Larkin Poe Talk Blues, Sisterhood, and Being a ‘Self Made Man’
Whatever happens at the crossroads, in the midnight hour, seems to have fizzled out long ago, leaving only a faint spectre in the airwaves of today’s popular music. Once in a while, however, the spirit finds a new medium and wreaks havoc, inspiring bouts of passion, and dispelling any doubts that the blues live on. Sisters Rebecca and Megan Lovell play a strain of raw, rootsy rock ‘n’ roll with a Southern swag gleaned from their Eastern Tennessee and Northern Georgia origins. Rebecca channels generations of gritty greats in her melismatic, soulful outpourings and guitar licks, while Megan brings the criminally underappreciated lap steel guitar to the forefront and sings down-home harmonies. Under the moniker Larkin Poe, named after their great-great-great grandfather, the two produce their own music, and release records under their own label, warranting the title of their latest album, “Self Made Man.”
Larkin Poe released their first EP, “Spring,” in 2010, and went on to release another for every season, as well as five full-length albums to date. Over the decade in between, they toured aggressively, both playing their own material and performing as backing musicians for artists ranging from Ketih Urban to Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes. Elvis Costello found himself awestruck by the ladies, and took them under his wing. The band made a major impact at Glastonbury, and was nominated for various blues distinctions over the years. The greatest days are yet to come, however, judging from Larkin Poe’s new album. The songs are hard and heavy, playful and feisty, spirited and full of Southern swagger, reviving classic rock traditions with a bold, contemporary sound. The Lovell sisters spoke with Entertainment Voice about the blues, the South, their musical inspirations, their group dynamic, and their latest songs.
When rock ‘n’ roll began, it was just another name for rhythm and blues, but the blues have largely disappeared from rock music as we know it, showing up only in highly diluted form. How do you manage to keep your music so pure and conjure the timeless blues spirit so faithfully?
Rebecca: So we actually grew up in the roots American fold. We played classical violin as little kids, at our mother’s behest, but in our early teens, we got involved with bluegrass music. Taking part in the roots American conversation has been something we’ve been doing most of our lives at this point. We love all things Americana, from bluegrass, mountain music, gospel, country, rockabilly, and most definitely the blues. In recent years, we really connected with our Southern heritage, and wanted to serve as a conduit for current generations to fall in love once again with the blues.
It’s been a huge passion for us because we were so gifted with having grown up listening to artists like the Allman Brothers and bands that were heavily, heavily influenced by turn of the century blues artists. So in the last couple years, digging deeper into the blues story, and educating ourselves about Son House and Junior Kimbrough, and all the guys that even Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, who they were listening to, has really been the most incredible experience of our musical lives — really digging deep and channeling a lot of that energy into our own music by paying homage to the forefathers and mothers of blues music that paid such essential dues for this incredible genre that we now get to experience and enjoy
You pay homage to your southern roots on “Back Down South,” but also in every other song with your distinctly southern style. What do you suppose it is about southern rock that gives it that rootsy essence, and how did your outhern background shape your music?
Rebecca: We were born in East Tennessee, which we like to think of as the land of Dolly Parton, like it’s her domain. And then our folks moved up to Northern Georgia when we were small kids, so we were obviously listening to a lot of rock ‘n’ roll coming out of Augusta and Macon, a lot of the blues and rock ‘n’ roll soul guys, but I myself wonder what it is about these southern states that have driven such incredible shifts and changes during the early turn of the century and then through to the ‘50s and the ‘60s, with all the rock and rockabilly guys that were coming up, and your Chuck Berries, your Elvises, and your Little Richards. And there’s something swampy in the air here. I mean there’s so much humidity, it’s like these artists probably couldn’t help but have that emanate into the sound of their music.
Your lead single “She’s a Self Made Man” is a driving blues rocker that celebrates independence of spirit. Why did you choose the title you chose, rather than “She’s a Self Made Woman?” Was it just about the ring of the refrain or something deeper?
Rebecca: Absolutely something deeper to the choice. “She’s a Self Made Man” was actually the first song that we wrote that we knew we wanted to put on this album. It occurred to me — I’m a 29 year-old woman — the number of times that I myself have said “self-made man” without ever having had a second thought about the insidious nature of the gender qualification on success, that essentially what I was saying is that one of the key factors of being successful, you know, is being a man. That kind of rubbed your hackles the wrong way, and I wanted to write a song that was playful and fun, but was definitely pointed at something that kind of was a burn under my own saddle. So when I brought it to Megan, she was like, “Oh this is really cool,” and I think very early on in the recording process, we felt like that was going to be the right step to make, in naming the album “Self Made Man.”
But I’ll tell you what, It has certainly turned up a lot of interesting questions with journalists around the world, especially international journalists around the world who just can’t wrap their heads around why we’re telling them that we ourselves are men, when, in fact, we are women.
Megan: (Laughs) It’s because of the adage. Like why can’t we be self-made men, if that’s what the adage is? Because we do feel like self-made men. We started our own record label in 2017, we’ve been self-producing the albums, we play all of the instruments on the albums as well, so it’s definitely something that is very self-made. It comes from us. It’s very authentic, you know? It feels right.
Rebecca, you are the lead singer, but do you also write the lyrics? How do the two of you handle lyrical duties?
Megan: Rebecca is the main lyricist of the band. Most of the song ideas come from her, and then she brings them to me, and we kind of flesh them out together. I’m super proud of the way that she writes, and I think she did such a great job with the lyrics on this album, for sure, I’m really proud of the older sister.
Rebecca, on the opener, “She’s a Self Made Man,” you sing, “Baby’s on her way / She ain’t coming back,” and on the closer, “Easy Street,” you sing, “I’m gonna keep on keeping on… ‘Til I walk on that easy street.” Expand on the theme of persistence running through the album.
Rebecca: Oh man. I think persistence is key in the experience that a lot of musicians in the twenty-first century undergo, especially for those of us who decide to make albums and pursue music that is definitely less of center. When you listen to the radio nowadays, there’s not many bands that sound a whole lot like us or a lot of our own contemporaries. I do think there’s a lot of importance placed on pop and really straight ahead rock ‘n’ roll. There’s a lot of classic rock. There’s a lot of hip-hop. But I think making records that feel true to us and feel like we are expressing a vulnerable part of our hearts to people has meant that we’ve taken a really long road aho over the last ten years of making music as Larkin Poe. And even before Larkin Poe, we were on the road for five years, so altogether, the majority of our lives has been spent in pursuit of chasing that dream, the dream of writing songs that mean something to us and that mean something to our fans and our friends and our family, putting on really awesome shows, gathering a group of people around you — a team that helps you chase after that feeling of connectedness and human resonance.
So that has definitely taken a lot of persistence, and in a lot of ways, that persistence has transformed into a deep sense of empowerment for my sister and I in the last couple of years. We certainly turned a corner in the connection that we’re having with people around the world. We’ve been able to literally go around the globe with our music, and play in Tokyo and Mumbai, India and London, England and all across Europe, here at home, all across our own home country, and that feels really, really great, but we would not have reached this point in time had we not undergone the somewhat trying years of playing to half-empty bar rooms across the US. So persistence, I think, is one of the nobler pursuits of the human spirit and we absolutely want to champion that and celebrate that energy with this album.
Megan, everyone and their mother plays guitar, but lap steel guitar has always been unfairly relegated to a supporting role in the confines of country rock. How did you choose to make lap steel such an integral component of Larkin Poe’s sound?
Megan: Yeah, it was something I just naturally gravitated towards — dobro first, and then lap steel was an obvious choice as we were becoming more electrified. It was not a very common instrument, and if anything, you find lap steel in a lot of country music, or like you’re saying, maybe supportive roles — maybe like Pink Floyd would have a few lap steel slides that you’d hear, kind of on the edges. But I remember growing up listening to David Linley and his solo on “Running On Empty,” and that being one of the most iconic guitar solos of all time. I was like, “Why isn’t lap steel considered more of a rock ‘n’ roll instrument. Why isn’t lap steel considered a lead instrument?” Because certainly lap steel can scream, so it seems perfectly suited for screaming guitar solos. So really, I am a little confused by the fact that it hasn’t gained more traction in rock music because I think it is so well-suited for it. It’s something I’d like to change. I think the fact that we have lap steel as our lead instrument does kind of set us apart a little bit, although people don’t necessarily think of it that way because it sounds very natural in the position of playing all the solos. It doesn’t seem so odd when it’s right in front of your face.
Rebecca, you sing in a deep, soulful bellow, considerably lower than your speaking voice. Who are some singers from whom you derived your signature vocal style?
Rebecca: Ooh… When I was young, I was a very pretty singer, and I wanted my voice to be melodious and representative of all the Disney princess characters that I’d grown up listening to. But in my mid twenties, I kind of got tired of chasing after that really picture perfect thing, and started listening to a lot more avant garde singers that are kind of ugly, in a beautiful way. I think Tom Waits is one of those voices that you just cannot unhear. Once you’ve heard it, he just burrows into this part of you soul. Chris Whitley is a singer that I think is s evocative in the way he uses his voice like an instrument. Another singer that I really respect would be somebody like Howlin’ Wolf, somebody who’s not afraid to let that grit and aggression show in their voice. And then a recent love would also have to be Skip James because he kind of embodies the bluegrass, high and lilting sound, but has done a lot of blues.
Those four guys would be pretty big ones for me, but honestly, I think it’s just been trial and error too. Singing a lot more and getting comfortable with my voice, and being okay with singing loud — because I’m actually a pretty loud singer, so having the confidence to take up space and let my mouth open as wide as it will go, and take some really bad pictures, and hopefully make some noise that means something.
Rebecca: Absolutely. Oh yeah, making terrible faces! Megan’s got this classic stank face when she’s taking her solos. It’s hilarious to find some of these pictures. And for me, when I’m going for it in my vocal, my face almost doesn’t even really look like me, but I think that’s the point, because when you’re performing or when you’re really engaging with music, you’re trying to get to that other place and have that sort of out of body experience. So if you are looking like someone posing for Vogue while you’re singing with soul, that wouldn’t make sense at all, so we’re happy for the stank faces and the bad pictures.
Elvis Costello famously took you under his wing and championed you. While Costello’s eclectic catalogue extends to some Americana material, he is known more for everything from new wave to perhaps adult contemporary. Why do you think you stood out to him, and how, in turn, did he stand out to you?
Rebecca: It is pretty random. I think it’s one of those synchronicities in life that we certainly don’t understand but feel really grateful for. We have a really deep friendship with Elvis Costello, after having known him for — oh my gosh — like ten years. We met Elvis when we were probably seventeen, eighteen years old, and there was just a connection. We all became really good friends, and he’s been such an incredible mentor to us. He has a lot of trust in us musically, having invited us on tour with him to serve as his backing band. You really learn somebody’s musical instincts. I think being somewhat musical chameleons, between Megan and myself, we’re really good at supporting other artists in their creative goals, and we definitely clicked up in that way with Elvis, and he’s absolutely changed our lives. He really taught us so much about music, and to have an appreciation for music history. Especially someone like him, who has played every kind of music possible. He really instructed us in the importance of not necessarily having to fit into a musical box, which is a beautiful thing.
Your songs “Every Bird That Flies,” “Scorpion,” and “Darker Angel” all have lyrics that suggest being overcome by a devilish spirit or force. What is the common inspiration and greater story that links songs like these?
Rebecca: Yeah, I think that’s one of the essential cross sections of blues lyrics — the conversation about the crossroads, and going down and selling your soul, and that somewhat darker undercurrent of roots American music. That’s always been a deep fascination for Megan and myself, the question as to the existence of a human soul, or why are we here, wrestling with questions of a really epic proportion about the meaning of human life. So being able to tap into some of those more Southern gothic, macabre, kind of unsettling conversational themes feels really fun. I love writing darker songs, so being able to express myself in that way, I feel happy that we were able to include that as another vantage point of Larkin Poe on this album.
When you jam out together as a duo, you fall into an uncanny, synchronized groove. How much do you attribute your shared musical instincts and compatibility to being sisters?
Megan: Being sisters is everything. Being sisters is the center of our universe. We have a very close relationship. We always have, so it seems very natural that basically we’re companions, best friends, business partners, creative collaborators. We’re very, very intertwined at this point. And the fact that we’re so much on the same page — like I can look at her and kind of tell what she’s thinking — that has made all the difference for us in creating music together — whether it’s producing in the studio, and she gives me a side eye, and I know where we’re going musically, so we can move really quickly — to being on stage, where we can go on these kind of musical journeys, just because we have that super familiarity with each other, like a heightened familiarity, like we almost have a twin thing. So I would say it’s everything.
Rebecca: Yeah, it’s kind of like a super power.
The album is so full of bangers, that it’s a bit of a tease to release it in a period of quarantine. How important is live performance to you, and do you have any tentative plans to tour in the future?
Rebecca: Oh yeah, the road is our home, so we are incredibly excited to get out as soon as we can, to share these songs where they truly belong, which I think we both believe is on stage and being shared with people. So as soon as things are safe, as soon as there’s a way that we can take our music to people, and get back to normal, we are gung ho.
“Self Made Man” is available June 12 on Apple Music.