Anyone who’s written a song knows the process doesn’t always end with lyrics, melody and harmony. Arranging a composition — refining and developing its musical parts, grooves and vibes — to maximize the tune’s seductiveness is essential. Doing this in collaboration with others can lead to creative boondoggles and bruised egos.
So, imagine doing it with six musical co-conspirators, as Sister Sparrow — a.k.a. Arleigh Kincheloe — does when she brings her songs to the Dirty Birds, the artist’s brass-fueled backing group that includes her brother Jackson on harmonica, guitarist Mark Marshall, bassist Josh Meyers, drummer Dan Boyden, trumpet player Phil Rodriguez and saxophonist Brian Graham. It seems a miracle that anything gets done.
Yet, somehow the group manages to fit all the elements into a cohesive and exciting mix without clashing or obscuring one another. GP caught up with the Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds to discover how the flock achieve synchronization.
Seven creative people is a lot to wrangle. How do you do it?
Sister Sparrow: I don’t think there are any rules to it. I typically write the songs and bring them to the band and we arrange the songs together. Everybody chimes in with what they like and what they don’t like, so it’s kind of trial and error until we reach common ground. We’re all passionate about this music, so we’ll fight for our ideas, and the debates help us see what is really best for the song.
Phil: We’re pretty democratic, to the point where it can sometimes take a year before we realize an arrangement is not quite working with a song.
What identifies an arrangement as “not working?”
Sister Sparrow: It’s usually that something will irk me during a performance. Then I’m like, “We have to go back and workshop this song again.”
Brian: The refinements to our songs come from playing 200 to 250 shows a year. For example, we might change one horn line per show to refresh things, and after a few months of doing that the song will morph into something different. Hopefully, something better. [laughs]
Jackson: It seems like we’re always onstage, so we have plenty of time to assess audience reactions to a song or whether the band is digging something or not.
Sister Sparrow: If I start not liking something, I won’t put that song on the set list for a while. That’s the clue to the rest of the band that I’m not feeling that one anymore.
How do you arrange parts in such a dense band?
Jackson: [laughs] That didn’t come easily. When we first started playing, all of the sonic space was taken up all of the time. It was Josh who helped us figure out that all don’t all need to be playing at the same time.
Mark: It’s an interesting guitar situation, because there are moments when the guitar has to be really big and wide, and other moments where it has to be refined and small — like two-or three-note chord voicings — to fit in with the horns and leave space for the vocals.
What’s the main challenge to getting new music out there?
Sister Sparrow: I try not to get too bent out of shape about music being free, what with streaming and all that stuff. That’s just how it works now. I can only hope that people will hear our songs, come out to the shows and maybe buy a CD at the gig.
Jackson: It’s too hard to think about not being fairly compensated for your songs. I just focus on the fact that I get to play harmonica every day and get paid for it — which is amazing. Every day is a great day.
Sister Sparrow drops her new album, Gold, on October 12