From the bandmates scattered into solitary lockdown, to the fans left wondering if they have felt the hot crush of the front row for the final time, these have been hard months for all who thrive on rock ’n’ roll’s fundamental push-and-pull.
Larkin Poe have keenly felt the loss of live music. Since 2014’s debut album, Kin, the onstage telepathy between Rebecca and Megan Lovell has been something to behold, the Nashville-residing sisters switching up instruments as they stoke a setlist taking in rock, blues, soul and psychedelia.
Thankfully, while the live scene revives, this year’s anthemic Self Made Man album is the closest thing to the shivers of a night out in their company.
What’s the backstory to Self Made Man?
Megan Lovell (lap steel/backing vocals): “We did a lot of touring in 2018 and 2019, leading up to making Self Made Man. It was an incredible experience, we felt such a groundswell beneath us. We were touring like we never had before – entire tours selling out, people knowing all the lyrics. For this album, we were trying to capture that live energy we were feeling at our shows, and writing songs we could imagine singing with the audience.”
How did you settle on the album title?
Rebecca Lovell (vocals/guitar/mandolin/banjo): “She’s A Self Made Man was one of the first songs we wrote, so titling the album after that felt like a natural decision. I was inspired to write the song based on my own relationship to that phrase, ‘self made man’. I’d found myself saying it with some regularity, y’know, about men in my family who’d had success.
“It never occurred to me that I was actively gender-qualifying success by attaching the word ‘man’. I wanted to tear apart that sentiment in my own head and address the insidious nature of inequality in kind of a playful way. And we certainly do feel like self-made men. We’ve fought tooth and nail for 15 years to maintain a foothold in a competitive industry.”
Is there pressure on female artists to be the stereotypical ‘girl with acoustic?’
Rebecca: “I don’t know that there’s necessarily pressure placed on conformity. It’s more representation. Within the rock and blues world, it is absolutely a male-dominated genre. Even now, when you look at the US bands that have radio success, you can count the female groups on one hand.
“For a lot of genres outside pop, there’s a divide that is hard to explain – because it’s certainly not for a lack of ability. We need that representation. We need more Joan Jetts, Bonnie Raitts, Suzi Quatros, and then going back to the Koko Taylors and Sister Rosetta Tharpes. We need to make sure these really important cultural performers – who just so happen to be female – are acknowledged by the next generation of music-makers.”
Larkin Poe have played their part…
Rebecca: “We’re happy to be part of that shift. We roll up to venues and I think people see our tour poster and expect they’re gonna get something, based on our picture. We’ve really enjoyed freaking people out a bit. And I think a lot of people can appreciate that experience, that a female band can be just as loud as the boys.
“I do think it’s up to people in power [to help] – like Joe Bonamassa, who’s been incredibly inclusive of bands that certainly don’t fit into the mould of a blues band. I’ve looked at his line-ups consistently, and the artists he chooses to include across the board – it’s really inspiring.”
Megan, how did you approach your slide solos on the new album?
Megan: “It kinda varies. On Back Down South, I think I improvised that one. In the studio, we like to take things away in our production technique, leave things as raw as possible, kinda leave the humanity in it. For that song, I played a few solos through then we picked the best one.”
Rebecca, you play instruments spanning from mandolin to banjo. How does that enrich your guitar work?
Rebecca: “Music is definitely a language. You pick up some vocabulary that transcends across the instruments. Y’know, I spent many years working on mandolin, learning to improvise and move with fluidity. But in terms of the sheer mechanics, that’s really helped with picking up the guitar later in life.
“The guitar has been a journey of its own. It’s fascinating as a musician to approach the different ranges of an instrument. Like, the cello is beautiful to the human ear because it mimics a human voice. And I find it fascinating to listen to Megan play slide and the way she expresses its vocal qualities. That’s something I’ve been really moved by on the guitar – it has such an extensive range, from low to high, that you can get into a lot of different territories.”
How do you stay out of each other’s way, sonically?
Rebecca: “I think it’s fairly intuitive at this point – especially given that Megan and I have spent so much of our lives playing music, just the two of us. If I’m playing in a certain range, Megan will naturally riff somewhere else and vice versa. We kinda have that non-verbal communication most of the time, which is either an asset or a curse, depending on the day [laughs].”
Megan: “It’s an interesting challenge. With the guitar being the main riff driver of the band, I have to find a way to not tread on that. I find I tend to stay in higher registers, away from the guitar. So I think I’m probably more proficient in the higher registers, simply because I tend to try to play higher than the guitar and also higher than Rebecca’s voice – because the lap steel is such a vocal instrument that I have to also be aware not to walk on her vocal.”
How different are your personal record collections at this point?
Rebecca: “Given how much time we’ve spent together, I think the line between us has become more blurred than with usual band members or siblings. Having grown up in the same household, of course, we listened to the same records, from Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, to Queen and the Allman Brothers.
“There’s a lot of classic rock we both really connect on. I tend towards some heavier music. By the same token, Megan will sometimes tend towards more gentle music than I would, like Sufjan Stevens.”
Megan: “I love a melodically written album. Like, I love so much of Pink Floyd. When we write together, our styles of writing melodies are fairly different. But then there’s a lot of broadening of horizons. Rebecca is a huge Chris Whitley fan. I just didn’t get it at first, but because she was playing it so much in the van, it got under my skin and I’m a big fan now. So I think our differences can be strengths, too, if you give it a chance.”
How do those differences come out in your songwriting?
Rebecca: “It’s an interesting point: the things that divide us musically, they help us when we’re writing songs. Megan is so good at writing beautiful melodies, these songs that are cinematic and so pleasing to the ear. I, on the other hand, can write funky, riff-driven rock ’n’ roll.”
Megan: “It’s been a work in progress, figuring out what the voice in Larkin Poe is. Because Rebecca is the lead singer, I’m aware that the melody and lyrics she’s singing have to be true to herself. So a lot of the time, those melodies and lyrics will come from Rebecca, just because I think that’s the most authentic to her. It’s about letting the good ideas win.”
Rebecca: “Y’know, not being so precious about your ideas because that’s when conflict can really arise. Letting ideas go is the hardest thing because the ego is incredibly defensive. As a creative person, it’s learning when to give and take. Especially for me, that’s been such a hard-won lesson. That’s definitely resulted in some tears and heart-to-hearts between Megan and I. But, ultimately, I do think it’s absolutely for the betterment of the group.”
What’s the best advice you can give about songwriting?
Rebecca: “Be tenacious. Unless you are born as Tom Petty or Tom Waits, the rest of us mere mortals have to fight for that artistic voice. And as with most things in life, these things don’t happen by accident. If you really want to learn how to write good songs – which is something I’m perpetually in pursuit of – you gotta do it and do it again.
“Don’t be afraid to write bad songs. I’ve written so many bad songs. But that’s okay. It’s like a photoshoot where you have to take 30 pictures just to get one where all four eyes are open. The same applies to songwriting. And just as you are what you eat – you are what you listen to. So listen to a lot of music, and go back to the originals and the people from which everything else has sprung. Do your research, y’know?”
Is it a dilemma for roots artists whether to push for crossover success?
Rebecca: “We’ve definitely not engineered any of our musical evolution towards wider appeal. Over the years, our experimentation has actually bent towards embracing our roots more than anything.
“From the early records to now, when you boil it down to the lyrics and melody, all along, we’ve been playing with American music. It’s just shifted in the way we’ve dressed it up, with the drums, or the inclusion of synths, or experimenting with production.”
Megan: “It’s all about finding your audience. If you aren’t playing something that’s very cookie-cutter and has a very obvious place at radio then it just takes time to find your audience. With roots music, you’re doing it for life.”
What advice would you give on choosing a resonator?
Megan: “As far as resonators, I have a Scheerhorn and that’s my baby. But mostly I think it’s just about playing around and seeing what’s comfortable for the individual. There are so many options, and there’s no right or wrong answer – because I first picked up a Rickenbacker lap steel from Gruhn Guitars here in Nashville and was just immediately hooked on the sound. And that’s the only lap steel that I’ve ever played.
“Since then, I’ve just picked up more and more Rickenbackers and that’s become my thing because it feels right, y’know? So I don’t know that I ever particularly did research. I just went on gut feeling. I think, if you listen to guitars, they’ll tell you which one is right.”
Is there anything you used to do on guitar – but don’t any more?
Rebecca: “For me, having started out playing strictly acoustic, there’s a definite weight in the right hand you can develop in trying to pull a tone out of an acoustic instrument. So one of the biggest shifts I’ve wrestled with is not bashing my electric guitar.
“Learning to rely on an amplifier for volume has been such an interesting process, because for many years on tour, I’d be playing my electric guitars so rigidly and with so much force, that I would be blowing all my instruments incessantly out of tune. So that’s something that I’ve absolutely dropped is having such a ridiculously dominant right hand.”
Megan: “I think I’ve stopped trying to sound like other people. When I first started playing, I maybe had this assumption that the riffs and notes that I was playing that came very fast and natural to me might not be the right thing to play.
“But you’ve gotta have your own style, and not worry so much about it being right or wrong. Sounding like yourself is a really good thing, more than, ‘Is this the most impressive thing I could play?’ I think I respect people who play with heart even more than note choice.”
How do you think the pandemic will change the musical landscape?
Rebecca: “This is the biggest upset we’ve ever seen as artists who typically tour to make our living. For many years, we assumed it was up to us if we would go out and tour. Now, we’ve realised the tenuous grip we all had. I think it’s gonna change everything.
“Going to a club, watching an artist that you’re literally breathing on, jammed in right up by the stage… I think that’s something that people will think twice about. Is there a sadness at the loss of that innocence? Certainly. But I think it’s really important for artists to roll with the punches the universe throws.
“Both Megan and I have thrown ourselves into livestream concerts. It’s an experience that almost has nothing to do with a live show, with that human connection and everyone in the same place sharing a moment. Whereas a livestream concert, it’s so sterile, it can easily feel soul-crushing. But it’s not up to us to decide. We make music to entertain and to bring levity to people’s lives. We’re gonna do what we’ve got to do.”
- Larkin Poe's new album, Self Made Man, is out now via Tricki-Woo