Larkin Poe: Sisters in Sound
Rebecca and Megan Lovell expand their musical boundaries while stripping down their delivery on Venom & Faith.
It has been a long musical journey for the Lovell family, with plenty of twists and turns along the way, and it all started at a bluegrass festival. Sisters Jessica, Megan, and Rebecca Lovell had been studying classical music from a young age and were surrounded by an eclectic mix of music at home—exposed to everything from Alison Krauss to Black Sabbath. But it was the sound of live bluegrass that served as the catalyst for their mutual epiphany.
Rebecca Lovell explains: “We were just blown away by the passion and spontaneity of bluegrass, with everyone improvising and everyone out dancing. That was a very different experience than we’d had thus far performing in classical trios and quartets and symphonies and orchestras. We were bowled over by it and instantly flipped 180 degrees. We put away all of our classical instruments and quit our classical lessons. That was the genesis of our really involved love of music.”
In 2004, the teenage sisters formed their band, the Lovell Sisters, and hit the ground running. They made records and toured the country, appearing on A Prairie Home Companion and at the Grand Ole Opry, as well as winning the John Lennon Songwriting Competition in 2008. But by 2009, oldest sister Jessica decided to leave music. “It’s a very strange way to make one’s life,” says Rebecca.
The younger Lovells regrouped and took the opportunity to make a fresh start, electrifying their sound under the name of their great-great-great-great grandfather, Larkin Poe. The new band built on the Lovell Sisters’ momentum, introducing Larkin Poe to the world in 2010 by releasing four EPs that year. It didn’t take long before their sound caught the ears of folks like T Bone Burnett, Elvis Costello, Steven Tyler, and Keith Urban—all of whom have tapped the Lovell sisters’ talent for recordings and performances.
The duo released their newest album, Venom & Faith, hot on the heels of Peach, which dropped in late 2017. There is a sonic narrative between the two records: Megan and Rebecca decided to eschew outside help and to produce, write, arrange, and perform all of the instrumentation themselves. The result is a pair of albums that embrace a stripped-down sound based on nontraditional arrangements that focus on the sisters themselves. While Peach is a raw take on the bluesy side of their sound, Venom & Faith moves farther afield in its influences, drawing on the sounds of Southern hip-hop and alternative rock artists like Radiohead and PJ Harvey.
Premier Guitar caught up with Larkin Poe while they were on tour with Keith Urban and getting ready for the release of Venom & Faith. We discussed their recent recordings, how they’ve embraced their influences, and how their family relationship influences their sound.
When your band changed and you became Larkin Poe, you electrified. What inspired that change and how has that progressed?
Rebecca Lovell: We started Larkin Poe at a very similar musical place where we left off with the Lovell Sisters, and it was a transition that happened gradually and took time. I think so often artists aren’t given that time and space that they once were to develop and to grow and to experiment. We feel very fortunate to have stuck with it over these years.
We’ve been Larkin Poe now for eight years. I think it took us eight years to start making records that we finally feel represent the music we hear in our heads or the music we envision playing. So it was really just a baby-step-by-baby-step journey to realizing the dream of what it really means to be Larkin Poe.
You’ve changed your instrumentation a bit. Rebecca, you started playing guitar after playing banjo and then mandolin.
Rebecca: After picking up the banjo, I eventually migrated full-time to mandolin and became a raging, obsessive, competition player. During that time in my mid-teens, acoustic guitar was always in the picture, but mostly in the background. A few years into the formation of Larkin Poe, as we delved deeper and deeper into the blues, it slowly dawned on me that the sonic palette I was searching for was the guitar. I purchased my first electric guitar in 2013 and started the journey of actually becoming a functioning guitar player.
Megan, how did you end up playing lap steel? Were you a regular 6-string guitar player first?
Megan Lovell: Well, I tried out guitar, I tried out mandolin, I tried banjo—all of the fretted instruments never really worked for me, never quite clicked. I saw a Dobro being played for the first time and that’s when I was like, “Oh! This may be my instrument, this intrigues me.” Later on, lap steel came into the picture because when we became Larkin Poe and our sound became a little bit more electric, we introduced drums. And so the lap steel was kind of an obvious choice to go from acoustic to electric.
TIDBIT: Megan and Rebecca Lovell produced and recorded Venom & Faith themselves. “We tried to push more boundaries in terms of introducing a more modern and contemporary sound palette,” says Rebecca. “Given that we write songs that harken back to the ’30s and ’40s blues structure, we thought it would be cool to try to interlace the old with the new.”
Do you remember that first meeting with the Dobro?
Megan: It was in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and I heard Lou Wamp, who plays Dobro. I was familiar with the sound of the Dobro from Alison Krauss with Jerry Douglas, of course, but I never really made the connection of what the instrument looked like, how it was actually played, with the slide, with the banjo picks. And when I saw it, that’s kind of when all the pieces came into place: “Oh, this sound is this instrument, and I can play it!”
You both seem pretty loyal to your guitars. What are your go-to instruments?
Megan: I play my old Rickenbacker lap steel. It’s from the 1940s and that’s my standby. I’ve only ever played Rickenbacker lap steels. I have four—they’re my babies. I’m obsessed with them.
Rebecca: I have a little stable of guitars that I’m constantly expanding. My main guitar, and actually the first guitar I ever bought, is my seafoam green Jazzmaster. I got that because we were playing with Elvis Costello, and that was his main guitar and I just thought it was so badass.
Megan, how do you tune your lap steel?
Megan: It’s tuned like a Dobro, in open G. From low to high, that’s G–B–D–G–B–D. I use a Scheerhorn stainless steel slide and a Shubb GS1 Gary Swallows slide.
After discovering bluegrass with her sisters, Jessica and Megan, Rebecca Lovell started playing banjo and then migrated to mandolin in her mid-teens. “A few years into the formation of Larkin Poe, as we delved deeper and deeper into the blues, it slowly dawned on me that the sonic palette I was searching for was the guitar,” she says. Here she strums her Fender Stratocaster HSS Shawbucker onstage in Toledo. Photo by Ken Settle
How does being sisters affect your band or your sound?
Rebecca: Being sisters does truly affect everything. Just the fact that we have a complete shared history from the word “go,” our experience lines up completely and that makes us very similar in the way that we approach making music together. It’s been something that provides a lot of fire in our relationship. We’ve definitely had to work over the years to create a relationship that is respectful and treated with care between the two of us. As a lot of sibling bands could attest, it’s very difficult to not blow it up. I look at Heart; they’re not touring together right now. I look at the Black Crowes; they’re not touring together. There are so many of these tragedy stories of sibling bands just tearing themselves to shreds, and that’s not what we want to be. I think that kind of dedication to our relationship as sisters really bleeds over into our dedication to the relationship we share with our band and with our fans. It means that we approach everything with a lot of intention, and I think that’s been really good for us.
We’re sisters first and always, and that relationship trumps everything in terms of whatever happens with this band. And I think that we’re able to pull much stronger as a team when we’re getting along. Of course, we have hard moments. You know, everybody can remember what it’s like to be on the road or to be in an uncomfortable situation with your family and you’re able to let little tiny annoyances create this nuclear situation. But we’ve definitely learned to just move through those and to fight constructively and to channel that energy and angst into really making the best music that we can make.
Megan: I think it has such an impact on our sound and the way we make music. Siblings and music go way back. It’s always been kind of a hand-in-hand sort of thing—sibling harmony—and with that we can really speak to each other in a language we understand, and ultimately when we’re making music together, it’s really effortless. The two of us in a room, we can get so much done.
I can’t tell you how many times in the car or on tour we’ll randomly burst out singing the same song, in the same key, in harmony. It’s really eerie! And then we just look at each other like, what?
Rebecca: Like, why is this happening?
You have a YouTube and Instagram video series called Tip o’ the Hat, where you cover songs from different genres. What’s the story behind it?
Rebecca: We started the Tip o’ the Hat series as a way to kill time when we were home off the road, and also to continue to learn. It’s easy to get complacent and not keep pushing your boundaries or injecting new fuel to burn the fire of love of music in your soul. We thought it was a fun way to actually learn songs that were meaningful to us as kids—songs that helped shape the sound of Larkin Poe.
And it seems to have really resonated with people.
Rebecca: That was very exciting for us to see people’s imaginations get captured by the covers we were performing. In a lot of ways, starting off that series was a huge mile-marker for us, in terms of realizing the strength of our musical bond as sisters and being willing to have the courage to go into the studio to make a record—just the two of us.
Leading up to the Tip o’ the Hat music series, all of the albums we’d made were definitely really tricked-out and overproduced. When we started making videos with just the two of us, people were leaving comment after comment of, “Oh wow, please make records just like this, we love this stripped-back thing.” That was a big wakeup call for us to consider going in and actually doing just that. That’s when we made Peach, in late 2017. Over a long weekend at a studio in Nashville, we cranked out 11 songs that feature just the two of us. We self-produced, we played all the instruments. For us, it was such a cool transitional period that informed what we’re going to keep doing from here on out.
So you work fast as a band. When was Venom & Faith recorded?
Rebecca:Venom & Faith was recorded over a period of weeks this past spring. We knew we were going to be out on the road so much with Keith Urban and with our own touring that it was the only time we could actually make a record, if we wanted to release one this year. Because we’d made Peach so recently, it really took a lot of soul-searching and digging deep to find the creative source from which to bring Venom & Faith into fruition. It was a really good exercise, because it was a quick turnaround. It’s our favorite record we’ve made to this day, and we made it very similarly to Peach, as well, in terms of self-producing and playing everything.
What’s different about these two records?
Rebecca: Peach was half originals and half covers—very traditional blues covers. We kept the production very, very sparse, and we kept with very organic sounds. We tried to rein it in and let it be a tribute to the journey of blues, as it were.
With Venom & Faith, there were more original songs, and we tried to push more boundaries in terms of introducing a more modern and contemporary sound palette. Because we grew up in Atlanta listening to a lot of hip-hop music, we wanted to mix some of those larger-than-life sounds with the traditional blues elements. Given that we write songs that harken back to the ’30s and ’40s blues structure, we thought it would be cool to try to interlace the old with the new. I think we tipped that way a little bit on Peach, and Venom & Faith took it further down the path.
Megan Lovell coaxes sonic sparks from her main vintage Rickenbacker. Unlike many Western swing and country steel players, she favors a raw, raucous tone. “I love David Lindley, the Allman Brothers, and Derek Trucks,” she says. “I’ve only ever played Rickenbacker lap steels. I have four—they’re my babies.” Photo by Ken Settle
Those production elements make this a unique record, like the way you incorporate hip-hop beats and sonics on songs like “Fly Like an Eagle.” Did you have any experience making beats before?
Rebecca: Beat-making is a hobby of mine. About two years ago, I started messing around with GarageBand, making beats as a tool for songwriting. It was something we found to be really fun as a jump-off point. I kind of get wonky with it. And I think it’s something that really helped shape the new sound.
The marching band sounds on “Sometimes” and “Honey Honey” immediately grabbed my attention.
Rebecca: We worked up a version of “Sometimes” sitting at my kitchen table. It was just Megan and me in a room, clapping and stomping. I just took a wild hair and wanted to play around with writing a horn part. I think we might catch some flak from people for having that production element, but honestly, if it comes from a place of enjoyment from our perspective, we kind of don’t care! It was really fun to imagine and shape.
Once we had that moment on the album, we wanted to reflect it somewhere else, so we programmed the drum line section for “Honey Honey,” as well. Just to sort of help bookend the concept, so it wasn’t just lying out there solo on “Sometimes.”
Megan: This is something I really admire about Rebecca. She’ll just get a wild hair and be like, “I’m gonna write a horn part! I’m gonna write a marching band part!” She brings it in and I’m like, “Hell yeah, that’s awesome!”
What comes first—the songs or the beats? Is it a conversation between the two elements?
Rebecca: I would definitely say it’s a conversation between the two. Some of the songs were free-standing without any production, and then we fleshed out the tracks around them. But others were inspired by the beats. For example, “Fly Like an Eagle” was very much inspired by wanting to write something on top of that 808 [Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer] pattern in the chorus. Other songs, like “Bleach Blonde Bottle Blues,” for instance, was just sitting with the guitar and coming up with the song.
To stay true to what we’re trying to do with our music, I think you gotta have a bit of both, because we do want to expand boundaries. We don’t want to be just a time capsule dedicated to the past of what the blues has been. That would be a bit inauthentic on our part, and also a little disrespectful to the artists that have come before us and who have really experienced a struggle to realize the music they made.Being true to that process requires us to experience the same kind of innovation for ourselves. So it definitely is a conversation between being driven forward by production, but also disregarding the production and just trying to make a cool song.
How will these songs change when you play them with your band, which features a bassist and drummer?
Rebecca: The live performances will be reminiscent of the recorded versions, but they will be reinterpreted and freshened up. It’s actually quite a struggle, because when you listen to the record, the sound palette we’ve used is very non-traditional. It’s definitely not your traditional drum kit sound or just regular electric P-bass or whatever. It is very specifically tailored to the songs and the creative vision that we had in mind in the studio. It’s been a really fun challenge to rework these songs for the live show.
You’re most identified as a blues band, but clearly there are so many other things going on. Can you talk a bit about your biggest influences, outside of the blues?
Megan: Both of us are very influenced by the source music of the South—like bluegrass, blues, roots music, folk music—but we do differ a little in our individual inspiration. I love a lot of slide guitar players. I love David Lindley, the Allman Brothers, and Derek Trucks. I’m inspired by a lot of classic rock people, like Pink Floyd or the Eagles or Black Sabbath.
Though they don’t play, we feel very lucky that our parents are big music lovers and have really good taste in music. While our mom was playing us classical music, our dad was playing us classic rock records.
Rebecca: Since I wind up doing a lot of the production side of things, for me, my big inspiration forever and for always is Chris Whitley, who would make really versatile records that were all over the map. He’s like my big number one idol I pray to. But I also really get into PJ Harvey records and the space and the programming she exhibits on her records. I really get into Radiohead for a lot of the boundaries they have pushed in terms of having pop songs, but with really whacked-out arrangements and whacked-out sounds. And Childish Gambino. Oh my god ... all day long, Childish Gambino.
This half-hour live-in-studio performance by the Lovell sisters and band features heapin’ helpings of Megan’s searing lap steel, along with crunchy Strat and gutsy lead vocals from Rebecca.
The Lovells lay it down during SXSW 2018, trading riffs and vocal harmonies in one of their originals from 2017’s Peach.