Romy and Sari Lightman are ordering tea as we sit down for a chat ahead of Tasseomancy‘s Ulalume album launch show at London’s CAMP basement. The irony is not lost. The Canadian siblings’ latest musical incarnation takes its name from the fortune telling art of reading tea leaves, or coffee grounds or wine sediments if you prefer. “We’re into tea and tea-making,” says Sari. “Our great great grandmother was a tea leaf reader and she passed it on the the rest of our family.”
Romi pre-empts our next question, adding: “We’re really not psychic but we are intuitive. We like to have sensory experiences that are beyond just music, or just us. When we first started playing we would make tea for people and serve different blends. People would drink the tea and watch us perform.”
Watching the identical twins onstage as Tasseomancy, the intuition is clear. Their dual harmonies and quite distinct but their perfectly complimentary vocals pair naturally, amplifying one another to create their unique brand of hymnal folk noir. Having grown up together and become musicians together, firstly in Toronto before moving to Nova Scotia, their closeness is palpable. “It is obviously a crucial part of the music that we create, especially in the way that we sing together, the syncopation,” explains Sari. “We wouldn’t be making this music without each other. But I think with any band, it’s about the relationship between the people and you can tell whether they go back to childhood or they’re married or related. You can just tell the chemistry with the songwriting. It’s definitely a huge factor.”
Does this relate to the twins’ choice of name? Until last year the 26-year-old sisters performed under the moniker Ghost Bees, crafting an acoustic electro sound labelled by critics as “outsider music”. Their latest work – as the newly named Tasseomancy – embraces a fuller, more foreboding, gothic tone, with eerie folk fables showcasing the twins’ hauntingly angelic vocals. It’s certainly other-worldly… “Our last record was called Tasseomancy,” explains Sari, referring to Ghost Bees’ 2008 release. “We wanted to have a link to our previous band and not dismiss it entirely. It’s a progression and we wanted to keep something from it, and we always liked the name, Tasseomancy.”
“It kind of found us,” adds Romi. “We thought it was a beautiful word and it rolls off your tongue when you familiarise yourself with it. It just sort of stuck. It made sense. It seemed like the most honest name because we wanted something that would hold relevance to our music.” She adds: “I think we felt that we outgrew Ghost Bees, or the music that it held was about a certain time and was precious. It’s a new time and we’re taking ourselves less seriously now. We didn’t want to be so severe. We wanted to delve much more into the language of music whereas before the music was more acoustic and sparse and literary based, and the song writing was the main focus. Now we’ve started to pay attention to music and removing ourselves from the equation, so it’s more about an atmosphere and creating an environment that’s a bit larger.”
While the sisters accept that there will always be a natural fascination with the fact that they are identical twins, they would rather focus on how their intimate bond influences their music rather than their stage presence. “We wanted to make it beyond the fact that we are siblings and that there’s this weird spookiness that exists between each other,” says Sari. “It exists and it is present but we are trying to make it more about our band. When we make music it’s about us coming together rather than us defining ourselves, making music is about surrendering your ego. This record is not about ourselves, and you wont see us bantering about being twins on stage because it’s not a focus, it’s something that we’ve normalised. People are interested and they ask questions and that’s fine but ultimately we want the music to speak for itself and as we evolve as musicians, that will become more evident.”
Anyone lucky enough to have seen Romy and Sari perform will know that their work commands the attention of more than just the audiences’ ears. Their latest album, Ulalume, with its haunting vocals, raw reverb and lingering melodies, is no exception. It is released as a conventional digital download, but is accompanied by a less conventional candle and vintage matchbox, wrapped in a scroll bearing the Edgar Allan Poe poem from which the record borrows its title.
“There’s an image of Niagara Falls on the candle, you light it and it melts and the elements blend and become one thing,” says Sari. “We wanted something a bit psychedelic and it’s all part of the experience of making the music and trying to make the delivery of the music a bit more personal and less conventional. It’s also about having an experience. A candle is physical but it’s also ephemeral too. We like the idea that when people are listening to our music they can create this atmosphere. We wanted to do something with light so that people could create this ambience while listening to the record.” She adds: “I wanted to integrate with technology a little bit more. But then Romy pointed out that most of the parts would have been made in China and we wanted to try and find something that was a bit more environmentally friendly.”
The twins take to the stage as a trio with Maya Postepski on drums and synth for their London show. All three are touring members of Canadian electro noir outfit Austra and onstage the technological influence of that association subtly blends with the Lightmans’ more traditional guitar and mandolin to produce a rich and slightly sinister backdrop for their fragile yet powerful voices. “We’re travelling with another band so we can’t really bring all our gear with us,” says Romy, explaining that Tasseomancy’s album launch show has been carefully fitted into the hectic Austra touring schedule. “But what we have are both kind of electro acoustic instruments and we go through pedals to create a wall of sound. I play the steel pan but I didn’t bring it and Sari uses the auto harp and other kinds of stringed instruments.” The girls describe their early attempts at making music as experimental acoustic folk but their evolution as artists has seen them develop an interest in using more up-to-date equipment. “We’re not using computers but manipulating sounds using pedals is a new world that we’re delving into and it’s exciting for us,” says Romy.
The intimate crowd gathered at the East London basement venue are captivated by two distinct yet perfectly complimentary choristers. Sound echoes off the brick walls as a blood red projection of light filters over the performers and onto the dirty white wall behind them. It gives Tasseomancy a visual dynamic that is unique to that performance. “I think our music is pretty adaptable and we love to perform in alternative venues, old theatres and converted spaces, basically anything that’s not a bar and where people just come and gather to listen,” says Romy. “It’s going to be intimate and will be a powerful way to connect with an audience where everyone can share in the experience and provide some ambience.”
Like the live performance, Ulalume is not an album to take lightly. The melodic subtleties and consuming emotion of the music demand full attention and its enchanting spells will pick you up and whisk you away like an impromptu magic carpet. “In my mind you would listen to it in its entirety,” says Sari. “It’s a pretty slow, slightly droney record, so it would be nice to sit back and listen and I guess the the idea of a candle slowly burning as you listen to it has the right vibe for it.” The same is true of the Edgar Allen Poe poem from which it takes its title, which recounts the fantasy of the mysterious death of a woman in the midst of winter. “It really fits the mood of the record,” says Romy. “It’s about longing and lost love, and even the time of year – it takes place in October – was something that really resonated with us.” Sari adds: “I think there’s a timelessness that exists in our music and the poem is about memory and exisiting in multiple realities, the narrator keeps returning to distant times. We wanted our music to exist outside of a specific time or space. I don’t know if that’s possible but it’s a sound using just what we have around us. There’s also something about the word, ulalume, that’s very soft and feminine, it’s just a really beautiful word.”
Although in its infancy Tasseomancy is an evolving musical project and one that is very much its own being, as the sisters are keen to make clear. It is not a “side project” of Austra, for whom the twins provide backing vocals as part of the touring line-up. “We met Katie and Maya doing our music, we were very much doing our own thing,” says Sari. “But we used to play shows together, so there’s definitely a connection there. We first united on the the fact that all of our songs were on minor keys.” She adds: “When we first started making music we lived in Nova Scotia, which is kind of an isolated place although there’s a very strong artistic community and there’s definitely a sound that came out of there. Then we moved to Toronto and met like-minded people. Ulalume was produced by our friend Taylor Kirk who plays as Timber Timbre.”
The sisters have toured with Timber Timbre several times and feel their music is a good match. “You can hear a lot of Taylor’s influence on Ulalume. He’s studied sound and sound manipulation and we wanted to bring that into our record. We also have friends in the visual arts community that we work with. We do our own thing but we are inspired by our friends.” Their alliances stretch to the realm of dance music – Canadian producer and performer John O’Regan, better known as Diamond Rings – put out Tasseomancy’s first 7″ single ‘Health Hands b/w The Darkness of Things’ on his label Hype Lighter in 2010. “It’s eclectic and we fit in in that way,” says Romy, in response to the question of where Tasseomancy fit into the exciting Canadian music scene. As part of their work supporting Austra’s extensive 2011 tour, the twins recently found themselves on stage in front of 6,000 people opening for one of Arcade Fire’s European dates. “Arcade Fire have been around forever in Canada and we didn’t realise how famous they were,” says Romy, describing their show as “high energy, epic and fun”. The diverse range of music Tasseomancy cite as influences even extends to the harder edge of metal music. “I think there is something about our music that could lend itself to metal music – it’s slower, like drone metal or sludge metal, that sort of sound,” says Sari. “There’s a darkness that exists there and a lot of myth-based songs, and the idea of fantasy. Actually when we first made Ulalume we wanted to make a metal record but that didn’t end up happening. I don’t know if it comes across but we wanted this record to be a bit heavier, it’s still a quiet record but we tried not to be so delicate with it.”
Having made the shift from Ghost Bees to Tasseomancy, Romy and Sari Lightman are already creating a bolder, more mature sound. And while footed firmly outside mainstream music, Ulalume is generating too much attention to be described as outsider music. So, what next for the sisters? The twins laugh at the suggestion that their third LP could be released under the name Ulalume, but reveal that they are already writing material to follow up Tasseomancy’s debut. “We’re in the middle of writing new songs, some that are a bit more rhythmic, picking up the pace a little bit,” reveals Romy. “We’re nomadic right now touring with Austra but in between shows we’ll be working on our own stuff and we were thinking of maybe recording the record here in the UK.”
Ulalume is available now through Turf Records.