Interview: Larkin Poe on their turn to roots-rock and their telepathic playing
The roots-rock duo on sibling telepathy, finding the right instrument, exploring their influences on Venom & Faith and why it’s important for women to put their own spin on blues…
Image: Robbie Klein
To watch Larkin Poe perform, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Lovell sisters had been belting out sizzling roots-rock numbers since they were barely out of the crib. But the reality is that a decade ago, neither Rebecca nor her older sister Megan had picked up an electric instrument in anger.
“Both Megan and I grew up playing classical violin and piano,” explains Rebecca, Larkin Poe’s offset-wielding frontwoman. “We’re the first generation of music-makers in our family. But starting so young was such a leg up for us, and has really changed the course of our lives.”
The pair grew up in North Georgia, educated on a diet of classical music from their mother, and a mixture of classic rock and heavy metal courtesy of their dad, but it wasn’t until the sisters, still barely into their teens, attended a local bluegrass festival with some family friends that they had their musical epiphany.
“We’d been playing in orchestras and quartets for many many years, but that was the first time we were able to experience music in a really joyful, improvisational and fiery way – watching these bluegrass quartets jam on stage,” Megan recalls. “That was a bit of an ‘ah-ha!’ moment for us. The switch clicked and really inspired to drop our classical instruments and start playing roots American music instead.”
Bluegrass is greener
Throwing yourself head-first into bluegrass music wasn’t exactly a normal thing for teenage girls to do in the early 2000s, even in a roots-music heartland such as Georgia – a fact that’s not lost on the sisters.
“Dude, we were like the antithesis of cool!” Rebecca exclaims, laughing. “We were teenagers and we were so suckered in by bluegrass music… it’s kinda strange that we were! But it was a very natural progression. I’m a very energetic person, so for me the mandolin and that banjo really made sense, because they’re really aggressive, percussive instruments, but I think it took you a bit longer, Megan…”
“I did try to play mandolin, I tried to play banjo and guitar… but I guess me and fretted instruments just don’t really quite work!” Megan agrees. “But when I saw a Dobro being played for the first time, I saw a connection between the Alison Krauss records we’d been listening to, and Jerry Douglas… and not really knowing what that instrument was or what that sound was. And making that connection of, ‘Oh, that’s the Dobro, that’s what I’ve been hearing!’ And just immediately being so intrigued by it. It fit me so perfectly.”
The pair teamed up with their older sibling Jessica to form the Lovell Sisters, who released three albums and toured heavily between 2005 and 2009, the girls being home-schooled on the road by their parents. “I feel so fortunate that we were able to experience the Lovell Sisters and the touring that we did, because it was so unexpected, and it was so unintentional as well,” Rebecca smiles. “We didn’t necessarily feel like we were touring professionally, or laying the foundations for things that would come.”
The Lovell Sisters came to an end when Jessica decided that she wanted to pursue education instead of a music career, but for her two teenage sisters, the desire to perform and make music full-time still burned bright. This time, however, they knew exactly what it would take. “When Larkin Poe started, that was us actually knowing what we were getting into,” Megan explains.
And what they wanted to get into, was rock ’n’ roll…
“We had grown up listening to rock records, and a lot of those records came from our dad’s collection, but we’re never achieved those sounds ourselves,” Megan continues. “Obviously, being an all-American string band – there was no drums, no amps, and no loud instruments! So starting Larkin Poe gave us the chance to explore and try things out, especially being young adults at that point, we’re figuring out who we are as individuals, and experimenting with our music. And it was really challenging at first – I’ll be honest with you, the sheer volume of a Fender amplifier was terrifying for me, so it took us a few years to get desensitised! Now we’re tough old birds – oh my gosh, we’re so loud now!”
If the sisters were going to get loud, they had to leave their folk instruments behind and find something a little more suited to the task, and for Rebecca, there was only one electric guitar that really spoke to her – the Jazzmaster.
“That’s because of Elvis Costello, 100 per cent,” she affirms. “We met him when we were young teens and we’ve developed a really great relationship with him over the years – he’s been such a mentor to us. And just seeing him with that iconic red Jazzmaster with ‘Elvis Costello’ on the fretboard, when I decided that I did want to try playing electric, that was like my first step into the dark side of guitar, and I never looked back!”
Since forming Larkin Poe, Rebecca has often been seen with a beautiful Seafoam Green offset, with matching headstock, draped around her neck – but rather awkwardly, things aren’t quite what they appear with that guitar.
“Y’know what, it is not in fact a real Fender, but that’s something as a Fender-endorsed artist we do not talk about!” Rebecca chuckles. “It’s a Bill Nash JM Model, built down in Florida. I picked it up at a music store and just ripped the band-aid off and paid for it, which was a real deep cut to me as a teenager… but dude, it’s such a sweet guitar!”
Megan’s journey from Dobro maestro to lap-steel-slinger was a logical progression, and the 30-year-old took to her new instrument with aplomb – a 1950s Rickenbacker becoming a calling card as she dishes out lick after searing lick.
“I was so lucky that I sort of happened into my Rickenbacker,” Megan explains. “I had gone to get lessons in Chattanooga from a guy called Louie Wamp, who’s a great Dobro player, and he suggested that I pick up this Rickenbacker he’d seen in Gruhn Guitars here in Nashville. He said: ‘I really think that you’ll like this lap-steel, and it’s a great price – I really think you should try it.’
“And so I trusted him, and got it, and I’ve never played any other kind of lap-steel since! There’s nothing like an old Rickenbacker lap-steel, so I’ve since bought like, three more – I’m very loyal to it! That’s me as a person – I like finding something that works and sticking with it. I’m not much of a gear-head, once I find something, it’s not going to change for years, including my strings!”
The pair’s debut record as Larkin Poe was titled Kin and it instantly showed the familial connection at work with the pair’s remarkable interplay with guitar, lap-steel and vocals.
“Ever since I can really remember, mine and Rebecca’s connection has always been very solid,” Megan explains. “We’re less than two years apart, so we grew up with a little bit of that ‘twin thing’ where we seem to have a lot of communication that’s not verbal.”
“Yeah, I can kinda shoot her a look and she knows exactly where I’m going, and vice versa,” Rebecca continues. “It’s all very effortless between the two of us, and that’s really the reason why we decided to go into the studio and produce ourselves for our latest record, and to play everything on the record just the two of us. We wanted to have that lean, mean killing machine thing where the two of us can work really fast and dirty.”
Sting in the tail
That new record is Venom & Faith, which sees them push their rootsy rock sound into new areas, bringing in electronic sounds and hip-hop beats to complement their guitars and vocals. In many ways, it’s the culmination of a process that took the sisters all the way back to their roots, so they could branch out again.
“A couple of years ago, Megan and I had this idea to make this YouTube series called ‘Tip O’ The Hat’, where we just sit in our bedrooms and do stripped-back covers. People really loved those,” Rebecca explains. “There was something about that highlighting of the sister connection that people really responded to, and we would just get comment after comment on these videos, ‘Oh please, make a record like this, we love seeing the two of you so stripped back!’ And so, listening to our fans and the support under those videos, it felt like the right step to make.”
That step was Peach – an album of classic American roots staples that brought Megan and Rebecca as close as they’d come to their Lovell Sisters sound since forming Larkin Poe.
“Peach was such a mile-marker for us,” Rebecca explains. “It was a real step-out point in terms of having the courage to make that record. We made it literally in a long weekend. We went into the studio with Roger Alan Nichols [engineer] and just knocked it out, then put it out to the universe. And it was so loved and we got so much positive feedback, that we knew we wanted to take a similar-ish tack with Venom & Faith – obviously self-producing again, working with Roger again, and playing everything. But instead of paying such a direct homage to the past with so many covers, we wanted to introduce more originals into the mix.
“I think what people hear with Venom & Faith is Megan and I stretching out into our creative imagination – the land of anything possible! Trying to create original moments with our unique spin, but also wanting to pay homage to the roots American music tradition.”
Despite only having four studio albums, Larkin Poe’s records are stylistically varied – “Our fans have been so supportive with all the genre-dabbling we’ve done over the years!” Megan jokes – but no matter what influences they’re pulling in, the Georgia duo’s music always seems to have a through-line of Americana.
“I would say you can lay that mostly at the feet of Megan Lovell!” Rebecca enthuses. “The way that she plays that slide, there’s so much history in the way she plays – it’s sort of innate in the way she constructs riffs and creates that bluesy feel. And then I’m inspired to sing and play differently by the way she plays the slide. So that’s a major touchstone for the Southern-ness of our records, the last two especially.”
“I think one of my favourite moments on the album would be Good And Gone,” Megan chimes in. “Because that’s one of the moments where we really highlight the connection between Rebecca’s vocal and my lap-steel playing. I consider my lap-steel to be more of my voice than my actual voice! It’s my way of singing with Rebecca. There’s something so very special about singing through my lap-steel with her voice.”
It’s nearly impossible to talk about roots music without getting into the blues – a genre that often ties itself in knots worrying about what’s ‘authentic’ and what isn’t, but Rebecca is quick to explain that the burden of history doesn’t have to be a straitjacket.
“The blues is such a powerful genre that means so much to so many people, that we want to do our best to do something fresh with it. To not just spit out the past like some sort of a time capsule – especially as we’re women making blues music. More and more, we’re seeing women come in and take the blues and run with it, and I love that, but we of course want to give it a unique spin, and just because of the fact of our DNA, we can’t help but! So it’s a very exciting time to be coming back to roots and making something fresh with it.”
Popular music has seen many siblings share the stage over the decades, and while the innate chemistry of people who know each other so well is often an advantage, there have been a few high-profile examples in which sibling rivalry has had a combustible results both on and off stage. It’s something that, as the only two members of the band, Megan and Rebecca are very aware of…
“Being sisters is the fundamental thing of our band, and it’s the major axis that we rotate off, Megan and I grew up being best friends since we were babies!” Rebecca explains. “We were inseparable, so there is that deep connection there, a such a shared history. But there are deeper pitfalls that I think siblings in bands have to overcome.
“Band politics is a thing that can tear people apart, and you look at a band like Fleetwood Mac and just think, ‘Oh my god, what a frickin’ drama! I would never do that!’ But then you look at the Gallaghers or Heart, The Black Crowes… Siblings – we know the buttons to push with one another, and it takes great control to not push those buttons!
“I think there’s only been a few times where we’ve gone on stage truly pissed at one another! I can think of maybe one time, and even then it was just like, superficial pissed-off-edness… but you can feel it! If we’re upset with each other, it’s really hard to mask that from a crowd. So it’s almost like a higher-stakes game – the vulnerability that we share with people in promoting our relationship as sisters, it’s a little dysfunctional, but also really powerful.”
“I think we absolutely keep each other honest,” Megan concludes. “We can sniff each others’ BS out instantly, and we’re not going to let each other get away with it!”
Venom & Faith by Larkin Poe is out now on Tricki-Woo Records.