Raised by parents who loved music, sisters Rebecca and Megan Lovell could have taken their musical talents in numerous directions. They could have grabbed electric guitars and rocked their southern boots down a Lynyrd Skynyrd path; or they could have kept their acoustics close to their hearts and summoned up Joni Mitchell. But instead of just being one sound, they took elements of everything they heard growing up and mish-mashed it into a sound that really came into it’s own with their 2017 album, Peach. It was inevitable that the Lovell Sisters – collectively known as Larkin Poe – would hone in on those more bluesy earthen tones and create something so unbelievably mesmerizing it would raise up the hairs on the back of your neck. It’s called Venom & Faith.
Not yet at their ten-year mark as a duo, Larkin Poe are rising stars in music. Elvis Costello believed in them when they were still in their teens. But with the upcoming Venom & Faith, out November 9th, they reached for something more and came out with one of the best albums of 2018. Full of mysterious lap steel pinings and vocal harmonies that conjure up the spirits of Robert Johnson and Son House, songs such as “Good & Gone,” “Mississippi,” “Ain’t Gonna Cry” and a cover of “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues,” where you can almost feel the presence of Skip James adding his touch in the deep background as the duo performs it, Larkin Poe are taking the blues by the tail.
But it’s not only blues they have focused on in Venom & Faith. They have brought in their bluegrass roots, some southern rock and some almost David Lynchian atmosphere on other tracks. “It’s a celebration of roots American music as translated by two sisters who are playing the blues in a modern age,” singer/guitarist Rebecca recently explained about what made up the soul of Venom & Faith. Added Megan, who plays lap steel and sings harmony, “Going into this record, we were feeling more confident in ourselves and our story and our voice.” It shows. Recorded in Nashville earlier this year, the sisters again followed their instinct to do as much as possible themselves; with the exception of enlisting their friend Tyler Bryant to add some haunting slide on the track, “Mississippi.” Otherwise, it’s just them and engineer Roger Alan Nichols.
Glide caught up with Rebecca and Megan while they were enjoying a day off at home in Nashville – they’ve been on the road with Keith Urban but will be doing headlining shows next month – to talk blues, basking in the mentorship of Costello and feeling the hellhound in the room.
There is such a distinctness to your sound, so what is the craziest description you have heard about you and your music?
Rebecca: Crazy? I’m not sure but I think one of the descriptions that has been the most meaningful to us was an interviewer that said he felt that we were the little sisters of the Allman Brothers. And that like really struck a chord with us, given the fact that we are southern and we’re sisters and we grew up just idolizing the Allman Brothers. And that was a really cool description in our mind.
Did you ever get to jam with the Allman Brothers?
Rebecca: We actually met Gregg in the Atlanta airport a few years back. We were coming into Atlanta from Europe after having been on a tour for a few weeks. We were bedraggled little rats and we had our guitars on our backs and we’re walking through customs and all of a sudden somebody taps on our shoulders and we turn around and it’s Gregg Allman. He’s like, “Now, there is nothing sweeter to my eyes than chicks carrying guitars.” And we chatted for a minute and were able to tell him what huge inspirations him and his brother had been to us over the years. But never jammed with him.
You’ve released five EPs and this is your fourth studio album. Do you feel settled, that this is your sound and who you want to be?
Rebecca: I think the journey of Larkin Poe over the last seven/eight years that we’ve been making music, it’s been nonstop. Creatively we have bounded through many different genres, from bluegrass to acoustic, pop to Americana, Roots, country-ish, rock and blues. And we feel that with Peach and with this forthcoming album, Venom & Faith, we finally have come into our own. It’s been such a long time of experimentation and exploration, and these two albums we feel are the journey we finally want to be on. It feels like we found our voice.
Why a title like Venom & Faith?
Rebecca: Venom & Faith was actually pulled from one of the lyrics on the album, which is “Honey Honey,” and in our minds, Venom & Faith conjures up definitely a picture of the American south. I mean, we grew up sitting in a church and that is such a huge part of so many people’s musical experience growing up. And we loved the idea of trying to marry the two symbols as well, that there is something between the two cross-purposes of those words that really defines what we’re going for. Venom & Faith is just such an interesting cross-section in our eyes.
To me, blues is a feeling – it tends to send chills up your spine and cause the hair to stand up. For you, what about this kind of music causes a physical reaction?
Megan: It’s a feeling and what really appeals to me about the blues is not only is it the birthplace of so many different kinds of music, like all of American music comes from the blues, but it’s also something that has longevity. Like the lyrics, they’re always talking about these issues and these feelings that are so very human, so we can listen to songs that were written a hundred years ago and they’re just as relevant today. And how incredible is that. The music really pulls from the spirit.
Rebecca: I would say that just the stripped-back nature of the blues. And something that I think is sorely lacking in a lot of modern music is the courage to be very vulnerable. Oftentimes, when you listen to recordings from the thirties and the forties, it’s just a voice and a guitar and there’s no artifice and there’s no distraction from, like Megan said, that pulling of the spirit that comes out when someone is singing about God or about their troubles, and just putting it out there with the simplicity of their guitar playing. There’s just nothing like it in the world. It’s so inspiring.
The two covers that you do on this record, the originals are about as bare-bones as you can get. How did you know how far to take them in your own recording?
Rebecca: We produced this record ourselves. It was just Megan and myself and an engineer in the studio for countless hours and we were so lucky to have, I think, just the three of us in the studio because it really required Megan and I to dig really deep and to feel safe enough to really experiment and to see how stripped-back we could go. Oftentimes, it is such a temptation to want to overproduce songs in an effort to really, you know, pound people in the face or be really impressive or you can fill in the blank. But between the three of us in the room, we were able to take it slow and to go with our gut on a lot of the arrangements for these songs. And a lot of it was done by feeling. We would spend a few hours on a song, just listening and trying to make sure that it felt as authentic to the song as we could.
To get that older authentic bluesy sound, do you prefer using older instruments?
Rebecca: Ooh Megan, you got to respond to this
Megan: Yeah, I play an old Rickenbacker lap steel guitar that’s from the 1940’s and I’ve only ever played Rickenbackers. So I really do believe that the old instruments do produce some amazing sounds; not that there aren’t great new instruments as well but there is just something about the old instruments. I don’t know, maybe the spirit has seeped into them somehow.
Rebecca: And I, on the record, contributed with some newer Fender Strats and Jazzmasters and things but one of my favorite guitar sounds we got for the record was on “Bleach Blonde Bottle Blues” and that’s a crappy old Kay archtop guitar that I bought off ebay many years ago and it’s from like the fifties and it’s just falling apart. But there is something about the way that it rattles and sort of jankley-jankles around on that track that I love.
Megan, why did lap steel capture you so much that that is what you wanted to play?
Megan: When we were in our early teens, that’s when we transitioned from playing violin and piano. We were classically trained and in our early teens I heard bluegrass for the first time. I tried to play guitar and I tried banjo and picked up mandolin for a little bit but nothing really appealed to me and never really spoke to me – something about the fretted instrument just doesn’t work with my hands. And then I saw a dobro being played for the first time. We grew up listening to Alison Kraus & Union Station and Jerry Douglas was on all those albums and I guess I had heard the dobro being played but never seen it being played. And when I saw it, that’s when I made the connection to the sound and it really spoke to me. Something about the vocal quality of the slide, I knew that’s what I wanted to play. So I picked up the dobro first and then later on when we became Larkin Poe, that’s when I picked up the lap steel – because it just made sense. We were going to have a little bit of a heavier sound so the electric lap steel kind of made sense.
Jerry Douglas is like a genius on the dobro and so funny
Megan: He is! My husband, Mike Seal, plays with him as his guitar player. But I really love him. He was a big influence for me in the beginning with dobro; really, the reason I picked it up. So I thank him for that. He is so amazing.
Rebecca, I understand you also play mandolin. Who is your favorite mandolin player and how have they influenced you?
Rebecca: Ooh, there are so many mandolin players that I have worshipped over the years. But initially, I think the first mandolin player that made me want to start playing mandolin was actually Mark O’Connor on the Strength In Numbers album that was released way back when. Mark O’Connor played mandolin on one track called “Macedonia” and he played this solo and he goes into like quintuplets or something and he played so cleanly and it sounded like a bell and that was the first time I heard mandolin being played in that fashion and it was really inspiring. Then of course, Chris Thile, and being such a huge Nickel Creek fan, I feel so many young bluegrass lovers in the late nineties and early 2000’s were just falling over Nickel Creek. I think another player would of course be Sam Bush. His rhythm is just in the stratosphere, the way he is able to create so many rhythms in his right hand. It’s just beautiful to me. So I think those three would have been the biggest touchstones for me as a mandolin player.
You have Tyler Bryant playing with you on a song. How did you hook up with him?
Rebecca: We became buddies with Tyler probably four years ago and whenever we moved to Nashville, we just sort of continued to cement the friendship. He is such an amazing player and it was really inspiring to sit down and jam with him. We’d made some videos together and things like that. So whenever we had this track, “Mississippi,” we knew that we wanted a feature on the record. So I called up TB and just asked if he wanted to come in and jam and he said, “Oh absolutely,” and just popped over and did five or six passes and then was done. I mean, he is such a brilliant slide player in addition to being an amazing player overall. So we were super stoked to have him on the record.
Since you sometimes have this eerie authenticity in your music, have you ever felt the hellhound in the room when you were recording?
Rebecca: We’ve never been asked a question like that. I love that! I would say that there definitely is something that can happen in the room when we’re playing. I don’t know that it happens specifically when we were recording the record, because oftentimes you’re so zoomed in to what’s happening with the recording itself that it’s sometimes a little bit difficult to be open to other spiritual elements maybe circling in the room. At least, that is my experience.
But I would say when Megan and I are making little videos in our bedroom for our series, Tip O’ The Hat, we definitely feel that; because of course we’re more in the moment of a single performance and it’s not so over-thought or highly dissected, like it can feel sometimes in the studio. But moments when Megan and I are sitting in two chairs, six inches apart, we’ve both got our guitars and we’re singing together, there are moments when I can feel something circling energetically, a little bit. And of course, I mean, it could just be my imagination but I do believe that there is such a strong bond that we share when we create music together, having been sisters and of course traveling for so many years together. But there is such a shared simpatico that exists between Megan and I. And I think sometimes that can create this little whirlpool effect that feels like a portal into some other place, which I love going.
Rebecca: Ooh, I love this question. I have to say I think it would be “Sometimes,” because originally that song was sung by Bessie Jones. When you listen to the Bessie Jones version of that song, it’s just her voice, some people singing harmony for the call and response, and some claps. And it was such an inspiring song to us to listen to her sing it, and she’s a Georgia girl as well so there is something special about the way we feel about Bessie. We wanted to do a version of the song but of course we didn’t want to just lift her version exactly. So we tried to pay homage to her by creating a really stripped-back thing with just stomps and claps and vocals for the first half of the song.
But then we sort of make a left turn in the middle of the track and introduce a whole horn section and to me, it’s like you’re entering a different universe with this section. It’s so playful and it’s so fun and we had a wild hair that it needed a horn section and so we wrote parts for it and we got a horn player in and they cut tracks and we spliced it all together and to my ear it feels like it should be there. And I think that is a song that ultimately we diverted the most from, where it originally came from. Would you agree Megan?
Megan: I agree with you. I was going to say also, when Bessie Jones is singing it, it feels like she is on her front porch, just making up lyrics on the fly, and some of them are mumbled so you can’t tell what she’s saying, and she repeats a lot of them, kind of like a mantra or something. She repeats the lyrics over and over. We ended up writing new lyrics for that one as well. So I would agree with you that that is the one that changed the most, and we sort of added to what she was saying. So yeah, it did change a lot from the original but I hope that the spirit is the same.
There is such a purity to “Good & Gone” that is almost chilling. What can you tell us about that song?
Megan: I wrote that song and I wrote it wanting to have a moment on the album that was vocals and lap steel, because I love to sing harmony with Rebecca BUT I feel more comfortable in my vocal on the lap steel. I kind of consider my instrument to be more of my voice than my own voice. I feel more comfortable there. So I wanted to have a moment where we were twining, just her and I, lap steel and vocals. I wrote that one envisioning that and I think it came out really great. It was such an interesting one to record as well, trying to keep the vocal and the lap steel really close and tight.
Rebecca: I would love to say, when Megan brought that song, she had the lyrics written down and she had the melody on the slide and I got chills when she brought that song to the table, because the lyrics, to me, are so reminiscent of a song that could have been written a hundred years ago or it could have been written today. It had that timeless quality that, in my mind, summarizes what the blues are all about. And talking about being in a cemetery and feeling the hallelujah of life past and life present, it was so compelling to me and I was really, really, really excited when Megan brought it. And we knew it had to go on the record.
What can you tell us about “Ain’t Gonna Cry” and that moody melody it has?
Rebecca: We actually wrote “Ain’t Gonna Cry” with one of our buddies out in Los Angeles and her name is Adrianne Elaine Gonzalez and she’s a powerhouse lady producer/songwriter. We went into the studio with her and just wanted to have fun and make something up. And somehow we ended up writing this tortured ballad on a sunny day in Los Angeles (laughs). But it came from a very real place. We wrote a lot of the lyrics very free-form, which I thought was a very therapeutic way to get the song out, cause oftentimes the songs can be very stubborn when you’re pulling them out of the ether and they’ve got their claws out and you’ve really got to work to get them down on the page.
But this was more of a song that just sort of dropped from the sky into our laps. We made a demo of the song that day after having written it, and I’ll be honest with you, and we’ve never told this to anybody, but the lyric, whenever I was trying to sing it, I don’t know what was going on. I guess it just really needed to be written. But I broke down and was just crying when we cut the demo. And I was telling myself, I ain’t gonna cry, I’m going to be super strong and singing that over and over again sort of broke loose this little floodgate in my soul and I was like just balling. Both Megan and Adrianne were going, “Are you okay? What’s going on?” It just felt like a really good thing to get out in the universe. And hopefully, it speaks to other people as well.
What was it like working with Elvis Costello and what did you learn from him about being a live performer?
Rebecca: We love this question because we love talking about Elvis Costello. He is one of our absolute favorite people of all time. We made friends with Elvis when we were in our late teens and we have remained close friends ever since. He is one of the biggest mentors that we’ve ever encountered and I think that everyone on an artistic journey deserves to have a mentor as great as Elvis Costello has been to us. We’ve learned so much. I mean, being able to be onstage with him, someone of his caliber of artistry, and the seamless way he is able to work a crowd and deliver his songs and of course compose the songs that he composes – they’re magnificent and he is magnificent. His most recent record actually just came out and it’s called Look Now and Megan and I just the other day, we were somewhere up north in a green room listening to this record and were so moved by some of the lyrics that he has written on this newest album. And the fact that he is, at this stage in his career, fifty years down the road in his career, and still making music that is profound and relevant and exciting. He is the greatest role model that we could envision.
You’ve been on tour with Keith Urban and you’re playing your own shows. Is that how you’re going to finish out the year, by touring?
Rebecca: Yes. We have been touring nonstop in 2018. We didn’t think it was going to be such a busy year but, oh my goodness, it has been so busy. We had a lot of really amazing festivals that we played this summer. We played Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza and have been out playing Larkin Poe headline shows all over. People have been buying tickets and coming out to see us, which is amazing. And of course being on the road with Keith Urban has been such an eye-opening and educational experience. He’s such an amazing musician in his own right. And graciously allowing us to come up and be featured guests in his show has been such a cool opportunity for us. So between now and the end of the year, we’re pretty much touring nonstop until Christmas. So if people want to come out and see us, they are going to have some opportunities. We’re doing a lot of headlining shows in the southeast in November and then we’re going to cross the pond to London and have a handful of dates across Europe. Then we’re going to be winding up the year with some dates with Bob Seger in December. So we’d love to have people come out.
And my last question is, what was the most important blues song you heard early on and how did it affect you?
Rebecca: I think, and it’s funny because you’d think we should answer as individuals, but Megan and I share everything so it would be the same for both of us. I do believe that the one we heard early on that really made an impression was “Come On In My Kitchen” by Robert Johnson. I remember we were on tour, and this was well before we actually moved into our experience of learning to play the blues; we were touring as early Larkin Poe, which I would consider more in the acoustic bluegrassy stuff. And we were in Wales and we had a day off and we were staying with the promoter, staying in this beautiful sort of country cottage in southern Wales, and we were making banana bread and we were playing Robert Johnson, like some of the highlights of Robert Johnson, just on a whim. And I remember “Come On In My Kitchen” playing and just being really, really moved just in that moment of hearing his voice and the guitar intertwined and the power of that performance. And that, I think, was the really moving blues experience early on.
And a turning point, would you say?
Rebecca: Yes, I would say. You know, it’s at the back of the brain that lets you know there is something else out there that you can potentially tap into and I feel like we’ve been chasing that little itch ever since then. Whenever we made Peach, we knew that we needed to do a version of that song. And it’s the first track on Peach. And I think it’s a really good mile marker for us. It feels like, here’s our voice (laughs).
Portrait by Robby Klein; live photos by Amy Harris