Now more than ever, America needs the Watson Twins.
The sisters from Louisville, Ky., were the secret, double-barreled weapon on singer Jenny Lewis’s 2006 album Rabbit Fur Coat, on which they helped the former child star break out as a countrified solo artist after years of indie-rock success with the Los Angeles quartet Rilo Kiley. And they did so often subliminally, like the fine details in the fancy embroidery on a Western-style shirt. The more deeply one listens to that record, the more one hears the Watsons, whose gospel-inspired harmonies gave Lewis’s confessions both unanticipated emotional depth and a celestial glow.
As might be expected, Fire Songs (Vanguard), the Watsons’ full-length debut, is more than a little bit country. When you’re talking about vocalizing siblings from bluegrass territory, all you need is a banjo or a pedal steel, a slower beat, and some studio echo to make it all sound like it’s about Jesus. Even if the ladies did a version of “Hot for Teacher” it would still make a rank heathen want to drop to his worthless sinful knees and beseech the heavens for absolution of his wickedness. That spooky devotional quality, unearthly enough to qualify for the next David Lynch film, is a major part of the vibe the Watsons brought to Rabbit Fur Coat — a calling card. It’s everything that country and western devotees in the rock business — Jack White, Jeff Tweedy, Billy Bragg, et al. — aspire to, with their ancient tube amplifiers and Hank Williams envy. But the Watsons have it in their blood.
What’s more authentically redemptive about Chandra and Leigh Watson, however, is not that they are the reincarnation of some Carter Family-era hillbilly hoodoo. The overall effect of Fire Songs is closer to the current Los Angeles neo-hippie folk-pop demimonde. The gals have lived for nearly a decade in hipster Silver Lake, sort of the 21st-century Laurel Canyon, and reside on the earthier side of a scene fostered by venues such as Spaceland and culture ’zines such as Arthur. They aren’t freak-folk, and they aren’t psychedelic. But when the guitar twangs and shimmers over a stately rhythm at the beginning of “Sky Open Up,” for instance, evoking Neil Young and Fairport Convention, it could be 1972 all over again.
Smoky, mid-tempo balladry is a favored mode for the twins, who indulge in the high lonesomes on such tracks as “Dig a Little Deeper” and “Old Ways,” bittersweet and tangy romantic reveries that work well enough without making anyone forget about Lucinda Williams. But the album is a lot more fun when the singers embrace retro confections like “How Am I To Be,” a throwback to early-1960s girl-group pop with toy xylophone chimes and “wooo-ooh-ooh” choruses that works its charms in a succinct three minutes. “Fall,” probably the best-realized performance on the album, dispenses with all but some acoustic guitars, eventual strings, and a haunted, echoing bit of piano for a coda, as one of the Watsons (it can be difficult discerning which) sings against a spare backdrop. It’s all about romantic madness and dissolution, but the delivery is so straightforward, the song becomes a meditative balm.
The sisters up the ante into goose-bump territory with the album’s not-unexpected cover song. What is unexpected is that it’s not a Wednesday night prayer-meeting ditty. Instead, the twins take up the 1987 Cure hit “Just Like Heaven,” slowed down a notch so the melody glimmers off the guitar strings like little droplets of rain, a harmonica wheezing with just the right amount of “sad.” The beauty of this kind of remake, with the verses rendered in close-miked harmony, is that the listener not only gets to hear the lyrics — stripped, as they are, away from their original new-wave trappings — but also to feel them. When the Watsons hit the line, “Found myself alone, alone, alone above a raging sea / Stole the only girl I loved and drowned her deep inside of me,” their voices delicate and dreamy in their evocation of loss, it approaches the suspended animation of a Wong Kar-Wai scene.
Drawn like the prodigal wayfarer, I followed those harmonies down to the Mercury Lounge in Manhattan one recent afternoon where I found Chandra and Leigh fussing over their T-shirt concession display. I grabbed a beer and flicked on the tape recorder as the sisters each took a barstool, and we started talking.
So how did you guys wind up in Los Angeles?
Chandra: It was a twist of fate. We had been traveling around the country visiting friends and when we got home to Kentucky, it just so happens that a friend called us from L.A. and said his roommates were moving out and he had a couple of extra rooms. We had promised each other that when the time came and the door opened we would just go. And that was the door. We packed up our truck and drove to L.A.
What kind of truck?
Chandra: We still have it. Ford Ranger. Proudly.
Did you play around Kentucky a lot?
Chandra: Leigh and I had been in Indiana going to school, and we were doing a little bit of playing there. Just bars and coffeeshops.
Leigh: We had started writing our own music. We had a band back then for a little bit, but it wasn’t anything serious. We were wasting time more than anything else. Right before we left school we started getting a little more serious about it. L.A. is a good music city, and we got really lucky to be part of a neighborhood where everyone was into music. We landed in the right spot.
This was ten years ago. What was the scene like then?
Chandra: Strangely enough it’s the people from that neighborhood now. Rilo Kiley, Silversun Pickups, Earlimart, Sea Wolf …
Leigh: Dengue Fever, Radar Brothers.
Chandra: They’ve all been happening for years, but only become recognizable in the last few years.
Leigh: Elliot Smith was living there and Beck and people doing it on a much more professional level than all of us. It turned into something that was really special. I feel lucky to have been a part of that fetal state. And now feeling like wow, seeing all my friends doing well and getting recognized for their music.
Chandra: It’s just a matter of time. You plug away long enough and you get better and you meet more people. If your head is in the right place it evolves into something bigger.
Is it pure natural for you two to sing together?
Chandra: We sing along to the radio and harmonize. I was telling someone the other day that it’s harder to… I mean, I can sing the melody but my head automatically goes to the harmony.
Leigh: It’s pretty instinctual. We challenge ourselves by thinking outside what our natural instinct is and try to do something different.
What’s the cheesiest song you’d sing along to?
Chandra: We sing along to everything.
Leigh: We were like rocking out to Wham! on the way out here from LA.
Chandra: Whatever comes on the radio.
Leigh: Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson, lay it on us.
After the Jenny Lewis record, what was it like to be on the radar?
Leigh: We were singing backup vocals in bands for so long, it was a comfortable place for us to operate in. We were excited that “Oh this record is getting so much attention,” but we really had no idea what we were about to embark on. It just kind of rolled out. There wasn’t too much fuss about it. Ultimately, it set the stage for now. We talk with Jenny and that whole project was such timing. All these people came to a quiet spot and a beautiful thing sprung out of it.
Is it weird if people come up to you and say they think your music is spooky? Sometimes it makes me feel like I’m in a David Lynch movie…
Leigh: I think there’s that visual element, too.
It reminds me of Roy Orbison, too. There’s a timeless, ethereal quality. Maybe it’s what happens…
Chandra: When three ladies come together?
Leigh: The spiritual essence. It’s weird. Someone asked me, “Well what do you think about people calling you ‘white soul’?” And everybody is allowed to have their own opinion. It’s not a negative opinion in any way. If people are tapping into that it’s a-OK with me.
Chandra: There were a lot of different interpretations of the music. Some people found it eerie. Some people are like, hey it’s really country, or old soul, or old folk. It touched on a lot of genres that we all enjoy.
When you were growing up, what was important? TV, church, indie rock?
Leigh: A little bit of everything. We started out in church but then we got very involved in the hardcore and punk-rock scene in Lousiville, and that scene turned into indie-rock. It’s a weird thing.
Leigh: They were a little bit older than us. But bands like Slint and Crane and Palace, weird bands that no one really knew how to clarify.
Chandra: You went to every show.
Leigh: There was nothing else to do. When someone gives you a venue that you can play and sing in, and feel some sort of spiritual lift and connection from that then yeah, you want to experience it again. It’s the same high you get from performing the raddest gospel song you ever heard in your life. That really elevates consciousness in some weird way, that singing and harmonizing with people.
What’s the raddest gospel song ever?
Leigh: If you asked my great-grandmother she’d say “Old Rugged Cross,” but that’s not necessarily a rejoicing song.
What’s the soundtrack for your roadtrip?
Leigh: Beirut, the new Elbow, our friends Stars from Canada, some Feist, the new Cat Power – I guess it’s not that new anymore – it kinda floats everywhere. Of course, there’s some Dylan on there.
Chandra: Good roadtrip music.
Leigh: Good roadtrip music. We just listened to the Grateful Dead the other day. American Beauty. We’re Grateful Dead fans.
Well, alright! What’s your favorite Dead album?
Leigh: The pretty mainstream stuff. [Chandra chimes in at the same time] “St. Stephen.” It’s a great song. I just like the changes in it and the harmonies are amazing and musically it’s a journey and I appreciate that.
I don’t really think it was the same after Pigpen died. It’s a different band.
Chandra: You’re old school.