The Living Sisters: Sibling Harmonies
PHOTO BY LAUREN DUKOFF"We have this experience together when we're singing where our voices become one voice": Becky Stark, Inara George and Eleni Mandell are the Living Sisters.
Because the three unrelated members of L.A.'s Living Sisters harmonize as intuitively as real-deal blood siblings, you might assume that Inara George, Eleni Mandell and Becky Stark share a sort of hive-mind worldview.
We're sitting in a corner booth at Little Dom's in Los Feliz, talking about "Cradle," a typically enchanting selection from Love to Live. The Living Sisters' fine country-folk debut, on Vanguard, hits stores on Tuesday.
As its title suggests, "Cradle" is about babies — specifically, the importance of picking them up when they cry as opposed to letting them find a way to comfort themselves. Stark wrote the song, and it turns out that the concept of "attachment parenting," as it's known, is one she's deeply passionate about.
"There's a whole field of understanding about the huge impact that the first nine months of a child's life has on the adult psyche," she says. "In all indigenous and precivilized cultures, human babies are never left to cry. They're like kangaroo babies, where they're never not held during the first nine months."
Between bites of roasted artichoke, Stark continues explaining how humanity has lost touch with its sense of primal compassion. She even recommends a book, The Continuum Concept, which she calls "one of the seminal texts" of the attachment-parenting movement.
Meanwhile, George, who is very pregnant, looks on with an expression of respectful skepticism, eventually pointing out that it's easy to talk about holding your baby all night, when, like Stark, you don't actually have one. For her part, Mandell seems more interested in her pizza — her only reaction to Stark's sermon is of the eye-rolling, older-sister variety.
"Can I just say one other thing about this?" Stark asks after a few minutes, evidently picking up on her bandmates' growing impatience with the topic.
"Dude, it's cool," Mandell replies. "We're enjoying our food."
The Living Sisters' contrasting ideas on parenting actually befit a band as mingled as this one. Even if you haven't seen one of the trio's sporadic live shows in the past five years — the band formed casually after Mandell and Stark met at a bar — you've likely caught a Sister or two under their other guises.
Mandell has been making dark, jazzy, singer-songwriter records for more than a decade, occasionally with help from the likes of Wilco guitarist Nels Cline and DJ Bonebrake of X. Stark leads the theatrical quirk-folk outfit Lavender Diamond. And George is the singing half of the Bird and the Bee, her wry electro-pop duo with producer Greg Kurstin (their new album is a set of endearing Hall & Oates covers).
Despite their stylistically varied backgrounds, the ladies come together beautifully on Love to Live, which was born, Stark says, of "a dream for more harmony in the world." A co-director of the L.A. Ladies Choir (motto: "Sing joyfully!"), Stark means that literally, as well as figuratively. Each of the disc's 10 tracks is built around the Living Sisters' intricate three-part vocal arrangements. Blending one's voice with other voices, in Stark's words, nourishes the soul and fosters global interconnectivity.
Not that the album sounds like a U.N. resolution. Indeed, there's a sly sense of humor at work in tracks like "Double Knots," with its prim-sexual innuendo, and "You Make Me Blue," which features some hilariously deadpan shabop-shabops. If the prospect of three people singing around one microphone makes you wary of the cult of sincerity lampooned in A Mighty Wind, the Living Sisters are here to assure you that folkies know funny, too.
That said, in the studio the Sisters were dead serious about the one-microphone thing. "The way we did it originally was we had them on three different mikes," says Sheldon Gomberg, who co-produced Love to Live with the band. "But it wasn't sounding right, so I said, 'Would you guys mind trying it around one?' As soon as they did, it was like, 'Ah, that's right.' It was kind of magical watching them do it."
"We did it like that because it just sounded the best," George adds, "because then you have to blend and adapt to each other's rhythms and patterns."
Stark and Mandell talk about the physics of vocal harmonies — in case you were wondering, according to Mandell, the person with the biggest butt usually takes the low note — and how the group's goal with Gomberg was to capture "this real, organic, physical thing that's happening in space and time."
George singles out old photographs of Frank Sinatra recording in front of an orchestra as inspiration for the on-the-fly vibe they were after, even if some technical mistakes snuck into the finished product. "I think perfection is overrated," she notes. "When you think of your favorite songs from the '60s, there are lots of mistakes in those, and that's what you love about them."
The Living Sisters' main concern was the creation of a sound bigger than its constituent parts. "It's less about an individual performance and more about locking in with the other singers," says George, who adds that even a given tune's lyrics were often secondary to the girl-group gestalt. "When you're singing about something, the first thing I'm thinking about is, 'How are we singing together?' Then the meaning of the song comes from that. We have this experience together when we're singing where our voices become one voice."
"It's cool," Mandell notes with characteristic understatement.
We ask the women if the phenomenon can be compared to the collective consciousness that exists within a school of fish or a flock of birds.
"Only when we sing," George replies, before Stark adds, "otherwise, no way."
THE LIVING SISTERS open for She & Him at El Rey on Thurs., March 25.
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