Rebecca Lovell’s rollicking Stratocaster, banjo and mandolin riffs, her sister Megan’s soaring lines on a 1958 Rickenbacker lap-steel (named “Panda”) and their stunning familial harmonies have made Larkin Poe an indie success story. They gig constantly and have released a slew of EPs, albums and DVDs since forming in 2010. They’ve also etched out a sideline as a sought-after backup duo, performing with Elvis Costello, T Bone Burnett and Steven Tyler, among others. Their work ethic appears to be on constant overdrive, and their creative evolution on the group’s new album, Venom & Faith (Tricki-Woo Records), spotlights two artists who reject a “repeat and reprise” approach to music making.
“We wanted to give our fans a more intimate look into our songwriting process on Venom & Faith,” Rebecca says. “As a result, the production process was about how modern sounds could work with roots music to create a hybrid. We very much wanted to show that we are a female-fronted blues band in the 21st century.”
Produced by the Lovells, along with engineer Roger Alan Nichols, Venom & Faith is not only an enthralling musical treat, it’s also a brilliant seminar on holding back and letting songs unfold in sometimes mysterious ways.
The compositions on Venom & Faith aren’t your typical country or rock gems, as they almost cast-off pop convention. What inspired such an elusive, yet compelling approach to songcraft?
Rebecca: We’re storytellers, and over the years of working with artists such as Elvis Costello and Kristian Bush we’ve learned there are so many different ways to tell stories. Moving into this record, I think we finally found our voice, and we had the confidence to go down deeper rabbit holes. We want to bring our fans on a journey, and sometimes a more opaque version of a story can be more intriguing.
Did you develop a clear strategy to change things up from your previous, more pop-oriented album, Peach, or did it just happen naturally?
Rebecca: We definitely discussed a vision for the record, but we are so lucky that, as sisters, creative choices are often made very organically. We share much the same musical tastes, so it ends up that there’s not as much talking as doing. I create the sound palettes using sound libraries and GarageBand, and we both carry on down the creative river.
Megan: The interplay between the two of us happens pretty effortlessly. I can just feel where she’s going. This is why we decided to go without a producer. Sometimes a third person can get in the way. We can move a lot faster with just the two of us in the room. It’s a lean, mean killing machine. [laughs]
Rebecca: Although, I have to say that Roger — our engineer and co-producer — is our champion. He was an integral part of this record because he was restrained. A lot of producers have that “fix it” mentality, but he would wait it out until we solved it ourselves, which made solving problems much more gratifying for us. He’s like your best friend who totally whips your ass into shape and then steps back and says, “I didn’t do anything.”
Rebecca, when you said Larkin Poe wanted to be a “21st century” blues band for this record, did you look to technology — I don’t want to say “tricks” exactly — to bring modern textures onboard?
Rebecca: I’d say that we do use modern programming as a bit of a “trick,” as well as to help elevate the sound. But we are also revising song structures with a pop sensibility. Skip James and Muddy Waters, for example, used a lot of repeating verses, and then their solos and breakdowns were usually taken over those same figures. We try to marry the blues flavors with verses, choruses, riffs and hooks. Everything is done with a deep reverence for the past, but we also need to do our own thing. After all, if we want to be authentic, all we can really do is our own thing.
On that note, I love how you kept the spell-like mantra of Bessie Jones’ original version of “Sometimes,” which was more of an a cappella field holler, but added horns and percussion to expand the aural narrative.
Rebecca: I love that you said “spell-like mantra.” Her version is spellbinding — just the intimacy of her voice with only handclaps. But we knew our version had to be unique, so we toyed with a lot of different ideas, and I’ll be honest with you, where we went was a total left turn. In the back of my mind, I heard a horn section, sort of a second-line, New Orleans thing. I’d never written a horn section before, but I sat down with some horn patches in GarageBand, and I brought it to Megan. She said, “That’s kind of weird and cool.” So we brought in a horn player who helped flesh out the section. We also wrote some lyrics for the song, because Bessie often muttered and mumbled, and you can’t hear exactly what she’s saying. We took some liberties there.
Megan: We have great respect for all of these amazing blues artists that everybody draws from, but it was never our intention to be a time capsule.
That thought definitely comes through on your version of Skip James’ “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues.” His original, fingerpicked parts are kind of loose and swinging, whereas your take is more direct and almost rock influenced.
Rebecca: Skip’s version is so haunting. It’s also complicated, because he takes liberties with each verse and never plays them the same twice. However, we felt that taking a more direct and consistent approach would give it our spin.
Megan: I think that directness is our classic-rock background coming in. Our dad was always spinning all these great records — Fleetwood Mac to Black Sabbath to Pink Floyd — while we were growing up, so I feel we somewhat organically approach roots music with the sensibility of classic rock.
When some artists approach roots music, they can be shackled to the past. I know that you both started your careers greatly influenced by the originators, so how did you manage to break free of their orbit and explore your own interpretations?
Rebecca: It has been a journey, for sure. Megan and I started this Tip o’ The Hat video series on YouTube in 2017, which was an exercise for us to learn someone else’s song but not try to sound like them. We discovered it takes some faith to walk into another musician’s song — people who have a strong sensibility of who they are as artists, such as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Johnny Cash — and have the bravery to say, “I love this song, but I’m going to perform it in my own way.” The process informed us of who we are and what it means to be Larkin Poe. It was certainly helpful as we made Venom & Faith.
Megan: For our previous records, we wanted to put our best foot forward, so there was a lot more production. You want to take out your mistakes, layer the guitars and double the vocals, and before you know it, you’ve covered up all the humanity in your performances. I think our studying for those Tip o’ the Hat tracks inspired us to strip everything back for Venom & Faith. We didn’t want to smooth over the imperfections or the raw emotion, because often those are the very things listeners wind up loving.
Rebecca: Megan and I love to play on top of the bare bones of a song and add this cool thing and that cool thing. So the majority of the refining process for the record was saying no to stuff, because the parts could get so super sweet that the song started getting lost.
Megan: When you’re in the studio, saying no is perhaps the most important thing a songwriter can do.