The Watson Twins' break came with Rabbit Fur Coat, their 2006 collaboration with Jenny Lewis. From the album's cover, which featured the petite Lewis flanked on both sides by the willowy Watsons, to the rich harmonies the twins wrapped around the Rilo Kiley frontwoman's tunes, their presence was immediately felt among fans of indie-country. In June, Vanguard Records released the twins' debut album, Fire Songs, which offered two summer gems: the Goffin-and-King-esque original "How Am I To Be", and their laid-back cover of The Cure's "Just Like Heaven."
Paste met up with The Watson Twins in Portland, Ore., several hours before their headlining show at The Doug Fir Lounge. The tour manager introduced me first to Leigh and her easygoing charm set the mood; Chandra appeared soon after wearing pinstriped flares, the only sign of fashion-consciousness among the two on this breezy summer evening.
: So who's idea was it to cover The Cure's "Just Like Heaven" on Fire Songs?
Leigh: It sort of just happened. We listened to the song at home, strummed it on the guitar, took it into soundcheck and liked the way it sounded. We started playing it live with the band and the reception was always good. We only did a few shows before we went into the studio and I told the guys we both felt strongly about covering it and they were like, "Why do you want to waste one of your eleven songs on the record on somebody else's song?" And I thought, “Sure, it is their song, but now it's kind of our song, too.”
Chandra: It's a little bit like being an actor and interpreting a script, you know? You put your own spin on it and ultimately are living in someone else's words. We've done Spoon's "I Summon You." We've done a Neil Young song and covered Emmylou Harris. This was a different genre for us and we had a great time with it.
Paste: Are there any big points of disagreement between you two regarding taste?
Leigh: Not really. That sounds boring, but it's true. I mean, I'll be working on a song and Chandra will hear something in there I'm not hearing and suggest we develop the song from there.
Chandra: And vice versa.
Leigh: And it can be great because if you're intensely working on a song you can be blind to those embellishments. You know, it's like you're working from inside the body. You can't see what the fingers and toes are doing because you are working from the heart.
Chandra: We don't get into fist-fights or anything like that.
Leigh: Maybe some mud wrestling ...
Chandra: (laughs) And hair pulling.
Paste: (laughs) And even then you're just getting in touch with your inner Davies brother.
Leigh: Exactly. (laughs)
Paste: Now, after moving to Los Angeles from Louisville, you both worked at different major labels. What did you learned from that early exposure to the music industry?
Chandra: Dreams are made to be broken. (laughs) At the time, we were the background singers in a group called Sydell, and we were being approached by managers, labels and different industry-types. I came to this moment where I felt I didn't know anything about this thing I'd chosen as my career. It just so happened, at that moment I was looking for a new job and a friend of mine who worked in Music Video at Virgin Records called me and said, "Hey, we need a new person in our department, would you be interested?" So it was cool because I wasn't in A&R or, you know, on the really depressing side of the music industry. I learned at arms' length about marketing and promotion-- all of those words like "recoupable" and "non-recoupable" where you hear them as an artist and you're like, "What in the hell does that mean?"
Leigh: When I worked at the label I can remember seeing so many bands who were peers of ours after they got their budget, and they would say, "Oh, the label is only giving us $25,000." And then they'd fight the label to get $75,000. I'd look at the books and say to them, "You know you're paying this all back, right? This comes out of your royalties and you're not going to see a dime until you pay the company back for this video. You should spend five grand on your music video, recoup that, and then make money."
Paste: So this is the kind of lesson you applied to your own decisions after signing with your label?
Chandra: We were a little more thoughtful about that kind of stuff, yeah. About what makes the most sense financially. On one of the first trips we took after we signed, a car service came and picked us up. I got car service for artists before; I know how much they cost. So I called our manager and told him it's very kind of them to offer that service but we'll drive ourselves. (laughs) It cost me ten dollars to park at the airport, you know. Much cheaper than car service.
Leigh: And at this point in the industry, there's not a lot of money going around. Everyone who is in our age group who is a music fan is paying an insane amount of money for gas. And rents are going up. And they're trying to be creative with their own projects. At this time...
Chandra: It's just good to be thoughtful about that stuff.
Leigh: It's just good to be thoughtful and good to get back to a point where...
Chandra: Where there's not as much excess.
Leigh: Yeah. You know, we're not requesting warm towels and white gardenia candles in our dressing room. (laughs) Give us a twelve-pack of Coors Light and we're fine.
Chandra: We're not extravagant women, but I think that comes from being from the Midwest.
Paste: I hope I'm not the first one to pass this on to you, but there's actually a rumor going around that you're very insistent about that Coors Light.
Leigh: (laughs) Well, there haven't been any problems yet.
Paste: Are there ways people have tried to categorize you which bother you?
Chandra: I don't know. People say indie-folk. I don't know what a folkie is anymore, you know. For us, we try to write accessible music, which is I think where folk music comes from. It's not brain surgery. It's just common music charged by common emotions which everyone can understand. It's like Lavender Diamond, who we played with last time we were in Portland. People say they're psychedelic folk. But they just write great songs, teetering off pop songs, most of them. So I think there are just a lot of blurred lines. I don't think you can go back because too much has happened. We've seen too much to go on seeing only blues, rock, soul, gospel...
Leigh: It's like everybody at some point is going to be the perfect color brown. That's basically where we're going as people and it's happening with music, too.
Paste: That's a fascinating point, especially in light of the title you chose for your album, Fire Songs. You said this is a reference to torch songs, which is not so much a genre as it is an idiom or sensibility. And a timeless one, I think it's safe to say.
Chandra: The type of music Leigh and I write has very simple chord structures and melodies. It's more focused on the lyrical content and our harmonies and is most concerned with making a connection with the listener. It's not the bells and whistles and figuring out how to make it weird or how we can put our funky little spin on it. We're just not interested in that.
Leigh: That's also how we approach recording, as well. We recorded this record on 2-inch and mastered to tape and pressed vinyl copies. I feel like that approach lends itself well to our music. Maybe some day we'll make some kind of...
Chandra: Disco record. (laughs)
Leigh: (laughs) Yeah, we're going straight into the seventies next with a disco record. (laughs) No, I think everything has happened for us organically and so we want to continue that. Working with [Jenny] Lewis, finding Vanguard, gathering our crew-- all of it just happened organically.
Paste: Chandra, you mentioned the harmonies being integral to the process. Do they come naturally?
Chandra: It's sort of ingrained in our heads by now. Like today, I was playing a few new songs and Leigh came in on harmony. It's automatic at this point. Whenever we listen to the radio, by the third time a chorus comes around on a pop song I'm probably singing harmony on part of it. And I just can't help it. Our tour manager makes fun of me: “You sing harmony to everything. It's so weird!”
Leigh: I also feel it's something where we challenge each other. I mean, there are some parts we work on for sure. There are parts where, instinctively we know where we want to go but also want to challenge ourselves by going somewhere else. We don't want to sing the same second-part harmony on each song but we do have signature places we go.
Chandra: And those places are very instinctual.
Paste: Is there anything on Fire Songs you're looking to build upon for the next record-- a mood or genre, perhaps?
Chandra: Leigh and I are always brainstrorming where we'd like to go. But I think the next record will be a crazy melting-pot and, maybe, go in a slightly different direction. This record was done more in the vein of classic rock, the California sound...
Leigh: Yeah, and that just sort of happened because of the musicians we worked with. But for the next record we're already talking about what kind of songs are inspiring us right now. And that's really how it starts.