Search The Line of Best Fit
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Larkin Poe

Becoming Self Made Men

09 June 2020, 09:00

Larkin Poe aka sister-duo Megan and Rebecca Lovell speak to Tyler Damara Kelly about how singing the blues amplifies the experience of being human.

By manifesting the magical energy of their ancestral homes deep down in the south, Larkin Poe are modernising the blues and flying the flag for the erased women in the history of guitar music.

“The sense of pride that both Megan and I feel about being Southerners and coming from southern states, and the amount of cultural importance that from a musical perspective, the Carolinas and Georgia and Alabama and Tennessee and Florida have all served, you know… It really is cool to come from these states that really feel like musical movers and shakers,” says Rebecca Lovell on growing up in a place that is steeped in such a colossal amount of musical history.

At the dawn of the 20th century, it would’ve been impossible to epitomise the blues without your brain conjuring imagery of the Deep South, the emancipation of slavery or the community spirit of hearing call-and-response songs carried on the wind, down the road to the nearest barrelhouse.

Fast forward a mere hundred years and blues has all but infiltrated modern day music and now comes with a cultural update that would likely surprise those who were around for its inception.

The influence and evolution of innovators such as John Lee Hooker, Jimi Hendrix, Chuck Berry and Eric Clapton can be traced back to the likes of Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and Lightnin’ Hopkins – some of the original legends of the blues – and these musicians have in-turn inspired a new breed of artists such as Joe Bonamassa, Gary Clark Jr, and Jack White who are at the helm of a plethora of sub-genres.

It’s this recognition of the past and the desire to tip their hat to these pioneers that drives Larkin Poe in their own blues reckoning. Finding their spiritual home in Nashville, Tennessee, by way of their hometown in Calhoun, Georgia, the sister act take influence from the bountiful storytelling of growing up in the South and find themselves firmly rooted in honouring the forefathers of their craft.

From a distinctly young age, Megan and Rebecca have explored a juxtaposition of musical styles. It should come as no surprise then, that their take on blues comes with a multitude of influences. Their mother introduced them to the world of classical music, which aided them in becoming the proficient multi-instrumentalists that they are today, whilst their father did the classic dad thing of injecting a little rock and roll into their lives.

After going to a bluegrass festival in their early teens and falling in love with acoustic music, the pair started a band with their older sister Jessica which was simply named The Lovell Sisters.

What followed was a five-year stint of extensive touring and learning the craftmanship of being a musician – something that is intrinsic to Larkin Poe’s inception. After their sister departed the band to pursue a college education, Megan and Rebecca decided to stick together and explore the world of electric guitars. And thus, Larkin Poe was born.

As they gear up to release their fifth self-produced album, Self Made Man, Larkin Poe are tapping into the raw, organic conception of their music in a way that falls closely in line with those that came before them. On the back of a meteoric touring schedule for their Grammy Nominated album, Venom & Faith, the sisters found themselves with a rare few weeks off the road where they were able to dedicate some time for getting into the studio.

Roused by the groundswell behind selling out show after show, the pair decided to tap into uncharted territory – writing new material with the connective nature of music and the live show in mind.

Rebecca explains that the process stemmed from being able to “first-hand witness the reality that as humans we are so much more alike than we are different, and music, specifically in live concerts, is such a great connective tissue between people. So, just coming home from this sort of overwhelming barrage of sensory experience, new friendships and just the highs of being out on the road.”

"As humans we are so much more alike than we are different, and music, specifically in live concerts, is such a great connective tissue between people."

Naturally falling back into the recording set up that they had with Venom & Faith and the stripped-back nature of their first ever self-produced album, Peach, the band enlisted the help of their long-time friend and collaborator Roger Alan Nichols.

Described as having an “infinite patience for the creative process,” Nichols has essentially been a mentor for Larkin Poe in their voyage to having full autonomy of their musical endeavours. “In self-producing, we found that it really pushes us into new territories when we force ourselves to have self-reliance. It's not always comfortable and it's not always easy,” says Rebecca on the insight that comes from keeping everything in-house.

Whilst self-reliance is an important thing to have as an independent artist, being in a band is also defined by the experiences you share with other people. As such, Larkin Poe wanted to capture the essence of being out on the road, and despite Rebecca losing her voice during the recording process, they’re quite happy with how true to form it all turned out.

“We typically have shouldered the responsibilities of making all the instrument sounds ourselves because I do think we like to creatively challenge ourselves, but on this album, we did bring in our road band for a handful of the tracks… To have them put a little bit of their personality onto the record felt really good this time around especially since we had literally spent two years out on the road with these guys and, you know, you share a lot of life together.”

The freedom of being able to play every single element of their songs, and the unique way that they breathe life into their chosen instrument, allows for Larkin Poe to create a truly distinctive sound that can only be assigned to them.

Rebecca cites learning how to programme drums as a pivotal moment in the way that they approached fleshing out new ideas: “We really started to carve out an aesthetic, like a sonic aesthetic that really felt true to who we are as people and our musical history. At a certain point, you just go with the flow and allow these tendencies to become deep habits for the way that we make records. I think we've been really pleased at kind of the organic way that we have drifted into this process in the studio.”

Whilst explaining the technical pillars of their flow state, the pair infectiously float in and out of turn, finishing each other’s points and connecting the stories in a way that only sisters can, whilst praising each other profusely along the way.

Megan indicates that the pair are audiophiles and adds that an imperative part of creating the signature Larkin Poe sound is to retain all traces of humanity in the vocal and guitar elements, even if you’re using the raw existence of nature to build the rest of the song; to have fun, even if you’re following a creative echo.

Taking reference from a moment earlier that morning when she was listening to birdsong on her front porch and a frog appeared, completely changing the dynamic of it all; almost providing a percussive note to the melodies of the birds, Megan says: “I think it's that energy that really drives the way that I personally am, because I'm looking for sounds that feel not so much like drums, and instead kind of put you in a timeless place that could be at the turn of the century or it could be now – trying to create a marriage between primal sounds of stomping on dirt or concrete or wood, and songs that are sounds that are gritty and raw.”

These primitive elements of Larkin Poe are best explored on Peach where their boot-stomping and knocking on wood is perfectly imposed against a backdrop of trip-hop beats and a heavy leaning into electronic programming. Self Made Man sees the band perfecting these new ventures, whilst becoming more in tune with their electric guitars and the masters who paved the way, than ever before.

For as long as they can remember, Larkin Poe have enjoyed listening to The Allman Brothers and it was time spent going through the lineage of this ascendancy that provided a basis for themselves falling “deeper in love with blues music.”

Megan reveals: “We were familiar but hadn't really done our due diligence to learn the music of these amazing people who really pioneered. I mean, a lot of different kinds of music have stemmed from blues music, so it definitely feels very important to us to go back and pay homage to these amazing artists; of Son House and Skip James and Muddy Waters. I felt like the blues has really found its way into our music in a way that feels very, very true to us since we did grow up playing like bluegrass and mountain music, which has a lot of similarities to blues music. It felt very much like coming home.”

"I like for there to be enough nebulousness or a looseness in the fabric where they can kind of slip through and create their own stitches to ultimately finish the song out for themselves."

Nostalgia and evoking a sense of feeling is at the heart of Self Made Man, whether it be tapping into a kind of strength within yourself, or surrendering to the journey. Rebecca feels as though music is so much more than its aural composition. It’s the transcendental nature of the way someone sings a lyric or the textures that are involved that can transport you elsewhere.

“Ultimately, if you do it right, songs don’t just belong to you. They belong to those that hear them, and they become companions to people, and I think that that is really what I view the purpose of a song to be. I like for there to be enough nebulousness or a looseness in the fabric where they can kind of slip through and create their own stitches to ultimately finish the song out for themselves, and I love that. In a lot of ways, you’re creatively collaborating with every person that listens to your music because they’re able to fill in the blanks – the negative space that exists – and I do find it very important to allow space for the songs to grow, shift and change and mean something different for different people.”

Expanding on finding her purpose within song writing, she continues: “I think that's probably one of my most favourite things about music. It’s the fact that there is such a rainbow of textures of music, and you can really find something that'll do it for you. If you have the patience and you're willing to look deep in yourself and, you know, go hunt for the thing that will really take you to that other place… I think that’s something that I really love in conjuring or creating these fictitious situations.”

As the primary songwriter of the band, Rebecca would have normally been more comfortable writing about personal and first-hand situations, as detailed in Larkin Poe’s previous releases. As the years have gone by, she has become more comfortable in her ability to find sparks of creativity from an outsider’s perspective. When you have the opportunity to travel the world from corner to corner there are endless avenues of inspiration to be explored, but the subjects always circle back to the illustrious musical history of days gone by.

“Tears Of Gold To Blue” is rife with optimistic imagery of growing up with the age-old fantasy of the American dream. Rebecca explains that the song was written about Elvis as a kid, inspired by a trip that she took from Memphis to Graceland – each place steeped in rock and roll history. “Graceland is of course, you know, Elvis Presley's home and it was really fascinating to walk through his preserved house and to see all the artefacts that were his, and where he lived. To think that Elvis was this person – he's such a myth and a legend – but he really was alive on this earth and, you know, dealt with being a human just like us.”

The swaggering southern ballad of “Ex-Con” was approached with a different level of fictitiousness whilst serving as a female response to Johnny Paycheck’s “I’m The Only Hell My Momma Ever Raised”. In a blurring of the lines between reality and imagination, Rebecca tapped into her experiences of dedicating her life to music and “not wanting to piss off your mum and wanting to make sure your mum is happy with you” in order to portray the story.

She laughs as she explains, “It’s like the ultimate Southern phrase: ‘if momma ain't happy, ain't nobody happy’ and that's always been really amusing to me and it is very true… For our poor mother to have two daughters that decided at the ages of 16 and 17 to start running around the world playing music, we have cost our mother many hours in her life for worry, so she needed to have the song.”

Perhaps in poetic symmetry to sharing a distant bloodline with the wordsmith Edgar Allan Poe, there are distinctly theological and supernatural undertones that have always oozed out of Larkin Poe's lyrics, and their knack for storytelling proves that the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. “Back Down South” serves as a love song to finding salvation in their homeland, whilst the tremolo doused “Scorpion” and the soulful undertones of “Holy Ghost Fire” look at falling in love with the darkness, and digging deeper than the demons to illuminate the light inside you, in order to alter your unfavourable circumstances.

Blues artists such as Robert Johnson and Junior Kimbrough were all masters at tapping into these opposing aspects of life, and it’s something that Rebecca is especially drawn to, as she explains: “There’s no way to make sense of why we are here; the arbitrariness of our lifespans, you know? You can get snuffed out and it's not fair, and you don't have any answers. Yet you're expected to be as positive and optimistic in your life as possible because it is a gift, and it is a joy, and there's so much love and strength in living but at the same time there is I think, that inherent juxtaposition that is really fun to play with. I'm just very naturally drawn to those questions…I think the essence of our mortality is something that is really on my mind all the time.”

Unravelling the fixation on religion in American culture, Rebecca confesses that the further you drive through Nashville, Tennessee, there is a staggering amount of churches that you may drive past in a five-mile radius, and whilst it is pretty typical of the way that they grew up, it isn’t the basis on which they conduct their lives.

“At a certain point, I don't think that neither Megan nor myself strongly identify as religious people – spiritual, yes, and I think hopeful and optimistic about the unknown, but I think our bend towards these somewhat timeless questions about humanity and the quality of a soul – What is it? How does it manifest in the world? Is there something that the soul ascends to after physical death? Is there a God? What is God if there is? Where are the crossroads? Who is at the crossroads? Is there a devil? All of these questions, I find infinitely interesting because the answers to the questions that we're asking are only known by people who have passed on. There is no real way with science to answer certain ephemeral questions that touch on the nature of spirituality.”

"Life can be heaven if you choose to really sink into the moments, and especially those moments that are most real..."

Megan adds that within all of these lyrical choices, whether they be speckled with fantasy or the cold hard truth, there’s an air of romanticism within it all: “There's something romantic about religious iconography, and it does show up in our lyrics a lot. It's sort of like, you know, hanging crosses on your wall because they're there. It's beautiful and it makes you feel something – even though you may not necessarily believe that there is a heaven, it's romantic to think about it.”

Whilst heaven can mean something different to everybody, Rebecca likens music to being the closest thing that we can physically attribute to it.

“Life can be heaven if you choose to really sink into the moments, and especially those moments that are most real – when you're experiencing pain or when you're experiencing happiness. When you're at a show with a bunch of other people and you're all there for the same reason, you know, and you're sweating, and you're moving, you're dancing, and you're raising your voice and you're singing…there is I think, many ways that prayer can be expressed. And so, for Megan and myself, I really think that music has served as that that tool of connection to the thing that gives us greater meaning.”

In the ten years that Larkin Poe have been a band the hardest, yet most rewarding, thing for them has been their gruelling tour schedule. If it wasn’t for the global lockdown that we’re all currently facing, the duo would’ve been a week into their month-long European tour on the day that I speak to them – the first that they would’ve had their own tour bus for. And so the chorus of “Ex-Con” rings ever true for Larkin Poe, in that "it has been a hard living / broken down on the highway” on the most fateful year of most of our lives.

Ruminating on the misconceptions and glamorised views of being a touring artist, Rebecca says, “That can kind of be a bit of a stumbling block because you kind of wish that you could explain to people how challenging it actually is because for a good you know, six or seven years, maybe even eight years of the years that we have spent touring as Larkin Poe, we have eaten shit. I mean, we have lost money on tours, you know…There is like a sense of tenacity of self that I think both Megan and I feel very proud of, for the way that we've been able to endure. There's a lot of pride there.”

At a time where the conversation of shining a light on injustice is more prevalent than ever, and the notion of championing ‘women in music’ is widely debated – especially in the live music scene – Larkin Poe are “firmly in line with expecting that there be equality on both sides.”

If you look back into the history of rock music and how it has been shaped by the blues, there have been countless women at the helm who have been mostly forgotten or simply brushed over and it is something that still happens to this day, as Rebecca notes: “I think it’s unflattering for us to realise that there is still an inequality that is insidious and pervasive. Do you know what I mean? I think all of us wanna think that we aren’t skewed by undercurrents of prejudice….”

From Memphis Minnie and Mamie Smith, to Billie Holiday, Koko Taylor and Janis Joplin; there is an abundance of iconic names who sang the blues, and have paved the way for female-identifying musicians. Of these polymaths, it is Sister Rosetta Tharpe, one of the most enigmatic guitar players of her time, who Rebecca looks up to the most and considers when thinking about women who have been overlooked in history.

“She is one of the incredible guitarists that has been overshadowed, and I do find that a very interesting point because if you go back and you watch documentaries, or you do historic research about specifically the ‘30s and the ‘40s and the ‘50s, a lot of the popular artists of the time were female blues singers; these incredible black songstresses who were playing the guitar and singing the blues and they were considered far more ‘pop hits’ than their male contemporaries at the time.

"It’s only in this recent shift of the last 50-60 years that some of these women have become overshadowed by the Muddy Waters’ and the Lightnin’ Hopkins’, and there is something tragic about that. Honestly, I don’t think we do enough to draw the focus back to some of these influential women in the way that I think that we probably should...I think it’s something we will instate because it’s the way things happened in history and we wanna honour the truth of what went down, for sure.”

"I think it’s unflattering for us to realise that there is still an inequality that is insidious and pervasive."

By finding inspiration in the lives of these women and being able to have a semblance of insight into how their stories have unfolded, Megan reflects on how Larkin Poe managed to find their own voice, and how they intend to use that knowledge to maintain a sense of longevity.

“I mean I think it’s taken us a while to discover what our voice is as artists…. But once we found that I think we’ve been really diligent about just following our own path and just not letting anybody push or pull us in either direction. I think just being really determined and sticking with your guns and knowing yourself, knowing your own boundaries, and not allowing yourself to be pulled outside the box you want to put yourself in.”

A lot of this has come through time, experience and becoming more proficient in their instruments. On their debut album, Kin, there is an air of youthfulness that radiates from the songs, but unsurprisingly, ten years later, Larkin Poe emit nothing but unrelenting confidence and empowerment.

As the guitars grew louder and heavier, so did Rebecca’s vocals. She puts it down to feeling self-conscious when she was younger, almost from the perspective of having imposter syndrome and wondering “whether or not I deserve to sing soulfully because it’s like I’m a privileged young woman and what do I have to feel pain about?” but as she has grown older, those inhibitions have fallen away.

“In a lot of ways, I think putting a lot of these fears aside has been really key to feeling comfortable to sing loudly, and it is really interesting because listening back to early records, I have a hard time even recognising that is me. I can, but it still feels very foreign because you know, the days don't show you what the years will tell like you. You change so gradually with time that it's hard to sense the transition…And I think as a general rule that's been true – not just the way that my vocals have changed, but the way that Megan and I have relaxed into music and let the music hold us instead of trying to really control [it] and make the thing do something pretty. It's like, no, let's just exist and make something that feels right.”

Since 2017, Larkin Poe have released each of their albums under their own label, Tricki-Woo Records. As Megan explains, “We wanted to take more control into our own hands because we’re very opinionated about, not only how the music sounds, but the way that we want the music to come out.”

During our conversation, it has become apparent that both Megan and Rebecca are very headstrong people who have a strong grasp of the imprint tthey want to leave on the world. It's incredibly empowering to witness, and is a rare quality to possess, but their infectious, well-mannered humour and complete relatability resonates the most.

Whilst Megan laughs in the background, Rebecca finishes their train of thought behind the name that is taken from a series of books written by James Herriot: “I think it’s important to know that he’s a veterinarian. He is in the Scottish Highlands; a vet of farm animals and house pets, and he runs across this pampered dog that is continually requiring care because its owner Madame Pumphrey she spoils the dog and feeds it absolute crap, so the dog is perpetually ill and its very nostalgic to our childhood…”

More than the humorous and child-like sentimental attachment to the name, the record label was created with the intent and the ability to have full control over their releases. Being able to directly reach the listeners was also a part of their prerogative as a band who Megan describes as “playing music that’s slightly left of centre."

Rebecca expands on her point by saying, “We happen to live in an era of music making which the barriers to entry have been removed. You don’t need a multi-million record deal in order to create an album and you certainly don’t need a multi-million-dollar marketing plan to reach your fans because we have Facebook, we have Instagram, we have these incredible tools that serves as a connection to people who are seeking us out as we are seeking them out.”

So, whilst years might not show us what the years will tell us, it’s the sheer perseverance and dedication to the craft that sets the foundations for doing something great. Invoking the spirit of the fearless trailblazers such as Joan Jett and Bonnie Raitt whilst eulogising the forefathers of the blues, Larkin Poe are flying the flag of the blues renaissance and laying the foundations for an entirely new generation of musicians to create their own version of a ‘Self Made Man’.

Self Made Man is out 12 June via Tricki-Woo Records
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