From the January/February 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers
Back in 2005, a young bluegrass band from Georgia known as the Lovell Sisters took the stage on the public radio show A Prairie Home Companion for the Talent from Twelve to Twenty contest. The youngest Lovell, Rebecca, was only 14, but already a commanding singer and mandolin player, joined by Megan, 15, on dobro and Jessica, 19, on fiddle. With tight instrumental work and seamless sibling harmonies, the band won first prize, and more awards soon followed—including a mandolin contest win for Rebecca at MerleFest in 2006, and a John Lennon Songwriting Contest grand prize in 2008. The Lovell Sisters were clearly on the rise.
After a few years on the bluegrass circuit, though, Jessica opted out of the touring musician’s life, prompting Rebecca and Megan to regroup and reinvent their sound—this time tapping into their love of classic rock and blues. So in 2010 they traded mandolin and dobro for guitar and lap steel, and named their new act Larkin Poe, after an ancestor who was actually a cousin of Edgar Allen Poe.
In the realm of roots rock, too, the sisters have risen fast. They’ve performed with Elvis Costello and Keith Urban, scored a Grammy nomination (for 2018’s Venom and Faith), and toured internationally with a full-band show that’s both electrified and electrifying, powered by Rebecca’s soulful vocals and rhythm guitar, Megan’s soaring slide, and their telepathic harmonies. As Larkin Poe they also frequently play as an acoustic duo (well, semi-acoustic, with Megan playing a Rickenbacker lap steel). They’ve created hundreds of homegrown duo videos that have racked up, at this writing, 45 million views on YouTube, including inspired covers of artists as diverse as Skip James, Tony Rice, James Taylor, Led Zeppelin, and the Bee Gees.
Larkin Poe’s latest album of new original songs, Self Made Man, came out in the early days of the pandemic. The sisters remained productive during the live-music shutdown, creating not only online content but two releases: the acoustic covers album Kindred Spirits and now Paint the Roses, an orchestral collaboration with Nu Deco Ensemble recorded during a concert livestream.
As songwriters, guitarists, interpreters, and performers, Rebecca and Megan—now in their early 30s—are firing on all cylinders. To learn more about their journey from acoustic roots music to amped-up rock, I caught up with the sisters by phone from their home bases in Nashville. They also created an acoustic duo video, especially for AG, of their song “She’s a Self Made Man” (see above).
To start back with the Lovell Sisters days, what first hooked you into playing bluegrass?
Megan: We first went to a bluegrass festival when we were 13 years old. It was called MerleFest. We were blown away by getting to see all of these incredible musicians at the top of their game, improvising and sitting in with each other, and then the joy of the audience and participation and dancing. We just loved the energy, especially coming from a classical background where we were used to reading the notes off the page. It introduced us to this whole new world of what music could mean.
At the time you were playing violin and piano, right?
Megan: We started out on violin when Rebecca was three and I was four, and we picked up piano a few years later. We played in symphonies and quartets and did recitals, like a lot of kids. But when we went to that festival, we felt immediately that we wanted to be involved in roots music. We quit our classical lessons cold turkey and became the most uncool teenagers, picking up banjos and mandolins. That’s when I was fully introduced to slide guitar in the form of dobro.
My understanding is that Jerry Douglas was an inspiration.
Megan: Yeah, absolutely. We grew up listening a lot to Alison Krauss and Union Station, which featured Jerry Douglas. I knew the sound of the instrument, but I had never really connected the sound to how the instrument was played and what it looked like. And when I saw it being played, I was blown away by the vocal quality and how unique it was. I knew immediately that was what I was headed for. I guess me and frets don’t really go together, because I tried to play guitar and banjo and mandolin, but it just was not working.
Rebecca, what drew you to mandolin?
Rebecca: I typically say that the mandolin connected with my frenetic energy as a preteen, but I think, honestly, it was the easiest transition. Violins and mandolins have the same tuning, so I was able to quickly find my way around just based on the similar stringing, and I learned how to use a pick. I really love mandolin. It’s been a huge part of developing my instrumental prowess. I don’t play it as much anymore, based on now being in an electrified and drum-heavy group, but it was a big love of my life for many years.
Do you think mandolin, and the chop you supply in a bluegrass band, helped you play guitar with such a strong sense of groove?
Rebecca: Well, thank you for saying that. I would agree that the mandolin player’s role in any bluegrass band is to serve as the drummer. I do think it helped me develop a more metric sense of time, and it gave me a feeling of rhythm within myself. It was a big step up for me in transitioning to the guitar.
String bands are about creating drive without drums. How did you find the transition into playing with a full rock band?
Rebecca: When we started Larkin Poe in 2010, that’s when we first started playing with a drummer. So I think for two, two and a half years, it was very awkward for us to sync into more of a drum-orchestrated environment, learning to trust the drummer and to write music that had an affinity with drums. So it was definitely a transitional period for us. But at this point, I can’t imagine not having a drummer. Perhaps in the future, Megan and I will do an acoustic tour and the two of us stripped back, because we do love it very much. But I certainly enjoy having a rock performance under our belts at this point.
Megan: Absolutely. I think one of the hardest things, going from a string band to an electrified drum-driven band, is how loud everything was. But now that’s no problem. In fact, it can never be too loud.
When you play as an acoustic duo, you create a very full sound. Do you think that’s a reflection of your string-band background?
Megan: I think even more so it’s our relationship as sisters. I mean, we’ve been playing together and singing together since we were four years old. All of that growth together has made it very easy to read each other’s minds musically and perform together no matter what the format is.
Bluegrass is also great training for vocals, especially with its emphasis on harmonies. Does that impact the way you sing together today?
Rebecca: Definitely. I think we are lucky in two aspects: One, we started out singing in a choir and had a great vocal coach who really placed an emphasis on tight harmonies and pitch. And it’s the same thing in bluegrass. So that’s always been a huge focus for us.
Rebecca, you use a lot of dropped-D tuning on guitar. Is that a key part of your sound?
Rebecca: I have written a lot in dropped-D over the years. I like the fact that you can get some power-chord vibes on the low strings of the guitar, and it occupies a lot of space, given that we’re a four-piece band and I am the only rhythm player. Megan is our lead guitarist, but she is tuned to open G [G B D G B D], so the lowest she can go is a G note below middle C. So getting more beefiness out of my guitar has been a focus for me as a writer.
But I also am known to wildly cross-tune my guitar and see what it inspires in terms of writing. I am a big Chris Whitley fan, and he would have just random tuning after random tuning written onto his setlist. I thought that was really cool before I had to actually implement the tunings onstage under the time pressure of an audience waiting for you to get your guitar in tune. So that is why we have to bring a bajillion guitars.
Can you give some examples of tunings you use?
Rebecca: My favorite one is B A B E B E. I wrote a song called “Freedom” in that tuning. I have a Strat that can withstand being tuned down to a low B, which is pretty damn low for an electric guitar. But it sounds cool. It’s very ominous.
For “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues,” a cover of a Skip James song, I tune to open D—D A D F# A D—which is cool [note that the original is in D minor, D A D F A D]. I have a song called “Pink and Red” that is tuned to C G D G B E.
Megan, what was the transition like for you from dobro over to lap steel?
Megan: Very gradual. At first I had a little bit of a hard time accepting the lap steel. I think the idea of taking on pedals and figuring out how to use an amp and how loud everything is can be a little bit overwhelming at first. But once I started to get into the lap steel, I have to say it was like, “Goodbye, dobro.” Not that I don’t love the dobro. I think it’s a beautiful instrument, and I still pick it up from time to time. But the lap steel is my true love.
It’s a fairly easy transition. There’s definitely a different style in which you play lap steel. Dobro is more like you manhandle it, whereas the lap steel just has more sustain naturally. You have to play it with more finesse, because if you dig in, you’re going to get a brittle tone. You need a more gentle touch.
I love the vocal quality of the dobro, but the lap steel can sound like an opera singer. It feels like my true voice.
How do you think about the relationship of your two instruments in your arrangements? The lap steel seems more like another singer than a second guitar.
Megan: Absolutely. We’ve had to be very aware of the different spaces that each element of our show occupies. There’s Rebecca’s voice, and then there’s my lap steel, which can occupy a similar range to her voice. So I have to be very careful, since I don’t want to clash with her. And then we also want to want to fill out the bottom end as much as possible.
Rebecca: If it’s Megan and me as an acoustic duo, how I play acoustic guitar is strictly trying to cover rhythm and chords. So if we’re playing, you know, in E, I am required to play the low E note to frame out the low end. Within our band, I’m allowed a little bit more leeway to work in some riffs. If our bass player’s playing the bass and some key parts, it allows me to break away. But I’ve always viewed myself predominantly as a utility player, just to shore up the gap. I don’t get too fancy.
Megan: I don’t know about that. You are such a huge riff player. Most of the solid riffs in our songs come from the guitar, and then I am over top, like a lead guitarist or sometimes like a third vocalist. We are a very riff-heavy band.
Do you come up with those riffs as part of the songwriting process, or later when you’re arranging a song as a band?
Rebecca: Typically, my song inspiration starts with the music, so having a riff or chords is the foundational stone from which I then build melody and lyric. But I do feel really lucky to be in a position in the band with a lot of creative support from my sister. Megan really translates melody when she is improvising or playing in general. So if there’s ever a song that I don’t feel has a cool riff or something compelling, we’re able to break it back down to the bones together as a team and write some riffs in the studio.
Megan: I think that comes from the music we listened to growing up. If you think about the Allman Brothers or Eric Clapton, there’s always going to be a main riff that shows up through the song. All of the bands we really admire take so much from blues, which is a huge riff-based sort of music.
You’re such a powerful live act, but you’ve also done a lot of almost hip-hop-style recording, piecing together tracks and using loops and samples. Do you see playing live and layering tracks like that to be totally different processes?
Rebecca: At the core, Larkin Poe is my sister and me, and that can be somewhat limiting in that neither of us are natural-born drummers. I play the drums, but very badly. A lot of times there’s only so much that you can verbally express to another musician about what you’re looking for in terms of, you know, bpm, swung or not swung, or are we talking about eighth notes or 16th notes or four on the floor or a shuffle. So having technology at my fingertips to map out exactly what I hear in my head when I’m writing a song, in turn allows an audience to get a clearly distilled version of what we are creatively trying to put forward.
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In essence, whenever we record a song in the studio, the musicians listen to the way in which we portrayed the song [in the demo] and learn it in a way that pays respect to the original version while also being fresh and appropriate for the stage. We definitely allow arrangements to shift and flex for live performance. But I do think part of what makes us unique as a band is the ability to marry our very organic musical knowledge with GarageBand or Logic or Pro Tools, to let the creative vision run free—even further than it might otherwise.
Megan: That’s sort of the feeling behind Self Made Man. But Kindred Spirits is essentially live, just recorded in the studio with the two of us, and the new record [Paint the Roses] is live with Nu Deco Ensemble, so we definitely are branching out into that side of things too.
Do you see the Nu Deco album as reconnecting with your classical beginnings?
Rebecca: Absolutely. It was very nostalgic to hear original compositions interpreted through the lens of a classical format, very full circle. I feel even more grateful that that performance, which was intended to be a one-night occasion, was so special and we were able to release the music as an album. When we listened back to the board tapes, there was something true and worthwhile that we wanted to share with our fans. It is very much a left turn from what we do in the studio and also on the stage as Larkin Poe. We like throwing curveballs.
Megan: A lot of the songs are from the album Self Made Man, which we wrote intending to perform live on worldwide tours for 2020. But then we didn’t get to play any of them live, so it was great to have a space where we could perform them on a stage with a lot of power behind us. We’re also very excited to be releasing a song called “Mad as a Hatter,” which people have been requesting for so many years.
I’m curious about “Danger Angel,” one song from Self Made Man that you revisited on the new album. What can you tell me about writing that?
Rebecca: “Danger Angel” is one of those songs that I wrote sitting at my kitchen table with my acoustic guitar. I was looking to write something fairly meditative and hypnotic. I used a resonator guitar in the studio for the Self Made Man recording. The main loop of the song is this guitar riff that repeats over and over again.
Even when the chord changes, the riff stays the same.
Rebecca: Exactly. It’s kind of a prog-rock move, where you keep reframing the melodic elements based on what chord is happening underneath. But yeah, that song was kind of a little guilty pleasure for me. I was just messing around and wrote something lyrically that made me smile. It’s sort of this superhuman representation of a bad girl, of a danger angel. It has old bluegrass-style harmony singing, very high and lonesome and a little bit dissonant. I brought it to Megan, and she dug it.
Do you two work on songs more on the arranging level, or do you also co-write?
Megan: Rebecca is the main songwriter for the band, especially lyrically. So a lot of the song ideas come from her, and then I’ll come in and we’ll add that special Larkin Poe flavor at the end. She is the lead singer, and even though I do write, I think my style of writing sometimes differs a little bit vocally. It feels very important to us that the lyrics and melodies she’s singing are authentic to her. I love the songs that she writes, so I’m very pleased to come in and make them Larkin Poe.
Looking back at your days as the Lovell Sisters playing bluegrass, how do you draw the line from that music to what you’re doing now?
Megan: Man, that’s a good question. I think that we look back on it as all part of one big long story. The Lovell Sisters days feel like so long ago, like a different lifetime, but we also know that the lessons that we learned during those times are definitely affecting us now. And we are the same people, even though we play very different music. That roots music lives deep inside us and still affects what we do today and paints the unique picture that is Larkin Poe. I just feel very thankful for the way we got started in music.
What They Play
Rebecca Lovell’s go-to acoustic guitar is a Deco Phonic Sidecar, a small-body flattop built by Maryland’s Beard Guitars, best known for its resonator instruments. She plays her Sidecar, which takes inspiration from guitars of the 1920s and early ’30s, in all acoustic settings and throughout the Kindred Spirits album.
Onstage with Larkin Poe, Rebecca plays mostly Fender Stratocasters along with, recently, a Gretsch Jet. “Both Megan and I rely pretty heavily on a very clean Fender Deluxe-style amp sound: very tube-y, very simple, usually with a short delay, some overdrive, some reverb,” she says. “Neither of us consider ourselves to be the Edge! In Larkin Poe we’re kind of meat and potatoes when it comes to effects.”
Megan still reaches for her Scheerhorn Dobro on occasion, but with Larkin Poe—both the duo and the full band—she plays a Rickenbacker, a black-and-white B6 “Panda” model from the early ’50s. In order to play it standing onstage, she uses a holder that attaches on one side of the body and secures it in the optimal playing position. On both dobro and lap steel, she primarily plays in open G (G B D G B D). She uses a stainless steel Scheerhorn bar, metal ProPik fingerpicks, and a Dunlop M-10 Zookies plastic thumbpick.
For the lap steel, Megan uses an Ernie Ball volume pedal and a custom TB Drive, a signature pedal built in Germany by Rodenberg for guitarist Tyler Bryant—who, not coincidentally, is married to Rebecca. “I always play with overdrive on the lap steel because it can be a tinny instrument without it,” says Megan. “I like a ballsy drive.”