Larkin Poe: ‘Co-Writing with Edgar Allan Poe Would be a Drag on the Band’s Happy Levels’
Larkin Poe is an Atlanta-based roots rock and roll band fronted by sisters Rebecca and Megan Lovell. They are descendants of Edgar Allan Poe and their moniker is that of their great, great, great, great grandfather, Larkin Poe, a Civil War wagon driver and historian. So from the get-go, the sense of history in their music, their background, their lyrics and their attitude, is abundantly clear.
“We have a lot of creative souls in our ancestry, but no musicians. We’re the first of hopefully many generations of musicians in our family. Above all other titles — artist, performer, entertainer — we choose to think of ourselves as musicians. The main tool of the musician’s trade is an instrument. In our minds, music and performance are inextricably tied with being able to rock out on guitars — we can’t have one without the other. There’s never been a moment in our career as musicians when we would ever choose to go onstage without an instrument in hand.”
Larkin Poe wasn’t their first incarnation. It began in 2005 when Rebecca, Megan, and a third sister, Jessica, formed a band called The Lovell Sisters. “In our early-teens, we delved deeply in the roots / Americana / bluegrass world. Picking up mandolins and banjos and getting involved in the local jam scene was really what flipped the switch on us becoming professional musicians. We were inspired to start a string band with our eldest sister, Jessica, and started performing small shows at local festivals, writing our own music, and generally getting a taste for the performing life.”
The Lovell Sisters self-released a couple of albums and toured for four years before deciding that the band had run its course in 2009. Larkin Poe was formed the following year, gaining from the writing, performing, and touring experience they had gained. They performed at Glastonbury last year, have toured with Elvis Costello and Conor Oberst, brought out several EPs, and released their debut album Kin in 2014.
“Over the past five years, we’ve been honored to go on the road with Elvis Costello. Making music, harmonizing, and improvising onstage with a living legend is simultaneously one of the scariest, most exhilarating, and most intuitive things we’ve ever done as sisters. It has strengthened our own musical bond. One thing we’ve learned expressly from Elvis Costello is that you must always pull out all stops, whether it’s for 10 people or 10,000. You must be inexhaustible.”
So how does that apply to their performances? “There’s a lot of emotional and thematic push and pull in Larkin Poe shows. One moment, we’re sisters harmonizing a Southern gospel song, the next we’re laying down a heavy groove while Megan screams and soars overtop with her slide guitar. We do our best to draw people into the experience.”
“I think audiences are most struck by our joy and passion onstage. We always have fans come up after shows to say how refreshing it is to witness a group of people strongly connecting, and truly enjoying the music and experience they’re making. We love going on a journey every night and love that our fans can feel that connection with us.”
They are on tour from March in the U.S. (with Elvis Costello) and then hitting Europe from the 30th. So, will the change in geography make any difference? “Audiences differ in small ways from country to country. The UK really supports roots music. Europe loves American musicians playing American music. There are differences in how strongly types of music are celebrated from country to country. Ultimately, we just want to make a connection with the audience and a human connection is the same no matter the language or place. Music is the language of the world.”
They are multi-instrumentalists. Rebecca plays electric and acoustic guitar, mandolin, violin, and keyboards. Megan plays lap steel, Dobro and keyboards. “In our minds, being able to express oneself fluently on an instrument is key. It is the language from which songs and music are born. If you can’t play an instrument, your artistic experience is limited – the only way for your musical ideas to get out of your head is through what you can sing with your voice. The human voice is an incredible instrument, but we’ve always wanted the whole shebang.”
“Our parents wanted us to be able to have the option to play instruments and we took to it like ducks to water.” So if there was no family influence on the instruments they learnt to play, why did they choose those? “In our early-teens, as we were embracing roots/Americana music, Megan fell head-over-heels in love with all instruments that slide, from the Dobro to the Weissenborn guitar, to the lap steel, to pedal steel. Slide instruments have a soul-wrenching vocal quality and Megan has adopted that quality as her voice.”
But no matter where they tour, they will be returning home; to the family and the heritage that fuels them so much. “We have very deep southern roots. When we look back on the people we come from we see passionate, intense characters; there’s some angst there, some mental illness, yes, but they were salt of the earth people who grew up from the tough, red Georgia clay.
Their namesake, and x4 grandfather Larkin Poe, would be an example. “We used to visit Larkin Poe’s family cabin a lot when we were growing up. It’s now a preserved historical building in the national military park of Chickamauga Battlefield. We learned Larkin Poe drove a wagon during the civil war and had to leave his family in the Poe cabin. The battle surrounded the cabin and the Poe family was forced to flee. When he finally could return, Larkin found his family still alive, but living in a ditch. It’s very interesting to visit that cabin and feel a very real, physical connection to the past.”
Their debut album Kin pays testament to their heritage, and not just in title. “The song ‘Jesse’ is definitely a nod to our gnarly and knotted family tree. It’s a ballad based on fragments of stories that we heard growing up; the stories our grandmother and aunts whispered about at family reunions. Naturally, we took some creative liberties in piecing the story together, but the core of the story is true. Jesse was a passionate man prone to bouts of violent temper and his 8 children were hiding a truth from him and he did indeed line them up and threaten to shoot if they didn’t expose the lie. What the truth was, we never found out and so we had to make it up.
“’Stubborn Love’ (from Kin) is especially near and dear to our hearts,” she continues. “It’s the first song we wrote together from scratch. We were having an, ahem, difficult day as sisters, decided to write, and ‘Stubborn Love’ came out like therapy. It was high time for a sister song from us and I think all siblings can understand and appreciate the lyrics. We all have those love/hate relationships, but it’s important to know that, in the end, the love wins.”
So are they as close as this implies? “In our entire lives, we’ve never spent more than 2 weeks apart. 25 years of sisterhood. We’re simultaneously polar opposites and soul extensions of one another. Think of us as continental Europe, Megan is Russia and Rebecca is Spain — radically different territories, but still connected. Megan has, by far, the driest sense of humor. Rebecca can’t keep a straight face. Megan is the style guru, Rebecca is the gear head. One’s strength covers the other’s weakness.”
Were things the same when they were children? “We were absolute tomboys! We grew up in the mountains of Northern Georgia and were in the habit of building forts, riding our bicycles, and generally being rowdy little kids. To this day, we’re still fairly ‘tomboyish’ — we don’t like to wear high heels and we’re do-it-yourselfers (sometimes to a fault).”
For a period after the building of forts and riding of bikes, they took classical music lessons, which will have formed a strong musical base. But eventually those lessons stopped too. “When we were in our teens, we quit our classical music lessons cold turkey in favor of American roots music. We were struck by the freeform, improvisational nature of bluegrass, americana, and folk. We ate up legends like Doc Watson, Bela Fleck, Alison Krauss, Jerry Douglas, Nickel Creek, & Bill Monroe. We started going to as many folk festivals as we could and started playing acoustic guitar, mandolin, banjo, and Dobro. I think roots music gave us a great foundation for improvisation, songwriting, and pure passion. Our music has developed from that starting place into much rockier, raw territories, but there will always be a place deep in our hearts for American roots music.
“Our dad was a huge rock and roll fan, so we grew up listening to and soaking up the classics: Pink Floyd, the Beatles, Fleetwood Mac, the Allman Brothers … Their music couldn’t help but seep into ours. Listening to the unapologetic, straight-up Rock of Led Zeppelin and Jack White has encouraged us to let our wild, uncivilized side shine a little brighter. Megan gets rude on the lap steel and Rebecca gets raw on the electric and we all feel a little bit better letting it all hang out for everyone to see.”
Both sisters are voracious readers, and asking them about writers was the cause of some eagerness. “We have so many favorite authors. To name just a few: Mark Twain, J.D. Salinger, Shakespeare, David Sedaris, Barbara Kingsolver… They say you are what you eat; you also play what you listen to, and write what you read. The more we read, the better we write.”
Poetry gets their juices flowing as well. “Poetry is also very important, as it is spoken song. Right now we’re obsessed with ‘The Second Coming,’ by W.B. Yeats. If we can make lyrics sing half as good as the best poetry, we’ve succeeded. Ranier Maria Rilke, a Danish poet, has been a huge influence over the years. Recently we attended a reading by Anis Mojgani, a two-time National Poetry Slam Champion and winner of the International World Cup Poetry Slam, and were absolutely blown away by his writing.”
So, if that’s who they’re reading, who are they listening to? “Right now, the top artists on our playlists are: Led Zeppelin, Hooray For The Riff Raff, Arctic Monkeys, Father John Misty, Daniel Lanois, Jack White, Hozier, St. Vincent. We believe ‘you are what you listen to’, so we try to listen to as much and as wide a range of music as possible.”
Listening to as much music as possible would include getting out to see what’s happening locally. How would they describe the music scene in Atlanta at the minute? “The Atlanta music scene is very eclectic, from country, to urban, to indie-rock, to jam bands – we’ve got a little of everything! We like the crazy cross-section of music that Atlanta presents; it makes us feel comfortable and good about the undefinable and genre-blending music that we create as Larkin Poe.”
“There are so many great, up-and-coming bands that have arisen out of the Atlanta scene: The Shadowboxers, 100 Watt Horse, Adron, Little Tybee — a lot of unique and creative groups who inspire us with the creative boundaries they continue to push.”
Fresh thinking and enthusiasm for what is going on around them exudes from Larkin Poe. When asked about favourite songs they like to perform, the fervor for their artistry shone in their answer. “We love to perform the song ‘Banks of Allatoona’ live. It’s one of those songs that’s never the same from night to night. We might take a two-minute solo or a 10-minute one; it really gives us a chance to jam out. We love songs that keep us on our toes, new and fresh every night. It’s also the song that gets the hippies up and dancing. We love that. ‘Jailbreak’ is another favorite. It’s so fun to play that barn burner, get loud, and attempt to blow the skin off people’s faces. God, it’s a blast.”
But we can’t end without asking about Edgar? Where would Edgar Allan Poe fit in with all this? “If it were a possibility to have a 24-year-old Edgar Allan Poe in our band, how could we say no? Co-writing lyrics with him would be an intimidating experience – however, we do have a sneaking suspicion that he’d be an absolute drag on the band’s ‘happy levels’.”
I somehow get the impression that the band’s “happy levels” are up to the challenge.
Video credits; #JAMINTHEVAN and Larkin Poe