Interview: The Lovell Sisters
The Lovell Sisters (Rebecca, Megan and Jessica)
Last month, LAist caught up with the Lovell Sisters, an acoustic/Americana/bluegrass group comprised of three siblings who have amazing voices and musicianship to match. Although they're a young band, the sisters have already established themselves in virtuosity and songwriting—winning everything from the Prairie Home Companion Teen Talent Contest to the John Lennon Songwriting Competition.
LAist sat down with all three sisters—fiddle-player and vocalist Jessica Lovell (23), mandolin player and vocalist Rebecca Lovell (18) and dobro player Megan Lovell (20)—at Kitchen 24 on Cahuenga. Over artichoke spinach dip and mint smoothies, the sisters opened up about touring, their new album Time to Grow, and what they love about LA.
LAist: I know that all three of you started out on violin and piano, then Megan and Rebecca branched out into dobro and mandolin, respectively. What attracted you to those instruments in particular?
Megan: We were going to go take some mandolin and guitar lessons and that's when I saw the dobro being played for the first time. I had heard it on CDs but didn't quite know exactly what it was. When I saw it being played I said, "Yes, that's what I want to play!" I think dobro is a really versatile instrument. Since I don't actually sing lead—both my sisters do—I think dobro is my way of singing because it's a very vocal instrument.
Jessica: And she rocks out!
Rebecca: When it comes to the mandolin, for me, I had actually sworn that I would never play that instrument. At the time, I was an obsessive banjo player. My heroes were Bela Fleck and Earl Scruggs and all those guys. And then I heard Chris Thile play the mandolin for the first time and I got his CD, Not All Who Wander Are Lost and I thought, "What in the world is that?" I'd heard others play the mandolin and thought it was fine, but it didn't strike a chord. But hearing Chris play with such precision was unlike anything I'd ever heard before. At that moment, I became a mandolin player.
And in 2006, weren't you the first woman and youngest contestant to win the MerleFest International Mandolin Competition?
Jessica: She was! That was so exciting. We were just sitting there the whole time, holding our breath.
Rebecca: I didn't expect that at all.
Jessica: …especially because we've gotten involved in traditional roots music fairly recently. I mean, our first gig was in 2005 on A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor on NPR with 4.1 million people listening.
Was it really scary?
Jessica: Not until we got there and realized what was happening.
Rebecca: Yeah, once we arrived it hit us, like, "This is a big deal!"
Even though your music is a mix of styles, what was it about bluegrass in particular that made you switch from classical?
Jessica: We really enjoy classical music and it was a great way to get started. So we started taking lessons and then we heard bluegrass music and it was so interactive—there was a lot more freedom for us to put our own spin on things.
Up to that point, we'd never had a chance to play in a band together or sing together or write our own songs, and it became a hobby for us. We never really planned for it to be a career, but then we went on A Prairie Home Companion, and that's when it snowballed. After Prairie Home, we got a call from the Charleston Symphony Orchestra to come play with them. They learned some of our pieces—and for a band that started off classically in symphonies, to all of a sudden go play with a symphony as a bluegrass group was the most bizarre, amazing experience.
Rebecca: I think another thing that's special about bluegrass music is that it's relatively—in the grand scheme of things—an unexplored genre, especially in a more mainstream sense. You can borrow from a lot of different genres and then really mix it up and produce your own fresh thing. So for us, bands like Nickel Creek, that have really gone out on a limb and created something different, are a real inspiration. People really connect with music that has substance and is innovative. Our goal is to just try to play the music we're passionate about and then share it with others who are drawn to that type of music as well.
One more thing about traditional/Americana/roots music that I really find appealing is that it's very communal and not as competitive as other genres. With bluegrass there's really a feeling of camaraderie.
The Lovell Sisters - "Take One Moment"
How does the experience of playing together compare with playing with other musicians?
Jessica: I think that with us being sisters, there's a special connection on stage because somehow we know what the others are thinking. Since we were raised the same way, and came from the same place, we're just really on the same wavelength. It kind of freaks people out sometimes because, even when we're not playing, we'll be in the middle of a random conversation and all three of us will say the same thing.
What was the biggest adjustment as you began playing together?
Rebecca: Music-wise, I'd say improvisation. Going from classical music to bluegrass/Americana was quite a leap. It really gives you a great deal of respect for all the bluegrass/Americana musicians who are able to be instantaneously creative and jam and improvise. Plus I've found that trying to write your own music and cultivate your own sound is a real learning process. Sometimes it's easy to get all flustered, but I think it's good to sit back and objectively look at the situation…
Jessica: Pace yourself…
Rebecca: …and understand that you're not going to find out who you are in five seconds. It's a work in progress.
Jessica: You have to dig for it.
I love the mix of the covers and originals and instrumentals you have on the album. Was it hard choosing which ones to include?
Jessica: It kind of fell into place. We really had a lot of fun choosing the cover songs because there are so many things we enjoy. For instance, we cover everything from Johnny Cash to Jimi Hendrix. Just as we enjoy hearing songs that we grew up with or are really familiar with, people enjoy hearing something that they know. They also want to hear something they've never heard before, so if you can do both, that's a great mix.
Rebecca: I definitely think if you're throwing this barrage of new music at people, you need to have some context so it's not so disorienting—especially at a live show. A CD is one thing, because people can sit down in a controlled environment and take it in, but at a live show, performing all-new material can be strenuous for an audience. I personally like it when I go to shows where there's a mix. Going back to the Nickel Creek example, it was so unexpected and great when they covered Britney Spears' "Toxic" and made it their own.
The Lovell Sisters
Rebecca: It all started last summer when Megan and I were in my room playing and we had this melody. I was sitting there singing nonsense words as I was working out the melody, then all of a sudden, words started sticking. I had, "Tell me who would lay my darling in the ground…" I turned to Megan and asked, "What should it be about?" and she said, "It's a story song."
We had just traveled through Lincoln County, NM, which was the site of the Lincoln County War, and Billy the Kid was a part of it. As we researched his story, we found that he had this secret girlfriend named Paulita. There are all these male figures in history who get written about, but what about the women who were in the background? This song is her story.
When it came to Paulita, she would wait at home while Billy would be out gallivanting around and getting into trouble. She didn't know if the next time she saw him, he'd be dead or alive.
What kinds of personal experiences have impacted your songwriting? Do other songwriters inspire you to take your own songwriting in a new direction?
Rebecca: We played on Woodsongs Old-Time Radio two or three years ago and it was a co-bill with an amazing singer-songwriter, Kelly Joe Phelps. Listening to and watching Kelly Joe for the very first time was really the moment in which I was inspired to start writing songs. I'd written a little bit in the past, but watching Kelly Joe Phelps—he's sitting there with his guitar, the saddest most genuinely heartbreaking person you've ever seen—and he looks at you, opens his mouth and pours out his soul. It's like he's not even singing; he's having a conversation.
Jessica: It's so mournful.
Rebecca: So that really spurred me onto the path of songwriting. It's nice to have the little bits of inspiration that fuel and continue your learning.
Jessica: Nothing happens in a vacuum.
Is writing on the road a challenge?
Megan: For me, it's all about just getting inspiration and writing everything down, then I write at home when the tour is over.
Rebecca: When you're at home and you have your own bedroom and your own little brain space—there's no distraction and it's a great neutral zone where you can let go of everything else and just focus. I think that it's important for artists to have a space where you can just go and not be distracted. For me, that's one of the key elements when you're writing and creating music. If you're constantly listening to what's happening in the other room, you can't buckle down.
The Lovell Sisters' new album, Time to Grow
Jessica: 2 DefPig is our record label. We have our own label, and that's been a whole other adjustment of being a band and getting started. We put out our first record after going on A Prairie Home Companion a few years ago, and since then everyone had been asking when our next record was coming out.
So we went to Nashville and signed with a major label. We were with them for a year and the people we worked with are really good at what they do and were very supportive and nice to us. But it became increasingly apparent that they had a very different vision for us than we did.
I think at a certain point, what we realized was that there's a difference between pushing popular culture and pushing music. We wanted to have the freedom to play music that we're passionate about and to play original material—although it doesn't have to be all original—but to play music we're really excited about that has substance.
Right now the music industry is changing in such a way that we're able to do this. We're able to be our own label and hire our own team that's also passionate about what they do. We're so happy with where we are and this record, Time to Grow, is a very good representation of that.
Is there a story behind the label name?
Jessica: The 2 DefPig thing is kind of an inside joke. At our house there are these two pottery pigs—they're adorable and one is big and one is small. Our dad is 6'5" and our mom is 5'3", and so those pottery pigs have always been a symbol for our mom and dad.
Rebecca: They always joke around that they're completely "musically illiterate," which is, as a side note, completely not true. But anyway, one day our dad was joking and said, "Your mother and I are the two deaf pigs. You gals are our musical piglets who have musical talent, although we don't know where it came from!" We all thought that was funny, so we took a picture of the two pottery pigs and made a logo out of it. It was really random!
The Lovell Sisters - "In My Time of Dyin'"
Which do you like best—studio work or live performance?
Jessica: The live stuff, the people…
Rebecca: They're both good and they are such different animals. When you're in the studio, you're creating this moment that people will be able to listen to over and over again. Whereas when you're performing live, you sing something and it's gone, so there's this freedom when you play live. It's so amazing to have that connection with the audience.
Jessica: My favorite part is getting a chance to meet everyone after the show—kids, parents and grandparents who come to our show to make memories and get away from the stresses of ordinary life.
Megan: Like they said, live and studio stuff are so different. One reason I love performing live is because of the connection that you're able to create with an audience and then mutually feed off the combined energies.
Is it true you've just gotten back from a tour?
Jessica: Yeah, we did a five-week run about a month ago and that was amazing because we went to Norway and Sweden, then got off the plane and drove straight to the Midwest and the Northeast. It was great.
The Lovell Sisters
Rebecca: I don't think many bands like us tour Scandinavia that much. I had a lot of folks tell me that having a piece of America brought to them by Americans was really special. Their response was overwhelmingly positive.
Do you think that more people over there are, say, taking up the dobro after seeing you play live?
Megan: Yeah, I've gotten a lot of e-mails from people who are starting to play dobro over there and they want lessons the next time we come through town!
You're introducing new instruments over there!
Jessica: That's definitely a trend—something that's very important to us. There have been so many female role models in the music industry who have been really inspiring to us, so we hope we can do the same for others. For instance, we'll play a show somewhere and see a mom and grandmother who have brought their daughters and granddaughters, then we'll come back the next time and they've started lessons. That's really special.
What's the craziest thing that's ever happened to you on the road?
Jessica: We played a pretty crazy country cruise in Sweden....
Rebecca: We were informed the night before we went on the cruise that it was a "booze cruise"! Everyone getting on the cruise at 9 a.m. was already drunk—scads of drunken Swedes wearing cowboy hats, chaps, full country regalia....
Jessica: There have been a lot of random things like that, such as a gig in a mental institution. But I'm telling you, those were the most memorable. We play a lot of shows for schoolchildren as well. And that is so much fun. They always ask the cutest, craziest questions and we have a great time.
What's one of the cutest questions you've ever gotten?
Rebecca: This little boy was in the front raising his hand as high up as it would go, saying, "Pleeease pick me! Pick my question!" And it's always dangerous to pick kids in the front row, because they're the youngest kids. (laughs) So we called on him he didn't really have a question so much as a statement. He stood up tall and proudly announced, "I have a fake harmonica. And a guitar. And cases for both." Then he sat down. It was adorable.
Do you still practice your instruments every day?
Rebecca: It's important to practice, though sometimes it is hard to keep up with it when you're away from home and you're faced with all the distractions of touring. It's hard to put aside the time required to reinvent yourself, but it's also so important to keep from getting stale. No one wants to see you when you're not doing something fresh and interesting.
Jessica: You don't want to be generating stuff you've played before.
Rebecca: Exactly, so practicing every day is really important.
The Lovell Sisters
Jessica: He kind of experiments with everything.
Megan: He likes drums.
Rebecca: He seems to be drawn to the more percussive elements of music. He likes hitting on things with sticks. It's amazing to watch him grow up.
Speaking of percussion, I enjoy the way you create percussive elements with your stringed instruments.
Jessica: It's got energy built in.
Rebecca: Yeah, when you have a string band that's really kickin', and just going at it, it's pretty profound.
Jessica: But at the same time, we really enjoy listening to lots of different kinds of music. For instance, I know that Megan's dobro playing draws influences from a lot of different places.
Megan: I like to listen to a lot of electric guitar players, actually. Those licks can transfer over pretty easily, so I listen to people such as Mark Knopfler, Eric Clapton, Derek Trucks…
What's the best advice you ever received from a fellow musician?
Jessica: We've gotten a lot of advice from a lot of people. A theme has emerged from the musicians who have been touring for a while. Many of them have told us that you need to keep your eyes open and enjoy what's passing by, instead of just sleeping the whole time on the tour bus or whatever.
Rebecca: Shawn Mullins gave us a lot of advice about being true to who you are.
Jessica: Don't step into the box that others want to put you in, cause you might not get out.
Megan: And don't let people push you around.
Do you have any favorite things to do in LA when you're on tour here?
Jessica: When we got in yesterday, we stayed in Santa Monica, which was a treat, and we walked around. It's really special when within one block of where you're staying, there are all sorts of restaurants—Thai, Indian, Indonesian, American, Mexican, French, an ice cream shop… The diversity of LA is amazing! We're absolutely thrilled to be here.
Don't miss the Lovell Sisters tonight (July 9) at the Levitt Pavilion in Pasadena. This free concert begins at 8 p.m., though you may want to arrive early to get a good seat! To learn more about the band, visit www.lovellsisters.com.
Photos by Zach Arias and via the Lovell Sisters' myspace page.