Diggin’ the Fresh Roots

If he were alive today, Charley Patton would not have a LinkedIn profile. Ditto Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest … you name it. Acknowledged as the alpha-daddy of what we now consider the blues, the level of art that Patton created at the beginning of the 20th century was more about total transcendence than grubby career networking. The contemporary blues community surely has its merits, yet it also has artists who’ll name their albums the same as their band name. (SmokingInBed.com is still up for grabs, “Blind Boy” Chad-snap to it).

Even well into the 21st century, blues audiences in general have expectations. They want traditions to be recognized. Some crowds are fine with that. Other listeners demand a challenge. Blues lovers, like jazzheads, can be some of the most obsessive scholars of the music. Yet they can be open-minded. If a band cuts a revamped version of Muddy Waters’ “Still a Fool,” it had better still come from the heart and aim for the hips. If a band is able to maintain those blues signifiers and the music’s inherent passion, while threading in their unique translation of the music, that group will step over other bands still parroting-misinterpreting, really-a truly American music that is, at the very least, about rambling, wandering and being yourself.

Larkin Poe are quickly revealing themselves as current artists unafraid to punch some old-school Charley Patton into the effects-laden morph of a digital audio workstation. Led by sisters Rebecca and Megan Lovell, the Atlanta-born band formed in 2010. And in such a short time, they’ve moved quickly in establishing themselves as one of the more inventive bands on the blues/roots rock scene. While still in their teens, the pair were part of the family group The Lovell Sisters. Along with older sister Jessica, from 2004-’09, Rebecca and Megan played an inventive style of progressive bluegrass music that put them on notable stages including Bonnaroo, Grand Ole Opry, MerleFest and A Prairie Home Companion.

When the band called it quits, Rebecca and Megan wasted no time in firing up Larkin Poe, named for their great-great-great grandfather, a Civil War wagon driver and historian who was a descendant of Edgar Allen Poe. If that bloodline doesn’t give you a genetic EZ-Pass into the blues, we toil in a truly godless place.

Instead of riding the Lovell name into Americana glory, the two did a 180, aiming their undeniable skills toward the blues. Larkin Poe has released a handful of worthy EPs and albums and collaborated with some heavy-duty players, touring and performing with the likes of Elvis Costello, T-Bone Burnett and Conor Oberst, among others.

Their latest release, Peach, is a kind of distillation of the past five years or so. Totally self-produced by the Lovells, Peach is an impressive collection. The single, “Preachin’ Blues,” features Megan’s knee-buckling lap steel riffage slapped on top of a molar-rattling kick-drum beat; “Look Away” dips into the same pool, only in murkier waters, with a dark riff and electronic embellishments bobbing through the mix. Between the two of them, the Lovells sing their asses off and play an arsenal of stringed instruments-and they play them well.

Still in their 20s, Rebecca and Megan don’t create music as if they are “old souls, playing beyond their years.” If anything, their music is surely a direct result of that age-a kind of triple threat of knowing the music, loving the music, but not being hobbled by some folk-blues reverence that misses the point altogether. In his day, Charley Patton was an anomaly for simply having enough savvy to book his own gigs at venues that paid, let alone for playing haunting music we’re still trying to decode today. Larkin Poe are as plugged-in to social media and the required digital persona as any other current artist; but in listening to their music and witnessing them perform, it becomes clear that they couldn’t give a fuck about their current analytics performance.

This week, Rebecca, Megan and their rhythm section of bassist Tarka Layman and drummer Kevin McGowan perform at Springing the Blues in Jacksonville Beach. The fest is the ideal setting for Larkin Poe, since the three-day event is known for offering legendary acts with left-of-center artists. And with Larkin Poe, the fest is delivering a seriously fresh dose of contemporary blues.

Folio Weekly spoke with the Lovells from their current home in Nashville. They had just returned from a conquering run of shows at SXSW in Austin and had left their suitcases packed: the next night they’d be back on the road.

Folio Weekly: You just played Austin SXSW and a total of seven gigs in four days. Is that correct?

Rebecca Lovell: Actually, we played 11 gigs in five days.

You’ve played the fest before but I imagine not in such a concentrated manner; is this a personal record?

R.L.: This is a personal record. I think Megan and I very keenly felt that we currently had an issue of saying “no.” We learned a valuable lesson that 11 shows … that was the trick. We didn’t need to do anymore. [Laughs.]

I read on your site that you opened for Keith Urban while you were there.

R.L.: Yeah, that was Friday night at Stubb’s BBQ and then we also got up and jammed with him. I think that was the culmination. All of our shows were really well attended, and we kind of a had a good time with every single show, which we were not anticipating.

So you opened for Urban and you’ve performed onstage with Elvis Costello, Conor Oberst and T-Bone Burnett. Now you’re playing Springing the Blues here in Jax Beach. In all those different capacities, your particular styles aren’t changing; the collaborators and audiences are. What do you think are your strengths that led to those distinct opportunities?

R.L.: I think the beauty of all of the musical situations that we’ve been placed in is that we’ve been touring for so long, so nine times out of 10 we’re the babies in the room. And we’re mature adults now, we’re in our late 20s, so it’s crazy now that in our current experiences, we’ve been able to get in the same room with artists who’ve been making music for longer than we’ve been alive. And I think that’s taught us and given us a jump-start of wisdom that we’ve tried to soak up as much as possible. I mean, being onstage with someone like Elvis Costello and learning how to push and pull and be creatively spontaneous has been an incredible experience for us. To work with someone who is a consummate performer who has such an artistic voice, and to be in there and make mistakes and to also succeed and make someone’s songs move a little higher-that’s something we feel very fortunate about being a part of in the last decade. We’ve learned how to play and tour as Larkin Poe, but also learned how to play and be supportive as well-rounded musicians.

I like what you said about getting that jump-start of wisdom, since you might’ve even accrued that reservoir of wisdom that you might not have been aware of at the time, but now it’s manifested into who you are as artists.

R.L.: Last year especially, we were really stoked to go play with T-Bone Burnett and play in February 2017 with the MusiCares event. And that was something where I think Megan and I had to pinch ourselves, because some of the house band we were playing with were some of the Heartbreakers. Steve Ferrone was playing drums, Booker T from The MGS was playing keyboards … being onstage with people of that musical depth, again, it makes you feel that you really gotta “show up” and dig deep to bring something to the creative conversation.

Peach was entirely self-produced. When you were working with T-Bone, did you surreptitiously pick his brain or ask, “By the way, T-Bone, what kind of Neve console would you use?”

R.L.: Absolutely! I think without being nosy, if you just observe people and I think one thing that Megan and I really took away from working with T-Bone is the power that he has in a room, typically it’s his wisdom in who he puts in the room  and then stepping back and allowing those people to sort of meld and amalgamate something new. And I think for Megan and me, when we decided to self-produce Peach, it seemed like the path of least resistance. Sometimes, I think, as an artist, you want to dig in too deep and pick the life out of a project; even pick the life out of yourself as an artist, and be changing it, and varying it, and perfecting it. I think what we learned from T-Bone was, “You know what? Get out of your own way.” If there’s something naturally happening, let it happen, and don’t get too involved.

Megan Lovell: I think one of the lessons we learned from him is to not overproduce. Don’t “fix things” sometimes. The human error is at times a beautiful thing. Maybe leave some notes out of tune and let it be a little bit raw. I think one thing we’ve learned over the years is to not pick ourselves to death; let things be rough and raw. That’s served us well. I think Peach bears that out; we don’t think we overproduced it.

Totally. I’m kind of obsessed with banter or these off-the-cuff yells that are left on albums. Like on Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl” when he goes, “Whooo!” That “Whooo!” is a key experience to listening to that song! Or a drummer clicks the stick on the rim and they leave it the final mix. That’s the greatest!

[Both laugh.] R.L.: Absolutely!  M.L: Mistakes are the best! Drop that stick!

You mentioned getting out of your own way. Producing this album, how was that self-editing process? Did you ever run the songs or ideas by somebody? Because, ultimately, you two are saying, “That’s the take,” and then saying, “And this is the final album.”

R.L: I think we’ve achieved enough of a barometer where something feels right to us. And I think that’s only a skill we’ve developed from playing music for the last decade. Something just feels right about a take and I think we have learned to listen to our gut in such a way where we can do it in an effective way for us. And it was very scary for us to kind of fly blind, but you just have to sort of sit back and allow things to feel right, and let them happen.

M.L.: We’re also very lucky to have each other. So it’s nice to have a built-in partner who’s listening and will say, “That’s right; that’s not right.” And to have someone to lean on as well.

The single for the album, “Look Away,” has a descending, minor key, lap-steel riff that’s essentially a metal riff. [Laughs.] It’s not played like a metal riff; it’s like a “doom” riff. So it seems like out of the gate, you’re saying: “This is not your standard blues-rock album.” Are you consciously adding these kinds of flavors to show that you’re not the average blues-rock band?

R.L.: I think that’s our goal as artists; to create contrast in what it is that we’re doing, because we grew up loving so many styles of music. We grew up at the outset playing classical violin and piano and then moving into roots music, moving into bluegrass, at a very early age. And that was all running side-by-side with all of the classic rock records that our dad was playing for us: Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles, and heavier stuff like Black Sabbath, and The Clash and The Cure, and all of these bands that really do create forms and tensions within their music. Like distorted guitars and really beautiful vocals on top. We really wanted to pull those elements into our music because that’s what we really enjoy. Just yesterday, I was watching all of these Pantera videos. And I want to learn how to do that in our sound as well, to create these heavy, different sounds. Just to point out the fact that we are Southern and we sing pretty beautifully but add in that contrast to show really what we’re doing.

I’ll describe the band as “an innovative blend of Charley Patton and Septic Death.” You talked about contrast; on Peach you utilized these electronic sounds and production qualities that aren’t often heard in blues albums. There was that R.L. Burnside record Come On In, that had electronic and kind of techno-dub remixes. Do you feel like that’s still an open frontier you’d like to dig into even deeper?

R.L.: Personally? Yes. We come from Atlanta and I think it’s a great hub for hip hop and right now it’s cranking out some really good stuff. And we came up around that; I really love the power of big, unnatural sounds. You listen to hip hop records and they have all of these [classic drum machine] 808s and unrealistically massive kick-drum sounds and explosion sounds. To able to kind of lace some of that sonic palette in with the blues. And I think the blues is so relevant lyrically, and just the human experience is so strongly represented in the blues-to be able to keep that current? That’s a passion for Megan and me that we want to continue to delve in.

I read an article online the other day with the header, in part, “Why Nerdy White Guys Who Love the Blues” … it was highlighting people like Joe Bussard, R. Crumb … and I thought, “Man, I am one of those people.” And as a musician, I’ve met just as many obsessive, nerdy white gals who are obsessed with the prewar blues stuff. With that music, you can’t bullshit that sincerity. You two are way steeped in traditional music and know your stuff. With music like blues and jazz in particular, there can be a dance between “carrying on the tradition” but not being restrained by that tradition. It can be a pastiche. As contemporary songwriters with the reservoir you dip into, how do you inject your own personality and aesthetic into those traditional forms and the atmosphere of someone like Skip James?

R.L.: Funny you say Skip James, because he is one of [our] collective favorite musicians. I think, interestingly, trial-and-error. It’s very difficult sometimes as an artist to remember who you are. I think the best thing of [our] having been musical chameleons, and touring with artists and backing them up onstage, you learn how to blend effectively, and at the same time remembering, almost in an egocentric way: “OK, this is who I am as an artist. This is my style. This is my angle.” It’s easy to get that washed away in the ebb and flow of a song. So I think one useful tool that Megan and I have picked up in the last year is this little video series we started on our YouTube channel, called “Tip o’ the Hat.” We learn songs and we try to make them sound like us. And I think that’s been a huge learning tool in remembering who we are. “OK, this is the structure of the song, we have the lyric and the melody, and the arrangement; and now we just need to deconstruct it and rebuild it Larkin Poe form.” And I think that has kind of helped us, stone by stone, song by song, build this foundation in us remembering how is it we play, how is it we sing, what is our interaction together, musically. And being able to slap that onto any song that we want to play or write. That’s been hugely helpful; injecting yourself into the music, doing it again, and again, and again, and remembering what it is you’re injecting.

M.L.: I think there’s also a fear of changing the past. Like, when you cover another blues song, there’s like a fear of, “Oh, I don’t want to be disrespectful [by] changing it. But that’s not what those guys were doing. They were covering each other and changing the song, the lyrics, and the rhythm. They were constantly taking things from each other’s songs and borrowing the words and music. How many times do you hear the same lyrics in multiple blues songs? Or the same melody, but the lyrics are now different?

On that “Tip o’ the Hat” series, I really liked your take on Jeff Beck’s interpretation of “Nessun Dorma.” Have you received any feedback from the artists you’ve covered?

R.L.: Yeah, we have, which seems insane when it happens. Most recently we did “Bad to the Bone.” And George Thorogood was really outspoken in his love for this. They reposted it on all of his social media and they messaged us for our home address and he sent us a package with all of this stuff … a beer koozie, a CD and a hat … some signed vinyl!

This is more common with mainstream media, but I’ve never seen questions like, “What will you be wearing to the ceremony?” or, “What’s it like juggling parenthood and your career?” aimed at male entertainers. But female artists routinely still get these kinds of questions. Do you ever deal with that kind of slanted dynamic in interviews?

R.L.: Certainly we encounter that and it’s to be expected to a degree because I think there are remnants of those kinds of qualities that exist. And now I think there’s even more of a push to put those kinds of expectations in their place. But also, I think typically Megan and I try to gloss over that shit. Nine times out of 10, your gender doesn’t matter. If you’re creating something that’s compelling, who are you are, where you come from, your backstory … it all kind of falls by the wayside, if you’re making art that’s undeniable. And the fact that we are women? We can’t change that. We don’t want to change that. What can you do? It’s part of our story. But at the same time, it’s secondary to the fact that we’re artists. Our gender is our gender and we have control over what we practice and what kind of education we seek. What records are we listening to? How hard are we striving? I think those are the enduring qualities we have. Art should stand by itself.

The #MeToo movement has rightfully toppled some of these powerful men in the entertainment world and created an immediate, strong grassroots movement driven by empowerment and justice. You’ve been touring and recording since your teens. Have you dealt with much of that kind of inappropriate and aggressive behavior from men?

M.L.: I think we’ve been fairly lucky for the most part in people taking us at face value. Of course I think there is a bit of that as well as an expectation of what we’re going to be when people see us. We kind of enjoy taking those expectations and twisting them. [Laughs.] But I feel like we’ve been pretty lucky with the people we’ve worked with. Especially Elvis Costello taking us under his wing. That gave us a stamp of credibility from the beginning that we were really fortunate to have gotten. So we haven’t experienced that kind of harassment in the way other women might have.

R.L.: True. I think that’s a good point. Working with people like Kristian Bush and being sort of airlifted into organizations of people who are very respectful and putting the music first and ignoring all of that transitory, fleeting bullshit of the industry. We’ve been really fortunate to have escaped that, and working with people who are focused on the song, the performance, and the art. But, yeah, I feel so fortunate.

In the Lovell Sisters, you were pushing the boundaries of the bluegrass and Americana tags, and now with Larkin Poe, you two are surely coloring outside the lines of these blues-and-roots rock labels. Are there other styles or forms you could see yourselves delving into and explore?

R.L.: That’s the beauty of the unknown. Even after playing music for as long as we have, we are young and have many years ahead of us to create music. I envision Megan and me in wheelchairs and walkers, continuing to delve and make music together. But we do have so many interests musically that I’m excited to see where we go. I think the last year and a half, with all of the experience and experimenting we’ve done in making Peach, and spending time in the studio, we’ve hit on something that really resonates in our core. It’s music very much rooted in the blues and the South, with trimmings and trappings of hip hop, or pop, or electronic. Just trying to smear and blend with the best of them; that’s the goal right now.