Looking down from an upstairs window at the High Street in Kings Heath Birmingham, it strikes me that we’re a heck of a long way from Atlanta, Georgia.
I’m waiting in the green room to meet and photograph Atlantan sisters Rebecca and Megan Lovell, more commonly known as Larkin Poe. The American roots-rock siblings are completing their current UK tour with a performance at the Hare and Hounds in Kings Heath, a venue with local historic significance having played host to UB40’s first ever gig. In more recent years the Pub with original art noveau styling has become the musical centrepiece of the area’s vibrant culture.
The ‘story so far’ of Larkin Poe is well documented online and extremely familiar to their loyal fan-base, so I won’t repeat it all here. However if you’re playing catch-up, then the salient points are as follows:
Teenagers Rebecca and Megan join their elder sister Jessica to form highly acclaimed bluegrass group The Lovell Sisters. After two albums and four years touring some of the most famous stages in the USA, the group disbands and Rebecca and Megan form ‘Larkin Poe’. Mixing seamless vocal harmonies and impressive musicianship (Rebecca plays guitar, mandolin and piano, Megan plays lap-steel and dobro), the pair release five independant EP’s building them a notable fan-base, particularly in the UK.
Collaborations with Thom Hell and Blair Dunlop coupled with touring alongside Elvis Costello widen their audience and in 2014 they release their debut album ‘Kin’, a surprising body of work that on first listen pays more homage to Marc Bolan and Jack White than perhaps their Americana roots.
Upon meeting Rebecca and Megan they are immediately likeable…friendly and keen to talk. However as we sit and chat, the thing I’m most taken with is the intensity of enthusiasm that flows from them. They focus intently on our conversation, considering questions, bouncing off each other, reflecting deeply on their answers…it’s as if this is the most important interview they’ve ever done, which of course it isn’t…but that’s how they make you feel in conversation.
I could see that same intensity in their live performance later that evening. Rebecca prowls the stage theatrically, holding the audience in the palm of her hand whilst Megan throws down some (seriously) fierce lap steel playing. Outstanding musicianship aside, Larkin Poe instinctively know how to hold an audience’s attention. It’s not difficult to see why their audience numbers are heading ever-steadily upwards…
FRUK: This is the last night of your current UK tour. How’s it gone?
Rebecca: It’s been an amazing tour honestly.
Megan: Every time we say ‘It’s been the best tour yet’. This time we can say ‘It’s been the best tour yet’!
Rebecca: We went from playing 80, 100 capacity rooms, now we’re selling about 200 tickets every night on the shows on this tour. It’s felt really, really happy. People are showing up to the shows and they’re singing along with all the words. It’s a very different interaction we’re having with crowds on this tour.
Megan: Now they all know the music.
Rebecca: It’s really exciting for us, the first time we’ve had that.
FRUK: So which city won ‘best audience’?
Megan: They’ve all been so good.
FRUK: C’mon ladies you can’t sit on the fence, there’s regional pride at stake…
Megan: London was pretty darn good.
Rebecca: In Oxford people were lovely too. They were a party hearty crowd!
Megan: We’ll say Oxford and London.
Rebecca: But we love everybody!
FRUK: You’ve spent quite a lot of time in the UK over the last few years. You must like our little island?
Rebecca: We do. Y’know I think we’re in a position where we’re flexible on how we make this work for our career. I think musicians in today’s era, you have to go where you have traction. You have to do what it takes to make the shot. So for us, UK and European fans have been so supportive of us. They’ve really latched onto who we are as artists and so for us we want to reward that, we want to come and play music for you guys ‘cos you’ll come out and buy tickets and hang…and meet us and take photos and everything…
Megan: UK audiences especially, they come out and support live music which sometimes is a little harder back home. One because it’s such a big territory, it’s like you can only find pockets of Larkin Poe fans like in our home town and other cities. It’s a little harder to tour there. And everything’s so close together here, it’s just wonderful.
Rebecca: Yeah for sure it’s very convenient to tour in Europe and the UK. We’re going to fly over to Estonia tomorrow and then take a ferry to Finland…and then pop over to Norway. They’re all feasible distances to cover.
FRUK: The thing I noticed when researching you…reading other interviews, watching videos, reading social media streams etc…there’s a lot of stuff out there about you! It’s obvious that you work really hard on the whole promotion thing…is it difficult to sustain that level of effort and keep doing it?
Megan: I think it is. We’ve been touring since I was fifteen or sixteen. We played on a big national radio station and it launched our career in the US. We just did it for fun. This was when she (Rebecca) was fifteen and I was sixteen. Right out of the box we toured full time, so this is the only life we’ve known. It is hard, but at the same time it’s what we’re used to.
Rebecca: It’s what you’re conditioned for. And we love it, we honestly do love it. There’s so many amazing pro’s about being a touring musician. You get to see so much of the world, we feel like our horizons have been broadened in so many ways. But it’s tough to maintain your friends group when you’re gone two months at a stretch. Everyone’s like ‘when are you coming home?’ and we’re like ‘Ah, another month and a half. We’ll see you soon!’
FRUK: You’re playing material from ‘Kin’ on the tour. Kin was quite different from what you’d released before. Thinking back to when you were preparing to release the album, were you nervous at all about releasing something that was so different from what people had heard before?
Rebecca: We’re never nervous, we’re not nervous people. You don’t want to alienate your fans, we’re very aware of that…but fans have come along with us on our journey. We’ve got very flexible fans.
Megan: We’re lucky to have a fan base that has been willing to grow with us and understand. They want us to be an artist and to find our own path.
Rebecca: Leading up to Kin…we had the very privileged position of having been ‘witnessed’ ever since we were teenagers. People being able to wade in and write about who we are as individuals…how we dress, what kind of music we’re making, what we’re choosing to do with our stage performance…ever since we were very impressionable and young. So it has taken us a lot of projects to grow and change because we were kids developing into adults and now we’re mid-twenties and we’re starting to find who we are, as humans do. It was just so funny that people got to just watch that whole process happen as we released EP’s every couple of months. They would see lyrically how we’d changed and stylistically how we were experimenting and growing.
FRUK: So do you feel Kin represents where you are right now?
Rebecca: I would say so. In fact I might even say it’s a little outdated already.
Megan: We’ve got our sights on the next one!
FRUK: Can you talk a little about the process of making your album?
Megan: This was oddly enough the first album that we really wrote together. I don’t know why we couldn’t do it before. We say maybe it was sibling rivalry, our attitudes were getting in the way. This was the first time we had a workman-like approach to it. We decided we were writing from nine to five just as if it was a job. In that way we got a lot done, we wrote a lot of songs in a very short amount of time. That was about two or three months before we went out to record.
Rebecca: And it was the first time we ever recorded in a real studio, with a real producer and actually had some financial backing on it so it was a very different experience from what we’d had in the past. Before it was always just Megan I and producing everything…kind of like ‘Well we like that…sure, that’s fine’…in our parent’s basement recording with pro-tools and stuff like that. So this felt much more like we had a microscope on us, which we enjoyed but we were also suddenly aware of. With the next record we want to do it differently. It is easy when you’re in a void to want to nit-pick things to pieces…but it was really fun to write for the record as a team. Going into the studio we were in a vocal booth and cutting vocals on one mic, so it felt very much more like a team project than anything had in the past in terms of us finding our sound as Larkin Poe.
FRUK: How do you write together…how does that process work?
Megan: Surprisingly wordless. We have a language between us that’s very non-verbal so when we’re writing. I think it makes it difficult for people to write with us because I’ll know where she’s going…
Rebecca: We have very similar instincts, musically, lyrically and creatively.
Megan: …so I would get to a chorus idea and she would be at the same idea.
Rebecca: Or it’s so funny, especially when we’re writing lyrics together. We’ll make these totally arcane, really random sounding touchstones, these references…she’ll know exactly what I mean by some weird movie quote, or a picture that we’ve both seen, something that we just draw on having had so many years of experience of having worked together. It’s dysfunctional but it happens to be a dysfunction in our favour.
FRUK: Did you find the songs developed further in the studio or are they pretty much recorded as you wrote them?
Rebecca: A lot of them are pretty much as we wrote them.
Megan: One thing that I think was very different this time was that we re-wrote a lot. So every song on the album went through about three re-writes. It changed drastically.
Rebecca: We make a demo and then listen to it and tweak it and then re-write it. So when we got to the final recording process we’d already sussed all the songs out. Which felt good. It was nice to feel prepared.
FRUK: And has the album translated well to playing live?
Rebecca: I would say so. We don’t play the whole record, especially on this tour because we’re touring as a trio. We have our collection of favourites off the record that we’ve pushed and pulled into really fun live arrangements.
Megan: Some of the songs, they have a double-life. So they have their recorded life and then they have their ‘live’ life. Like ‘Banks of Allatoona’ for instance is one that just takes off live. ‘Jailbreak’ is one, it’s just a barn-burner. We love playing them live!
FRUK: I wanted to ask you about Elvis Costello…he’s a bit of a legend, what’s it like working with him?
Rebecca: Oh my gosh, we adore him. We’ve known Elvis for four or five years. We met at an Americana music festival and kind of had a connection at Merlefest, but it was very passing. We knew perfectly who he was, like he was a really, really big deal. He just ‘twigged us’ to use a little British phrase, and was intrigued by what we were doing with the family harmonies and that we were playing fairly maturely at that age. So now we’ve toured with him five or six times. He has us out to open for him, we act as his band…and there’s such a tenderness that we have for him in our hearts.
Megan: I think that if anyone was in our career…he’s a mentor to us.
Rebecca: One hundred per cent. We sent him songs off the record from Kin before we’d finished them..we were like ‘Do you have any input?’ and he’d write back these amazing letters of feedback and encouragement, genuinely being engaged as a creative force in a young artists life. We respect him so much.
FRUK: Thinking back to when you made the decision to start out together as Larkin Poe, what’s the biggest thing you’ve learned since then about becoming successful artists?
Rebecca: Oh my gosh, everything.
Megan: I think in the beginning we took a lot for granted, that we now really appreciate y’know. Things like team members working for us.
Rebecca: The thing about touring, the thing about today’s industry especially…is that the challenges and the problems are always changing. At first with the Lovell Sisters we toured performing arts centres, we were just our family in a van travelling around the USA. It was very low impact, it didn’t ever feel like we could do this for a living. Then we started Larkin Poe and we tried to transition more into more of a Rock scene. Straight of the bat we were like ‘we’re gonna play more Rockin’ music’. At that point it was still very much Americana. Looking back you realise, we felt like we were pushing those envelopes, but…we were like Acoustic-Folk-Pop! But each shift that we’ve made, it’s like you have to re-learn how to work that circuit.
It’s a constantly changing game in terms of learning how to let things go, learning when you need to stop trying to haul your amp on stage because you can’t manage it and let someone else do that for you…when to get a manager, when to get a booking agent, how to handle keeping your team in communication…because we’ve been very involved with all of that from the beginning, which I think has served us really well. It makes you appreciate when you have really good team members, when a show goes well, when you have people in the audience, these things that are so easy to take for granted. I think we’ve really taken it step by step. We’ve worked hard for ten years now and it doesn’t feel like it’s been that long at all, but it’s been a hard long road…and you still feel like you’re a newbie.
Megan: That’s what always strikes me as so funny is that I still feel like…you hear people who are older say, just in life in general, that you think you’re gonna reach a point where you’ve figured it out. They say don’t expect to ever get to that. I think that’s kind of where we are. We haven’t figured it out and we probably never really will. But that’s Ok…
Rebecca: It is and it’s all part of the process I think, as long as you’re able to connect and be genuine with people as an artist and then also as a human being. Just being able to get in the crowd and like our fans. All the fans that come to our show are actually really cool people that we would have genuine conversations with. That for us is a huge indicator…we like the path that we’re on.
FRUK: What’s the hardest thing about being Larkin Poe?
Megan: The hardest thing is simultaneously one of the best…it’s the travelling. It’s hard to be away from home, it’s hard to take your suitcase home and dump it out, put it in the laundry, then take it right back out and put it in the suitacase and go again.
Rebecca: For me I would say it’s being sisters, on the road.
Megan: Again, one thing that’s simultaneously the best and worst.
Rebecca: We get to have all these experiences together. We’ve never been apart for more than two weeks in our lives, we’ve shared everything together. But then it is difficult to work with someone that is your family. Like when you get on stage and you perform, because you aren’t being your true self when you’re performing. You’re being more dramatic, super-funny, clever…all these things that you’re putting on. She knows when I’m putting stuff on and I know when she’s putting stuff on. So there’s this little bit of a ‘I see you act, but you’re my sister and I know you so well’. That for me is the hardest, but’s it’s also again the most rewarding because…..pauses, then asks Megan…is it the most rewarding? I feel like it is?
FRUK: What do you both aspire to?
Rebecca: I watched this video of Led Zeppeling being inducted into the Rock’n’Roll hall of fame. Robert Plant looking beautiful and the rest of the band, they’re all there on this balcony and they’re watching Heart cover a version of their song. They had these amazing artists playing their songs and they were witnessing it…like, this is what we have achieved with our lives that other people have acknowledged. We’ve created something that is so massive and Rock’n’Roll. We’re gonna watch Ann and Nancy Wilson sing Stairway to Heaven. That for me was like, oh my god…I really want Megan and I to be like, super-glam old ladies with silver in our hair, wearing our black suits and we’re watching someone cover our songs! I would love that.
Megan: Or be the person covering Led Zeppelin!
Rebecca: laughs Either way…we’ll be in the balcony or on the stage”
Interview by: Rob Bridge
For Larkin Poe’s Summer tour dates, check out their website.
This is part of an ongoing new series of photo / interview features on Folk Radio UK from Rob Bridge, a photographer, writer and film-maker specialising in folk, acoustic and Americana music. You can contact him on twitter@redwoodphotos