful songs on Peach, the new album by sister duo Larkin Poe. She sounds downright ferocious, like she might bite your head off if you look at her funny. When she harmonizes on the chorus with her one-year-older sister, Megan, it’s like they’re unleashing a primal scream designed to send chills running up and down your spine. Suffice to say you wouldn’t even want to think about taking their freedom away.
The duo’s songs blend roots, rock, old school country, bluegrass, Americana, and folk. (Some have surprising other influences as well, which you’ll discover in the interview.) You really can’t slap a typical genre label on them. They just make the music that resides inside their hearts and minds. If that happens to be different than what they play on country radio these days, that’s because what’s passing for country is just pop music with an occasional banjo or steel guitar thrown in to disguise it. That’s the one thing Larkin Poe’s music is not: pop. They’ve got killer hooks with memorable choruses, but they aren’t interested in writing songs with the likes of Max Martin or Greg Kurstin; they write their own songs anyway. It’s not that they dislike pop music, or today’s country, it’s just not the music they make. No, they belt out darker, edgier stuff, full of references to evil and religion – and evil religion – and other things you’re not supposed to talk about. And their fans love them for it. Listen with an open mind and don’t be surprised if you find yourself falling for them, too.
MM: Are the two of you in separate locations today?
RL: We are. This is Rebecca. Hi, Michael.
MM: Hi. So, where are each of you right now?
RL: We’re actually about three or four miles apart at our separate houses in Nashville, Tennessee.
MM: Now, I know you’re both multi-instrumentalists. Could you tell me every instrument that you both can play? Not just what you play in Larkin Poe, but everything you can play in general.
RL: We both grew up playing classical violin and piano as little kids. So, we both play violin. We both play piano. From there I picked up banjo and mandolin. I took cello lessons for a while. I play acoustic and electric. Play a bunch of synths and keyboards. I can play a shaker like a mofo.
ML: When we first started playing acoustic music I picked up guitar. It did not work for me. So, I cannot play guitar. Instead I found the Dobro. My guitar is my passion so I play Dobro and lap steel. A little bit of keys. I don’t know if you know, but our new record, we played every sound on the album.
MM: I did not know that. That’s very cool. So, which one of you plays bass guitar then?
RL: Oh, I do. I forgot that. I’m not a super fantastic bass player, but we can get by. Like Megan said, on this new record we got into the studio with a really good friend of ours and over a long weekend just banged everything out. I cover all the bass parts and I actually ended up programming a bunch of the drum sounds that people will hear on the record as well using my laptop using GarageBand.
MM: That’s very cool.
RL: Yeah. So, we decided just to make it a family affair.
MM: Sweet. Who produced the album?
RL: We did. We self-produced this project. Our first time ever officially self-producing an album. And it was wonderful. We actually sent the record – once we had a master – to Elvis Costello, one of our good friends. He wrote back and said, ah, you finally self-produced. I’ve been telling you to do this for years. You didn’t need anybody to produce it. You guys did just great. So, we took that as a pretty massive, beautiful feather in the cap.
MM: One track I’m especially impressed with the production on is “Freedom.” Did that one take longer than the other ones to produce? It seems like that one has the fullest wall of sound.
RL: Oh, thank you, I’m so glad you like that one. You know, we started that song when we were already pretty much in the studio. As a writer, as a songwriter, I feel very touch and go a lot of the times. Whenever I finish writing a song, I feel like it’s probably going to be my last song I ever write. I have nothing left to say. Oh, I’m tapped out, that was the last one. You know, as a 26 year old, that’s kind of ridiculous, but it’s sort of a fear that I face. And so whenever we started “Freedom” it sat around for two or three days. I made it late one night when we were in the studio and brought it to Megan and she said, that is bad ass. So, we wrote lyrics for it and brought it in. It didn’t take any longer than the others necessarily. Once we were in the groove for making Peach, we sort of found this groove and we stayed in it for that long weekend. So, it really moved quickly. One thing I think was especially fun about the tracks for “Freedom” is that I was just really enjoying making the beats and sort of messing around with that sort of rhythmic influence of the song. We recorded the bridge section, which has sort of an iconic little banjo section and then I was laying down a bass track and we were sort of laboring over the bass track and the bridge section and Megan was like you ought to try playing it [differently] and so we were messing around and we finally got it nailed. The engineer kept rolling from the bridge into the last chorus. I accidentally played the wrong chord. It was actually superimposing a major chord over the top of the chorus melody. We all stopped and we looked at each other and it was sort of this ah, huh moment. We thought it would be really epic to transform that chorus as a double to go from a major, anthemic sounding chorus back to the more modal portion. So, it was a really fun experience. That one, to me, especially.
MM: This might sound like a weird question, but some of the percussion, especially the hi-hats, reminded me of trap style rap. Was that an influence at all?
RL: Oh my God, Michael, absolutely! I’m so stoked that you picked up on that. Growing up in Atlanta, there is a huge hip-hop trap scene. Especially right now. During the past four or five years there’s been an influx. And I think it’s so compelling. I think it’s really exciting. To me, an exciting marriage, trying to bring some more traditional blues elements and pair them with the more aggressive trap style – especially with the hi-hat patterns. I’ve been trying to marry some of those sounds together. That’s absolutely an influence.
MM: Very cool. On the Mostly Harmless podcast, Megan, you talked about music documentaries and how you were going to watch one every day during the two weeks you were about to have off. Could you both tell me what your favorite music documentaries are?
RL: That’s such a great question. There’s a new Foo Fighters documentary I just finished watching. It was really powerful, I thought. It was exciting. The Sonic Highway series – did you watch that on?
MM: No, I didn’t. I have to. I’m a fan of theirs but I haven’t yet.
RL: That, to me, was a really exciting series of a documentary, but they also have a new one out called Back and Forth and I just watched that one and I was really blown away. It was awesome. So, Back and Forth, the Foo Fighters documentary, is on Netflix.
ML: One that we watched recently that I really enjoyed was Nos Amis, which was the Eagles of Death Metal documentary that came out fairly recently. That was a beautiful documentary. Really well made.
RL: Colin Hanks actually produced [and directed] that documentary for the Eagles of Death Metal and I thought he did such a beautiful job. Another documentary that I would throw out there, too, just because it’s close to our hearts is about mental illness, and specifically dementia, and Alzheimer’s because it’s something that runs very strongly in our family. As I’m sure it does in many families across the world. It’s the Glen Campbell documentary, I’ll Be Me. It details his final few years of being able to tour. And, to me, it was just heart-wrenching to watch and I felt very, very brave of his estate to make and release as sort of an awareness piece for a lot of people who are dealing with Alzheimer’s.
MM: Those all sound very intriguing. During the same podcast, Rebecca, you talked about how you can listen to an album and really hate it at first, but after a few listens it becomes your favorite new thing. Can you both give me some examples of albums you didn’t like that ended up becoming favorites?
RL: For me, I first listened to Jeff Buckley’s Grace record. And that was, I think, the very first example for me of a record that I listened to and I didn’t understand it. It made me uncomfortable. There was a lot of emotional angst. There was a lot of dissonance. And I listened to it for the first time and had a very negative reaction. But then over the course of a few weeks I kept coming back to it to listen to it again. Because I think sometimes if you have a strong resistance to something artistically, or creatively, it could be because it is hitting a deeper current, essentially. Emotionally, for you. So, I kept going back and listening and it truly has become one of my all-time favorite records. It’s a record that I have to listen to sparingly because when I listen to it it makes want to do crazy things. It makes me want to move across the country. Sell everything I own. It’s a really powerful record. But Grace was my first experience with that.
MM: Is there a recent one?
ML: I could pop in here with an artist who is Rebecca’s favorite artist and I didn’t quite get it. Chris Whitley. And she plays him all the time. Every car ride. So, it’s sinking in. I’m starting to really just love him. I don’t think I had actually mentioned that to Rebecca. I’m starting to get it!
RL: I love that. That makes me really happy. Chris Whitley is my one and only. He’s the ultimate dude. A record that I think recently did that for me was the new Machine Gun Kelly record, Bloom. And speaking of hip-hop and trap music, I’m actually a pretty big Machine Gun Kelly fan. He’s from Cleveland.
MM: I actually loved the show that he did on Showtime, Roadies, and then I read somewhere that Machine Gun Kelly is also that actor, Richard Baker, so I checked out the new album and I love it.
RL: Yeah. And at first I didn’t dig it. But I think it’s really grown on me. I’ve listened to it a few times more and it’s got its hooks in me now.
MM: Are you doing a tour right now? I didn’t see many dates on your website?
RL: We’re hitting a few of the major markets. We did Los Angeles and we did New York a couple of days ago, and we have Atlanta and Nashville coming up. But we’re not on tour. We were actually out with Bob Seger on his tour. His Night Train tour. But, I think due to his cancellation we had to kind of pull back. We weren’t doing as much touring as we thought we were gonna be doing this fall. But best of luck to him. Hoping that he is able to recover and get the dates rescheduled and we can hook back up with him, hopefully.
MM: You’ve toured extensively in the past. Do you intend to continue touring so much once you start again or are you getting a little bored with the road?
RL: You know, it’s easy to get bored of the road. I think touring is a very difficult thing to do nine times out of ten, especially if you’re a band that’s touring on a budget, which we always have. We’ve been road dogging it since we started, essentially. But I think it is a necessary evil. And a necessary passion as well because sometimes you have the best moments out on the road when you’re struggling. The rubber is definitely there, digging into the asphalt. But I think it’s something that artists of our era, you still gotta do. You’ve gotta get out and beat the streets and take the show to the people. And it’s a really important tool for artists to continue working. Even though a lot of artists, they don’t want to tour. It is hard, you know? Especially when the budgets don’t allow a lot of bands to get tour buses and bring your own sound guy or guitar tech or whatever. You always want to be more strategic with touring. Moving forward, it’s something we’re definitely gonna keep doing for sure.
MM: You mentioned hitting the major markets. Are you coming to Boston at all?
RL: We will likely be coming to Boston in the Spring. Well, actually, that’s a lie. I just realized we’re gonna be gone. We’re doing a bunch of cruises in the Spring. We’re going to Australia for the first time in Spring. So, it won’t be in the Spring. But, hopefully, in the new year, yeah. I mean, we want to tour and support this record as much as possible. We just released it so quickly. I think we put our agent at a disadvantage by springing this release on him. But we will come and see you next year.
MM: Do you have a Boston story or a Boston memory you could share with us?
ML: In Boston we played the 365. The Red Room?
MM: I know the Red Room, that’s Berklee’s little club.
RL: We played there. I’m trying to think of where else we’ve played. Club Passim. You know, that’s actually a memory for me. We would’ve been very fresh. Probably only having toured for maybe two or three years. That was when I was probably 17. Megan would’ve been 18. And we were touring as The Lovell Sisters with our eldest sister. We came and we played Club Passim and our whole family was out on the road with us. We were so young. Our dad had taken a very brief break over a long weekend to come out and carry us around. We told him we had a gig in Boston. [He said] “Oh, hell, get in the car.” We had a very diverse crowd. And I remember that there was a group of probably ten or fifteen women, who had found out about our band and they all showed up and they were part of the gay community. And they were so supportive. And so stalwart at the front of the venue, supporting our show. I remember that being a really powerful moment for us. Seeing the power of people who were committed to an artistic idea, giving us their support. We were like little kids. I don’t know how they’d even heard of us, but they were there and they were just so passionate. And that was in Boston at Club Passim. I remember that being a really cool moment.
MM: You’ve performed at some of the world’s biggest music festivals. Do you ever get stage fright before going on before such huge audiences?
ML: Sometimes it’s weird when you get nervous. It might be for a show you wouldn’t think you’d get nervous for. For me, I normally get nervous when it’s a hometown show and there’s a lot of people there that you know. So, we’re playing Atlanta and Nashville at the end of December. Middle end of December. And I’m sure I’ll be very nervous for those shows. But when we’ve played Glastonbury a couple of times I wasn’t nervous. It was just more fun than anything.
MM: If I was looking at your contract rider, what might I be surprised to find there?
RL: I would say that you would be surprised to find how unpicky we are. Sometimes I think we should be more diva. Divatastic. Because I think sometimes that makes for better stories. But, really, we’ll just roll up and play. It doesn’t matter to us. We’re not there for all the glitz and the glamour. Just to play a good show and deliver our songs to people and entertain and be entertained by a crowd. It’s really not about the rider. That said, maybe we need to interject a few brown M&Ms stories.
ML: We’ve got like trail mix and bananas and hummus. What’s funny is the guys that play with us, one is allergic to peanuts and another is allergic to tree nuts and bananas. So, pretty much when we get to a green room now we need to change our rider. We need to clear out the green room because they’re allergic to everything.
RL: I want to keep the rider as it is because then we get free snacks and don’t have to share. [Laughs]
ML: The hungry boys in our band. [Laughs]
MM: There you go. Now, you two have toured as backing artists for several artists. Do you always do those gigs together or has one of you ever done one without the other?
RL: For many of the gigs of note, we’ve always done them together. We’re sort of a package deal.
ML: We are totally a package deal.
MM: I know you performed as part of the MusiCares tribute to Tom Petty. How did you take the news of his death? Did that one hit you harder than the other musician deaths we’ve had during the past couple of years?
ML: I was surprised by how hard it hit me. Because I feel like I’m a new Tom Petty fan. I love all of his music. It gave me a new appreciation of him. I felt like I was gonna have way more time to keep appreciating his music. It was a bit of a shock to not have that because we had just seen him live for the first time when we did that. And I was looking forward to many more shows.
RL: I would even say we felt so fortunate to have been involved with the MusiCares. Specifically because we were able to get on stage and jam with Steve Ferrone, who’s been a Heartbreaker for almost as long as we’ve been alive. And we got to meet Mike Campbell and be on stage with him, backing up other folks. It felt like, yeah, there was this promise of a continuing relationship because we never actually met Tom Petty. And I think there was maybe that sense of hope about meeting one of your heroes. At the same time, I [love] the fact that his memory is preserved in the hearts of so many people with his catalog of truly classic American songs. They’re anthems. Like Megan was saying, having a new appreciation of him. Yeah, it was a very bittersweet feeling, I think. But I think it hit us, as with everyone, very hard.
MM: Can you tell us something about Elvis Costello that most people don’t know?
RL: Oh, wow, without betraying any trust, certainly I would say something that people might imagine, but wouldn’t necessarily know as fact, is he is one of the hardest working men in showbiz that I have ever run across. And we run across some really hard workers and we don’t hold a candle to the energy and passion that Elvis Costello brings to the game. He’s the kind of guy who will send a ten page e-mail at 3A.M. because he has words to say. We were out with him as part of his Face in a Crowd tour and he was simultaneously on his bus writing his most recent book. To see him perform for three hours every night and then get on his bus and roll to the next city and be writing while he was rolling. He goes non-stop. One of the most prolific creators.
ML: It’s intimidating. It’s intimidating. It truly is.
MM: I know Elvis Costello was asked to play Conan and suggested you instead and you played Conan. What goodies to they put in the dressing rooms on Conan?
RL: Oh, good question. They give you adorable little sandwiches and little tiny cupcakes. And, obviously, Megan and I have quite an affinity – quite a love relationship – with cupcakes. That was pretty exciting. But, honestly, the biggest perks for two gear heads would be the fact that Jimmy Vivino is the musical director of Conan. He’s the leader of the Basic Cable Band. Jimmy’s got a little office that is just cram jammed with the most delicious amplifiers and guitars you could possibly imagine and if people go and watch our performance on Conan they’ll see that I was plugged through two matched, Brownface deluxe amplifiers with external reverb and that was on loan from Jimmy. That, to us, was the total icing on top of the cake.
MM: You contributed to Steven Tyler’s We’re All Somebody from Somewhere album. What was Steven Tyler like?
RL: [Laughs] He was as eccentric as you could possibly hope. Yeah. He’s got a lot of energy. It’s hard to sum him up. He’s a magical human being. That is for sure. I think my favorite part about the sessions was that it felt very surreal, like out of a dream. The fact that he was sort of dressed in these flowing cloaks of fabric and somewhere within all the folds of the fabric he had these pockets and he had – I think it would’ve been trail mix, or some cracker mix – and he would continually give us treats from his pockets, which I thought, you know, I wanted to be offended but at the same time it was Steven Tyler and you’re Steven Tyler and you’re giving me food out of your pocket. There was something kind of weirdly cool about that. But at the same time I didn’t really want to eat it because of germs and I’m an adult and all that stuff. It was a very conundrum situation.
ML: I was very hungry so I ate it. [Laughs]
MM: Did you both eat it?
RL: You know, I don’t have a strong recollection. I probably did. It was Peanut M&Ms.
ML: It was chocolate. There was a hard sugar coating.
MM: Did Steven Tyler give you the impression that he wants to be a country artist from now on or did he mention Aerosmith at all?
RL: Oh, yeah, they’ve since been out and played shows. I think that Steven Tyler is up for whatever. He strikes me as someone who’s so very creatively engaged and just running around and having fun.
MM: I have to ask, after seeing it on your website – are you really descendants of Edgar Allan Poe?
RL: We are. He is definitely up in our family tree. And it’s very distant. And I think pretty much with enough finagling you can say you’re related to anybody in the world if you go back far enough. But, for us, it really is a thing. You know, our great, great, great grandfather – his last name was Poe and the family split off from Virginia way back up in the family tree. There is a tenuous but real connection.
ML: Larkin Poe, who the band is named after, is a cousin of Edgar Allan.
MM: Is there a story you can tell us about Larkin Poe?
RL: There are many stories we could tell about Larkin Poe. He was apparently a very vengeful man. I think it would’ve been our great, great, great grandmother who fell in love with a Lovell, which is where we get our last name, and she wound up eloping with this guy, with this scallywag, Oscar Lovell. And, roundabout, Larkin disowned her and never spoke to her again, which to me feels very, very Southern. There’s all the Southern hospitality in the world, but there’s also this edge, I think, that exists within Southerners that you dare not go against. And I always thought that was a very romantic story. It’s tragic, but, to me, that’s part of, I suppose, what gives stories their humanity. The fact that none of us are angels. None of us are complete bad guys. We make mistakes and disown daughters who are following their hearts. So, I think that, for me, that was a story that really humanized Larkin to a degree. And I’m actually not sure if they ever reconciled. But I would like to think that they did.
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Official Website: http://www.larkinpoe.com/