Harmonies that Make the Woman: The Watson Twins discuss their Third Solo Release
“We actually are able to communicate completely by telepathy,” joked Chandra Watson to her twin sister Leigh. The Watson Twins, from Louisville, Kentucky, have been recording since 2006, the year their collaboration with indie-darling Jenny Lewis was released. The album, Rabbit Fur Coat, was billed by “Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins”, immediately putting their name on the radar of alternative rock listeners and critics across North America. Leigh and Chandra are exuberant performers, and their solo work has been receiving well-deserved attention since their high profile team up with Lewis. I got a chance to speak to the pair backstage at their show at the classic Toronto venue the Horseshoe Tavern. They are currently touring for their third solo release, Talking to You, Talking to Me, which was released in February on Vanguard Records.
While their 2008 release Fire Songs was more of a folk rock record, their latest release takes their career in a new direction, with twelve songs of mainly classic soul and R & B. The two execute both styles with a palpable knowledge of infectious rhythms and flow, and the grace of the famed predecessors of each genre.
They are drawn to music by their love of harmonizing: “Our mom had a diverse record collection,” Chandra explained. “A really solid record collection,” said Leigh. “Squeeze, The Eagles, The Rolling Stones, Neil Young. We had this secular music influencing us—rock and roll, folk, country, but then at the same time, we had choir.” Chandra explained: “We were influenced in very different ways. On the other side, we had three and four part harmonies in choir, which resonates with you. Inside, it gives you a feeling in your soul.”
“It creates this connection to music, which is spiritual, but not in a religious way. It is addictive to sing and be part of a group like that,” said Leigh. “Harmonies must do something to you chemically, in your mind and body. We need a term for it.”
“Twinergy!” exclaimed Chandra. “We use that term for a lot of things, so in the dictionary it would have to explain the specific meaning,” laughed Leigh.
Leigh and Chandra take an interesting approach to harmonizing on their new record, with the two singing back-up harmonies for one of their voices on lead. That way the two sound closer to one voice, which is interesting because twins often work hard to differentiate themselves. “We hoped that our paths would keep us together. We enjoyed traveling together,” Leigh said. “We’ve always been each other’s sidekick, so we wanted to be able to stick together,” explained Chandra. “We’re sisters, but we are also best friends, and a lot of sisters aren’t even close, so we value that,” explained Leigh.
“To be able to have each other to attempt the biggest challenge for us, starting out as musicians, was really great. It made it less daunting,” said Chandra. “It is a difficult business to be in. We can have arguments but let the difference lie, it’s a relationship, and we learn to compromise. My grandma would say ‘Love’s thicker than water’,” smiled Leigh. “Singing together came naturally, and with ease to us,” said Chandra.
Their collaboration with Lewis came quite organically as well, since they all live in L.A. and had known her for a while, “Sometimes you have to force things with harmonies, but Jenny had a lot of experience working with other singers from growing up singing with her sister. One afternoon she was singing her songs and we started harmonizing with her, and noticed how well it worked. She told us, ‘I trust you guys, do your thing’,” recalled Leigh. “She felt at ease singing with us,” said Chandra. “She has been doing music longer than us, and so she is experienced at touring and is a better performer than us. She is more consistent.”
“We started to learn more how every performer is so different. We were different with her than when we perform by ourselves,” explained Leigh. “It was a baptism by fire!” said Chandra. “Mike Mogis [Nebraskan producer and engineer] came to L.A. to record our parts, because Jenny was working on a music video for the band Postal Service,” explained Leigh. “We still see Mike whenever we go to Omaha,” said Chandra. “We met a lot of great people from there, it is a really great music world there,” continued Leigh.
Considering how their career has caught fire over the past few years, and how inherent music feels to them, it is surprising that the sisters did not actually expect to be musicians from a young age. “Being musicians is not something we set out to do. We kind of had tried everything else–gymnastics, horseback riding, ballet,” Leigh laughed. “We did the rounds, and then came back to singing. We never saw it as something that could be a career, because that seems like a dream career and not something that is realistic.”
With two full length albums and their 2006 self-released EP Southern Manners under their belt, it seems like the Watson Twins place in the independent rock world is only going to deepen and grow in the following years. They are continually inspired by other female artists, “We listen to a lot of different genres—there are the indie songstresses—Cat Power, Feist, Laura Veirs—women doing the same thing as us, who we love and appreciate,” said Leigh. “Emmylou Harris has an amazing voice and can hold her own identity as a back up singer. That’s what you need to do—create your own sound,” raved Chandra. “We like Candi Staton and also Erika Badyu—she has amazing back-up singers,” continued Leigh.
After moving to Los Angeles in 1997, it took a little hunting for them to find the producer that suited their creative urges, “People would hear us sing at coffee shops and approach us to do some recording, but then in studio they would want us to be something else than what felt natural to us. We used to trust other peoples’ knowledge over our own, but now we know what to do. Russ Pollard and J. Soda of Everest have worked with us on our three releases so far, so we have developed a language with them. We find people we can communicate with, and we hold that close,” explained Leigh. She explained that to learn how to work with them in studio, she and Chandra emulate how to work with their thoughts, and translate that to others.
It is always exciting to hear of the adventures bands embark on when working on the final stages of their album, as it often involves retreats to beautiful and distant places. In that grand tradition, the Watson Twins spent five days in a cabin in the High Sierras near Yosemite National Park. “Going to Yosemite helped the recording process become concentrated—we had written the lyrics but the arrangements needed work. We were up there looking over the mountains, with no phones, no music,” Leigh explained. “We had all these songs and we had to make selections for the record.” Chandra continued: “The solitude of it was great—we talked about music and played music from morning until night.” Leigh explained, “Nobody had to leave to do anything.”
“We were just cooking food, playing music, and being in nature,” recalled Chandra. “There are lots of distractions in L.A., so it was necessary for us to get away. Then when we talked in the studio, we were able to get the team on the same page, our producers. It was their first time hearing the sounds of the record, and we had been able to hear them so clearly working in Yosemite. There were no car sounds, only the sound of birds,” said Leigh.
After such a meditative writing process, they returned to Southern California to record at Fairfax Recordings, “It was surreal,” said Chandra. “The recording console looks like the control panel of a spaceship. Pink Floyd’s The Wall was recorded on that board. The Beatles recorded on that tape deck,” explained Leigh. “Michael Jackson recorded Thriller on the microphone we used,” Chandra continued. “It was an amazing feeling, knowing the pieces of gear had so much history.” Leigh smiled: “Recording on an analog—the sound has a history. It has its own tweaks and ghosts.”
Keep an eye out for The Watson Twins’ singing on folk rock musician Jessie Baylin’s upcoming record, to be released later this year. “It was really great. Back-up singing is not something where we feel we are taking a backseat,” Leigh explained. Chandra continued, “We get so much enjoyment from it, and at the same time, it does feel like a vacation. There is a pressure on us to write songs and tour when we are on our own, so it is a lot less stressful.” Leigh explained, “We are always open to collaboration. Of course it depends on the timing and if it is the right thing for us, but we try to keep an open mindset about it. It’s now been three years focusing on our own stuff, so now we feel we have established ourselves as our own entity.” Chandra added, “We made a conscious choice to do our own work after working with Jenny.”
With such an array of talents, you could expect almost anything from these two: “Our next album will be reggae-ska-punk infused,” Leigh joked. “Gwen Stefani will sing back up. We stay away from house music though,” said Chandra, bursting out in laughter.
“It is a natural progression. We just do what suits the songs. The stuff we are writing now is in its infant stages, so they sound different every time,” clarified Leigh with a smile. “We could do praise music! I love it when people call it that.” Chandra added: “Old people love gospel, maybe we’ll do that when we’re older! We’ll come out with a gospel album for our fifth record.”