It’s not every high school student who goes directly from the classroom to the studio. Even fewer go into the studio to sing with John Mellencamp. But that’s exactly what Indianapolis-born sisters Lily and Madeleine Jurkiewicz did in the fall of 2012. “After school, our dad drove us down to the studio in Nashville, Indiana,” says Lily, the younger. “He taught us the song and we sang it with him, then we drove home and went back to school the next day.”
The song is called “Truth,” which acts as the denouement of Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, Mellencamp’s star-studded album with Stephen King and T Bone Burnett. The sisters’ voices are gentle compared to the Coug’s weathered growl—so graceful, in fact, that it takes a few listens to realize just how intricate and intuitive their harmonies truly are. “We’re a little too young to really know his stuff, so our dad was the most excited to get to meet him,” says Lily. “But everybody in Indiana knows who John Mellencamp is. It was a huge honor and a really neat experience.”
The Jurkiewicz sisters never really intended to get into the music business and certainly never thought they’d be singing with Hoosier rock royalty. They more or less stumbled into the industry, yet their lovely vocals and sharp songwriting have generated a great deal of buzz already. Shortly after the release of Ghost Brothers in June, the duo released their debut EP, The Weight of the Globe, on Asthmatic Kitty, and their self-titled full-length was released at the end of October. It’s tempting to suggest that Lily & Madeleine—as they are known in the studio and on stage—have a sound older and wiser than their years, but in fact, their songs sound like the work of teenagers in the best way possible: Their songs are romantically melancholy, wide-eyed and alive to every new experience.
Growing up in Indianapolis, the sisters started singing together very early in their lives. “Our mom is very musical, so she taught us everything we knew about how to sing,” Madeleine says. “She sings and plays guitar and piano. Our dad can sing, too, but he doesn’t. He like a lot of classic rock and stuff.” Inspired by Fleet Foxes and Adele, Lily & Madeleine posted bedroom performances to YouTube. One in particular, a cover of a First Aid Kit song accompanied only by Lily’s ukulele, ended up on the front page of Reddit, where it received thousands of views. “We were not familiar with the site at the time, so we didn’t know what was going on,” says Lily. “Everybody was like, oh my goodness it’s on the front page of Reddit! I don’t even know what that means.”
The clip attracted the attention of, well, lots and lots of viewers, among them Paul Mahern, a producer in Bloomington (about 45 minutes south of Indianapolis and home to Indiana University). During more than three decades in the music business, he has produced albums by Mellencamp, Blake Babies and Over the Rhine, among many others, but admits he was blown away by Lily & Madeleine’s harmonies. “I must have watched that video 15 times in a row,” Mahern says. “Their voices were just amazing. I have done a million records and have been dealing with some pretty incredible musicians for a really long time. Every once in a while, something comes along and makes me think: Wow, I still love music! This was that.”
After agreeing to work together, Mahern gave the sisters a fairly daunting homework assignment: For two weeks over their summer break, they were to write a song a day together. “That was the first time they had written together,” Madeleine says. “It was a challenge, but it turned out to be a great exercise because it forced us to figure out how we worked together.”
That first batch of songs informed both their EP and the new LP, both of which sound confident and curious, lush yet austere. Mahern keeps the arrangements spare and the production quiet, as though skittish of letting any single element interfere with the sisters’ performance. “It’s all about their voices,” he says. “The best thing I could do was just stay out of their way.”
Lily & Madeleine opens with “Sounds Like Somewhere,” a meditative track festooned with cascades of piano and sympathetic strings. A standout in their still small catalog, it’s reflective but more focused on the future than on their past: “Someday I’ll find the right words, I’ll sing a song that sounds like somewhere,” they sing together. “Someday I’ll bloom where I am planted.” Then they careen off into some bittersweet oooh-oooh-ooohs that speak just as loudly and clearly as their lyrics.
“We were trying to convey our excitement over all these new opportunities in our lives,” Lily explains. “We’re still pretty new at this whole recording and producing thing, but after the EP we had a better idea of what exactly we wanted to do on the LP.” Adds Madeleine: “People comment on how sad the EP sounds, which I suppose I agree with. But we wanted to make the tone of our album a little different and add more variety to our music.”
If Lily & Madeleine is an album about appreciating the limitless opportunities of the future—“we’ve got nothing but time,” they sing—then Lily and Madeleine are already hitting a few bumps along the way. Madeleine graduated from high school and is now a freshman at IU, while Lily remains at home in Indianapolis. “It’s harder to collaborate,” says Lily, “but we still write.” The demands of school takes precedence over the machinations of the music industry, which means touring will be minimal. “We’re going to take a week or two to travel in the fall,” says Madeleine. “We’re excited about it, but it’s frustrating and difficult trying to balance the two right now.”
Nevertheless, their mentor Mahern believes they have not only the talent but the work ethic to thrive in the music business. “They’re both really smart, super gracious and engaged and hard-working. Who knows what the future holds for them?”