Larkin Poe are the Lovell sisters from Atlanta, Georgia. “I’m not Larkin, and she’s not Poe,” quipped Rebecca Lovell during their sold-out gig at Inchyra Arts Club near Perth, Scotland, where Lins Honeyman from the Gospel Blues Train and Gary Burnett from Down at the Crossroads had the opportunity to talk to these hugely talented artists.
Larkin Poe, actually, is an ancestor of the sisters and relative of the famed author Edgar Allan Poe. The pair launched the band in 2010 after a few successful years as a bluesgrass group along with their elder sister, Jessica, and have developed their own distinctive sound, a unique, blues-based Americana rock, which draws deeply on the well of traditional blues but adds their own very modern, high- energy take, featuring gorgeous harmonies and exhilarating electric slide guitar. American Songwriter said of them: “This isn’t your basic Stevie Ray Vaughan-styled blistering blues rock. It’s far more primal, malicious, and unsettling.” That’s true, but what’s also true is the warmth and good humour that’s folded in, which makes their performances massively appealing. [check out our review of their concert here]
The sisters have performed triumphantly at Glastonbury Festival in England, featured on T-Bone Burnett’s Lost Basement Tapes, been nominated for a Blues Foundation Award, and released four studio albums, the most recent of which, Venom and Faith, has reached number one on the Billboard Blues Album Chart and met with considerable critical acclaim.
Lins and Gary sat down with Megan and Rebecca prior to their gig to talk about the blues and their approach to making music, and found two highly articulate young women brimming over with enthusiasm for their music and life generally, and who had thought deeply about their musical heritage. Lins began by commenting on how well Venom and Faith has been received:
Rebecca: Oh yeah. I think this is one of the first tours that we’ve been out and folks are showing up really powering for the lyrics and a lot of the songs off the album. So in that respect it feels like it’s been well loved so far. We appreciate that!
Lins: Yeah, we’ve played quite few tracks on the show as well. And I know, Gary, it was certainly one of your best albums of 2018.
Gary: Yeah. We feature a “best of” album list at the end of every year. Venom and Faith definitely had to feature in our top few albums. It’s a great album, really, really good.
Rebecca: Thank you! We’re very proud of the way it came out. You know self-producing has been a fairly recent affair for us and it’s definitely been very natural. I think Megan and I enjoy the process of, you know, being siblings in the studio, just sort of allowed to have our own private language and to work really lean, mean and fast.
Megan: Absolutely. And Peach, our previous album to Venom and Faith was also produced by the two of us and we’ve just so enjoyed the freeing experience of it being just the two of us in the studio. It’s been so much fun to make these albums.
Lins: And being sisters, it must work for you and against you in certain ways?
Rebecca: Absolutely. I think that we have very limited experiences when it doesn’t work for us. Obviously having a sibling dynamic can be a very volatile and powerful relationship! I think it’s meant that over the years we’ve learned how to treat each other with respect and care, and, you know, I think of the Black Crowes who are not touring together because they have such big feuds and things like that, and we will not have that happen.
Gary: Well, tell us about the album’s title. It seems a little strange – Venom and Faith – conjures up for me strange religious sects handling snakes or something in the Appalachian hills!
Rebecca: Absolutely! That was that was part of the inspiration and it’s drawn from the lyrics of one of the tracks, Honey Honey. Yeah…I do like the juxtaposition of the two words and the fact that it does conjure up those images of a southern American Gothic type. Yeah, backwoods country church, where you’re sort of rolling the dice and…there is something, I think, in our music that summons up some of those sort of feelings. And, you know, some of the flavors of our music go from the dark to the light, tabbing some beautiful moments but also some grungy moments. So, it’s trying to represent that light and shadow, and Venom and Faith I felt was the right title.
Gary: Yes, it’s fabulous. And you’ve done some fantastic versions of old blues songs along the way – the Skip James song, Hard Time Killing Floor Blues on this album is probably the best cover of that song that I’ve heard. The Skip James version is very dark, but somehow, although you keep to the tradition, you manage to bring something fantastically fresh to it.
Rebecca: That means so much! That is really one of our favorite songs that we’ve ever run across. We heard that song and we were just immediately obsessed, and the fact that it’s so modal, and major and minor, and it just it makes you feel a very specific way. And so we wanted to pay tribute to that.
Megan: And Skip James is one of the first blues guys that we really, really fell in love with. He’s definitely a mutual love of Rebecca and me.
Gary: And how do you go about choosing some of these old blues songs that you’ve done? You’ve done a few of them – some Son House and Robert Johnson and so on. How do you go about choosing and how do you go about interpreting a song?
Megan: I love this question. The answer to both those questions is kind of a gut feeling! Like, well we’ll stumble across a song that just feels right!
Rebecca: I think also it’s songs that we wish we’d written, like when you stumble across something that feels akin to something that you would have made up yourself. And so, then, the true nature of what the song should be or how we should interpret it – it just sort of feels like you’re rewriting it yourself. And to me that’s part of the beauty of American roots music – the fact that this is a very historic and, by American standards, ancient genre and yet you know there is so much shared feeling. The fact that it is one hundred years since the song was written means nothing. It still feels as relevant to us as it probably did to the people that were writing it. And so that’s really special.
Lins: And these songs, as you say, are ancient in American terms. But a hundred years is quite a sizable chunk between the original and doing a cover version. What makes these songs stand the test of time in your opinion? Because something must be great about those songs.
Rebecca: This is something Megan and I have talked about quite a bit – and that is, that the songs lyrically deal with matters of the human condition. You know, there is very little artifice in a lot of traditional blues tunes, just very raw emotions, very laid bare struggles of how to deal with your humanness, how to deal with sorrow, how to deal with being down and out. And I think that in our own specific ways, we can all relate to those feelings. So, to me, what really stands the test of time is a song that doesn’t deal too much with, you know, synthesizers or pop production, it really is about just the soul of the song.
Lins: Yes. It’s just getting down to the basics, isn’t it? It doesn’t mince its words. One such song which as far as I’m aware is not on any of your albums but I came across it on your Facebook feed, is a version of Blind Willie Johnson’s Soul of a Man. That was an incredible performance from the two of you. Any plans to put that on an album?
Megan: You never know! I guess it’s always unwritten and that that’s what’s exciting about the future.
Lins: And another song that we should mention – I think it’s from your Peach album – was John the Revelator and that recently got played at the end credits of the Fox TV series Lucifer.
Rebecca: It was very exciting! Again. I think it’s great to let these old songs, that have meant so much to so many people, have new lives in such unexpected ways. You know, I will admit though, we hadn’t watched the Lucifer TV show, and so of course we were hop-skipping into this one episode and telling our parents to watch it and not really knowing the premise of the show, and it’s a bit of a twisted kind of crazy show! But that was really fun. Just to see our music presented in this unexpected way.
Lins: It’s a great version as well. I mean, there have been so many versions of John the Revelator – every blues artist is probably done a version, but yours is up there!
Gary: I love the first song on Venom and Faith, Sometimes, the Bessie Jones song. The song sounds very up to date, but when you go back and listen to the original, with the clapping and so on, you’re tapping right into the whole spirit of that. What drew you to that song?
Rebecca: Well just the energy, I mean. And also, the power of her voice and the claps. It’s captivating, you know, and it’s a field holler, man, where you can feel the purpose of that song. And also, just wanting also to represent a Georgia girl – Bessie was from Georgia. And there was something we liked about that as well. It’s just a feel-good song.
Gary: Yeah, great song. I was also thinking about, you know, when we think of the blues we often think about the male artists, but of course in the history of the blues, the women were some of the biggest artists. And they’ve been ignored at times. How true is that still today – is it still difficult for women in this industry?
Rebecca: That is that is a complicated question with a complicated answer! And I think that different people would answer it in different ways. But I do think that you’re right, you know, historically women were absolutely the pioneers of blues and pop music, and they were some of the biggest pop stars of their time, at the turn of the century. And it does feel distinctly unfair that they are forgotten. That the role that they played in terms of pioneering the genre gets waylaid with time.
But, you know, we have had a very positive experience. I think that our parents raised us to kick the door down and do what it is that we want to do. And I think that that has served as well in the industry. Not willing to compromise. I mean, yeah you know, you can’t compromise who you are because that’s all you’ve got, right? Who said that? Janis – Janis Joplin. I like that’s all you’ve got, so you might as well just stick to your guns and by hook or by crook make the media that you want to make. And I think if more artists took that stand they’d be better – male or female.
Megan: Bottom line it’s hard to be in the industry, regardless of gender!
Rebecca: Yeah, and it’s so competitive. The music industry is so intensely competitive that you have to be willing to show up and work hard and be very tenacious. Extremely. Yes, so I think the short answer would be we haven’t felt our gender has had too much of a sway on our career thus far. And I think that that’s how it should be, that the art should speak for itself regardless of class, color, creed, gender, all the above. It should just speak to people and that should rise to the surface.
Lins: And what comes across is that the music is authentic – we’ve touched on that earlier on, that really with all your albums, the music comes across as being really, very real. Is that a specific thing in your head when you set out to record an album – that you’re gonna have to be as real as possible? Or does it not enter into your head and you just do it naturally?
Rebecca: No, it has entered our heads! I think that we have made records that we didn’t feel like they sounded like us. The studio can be a bit of a void sometimes. You can get in there and know who you are, but then technology allows you to try and create this hyper-perfect-ized robot version of yourself that’s auto tuned half to hell and everything’s grid aligned. And that doesn’t feel human anymore. And I think that we’ve made a distinct decision over these years to try and under-produce our records in order for the humanity in who we are as individuals to show through.
Megan: Which is part of the reason why we decided to self-produce because we definitely had that specific goal in mind. So, we knew going into it that we weren’t going to pick ourselves apart and that what we loved about discovering the blues was the raw nature of it and to try and keep some of that in the music. Leave the humanity in if possible.
Lins: And there are some great moments because you’ve also introduced some electronic elements later on the album which is great – just takes your kind of music into sort of a different level as well. Now, we’ve talked about our sort of favorite songs on the most recent album. What about yours?
Megan: Depends on the mood. But I’ve really, really enjoyed playing Bleach Blonde Bottle Blues every night. Because Rebecca brought that song very late in the recording process. In fact, I think it was written while we were in the studio. One of the last ones to show up and I just knew immediately when I heard that song it was gonna be one of my favorites. I was so excited to record it, so I would definitely put that as a top contender for me.
Rebecca: Thank you! I think that probably in terms of melding the old with the new, my favorite would have to be Fly Like an Eagle because that does feature a lot of the pop production. You know, we love Tom Petty – Tom Petty is one of the top pop guys ever, because he was a dude that could punch you straight out with a verse and then, bam, you’re into the chorus, and it’s that pop song structure. And I think that that’s been a big marker for us in wanting to do the blues, but also to marry it with more of a pop arrangement, and introduce, you know, a more modern-day sound palette, And Fly Like an Eagle was really fun – we’re from Atlanta, the home of hip hop, so you gotta throw it in!
Gary: But that’s the thing that I think is very appealing about your music. You’ve got this traditional blues underpinning, but you’re bringing the all these modern sorts of influences to bear. I was talking to Bruce Iglauer from Alligator Records recently and he was saying that what he looks for in an artist these days is that traditional base, but really bringing their own stamp to it. And it seems to me that you’ve really been able to do that these last couple of records.
Rebecca: Well I think just by not wanting to be in a time capsule is very important. Because there is zero, zero interest in us in being puppets of something that has already been. Because this is music that has been very real to people for a very real reason, and it served a very distinct purpose, and we don’t want to just piggyback off that. You know, we feel a deep respect for the blues and the masterful artists that pioneered the genre but we have to make it in our own way in order to, you know, not be talking out of our asses, pardon my French. But it’s true, you know, we’re growing up in the 21st century as white women and we want to be as authentic in that way with our own story as we can. Innovation is required!
Lins: Let’s talk about the guitar side of things. Megan, did you get it as a Christmas present as opposed to Rebecca, or how did you end up playing the slide? It’s an amazing sound and along with the voices, it’s what defines the Larkin Poe sound.
Megan: So yeah, we grew up listening to Alison Krauss and Union Station, and that’s of course featuring the legendary Jerry Douglas. So I definitely grew up with that kind of earworm. That sound in my head. And when we quit our classical violin lessons in our teens, we heard bluegrass for the first time and we decided we wanted to quit our classical lessons and hop over onto some acoustic instruments, y’know.
And I tried to play guitar and banjo and mandolin, but I guess me and fretted instruments don’t go well together! So I saw a dobro being played and that’s when I made the connection between the sound that I grew up listening to and what that instrument was. And it was dobro, so I start playing dobro, and later on when we started Larkin Poe, we wanted to experiment more with an electric sound.
Rebecca: So the lap steel just made sense, and kudos to Megan because you were, what 14 when you picked it up? It’s a very awkward instrument to play in just about every way, and the fact that you typically play it seated. And so Meghan, you’ve been very innovative in the way that you’ve repurposed slide – and she had this little contraption built so she can stand and walk around and rock out while playing the slide, and do it very effortlessly, especially considering just how challenging an instrument it is to play.
Megan: It’s not a very common instrument. I don’t know why, because it’s such a versatile instrument and it’s so expressive. What I love about it is the vocal quality of the instrument. I love to sing with Rebecca, I love to sing harmony. You know, we grew up singing harmony together, but I consider my voice to be the lap steel, not necessarily my actual voice!
Lins: And there’s something special when your voice intertwines with the lap steel, that’s just so much special.
Megan: It’s very fun. We certainly enjoy it especially a song like Good and Gone from the record. You know we so enjoy twinning together.
Lins: Fantastic. Excellent. It’s been a pleasure talking to you. Thank you!