photos by Jeremy Farmer
review and interview by Sheryl Witlen
Black Swans. That was the band name Chandra and Leigh Watson chose for themselves before changing their minds and simply calling their outfit, The Watson Twins. Striking at six feet tall with black shoulder length hair these identical twins harmonize into a singular haunting melody. The two first entered into the world as singers in Louisville, Kentucky during their visits to church as members of their local choir. Realizing their talents the two nurtured and decided to transport their roots to Los Angeles in 1997 after graduating from the University of Evansville. Settling into the Silverlake community which has helped artists such as Elliott Smith and Silversun Pickups the two started off as backup singers for a local band, Slydell. It was only a matter of time before they made an encounter that would change their lives forever. Jenny Lewis (lead singer of Rilo Kiley) was already a fervent female presence within the musical world and in 2006 the twins shared their vocal chords to Lewis’ first solo album, Rabbit Fur Coat, released via Team Love Records fathered by melody maker Conor Oberst. I remember seeing the threesome on a bitter winter night at Angel Orensanz Foundation. I was immediately struck buy their delicate silhouettes and endearing nervous energy. From there the two picked up fellow band mates Matt Fitzell, Rob Douglas, Brian Lebarton, and Aram Arslanian. Heading into the studio their first EP, Southern Manners prepared them for a heavy touring schedule that included SXSW, Bumbershoot and PopMontreal. Aided by veteran producers Russell Polland and J. Soda tracks on their album were stripped to down to the roots and the versions you hear are ‘all analog recordings’ which showcase Chandra and Leigh’s bewitching and incredibly controlled musical brilliance. Growing from each venture within the business and making all the right moves these two ladies are not stopping anytime soon. Planning to tour for the next few weeks and hopefully heading for Europe in the fall in support of Fire Songs these sisters are loved and supported by legendary label, Vanguard records and rightfully have a home amongst some of the most prolific artists America has offered up to the world such as Levon Helm and Joan Baez. This is their second time stopping by KEXP and we could not be more excited to have such lovely ladies return.
Sheryl: You grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, and decided to move to L.A. in 1997. Why did you choose to move to L.A., out of all the music communities?
Chandra: It was kind of by choice, honestly. It wasn’t a specific decision. We had a friend who had called us up, and we had sort of been traveling around looking at different cities, and when our friend called us up and he was like, “Yeah, my roommates are moving out, and I’ve got some rooms open in my house, do you want to come out?” and we kind of had made a pact, my sister and I, that when a door opened, we weren’t going to ask questions, we were just going to go for it, and so the door was open, and I was like, “I guess we’re going.”
Leigh: We had originally thought we wanted to go to New York. We were just more attracted to that city, and we thought it was more “us” but we had sent in an application and everything and thought we got this apartment, and three days, or a week or something before we were moving they called and said somebody had paid a deposit in cash, and so we lost our place. So, at that point, we were like, “we just need to get out of the Midwest.”
Chandra: We needed to get the journey started.
Leigh: We had done six months of traveling around the United States, so we were antsy to get somewhere that we were going to be for a while. So later that week, a call comes in from L.A. and says, “Oh, there’s a space here that’s cheap and you can move in right away,” we were like, “We’ve gotta go.” It was like one door closed and another one opened.
Sheryl: And ever since you’ve been out in L.A.?
Leigh: We have.
Chandra: We have a lot of friends out there from the Midwest, strangely enough, that we went to college with, so we moved out there after a pretty large group of friends, and honestly traveling a lot and being on the road, it’s nice to go back and have nice weather and have your friends and a spot, but we do a lot of traveling. We go back home four or five times a year, so we’re traveling around a lot.
Leigh: It definitely can be a tough city, but I think it’s totally what you make of it, and we got lucky enough to meet a collective of people who were all making music and inspiring us to do so, and also getting involved in different projects kept us there. It was like, “oh, we can’t leave, we’re in this band now. We’ve got to give this a chance.” I think in our heart of hearts, we know we won’t be there forever, but for now it seems like the right place to be.
Sheryl: So you started off as background singers for the band called Slydell.
Leigh: We were in that band for five years. We made three records but we never kind of… just performed, and that was…
Chandra: Before MySpace.
Leigh: Yeah, MySpace. Not to date us, but it’s true. We had a hard time breaking out of L.A. We were a 7-8 piece band that could draw 300 people every night we played, but it was just not… none of us could leave our jobs and leave our security. Everybody had a reason why it wasn’t time for them to be on the road. I think that when the band broke up we kind of felt like in some ways shattered and in some ways giving us our freedom to go do something else, because were a little burned out with that, I think. So we started kind of dabbling playing our own music and just kind of messing around in the studio, not anything serious, and then we met… well, we already knew Jenny and connected with her musically. We’d been friends before but not through working together. And so at that point, it’s just interesting how it played out. I mean, our band breaks up, and six months later Lewis is calling us up saying, “do you guys want to sing backup vocals for me?” Uh, yeah…
Chandra: Oh, I guess so.
Leigh: It’s so casual. Rilo Kiley and our band, we were all playing gigs in the same clubs, sometimes the same nights, going to see each other’s shows. It was definitely like everybody was coming up together. And so I feel like at that point we already had some sort of rapport, and she said, “I’m gonna come over, and play you guys some songs, and if you’re into it, cool. If not, don’t worry about it.” And so we sat down, the three of us, and within minutes we were singing Rise Up With Fists!! exactly how you hear it recorded. It was so instinctual and natural for the three of us. She grew up singing with her sister and mom, and we’ve always sang with each other, and so it just felt comfortable for all of us.
Sheryl: Since the first two projects you were associated with as backup singers, during this time were you writing your own songs?
Chandra: We had always been playing. We were doing little coffee shop gigs and such, and I think, looking back, it was sort of a time where we were exploring writing, and being a backup singer is great if you’re a singer, because it’s like, you get to be on stage, and you get to be in film and music but you don’t have to take the weight of the lead singer, the pressure of “I have to entertain these people, and if someone screws up they’re going to know.” You don’t hear an “ooh” behind something, people think maybe you’re changing it up or something, but the pressure of knowing you missed a chord or you missed a lyric or you’re not emoting in a certain way, performing a certain way, can change how everyone is perceiving that project.
Leigh: During that time we were actually building our skills as singers and as performers and getting more comfortable on stage. Even though that was what we were doing at the time, it was more like studying in school, I felt like I was learning all these new skills, and I was sort of this apprentice under Jenny and other singers, and I would think, “I love the way she embraces that, or her spirit, and she has to get up in front of all these people.” All of these things you take note of help you develop your own skills. And so I think, timing-wise, we needed that time to grow as singers and performers and players.
Sheryl: And that was your first time touring, probably?
Chandra: We had our first gigs on the weekends and such, but we traveling so much as kids. I think for Leigh and I, we were 17 and we had a car and we got out.
Leigh: Every weekend, we were driving all over, wherever. Chicago, Pennsylvania, Florida, wherever we wanted.
Chandra: And our mom was always… we always drove, like we always went on trips and vacations together every year, to go see family who lived far away. So we kind of spent… it was familiar, my mom driving the van, and 16 hours on vacation.
Leigh: It was definitely kind of training for what we do now. It’s kind of in our blood to be nomadic wonders, and it feels at home, doing that. It’s something where the road definitely is harder, but it also becomes easier for some people than others, and I think for us, it’s kind of part of us.
Chandra: And we have each other.
Sheryl: Since you’re so comfortable on the road, do you do a lot of writing on the road?
Leigh: It depends. Some of the songs on the new record were written on the road, but sometimes you get home for a while and we get settled in, and all that stuff kind of is up inside.
Sheryl: So did you study music in school?
Leigh: She was a theater major, I was an art major.
Chandra: Creative types, though.
Leigh: We were in a musical. It was called Nine, it was a takeoff of Fellini’s 8½, a musical takeoff of that, and that was pretty insane. There were 22 women and one guy. We did dance numbers and singing, and it was really fun.
Chandra: You know Rabbit Fur Coat, that show was very theatrical, and we had a good time. It’s fun for us. We like making things interesting. I think for this record, for us, we kind of wanted to take a step away from it all and say, “This is who we are as real people.” We’re happy to play roles, and do different things, we love being part the creative projects like that, but we also wanted to give people a chance to see who we are, and what our music is, and all about getting to know us.
Sheryl: Your record label is such an amazing old beautiful establishment. Are you just happy about that?
Leigh: We were scared at first. Getting another party involved is scary, because you’re letting go, and we’re both control freaks.
Chandra: One of the charming things about our personalities.
Leigh: Yeah, I feel like, more than anything their history was something we were definitely drawn to, but just the people at the label, personality-wise just clicked with them. They are really some of the nicest people I’ve ever met.
Chandra: And they really care about the music, they care about our project and really trying to help us. And after doing it on your own for so long, finding people who are just as invested as you are is really refreshing and exciting. It’s definitely helped us a lot.
Sheryl: How much longer are you on tour?
Leigh: We’re just out until July 29, the rest of this month, and then we have a few shows in August, on the west coast.
Chandra: Hopefully, we’re planning to go back out in the fall, tour Europe and the UK.
Sheryl: Thank you so much.