Spend some time on YouTube, and it seems like you can watch thousands of child prodigies blowing minds. However, none of this diminishes the fact that Rebecca and Megan Lovell—whose band is known as Larkin Poe—started playing classical violin at three and four years old, respectively. Then, they tackled classical piano. That is, until Rebecca moved on to banjo, mandolin, and electric guitar, and Megan took up Dobro and lap-steel. There’s a lot of musical firepower in those still-young hands, but before the sisters could burn up bluegrass and rock stages, they had to break away from their classical training.
“We loved making music, but we didn’t necessarily like how formal it was,” says Rebecca. “So after we went to a bluegrass festival, we quit all of our classical lessons. We were blown away by the spontaneity and watching people improvise onstage, because, up to that point, we’d always read sheet music, and reiterated someone else’s piece from several hundred years ago.”
Since the transition, the Lovell sisters—still embracing the technical expertise and focused practice of a classical-music regimen—got real busy. They formed the Lovell Sisters in 2005 (with older sibling, Jessica), jumped onstage to sing with Elvis Costello at Merlefest 2007 (a cheeky move that triggered a longer collaboration), started Larkin Poe in 2010 (after Jessica took a sabbatical from the music business to attend college), self-released a whole bunch of EPs and a DVD, worked with Costello again (this time “officially”) on the T-Bone Burnett-produced Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes in 2014, released a full-length CD on Rh Music (Kin), grabbed “Best Discovery of Glastonbury 2014” after performing at the festival, and have now opened more than 100 concerts for Costello, as well as performing in his band.
Megan, what inspired you to take up lap steel?
Megan: Jerry Douglas. He was the first slide player I ever listened to, and he’s who inspired me to pick up Dobro. But as we were becoming heavier and more rock and roll, it was a natural step to pick up lap-steel. I’m very lucky that I bought the Rickenbacker first, because I immediately fell in love with the sound of it.
You approach the lap-steel almost like rock guitar.
Megan: Yes! I’m not trying to copy pedal-steel or lap-steel players. I’m copying David Gilmour and Derek Trucks. I play with a lot of distortion, so whatever an electric guitar player plays, I can play on the lap-steel. I learned whatever I felt, and I didn’t have a teacher telling me what I was doing might be wrong on lap-steel. Actually, I think it’s really interesting that lap-steel is used so much in country music, but it’s not used a whole lot in rock and roll. I think that’s something that should be remedied. I would love to bring the lap-steel more into rock music.
I notice that rather than comping behind Rebecca’s voice, your lap-steel adds more like a call and response.
Megan: Yeah. She’s singing the lead vocals, and I’m singing vocal harmonies, but I consider my lead voice to be the lap-steel. Sometimes, we riff off each other vocal-to-vocal, and sometimes it’s vocal-to-lap-steel.
Rebecca: That’s my favorite part of the show. It’s also the part of the show that can go the most wrong—which is probably why I like it.
Was there a fire starter for you, Rebecca?
Rebecca: Absolutely. It was hearing Mark O’Connor play the mandolin. I swear, I wouldn’t play the mandolin until I heard Mark O’Connor, and that’s also when I became obsessed with being able to really shred on an instrument. I ended up winning a bunch of championships playing mandolin, and I liked the idea of playing at that level. But when we started Larkin Poe, we started focusing on electric instruments.
What are the two of you playing during the Elvis Costello gig?
Rebecca: With Elvis, I do end up playing mandolin quite a bit, and my mandolin is a custom-built instrument by Paul Duff in Australia. I use a K&K pickup and run it through a direct box for shows. The only electric guitar I’ve ever bought is a Bill Nash JM Model. I got it because I had fallen in love from watching Elvis play Jazzmasters. For the electric guitar and lap-steel, Megan and I are plugging into Fender Deluxes from Elvis’ collection.
Megan: I play a ’58 Rickenbacker lap-steel. I call it “Panda.” I hate sitting and playing, so I had a family friend rig up a metal apparatus so that I can stand and play. I drew what I wanted, and now it’s kind of the shape of a Dobro—which I also played for many years. My stainless steel bar has a kind of Scheerhorn cut—it has some edges, like for a Dobro. A lot of steel players use the round bars.
Rebecca: One thing I try to steer clear of whether we’re doing our music or playing for someone else is becoming too gear dependent. I think sometimes you can cover up a lack of technique or a lack of skill by putting on compression, reverb, or delay and masking things in your playing that don’t necessarily stand up if you were just plugging straight into an amp. I think it’s really worthwhile to practice by plugging straight into your amp every now and then, because that can be very humbling.
And the Nash and the Rickenbacker are what you play during Larkin Poe’s opening set for Elvis?
Rebecca: Yes. And the reason for that is our songwriting created Larkin Poe, and songwriting really got me into playing guitar. Up until that point, I didn’t have any interest in the guitar, but I found that I couldn’t write on the mandolin because I was so focused on playing the mandolin that I couldn’t disengage enough from the technique to compose with it.
Why do you think that was?
Rebecca: For me, the mandolin doesn’t resonate on a super-emotional level. It was very hard for me to engage a feeling of badassness like I can with the guitar. Early on, I would start writing riffs on the guitar and not have any idea what I was doing. I would just sound stuff out. But when I played those riffs onstage, they worked, and that started a desire to learn riffs by other guitar players.
We started Larkin Poe in 2010, and we were playing this very Americana folk pop sort of sound. We did a lot of bluegrass festivals internationally, and then we got booked to play Glastonbury, and that jumpstarted our interest in branching out into rock and roll music. All this time, our dad was playing classic rock records like AC/DC, and we didn’t know how to achieve those sounds, because we were always playing acoustic instruments. So, two years ago, I bought the Nash and the Fender amp, and when I first plugged that guitar into that amp, I was bowled over by how loud it was. For a long time, I was terrified to even touch it. It took time to really desensitize myself to the volume.
Megan: And now we’re half deaf [laughs]. I think having a background in bluegrass and musicianship really served us well coming into rock and roll music, because that foundation helped us compose our riffs. We love the heaviness of riff-based songwriting.
Rebecca: And buying pedals and understanding that you can have distortion, delay, and all these different sounds helped me branch out to learning riffs by Stevie Ray Vaughan, B.B. King, Freddie King, Albert King, and others.
It’s interesting that you two went into the way back machine—rather than copping licks off more contemporary guitarists.
Rebecca: Absolutely. You’ve got to know the roots, and, for us, this comes from a genuine place. I think it stems, once again, from having grown up on bluegrass and understanding the importance of going back to hear where the music started from—to not just listen to Alison Krauss, but to study Bill Monroe, as well.
Now, I’m assuming that Elvis wants you to enhance the atmosphere of his songs, rather than shred the way you would for a bluegrass audience, or perhaps your own set. Does it take some kind of mental recalibration to work within another songwriter’s music?
Rebecca: We’ve always had a preoccupation of being tasty—which sounds really snotty, but it’s not. We just like playing sensitively within a song, and that probably came from the records we listen to. Like, hearing the way Mark Knopfler does these great fills with just two notes. We’ve also toured with Conor Oberst and Kristian Bush of Sugarland, so we’re used to melding in with someone’s music.
Do the bandleaders ever direct you?
Megan: We’ve been so lucky. People are like, “Do whatever you want.”
With Elvis, is it strange to go from being in “solo-artist mode” and then having to switch to “backup musician mode” within the same show?
Rebecca: It’s really fun, actually, and I think that one of the major maturing factors for us as musicians is learning how to shut the hell up, listen to the lyrics, make sure you’re playing to the song, make sure you’re not overstepping the vocalist, and sit back and watch how they work the stage.
Still, there are musicians who are wired to be the star, and musicians who are wired to support the star. In these types of shows, however, you have to be “Larkin Poe”—big, charismatic, and playing to the back of the venue so that the audience can’t take its eyes off of you. Then, Elvis comes on, and you instantly need to get smaller, fade a bit into the background, and be totally supportive. I mean, that’s quite a schizophrenic little leap there, isn’t it?
Rebecca: I like that you pick up on the subtlety, because, yes, it absolutely is schizophrenic. But schizophrenia runs in our family, so we’re good.
Megan: We know how to be two-faced pretty easily [laughs].