“There were certain places we loved, like New York City and Seattle. But we didn’t really have a set destination,” Chandra says via cell phone on the eve a monthlong North America tour. “We just knew we wanted to go somewhere, and when the opportunity presented itself, we would seize it.”
Chandra stresses that her sister is her best friend, and—although it’s impossible for most people to believe—Chandra and Leigh are incapable of staying mad at each other for any reason for more than five minutes. “In the end, we just crack up and get over it—whatever it is,” Chandra says with a laugh.
Despite their lengthy West Coast exile, the country, blues and gospel music that defined the sisters’ Southern youth continues to dominate their music. The Watson Twins debut EP Southern Manners and the sisters’ recent full-length album Fire Songs sound more steeped in the humid, heavy air and green, rolling hills of Kentucky than in the arid nights and neon lights of Los Angeles.
Listeners and critics alike were fascinated and enchanted by Rabbit Fur Coat, the soulful 2006 collaboration between Rilo Kiley singer Jenny Lewis and The Watson Twins. The Appalachian-influenced vocal harmonies were like a rare and beautiful relic from an era long past, infused with a smart, modern sensibility.
Chandra says the sisters made their singing debut in a Kentucky church choir around the age of 8 or 9. An enthusiastic choir director was struck by the twins’ ability to harmonize and encouraged them to pursue music. After some joyful teenage forays into the loud, fringe sounds of punk and hardcore, the sisters once again gravitated towards acoustic guitars and vocal harmonies influenced by the vital music of the American South.
“It’s hard to say what makes Southern music so appealing. I think there are a lot of factors,” Chandra says. “I think it has something to do with the people. You find the salt of the earth in the South. It’s a more simple way of life. People are tied to the earth and connected to their families. There’s a long history of making music to combat strife and boredom.”
Fire Songs is a sumptuous and hearty album stewed in Southern musical tradition. Alternately sunny and stormy, songs like “Sky Open Up” have the yearning quality of a spiritual sung in a field punctuated by sweet-smelling magnolia trees as well and astral guitar hooks of the last 20 years of popular music.
“The first piece of music we wrote for this album was called ‘Fire Song.’ We eventually changed the name of the song, but we kept the title because we felt like it spoke volumes about the record. The songs have a warm, organic feel to them. We essentially write torch songs, so the name stuck,” Chandra says.
Vanguard Records eagerly approached The Watson Twins and offered to release their first full-length album. Watson says she’s relieved that the gargantuan workload that accompanies independently touring, recording and distributing merchandise and music will no longer fall on just four people (Chandra, Leigh, their mother, and a friend/publicist).
Chandra says she and her sister were beside themselves with happiness when Vanguard contacted them. “Vanguard’s roster is amazing: Doc Watson, Joan Baez—you name it. It’s so reassuring to sign with an established label when there’s so much turmoil in the music industry. Plus, they gave us full artistic control, which is very important, since we’re so used to doing everything ourselves.”
THE WATSON TWINS The Urban Lounge, 241 S. 500 East, Tuesday July 22, 10 p.m. 24Tix.com