The Living Sisters serve sweet vermouth, cheesy puff pastries, dark chocolate and red wine at a late-November get-together, which they hold in the cozy living room of founding member Eleni Mandell's Echo Park apartment. Her 2-year-old twins sleep in a nearby bedroom. True to their whimsical musical vibe, they merrily toss around ideas for “The Living Sisters Dating Game” (wherein unattached members are set up, with no say in the matter, by the others) and swap stories about toddlers who want to eat only cookies.
A compelling lightness defines the approach of the quartet, which can accurately be called an indie supergroup, as its members are drawn from beloved local acts including Lavender Diamond, Touché and The Bird and the Bee. “Our goal was just to get together and sing in harmony, and that's really what has propelled us,” Mandell says.
Bohemian-leaning founder Becky Stark christened the group the first night she and Mandell met: “It just sounded beautiful to me — The Living Sisters.” As a threesome along with scene luminary Inara George, in 2010 they released their much-praised debut, Love to Live. But even then Stark imagined a foursome, and the newest Sister, Alex Lilly, formally joined the act for their sophomore effort, the all-covers EP Run for Cover, out today. It features versions of tunes by Parliament Funkadelic, Patsy Cline and Doris Day.
“Being in this group is like taking a vacation [from our other projects],” says Mandell, whose solo work tends to plumb darker themes. The Living Sisters join forces for brief but intense stretches when they find time off from their gigs as full-time musicians. It seems to be great fun for them — and it had better be, as it requires day-planner jujitsu concerning international tour dates and the needs of young children (including two sets of twins).
Collaborating with one another for maybe two concentrated weeks per year, they stay in close orbit and look out for the rare moments when their planets align.
George describes their group dynamics as “family-ish” but notes that four-part harmonies aren't easy to pull off. Further, there's clearly no frontwoman or designated spokeswoman here, which leads to four distinct answers to every question. Then there are digressions: Stark declares dreamily that she'd like to be an “orgasmic birth activist,” to which George, who has three children, responds, “I don't even want to know how to give orgasmic birth.”
The friendly tension The Living Sisters generate makes, in any case, for some wonderful harmonies. It's the result of listening to one another and not being too competitive. “This group makes me realize I sometimes overemphasize trying,” Lilly says. “Because to be honest I have tried on [The Living Sisters] the least, and it is by far my most successful project.”
George concurs. “I've been in bands where I'm on this cycle and I push too hard … but stuff that's light has its own momentum.”
This low-strain attitude informed their choice of songs for the recent EP, which includes tunes from the set list from their 2011 Patsy Cline tribute at Disney Hall.
Before long an empty wine bottle adorns the mantel, but The Living Sisters don't show any sign of turning in. It's hard to tell where they stop being colleagues and start being friends, which probably is why they succeed.