If the art of album sequencing has fallen by the wayside in the age of outside curation by streaming services, then Larkin Poe didn’t get the message. The roots-rock duo’s new LP, Self Made Man, sparks into life with the thud of a kick drum, the thrum of power chords and a molasses-thick riff. It’s a classic example of the opener as statement – the affirmation in this case being that things have changed around these parts. As guitarist Rebecca Lovell puts it, “If you’re not going to kick down the door, why go into the room?”
The song in question is the title-track-of-sorts, She’s A Self Made Man. It exists at an exciting remove from the brass-vocal workout Sometimes, which led Larkin Poe’s adventurous 2018 album Venom & Faith, and it’s not a red herring. As a whole, Self Made Man is a bold, confident left turn into chunky guitar lines and the golden hue of classic rock.
“We’ve been spending a lot of time self-discovering over the past three to five years and this album is a peak moment for us in our late-20s, early-30s,” says Rebecca, on the line from Nashville, where she’s joined by her sister and spiky lap-steel accomplice Megan. “We know who we are and we’re moving into our own.”
The foundations for this stylistic shake-up have been in situ for a long time. The Lovells’ music is a vintage fusion of influences and life experience, stemming from their youth in Atlanta, Georgia. As kids, they were schooled in classical music by their mother and glommed rock gems from their father’s record collection, eventually winding up in bluegrass territory and releasing three albums of acoustic folk as the Lovell Sisters alongside their eldest sibling Jessica.
That band split in 2010, leaving peace and quiet in the rearview mirror. Larkin Poe cropped up the following year, with their debut album Kin making a ruckus in 2014 with the blues-pop lilt of songs such as Don’t and the low-slung outlaw licks of Sugar High.
New album Self Made Man is held aloft by this varied personal history, blending honeyed harmonies with thunderous riffs and Megan’s snaking lap steel counterpoints. It’s no surprise to hear that the sisters view the record as a culmination of sorts, following the feverish work ethic that has helped them put out five full-lengths in six years.
“We were armed with a lot of knowledge from the previous records we’d made and, as we’ve gotten older, we’ve figured out what truly feels like us, what sounds represent us,” says Rebecca. “I think that comes out in the album, with more vulnerability, with more space, with a lot more harmony that harks back to our childhood growing up with the blues.”
It may stand apart stylistically but Self Made Man has something important in common with Venom & Faith: it was self-produced by the Lovells, with help from engineer Roger Alan Nichols at his Nashville studio Bell Tone Recording. But how do you go about pressing reset as a producer when you’re also the ones responsible for the nuts and bolts of the songs?
“I’m going to be a loudmouth sister and take this question as well,” says Rebecca, to peals of laughter. “At the beginning of every record, you have a mini-meltdown. I feel like I do, because it’s a big task at the outset. When you’re standing on the threshold of a new record, it can feel a little daunting. You don’t want to repeat yourself. You want to reinvent and to make something new, and sometimes that can feel challenging when we are ourselves – we know our stories and we know where we’ve been.
“You’re trying to figure out how to have an out-of-body experience and look at yourself from a self-production standpoint. As a producer, how do you look at yourself as an artist and figure out where to shape and tweak and pinch and twist and change? With this album, I feel that Megan and I, even more than on previous albums, came together as sisters and were very real with one another about what we thought was working and what wasn’t, from a production standpoint.”
The Lovells’ latest is very much a ‘studio’ record; the details came to life within those four walls. After wrapping up the tour for Venom & Faith, Larkin Poe took some rare time out and spent a month workshopping ideas. This period of rumination allowed the sisters to take stock of how their circumstances had altered, and they parlayed their recent growth as a live unit into their writing. “Even though the past three records have come in relatively quick succession,” says Megan, “we’ve been so lucky to have done massive amounts of touring between each one.
“You have all this fresh fodder coming through from touring. We were like road dogs between Venom & Faith and this album, and we were also playing shows like we never had before. Having entire tours selling out was a new thing for us and we felt a kind of groundswell beneath us. That prompted us to write differently too. We were enjoying singing with the audience, because they were coming in knowing the lyrics to every song. We’d never experienced that before, so imagining singing these new songs with people was very inspirational.”
There are plenty of moments on Self Made Man where the Lovells’ channelling of this rabble-rousing communal spirit is abundantly clear. The single Holy Ghost Fire sounds as if it were precision-engineered for crowd participation, bouncing from the lyric, “Who’s gonna help me carry my load?” into a call-and-response section before igniting in a shout-along chorus.
“One comment we get from fans after the shows is that, when we play on stage, we create a lot of joy,” says Megan, “and we love that. We consider our shows to be a safe harbour where people can come together, and there should be some joy in music. You can have the blues, and use music to exorcise your demons, but music can also bring joy to people. This record is definitely a reflection of that feeling of optimism and love and community.”
Many feel that those qualities are in short supply at the moment and, judging by Self Made Man’s lyric sheet, the Lovells are painfully aware of that. Here, Larkin Poe have attempted to distil some good vibes, sketching vignettes that emphasise the feeling of taking your licks, gritting your teeth and pushing on through to the other side. “We really had a good sense of the stories we wanted to put across,” says Rebecca, “specifically stories that we felt brought us together with our fans and our family into one big group of music lovers.”
This outlook ties in with the quixotic and almost anti-cool attitude to rock ’n’ roll that is Larkin Poe’s stock-in-trade. There are monolithic riffs here, as well as moments of grandstanding designed to whip crowds into rapture, but there’s precious little in the way of empty posturing. “Both Megan and myself are intrinsically optimistic people,” says Rebecca. “We’re very balanced – we have a strong family, we cook, we go on hikes. We’re very normal. We’re not tortured artists.
“We have private crosses that we bear – that’s true of everyone – but when we approach music, I sometimes feel weary of this sense that rock has to conform to a series of moves pertaining to sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. Those words don’t necessarily have anything in common. Rock ’n’ roll can be defined in any way we choose. For us, that’s in enjoying it, that’s in community, that’s in being balanced, that’s in addressing your emotional problems with yourself, your significant other or your family with respect. That, to me, can be just as rock ’n’ roll as runny eyeliner and combat boots.”
Wood and steel
This antithetical take on dyed-in-the-wool rock tropes also manifests itself in the presentation of Self Made Man. Counterbalancing Rebecca’s guitar licks and the searing breaks provided by Megan’s 1950s Rickenbacker lap steel are woody acoustic tones that pop and whirr, adding a wholesome percussive edge to the LP. It’s a throwback to their Lovell Sisters days and a quirk that feels entirely lived-in. “Both Megan and myself have a taste for textures that don’t necessarily align with a full band presentation,” says Rebecca.
“We look for textures that feel more bound by time and place, dig deep and find things that feel more organic, and are reminiscent of chopping wood or stomping on hard floors – sounds that are more natural. We had so much fun playing around with that concept on all these tracks. There are little easter eggs hidden throughout the record that we’ll hear and turn into ear candy.”
But when they kick into high gear, as they do on the swampy blues of Every Bird That Flies and the solo-heavy jam Ex-Con, the Lovells are able to keep this earthy aspect of their sound intact. Much of that stems from the ease with which the elements of their musical make-up are grafted onto their songs, with guitar and lap steel parts finding pockets of space around Rebecca’s vocals. On Self Made Man, the sisters seem to have perfected the intricacies of this triple-threat attack.
“My approach to playing is that the lap steel is a vocal instrument,” says Megan. “I just love to sing with her with my guitar. We grew up listening to a lot of Queen, where the guitar melodies are just as singable as the vocal melodies. We love some ‘guitarmony’, and twinning back and forth between Rebecca and I. That’s one of our favourite things to do on stage too.”
Rebecca picks up the thought. “I think, unexpectedly, the lap steel has ended up being a shaping element of our band,” she says. “There are moments on stage where you can sense that we kind of have two lead vocalists. It’s not like Megan just takes solos. It’s sort of a weird singing thing that happens when she’s playing the slide. I love that.”
This well-oiled system is bolstered further by a no-frills take on equipment. Megan has long been inseparable from her Rickenbacker lap steels, after being pointed in the direction of one for sale at Gruhn Guitars in Nashville by her Dobro teacher, and Rebecca stops a few steps short of identifying as a gear-head.
She’s a Fender devotee, bouncing between Jazzmasters – of both Fender manufacture and replicas courtesy of boutique guru Bill Nash – and, more recently, Strats. While making Self Made Man, the sisters stuck to what they knew would work, which is something that many artists take much longer to figure out. In their minds, this album had to sound how it sounds, and that’s readily apparent from the moment you drop the needle on side one.
“We played around a bit but I don’t think bells and whistles and smoke and mirrors play into the way we approach recording ourselves that much,” says Rebecca. “We have made records where we turned the studio into more of a laboratory, and sometimes songs and even artists can get lost in that maze.
“It’s tempting, when you’re in the studio, to contort yourself into something you’re not. We know what Megan’s lap steel needs to sound like, and even when approaching vocal sounds we err on the side of the very natural. We don’t want to tune or tweak the humanity out. Self Made Man is about stripping it back and being who we are.”
Self Made Man is out 12 June via Tricki-Woo Records.