By Paul Rogers
Vocal harmonies have a unique impact on our ears and a rare connection to our souls. It’s not just that the sound of multiple voices singing as one is so aurally entrancing, but also that hearing human beings interact so precisely, artfully and with such trust (as any one off-key note makes every member of the group seem tuneless) offers a reassuring reminder that we can, after all, just get along.
Identical singing siblings under the apt moniker The Watson Twins, who bring their country-fied indie-folk to Pappy & Harriet’s in Pioneertown on July 1, lend genetic synergy and life-learned intuition to the magic of harmonizing.
So close were Chandra and Leigh Watson’s heartbeats in the womb that, until three weeks before their 1975 birth, obstetricians mistook these for a single pulse.
“We were basically singing together before we could talk,” says Chandra. “Leigh and I used to get into trouble for singing at the dinner table.”
This early musical bonding in Louisville, Kentucky lead to performing in local church choirs, where the twins’ obvious ability was immediately apparent to all who heard them.
“Singing in church, I remember that was the point when I was most, as a child, moved,” Chandra recalls. “When the singing came into the service it moved me, and I felt this connection with the congregation.”
“When you sing with other people it creates vibrations in your chest . . . it’s an electricity that those voices create,” says Leigh. “It resonates in your chest; in your heart region . . . in such a way that it creates joy.”
The Watson sisters honed their inherent talent and sisterly second-nature (which Leigh jokingly dubs “twinergy”) into distinctively exquisite harmonizing.
“I believe it was totally instinctual,” says Chandra. “I’d say 75 percent was [instinctive] and then the other 25 percent was also knowing each other well and, after just years of singing together, you kind of know where the other person is going.”
“. . . my mother had a rabbit fur coat.”
After attending Indiana’s University of Evansville, the duo relocated to Los Angeles in 1997 to further their musical ambitions. They swiftly became fixtures in the hipster-central Silver Lake scene (both as backup singers and performing under their own name).
By the early aughts Chandra and Leigh had formed and were singing backup with respected L.A. band Slydell, but it was their collaboration with former Rilo Kiley frontwoman Jenny Lewis on her 2006 debut solo album, Rabbit Fur Coat, that brought them international attention. So great was their contribution to that critically-acclaimed collection that it is in fact credited to “Jenny Lewis with The Watson Twins”
“[Lewis] said ‘I inherently trust you guys to do your thing,’” Leigh recalls. “That’s the biggest compliment and also gives us the most joy out of collaborating with someone.”
The extensive touring and numerous TV appearances in support of Rabbit Fur Coat exposed The Watson Twins gorgeous harmonizing to vast new audiences.
“Singing with my sister and Jenny Lewis, there were multiple times when I got physical chills,” says Leigh. “It’s like an addiction . . . a high that doesn’t happen every time, but you do have those moments when you’re like, ‘Damn, this is good!’”
Indie Rock Sensibilities
All the while, The Watson Twins had been writing and recording its own material (sometime performing under the name Black Swan). Self-releasing the debut EP, Southern Manners, almost simultaneously with Rabbit Fur Coat meant that it too enjoyed considerable press coverage. The Boston Phoenix described the eight-song collection as “like a sweet end-of-summer breeze: strummed acoustic guitars overlaid with their intertwined singing.”
The Watson Twins has since released two full-length albums: 2008’s Fire Songs, and Talking To You, Talking To Me two years later. Though the duo increasingly displays indie rock sensibilities, its background in gospel, folk and country music remains at the heart of its songwriting and harmonizing.
“Our first record was very sort of indie-folk, and broken-down and spacious; and then our second release really kind of leaned towards the Americana, Laurel Canyon sound—very guitar heavy and lots of harmonies,” says Leigh. “Talking To You, Talking To Me was more of our exploration into [being] more soulful and more piano-driven, and harmonies in the way of backup singers backing up a solo singer—us being the backup singers and one of us being the lead singer.”
Covering It Up
Last year Leigh and Chandra threw something of a curve-ball with the release of Night Covers—a collection of fresh takes on familiar tunes ranging from The Turtles’ 1969 hit “You Showed Me” to “Here Comes the Rain Again” by 1980s chart fixtures Eurythmics to “Tighten Up” by the currently ubiquitous The Black Keys. Covermesongs.com declared Night Covers “a cohesive mini-album from diverse source material, staying true to the style established on [The Watson Twins’] previous releases.”
The Watson Twins actually have a long history of performing cover songs, starting with the girl’s popular take on The Cure’s 1987 hit “Just Like Heaven.” As well as the palpable pleasure they take in paying tribute to some of their favorite artists and tunes (“There’s a whole generation of our listeners that don’t even know who The Cure is,” notes Leigh), these have also acted as something of a “gateway drug” into their own music, particularly when playing in front of other artists’ audiences.
“We’ve done a lot of [cover versions] opening for larger acts,” Chandra explains. “There’s something that happens when . . . the harmonica starts in ‘Just Like Heaven,’ and you see the audience change from ‘who are these people?’ to ‘oh, I know this song!’”
Throughout their own career as The Watson Twins, Leigh and Chandra have also remained in demand as backup singers, both on stage and in the studio. They accompanied Nashville-based singer/songwriter Jessie Baylin on her latest album, Little Spark (and performed with her on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in February); sang with indie darlings The Shins at this year’s Coachella Festival in Indio; and backed-up Afie Jurvanen’s solo alter ego Bahamas on Conan.
“It’s great to have the freedom of just being part of the band,” says Chandra. “You really just become another instrument . . . there’s something that’s really comforting about just being part of that.
The Simplicity of Music
But at Pappy & Harriet’s, the sisters (both of whom play guitar) and their bare-bones piano/drums band are promising to stage-test some of their own original material.
“I’m having a connection to music that is more singer/songwriter-driven,” mulls Leigh. “And I say that not in the way of, like, ‘open mic night’ type of vibe, [but] more like singer/songwriters who are exploring the simplicity of music, but also elevating it in a very specific way.”
Leigh says that she and her sister have lately been inspired by Seattle indie rocker Damien Jurado’s latest album, Maraqopa; the stripped-down folk of Swedish sister duo First Aid Kit; and by performing with the minimalist Bahamas.
“It’s about finding the simplicity in the music and relying on the melodies and the harmonies as the unique moments,” she explains. “You don’t have to have 95 tracks, and everything doesn’t need to be doubled and tripled in order to impact. [Instead it’s] more about intimacy of the lyrics and the voices creating this ‘quilt’ of sound.”
For The Watson Twins, this doesn’t mean plain or predictable music. Their subtle twist on simplicity is, almost inevitably, colored by their lengthy and diverse resume as backup singers.
“Everything we listen to we’re listening to hear what’s happening behind the frontman for ideas,” says Chandra. “[But] the real testament is the songs. Are they something people can relate to? Do they say something that’s true and honest? . . . Our intention is to create these types of songs and then to sonically create something but that has a vibe, that is something interesting but also uniquely simple.”
Location, Location, Location
The twins’ unique vibe should be all the more resonant at Pappy & Harriet’s; a venue with which they have considerable history and affinity. P&H’s quirky, rustic charms—an Old West movie set façade; drinks served in Mason jars; memorabilia-covered walls—offer an apt backdrop for Leigh and Chandra’s essentially rural sounds and front porch sing-along roots.
“Living in Los Angeles, we had all of the magical stories about this epic place in the desert where all the motorcycle riders and the hippies and the artists all meet,” says Chandra.
The twins have found themselves drawn back to Pappy & Harriet’s down-home, throwback aura a number of times since making their Pioneertown debut at the venue’s Third Annual Camper Van Beethoven Cracker Campout in 2007.
“That energy is seeping out of the walls and it becomes part of our environment,” Leigh enthuses. “When you have that relaxed, comfortable feel that everyone feels in that venue— which is like going over to someone’s house for dinner almost . . . it definitely elevates our excitement in playing.”
It’s not just the storied saloon itself, but also the surrounding Joshua Tree National Park’s association with some of Leigh and Chandra’s major musical influences, in particular alt-country legend Gram Parsons, that appeals to them (Parsons famously found inspiration in Joshua Tree in the 1960’s and died there in 1973).
“That’s been a big part of our inspiration. I mean [Parsons’ frequent musical collaborator and reputed lover] Emmylou Harris is definitely one of our idols,” says Chandra. “So the whole mystique of the story of Gram and Joshua Tree . . . we were just captivated by it and so excited to go out there.”
But don’t expect The Watson Twins Pappy & Harriet’s performance to be some teary-eyed homage to bygone artists and eras. In fact, many people seeing the duo for the first time are surprised by the comic banter that punctuates their sometimes solemn songs (and was more than evident during our interview).
“We gotta keep it light,” Leigh laughs. “Otherwise people are, like, slitting their wrists in the bathroom!”
The Watson Twins with Jesse Sykes at Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, 53688 Pioneertown Rd., Pioneertown, (760) 365-5956; www.pappyandharriets.com. Sun, July 1. Free.