Sister Synergy

By Paul Rigg

Larkin Poe – named after a great great great grandfather - is fronted by talented American sisters Rebecca (30 January 1991) and Megan (12 May 1989) Lovell.  

Rebecca plays mandolin and lead guitar, and Megan plays lap steel, although they are both multi-instrumentalists. The “little sisters of the Allman Brothers”, as they have been called, have also played extensively with Elvis Costello, Mumford & Sons and with Jackson Browne in a tribute to Tom Petty.

Larkin Poe released their fourth studio album Venom & Faith, on 9 November 2018, and what a barnstormer it is. 10 songs in barely 32 minutes make a statement that the sisters have found their own unique voice and, in many ways, are giving the blues a thorough dust down and opening it up to an entirely new audience.

The Lovells go deep into Southern blues and gospel territory, for example, when covering Bessie Jones Sometimes and Skip JamesHard Times Killing Floor Blues, but when it suits the music they give it a modern twist with drum samples and even hip hop flourishes. All this built of course on their exquisitely tight musicianship, a medley of guitar-based sounds and topped with Rebecca’s powerful and husky voice. On Honey Honey she sings she “was born for a fast world”;  on Ain’t Gonna Cry she asks “why am I swimmin’ in the dirty water of a bad decision?”; and on Bleach Blonde Bottle Blues the refrain is “you gotta ride at your own risk” - you get the message - this album is full of dark portent, attitude and swagger, which is appropriately reflected in the sisters’ posture on the front cover. From start to finish Larkin Poe’s
Venom & Faith confirms the arrival of an exciting new force to be reckoned with on the music scene.

Rebecca Lovell takes takes time out of the band’s busy touring schedule in early October 2018 to talk to Guitars Exchange about the special role that Elvis Costello has played in their career, the importance of yoga, and why they feel they have ‘revealed their souls’ on their new album.

GE: How is your tour going?

RL: We are in Washington state right now. We played in Vancouver last night, the gig was great! We actually performed with Keith Urban and the show went really beautifully, there were maybe 13,000 people there; it was an amazing crowd.

GE: Is the US your biggest market now?

RL: We are very fortunate to have fans all over the world. When we started Larkin Poe we did the majority of our touring internationally, and we have a lot of fans across the UK and Scandinavia. But we’ve toured a lot in the US; in recent years we’ve been out on the road with Elvis Costello, Bob Seger and most recently Keith Urban, so that has grown our fanbase here, in our home country, which is great. But we’ll go wherever people want to see us! (laughs)

GE: I have read that you practise yoga; is that a part of your tour routine?

RL: Most definitely. Travelling so much, especially doing all these dates, has meant there are a lot of overnight flights and 8-10 hour drives, and so we need to find time to stretch and keep some flexibility, get as much sleep, eat really healthy and drink as much water as possible.  

I had a yoga instructor for many years in Georgia but when we moved to Nashville I moved to online stuff, which was really convenient, there are so many great apps. I’ll most definitely be doing some later today as soon as we check into the hotel.  

GE: Your latest album ‘Venom and Faith’ is released on November 9th  - could you tell us something about it?  

RL: We made this record in Spring 2018 and it was an enjoyable experience. Last year Megan and I made a record called Peach and it was the first that we co-produced, it was just the two of us in the studio with an engineer. We played all the instruments and it was such a liberating experience to be really stripped back, so we took that process and carried it over into the making of Venom & Faith; so I think when people listen to this album they are really going to hear what our souls sound like. 

It is always a work in progress for artists to continue to learn how to be very vulnerable with their fans. This pushes me, especially from a lyrical standpoint. On this album there are a lot more lyrical compositions so people are going to have much more insight into where we are at emotionally.  

GE: And the music?

RL: Well I think the music is always new. Just the experience of touring over the last 18 months you can really hear a shift in the music as we continue to find our voice. Peach was such a breakthrough because we felt that we had finally stumbled on to our voice, I think it takes some artists a long time to find that magic moment where you feel like you have found yourself musically. So with Venom & Faith it feels a few miles down the road from Peach, but it is still Americana, Blues, Blue grass … it’s Larkin Poe!

GE: Do you have a favourite track from the album?

RL: That is such a difficult question, but I think my favourite might be one of the covers: Hard Time Killing Floor Blues. The track was written by an amazing blues artist called Skip James. For me it is a really cool moment on the record for the power of the lyric and the enduring quality of the song. It is just amazing – it was written over 75 years ago and it is still as relevant today.

GE: I love ‘Bleach Blonde Bottle Blues’, which you have on your website…

RL: Yes, we are going to be releasing a video for that song because it is technically the first single off the record. It is a sassy, punchy song with good lyric and imagery, I really like it.  

GE: What was the inspiration for that?

RL: I had gone to watch friends perform in a Nashville club maybe three months ago. They are a husband and wife English band and they are fantastic. The gentlemen of the duo is an amazing guitar player and I was really inspired. So the next morning I woke up and sat with my old Archtop Kay guitar from the 50s and it really just fell out. I had been wanting to write a song with the hook ‘at your own risk’ so it was a working backwards process, figuring out a story that needed to surround that hook for the chorus, so I kind of just made up this larger than life bombastic dangerous woman with her bleach blonde bottle blues! (laughs)  

GE: Going back to your childhood, your main instrument is the mandolin but you say you love the electric guitar with a passion; when did you start to play electric guitar?

RL: I would have been 18 when I picked up the electric guitar, which in the grand scheme of things feels very late. Megan and I started with violin and then played piano and then took some banjo lessons, and then I moved to mandolin when I was 12 or 13, so we feel fortunate to have been raised with a musical language and to be able to transfer it to different instruments. I’m a bit of a ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ type instrumentalist. I am still working on the guitar, trying to get better and replicate my heroes.  

Megan on the other hand plays such an unusual instrument, the lap steel, and it is truly one of the most difficult instruments – for a while she went into a kind of desert period of her life when she couldn't find the instrument she really loved until she picked up the slide guitar and it clicked for her. It is just awesome to be inspired by her in every show because she just shreds; it inspires me to keep practising and try to keep up with my big sister! (laughs)  

GE: How old was Megan when she started playing?

RL: She was 16 or 17 when she picked up the slide.  

GE: What was your first brand of electric guitar?

RL: A Fender Jazzmaster. I was actually inspired to pick one up because of Elvis Costello, of course, he has his signature Jazzmaster, and having been on the road with Elvis for many years that just seemed like the most beautiful guitar.  

Megan, on the other hand, has played the exact same brand since she started: it is a Rickenbacker and it is from the 1940s, so it is really old and delicate, but she loves it with a passion and I think she’ll stay with it from now on out.  

GE: Megan mentioned she changed to lap guitar because she wanted a grittier sound; that was interesting to me because I would have thought you could get that sound on an electric?

RL: That’s absolutely right, and the interesting thing about the slide guitar that she plays is that it is set up completely differently to an electric. She started off by playing the Dobro, which is a resonator guitar with a square neck that you hold in your lap and it has a big cone on the top that gives it this twangy sound, and the strings are arranged probably 1.5 inches off the neck so you cannot play it with your fingers pressing down on the frets, so it is played with a metal bar. She never uses her fingers, she finger picks on her right hand and holds this heavy metal bar and she just slides around; so whenever she transitions from the resonator Dobro guitar to the lap steel it is basically the electrified version of the Dobro. So it is a totally different instrument and school of playing and I think a lot of people would agree that it is one of the hardest instruments to play because it is like a voice or a violin. There are no frets or delineation you have to play it with your ear for it to be in tune, like a human voice; it is really a trippy experience to play.  

GE: What made you first start to believe you could work together and make a career in music? Was there a ‘Eureka’ moment when you just thought ‘yes, this is it’!

RL: You know I wish that there had been because I think that would make for a much more exciting story, but it is something that we always did naturally together; it is something we started as pre-teens together and it was always really fun and effortless. Megan and I are very close as sisters and so there is a shared understanding of one another’s musical instincts, so we are able to jump on a brainwave together and just surf places. It has not always been easy as you can see from a lot of sibling bands like the Black Crowes or Heart, siblings can hate each other, there is so much ego in making music sometimes, and it can be fairly destructive for a relationship being in a band. So, especially in our early 20s, we had to work through periods and figure out who each of us were as individuals and how we related with each other. We treat that relationship with a lot of respect, it is the most important relationship of my life, it is special and we treasure it.

GE: You’ve mentioned the Doobie Brothers, the Allman Brothers and
Neil Young as influences – but you haven’t mentioned Lynyrd Skynyrd or John Lee Hooker, for example, in the interviews I have read; is there a reason for that?

RL: Oh, I would say that they are definitely influences, I love John Lee Hooker, everything he did with Bonnie Raitt especially, the kind of public awareness that single they did brought to the blues. We grew up listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd; they are one of our dad’s favourite bands. We grew up in the south and we feel a deep affinity with all southern artists like Robert Johnson, Howlin Wolf, and all those guys down in the delta making great music, which in turn was listened to by the Lynyrd Skynyrds and the Allman brothers and the other southern bands - that American style. As a female fronted band it is really fun to have a fresh perspective on what it means to have roots and it is exciting to have so many great references to pull from.

GE: Where do the ideas come from for your lyrics?

RL: It’s never the same process. Especially for me who has only written songs for our own project; the experience always shifts and changes depending on my mood. Lyrically it is just listening every day and being aware that I am always on the prowl for ideas for songs, whether I am reading or watching films or listening – I am a huge unabashed evesdropper and try to get a sense of the human experience. Sometimes it feels like therapy; often the songwriting feels like I won’t know exactly what I am writing about until a few weeks or months after, and the song has been around for a while and I have a kind of emotional epiphany and think ‘oh yes I was dealing with this issue with that song’. It is an outlet; it is almost like a glorified form of journal.  

GE: One of your most popular YouTube videos is ‘Mad as a Hatter’ that I understand you wrote partly for your grandfather who had schizophrenia.
Have you had much feedback from the song?

RL: This is something that really touches my heart. Because to write a song and have it connect with people is the ultimate goal, and pretty much without fail every time we perform people come up and speak to us about that song. And I do think it has a special resonance because it did come from a very open place. Our grandfather died when we were fairly young and he had a troubled relationship with our father, so we grew up hearing all these stories and we wanted to write a song to address that. No-one can pick their genes and you have to live with the genetic cards that you are dealt. For us we have lived with this shadow that has been cast on our family; we are not in total control, these things might, or might not, come knocking on your door. We’ve got to the point in our lives now where it is no longer a fear, as schizophrenia has usually appeared by your mid to late 20s so we think we may have pushed past, but that is not the case for a lot of people, so we feel a deep empathy and want to speak to that.  

GE: You have another distant relative, the tortured genius, Edgar Allen Poe – is there something lyrically there perhaps?

RL: Oh, of course, indirectly he is a huge influence on nearly all of our songs. Growing up and reading a lot of his works even before we knew that we were related: wanting to talk about God, the soul, and things of a darker nature, has been a huge influence. When we found out in our early teens that he was in our family tree that was just a catalyst - fuel to the fire, baby! - you can’t help but want to piggy back off that.  

GE: Some might look at you and think you have a perfect life but I guess you have difficult days too; what do you do in those moments?

RL: I wish I could tell you. I think you are right, from the outside it seems like we have it all together, but the relationship I have with myself can be a bit tortured at times, because we have chosen a line of work that is very critical and competitive and that requires a lot of self-editing. People post videos of our shows on Youtube, for example, and you go back and watch and know exactly where you have messed up and how bad your hair looks - but of course we can all pick ourselves apart, and the inclination is of course there, but we need to try and have patience with ourselves. One habit I have tried to develop in recent years is to speak to myself as if I was a six year old because often the meanest voices we hear are the voices inside our own heads. I try to be gentler with myself and more patient.  

GE: You’ve both enjoyed a long collaboration with Elvis Costello; how did he first hear about you?

RL: We met Elvis when I was 16; he was headlining a festival in North Carolina and we were also performing. One of the things that is really cool about Americana festivals is that they set up jams on the stage where they try to get all the performers to collaborate. So there was one jam where we were on stage with Elvis and he started singing a gospel song that we knew, Angel Band, so we got on the bluegrass diaphragm mic with him - at the time I don’t think we were truly aware of who it was we were backing up - and sang harmonies and it was a great energy. I think he was kind of intrigued by our joie de vivre for music. So over the years he invited us to open and we would email him, and he said ‘yes’ to a lot of things. It has been one of the most important mentorships for us, we are so fortunate to know him; he is an incredible artist.

GE: You have also collaborated with
 Kristian Bush of Sugarland, Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons, Elle King, Conor Oberst and T-Bone Burnett… 

RL: We have been fortunate to get in the room way beyond our means wth people who have so many years of experience. Almost two years ago T-Bone Burnett called and asked us to be part of the backing band honouring Tom Petty, so we were able to back up Norah Jones and
Taj Mahal and this cadre of amazing artists; that was one of the moments where we were bowled over. Mike Campbell from Tom Petty and Steve Ferrone, the drummer, were also there; getting to share the stage with guys like that was a great honour.

GE: Is there anyone else you’d really like to work with?

RL: We have never actually met Bonnie Raitt, but we would love to work with her. She is such a touchstone for female artists; her finesse and mastery of the blues and slide guitar is overwhelming.

GE: What is your favourite guitar brand at the moment?

RL: Fender, Fender, always Fender! I am a Fender artist and they have been very kind to help me with some amazing guitars. Specifically right now I’m a Strat guy, I have one that is called Buttermilk, it is a 1960s style guitar with humbucker pickups, which is fairly unusual, but it is a really sweet little axe. I love it to death.  

Regarding amps Megan and I always play through Fender deluxe amplifiers. We are fairly flexible - we are not huge ear snobs; we just like things to be consistent. 

GE: Finally, do you have any advice for guitarists just starting out? 

RL: Put yourself in an uncomfortable situation. When you are starting out you are going to be bad and you have to embrace that, and fail exuberantly! Get into jams and play with people who are a lot better than you; that is the quickest way to improve. I feel like I’ve gotten better because I have been inspired; you are kickin’ ass because you are being schooled. If you want to grow as a player you need to embrace the discomfort!    

The interview ends with Rebecca explaining that next year Larkin Poe plan to tour almost non-stop. “We have got some amazing gigs on the books, so we will be country hopping; it is so exciting to go to cities you’ve never been to before and see people sing along to your songs,” she says. “I’m really looking forward to it!”