Watson Twins Fire Songs

Watson Twins Fire Songs
The Watson Twins turned heads in 2006 as the enigmatic, blue-eyeshadowed lovelies flanking Jenny Lewis on the cover of her divine solo debut, Rabbit Fur Coat. With their own first full-length release, the twins prove that they’re more than just backups, sidekicks or indie eye candy. Leigh and Chandra Watson, who grew up singing in the church choirs of Louisville, KY, have surpassed their understated, self-released EP Southern Manners with a full disc of folk rock tunes that are dripping with twang pop and retro cool. The Twins’ signature vocal harmonies are as heavenly sweet as ever but this time there are more tracks where their dreamy, elegant voices are permitted to shine solo. The EP’s simple arrangements have blossomed on Fire Songs into full, soulful pieces that take advantage of the skilled musicians in their employ. From the pops of a mariachi trumpet on "Map To Where You Are” to the ’70s-style organ in the "Bar Woman Blues,” the instrumentation adds depth to the Twins’ laidback compositions. And with their drowsy, harmonica-laced cover of the Cure’s "Just Like Heaven,” they turn an already beautiful song into an aching, throat-tightening addiction.

It seems you’ve filled out and electrified the instrumentation. Why the change in sound?
Leigh Watson: We were trying to kind of jump out of the singer-songwriter coffee shop genre. We never really saw ourselves in that world anyway. Our EP has electric guitars, drums and things but it’s more subdued and not as prominent. So with this we wanted to make a record that sounded like a band and had a fuller sound. We are folkies and we love that kind of music but we wanted to take acoustic songs that were these skeletons and actually fill them out and make them fully formed beings that had dimensions and multiple instrumentation, just make them more complex and give them a personality. We were working with Russ Pollard and J. Soda, who are two of our best friends. We’ve known each other for a long time, we’ve been in bands with J. for about ten years, and there’s a level of comfort there that we can experiment with each other and try new things and there is no pressure. And I think that lends itself to a very creative space. So we got to push boundaries for ourselves. Not that anyone had set them up but just for our own personal experimentation.

How do you find the right balance between harmonising and allowing your individual voices to stand alone?
A lot depends on the song itself. I mean, we definitely went through a point of discovery on that, and I think that’s come with doing projects like Rabbit Fur Coat and the band that we were in for five years — we were backup singers in a band that was here in Silver Lake. We played a ton of shows and we made three records but we never really made it out of the neighbourhood. You find that harmonies are musically driven in a way that emphasises to the listener this is an important lyric or this is an important part of the song and you need to pay attention, so you give it that other level. But we’ve learned in our experience that sometimes the most crucial lyric doesn’t need two voices, it needs to be delicate and vulnerable and sometimes the listener relates to that even more. I think for us it’s more instinctual at this point. It’s more about hearing a part and knowing when to save it and let that other person take over. And there are points where the instrumentation needs to go up a level and then that other voice helps that intensity occur. For us, we’ve been singing together for so many years, 20-plus years, it’s become something that happens naturally. Maybe that goes back to being a twin and having to share everything your entire life with this other person, whether that’s a burrito or a cheese sandwich that your mom made or whatever, but you kind of try to find that balance, that yin and yang between the two voices and the two writers. We’re constantly in search of a balanced project that also fulfils… we’re not going to sacrifice our credibility or the creative vision of a record so that we can each have five songs on the record. I just think balance is important. Like, being able to let that person have their spotlight. I think we try and do that. I think there are definitely points on the record where the harmonies shine but I feel like we’ve scaled back from where we used to be as singers. We used to harmonise on everything — we heard a harmony, we sang it. But I feel like on this record we’ve sort of learned to give the single voice space and that’s important. I’m sure some people think, "Oh, they harmonise on everything,” but for me the hardest part comes with finding that balance of voices. I’m a person who loves to hear that kind of stuff but also feels like in order for it to be this special thing that occurs it needs to have space where it doesn’t happen. It’s like the yin and the yang, or sort of like a balance of both. I think that’s what we’re trying to find.

So how do you feel about releasing Fire Songs on Vanguard after self-releasing Southern Manners?
Honestly, we had such a great time with Southern Manners and doing it ourselves. My sister and I learned a lot just about the business and how you get your stuff on iTunes and how you get stuff to radio people. And it was a lot of hard work for her, myself and our manager; it was kind of like a three-man show. We worked really, really hard to do it and when we started recording Fire Songs we just felt like if we wanted to give this record the proper attention that it needed we couldn’t do this tiny operation; we needed to have more people working on it. And it’s more of just a manpower thing. I feel like Vanguard has been awesome to us. Creatively, we finished the record and let them hear it and they didn’t have a single change. They were like, "great, we love it, let’s do this.” It just felt right. They were all really excited about the record in a time when the industry is so fragile and volatile. It’s nice to have someone have confidence in you. And we really felt like they did. We felt like they trusted us, and so the relationship just kind of started from that. As our first full-length and our first label release there’s a lot of anticipation that goes into it. These days it’s harder and harder to find people who are willing to take risks. I don’t feel like it’s a risk necessarily but it was our first full-length and we had been backup singers for a long time. People could have been like, "yeah, they won’t be able to do it” or whatever. But I feel like they trusted us and they let us make our own record and now they’re getting behind it. It’s pretty exciting.

They’ve got quite a long, illustrious history as well.
That was the other thing. It’s the staying power that they have and longevity, which, in this day and age, is pretty unusual. You know, indie labels come and go, which is where we kind of originally felt we would be. We thought, "oh, we’ll sign to a small indie label that has maybe ten bands and they can focus on us.” That’s where we come from — this DIY sort of world. So we thought, "well, we’ll do that but we’ll have a label; we’ll have someone who can maybe help us with tour support and has a few more connections than we do.” But then as we started to source it out most of these indie labels basically were going to be able to do for us what we were already doing, so why would we sell our record to somebody who can do exactly the same thing we’re doing? We might as well just do it ourselves. So Vanguard was the perfect size. They’re not a major but they’ve been around. Their catalogue’s insane. They’re really awesome people. And it just felt like the perfect step for us. It wasn’t lateral; it actually was taking a step forward and it felt like the right move.

And are you happy with the way it turned out?
I am. I think there are always things you think, "I would have changed this” or whatever but they’re all so minimal, and I think the really special part about it is the songs were so new. Now I’ve sat with them for a year. We started recording the record in July of last year. It only took us two months to make it but it was spread out over a long period of time just because of other projects. In hindsight there’s little things you want to change but that day we finished mixing the record we were all so excited and felt this serious sense of accomplishment and I think it’s important to remember that feeling. And every time you hear those songs or play those songs to remember that moment, like having a baby, like that first moment when it’s born and you see it and it’s this fully-formed being. It’s mind-blowing and you know that you created it with… well, when you have a baby it’s only one other person [laughs] but you created it with this group of people who are your family. It’s really powerful. So when I hear it there’s no cringing or anything. I think it’s good for our first full-length. I think it’s all right. I hope this record is something that people will listen to and then really get attached to. I think there’s depth there and there’s dimension and I feel like that only comes with time. And that’s the same way I feel about our career — that’s the path we’ve been on. And that’s important: don’t make any rash decisions and let things organically unfold. We’re already onto the next thing though. We’ve been brainstorming for the last two months and our manager is like, "can you guys slow down for a minute?” He’s like, "the record just came out this week, can we just take a second?”

Why did you choose the Cure song to cover?
We were back home in Kentucky and it came on a Top 100 of all time or something like that and I grabbed a guitar and Chandra and I started messing around with it and it just came out that way. It was totally slow and mellow; we just started playing it and I love the song anyway and I think the lyrics are really beautiful. We just started messing around with it and Chandra went and got the harmonica, and so it was just kind of this bare bones thing. And then we got back to L.A. and played it for Russ and J. and J. starts playing it and he knows the guitar part already. And I asked, "How do you know that?” and he said, "it’s the first song I ever learned on guitar.” And so it just hit us, we were like, "we should do this.” So we started playing it live a couple times and then when we went into the studio I said, "we should do this just, like, as a fun thing and if we can’t get it on the record we won’t do it” and now I’m so glad we did because I feel like it’s got people excited about that sort of nostalgic thing that the Cure have, and especially for that record and that song specifically. And when I hear it I feel like I’m 15 again and having dreams about locker talk and things like that; it sparks nostalgia for me. I love singing it and I think we’ve tapped into an emotion of our own. So it’s been good; I’m glad people like it. (Vanguard)