Sister, Sister: How Joseph Reconciled and Made Their Stunning Indie-Rock Return
The once folk-minded trio, made up of sisters Natalie Schepman and Meegan and Allison Closner, chase after a bigger, bolder sound on Good Luck, KidPhoto by Louis Browne Music Features Joseph
The Closner sisters are not dramatic people. But there was a moment, a few years ago, when a rare bout of drama threatened to upend everything.
Well, not everything—Joseph’s next album, a follow-up to the sister-trio’s breakout 2016 LP, I’m Alone, No You’re Not, and subsequent EP, 2017’s Stay Awake, was already 90% written at the point of this debacle. And family is family, after all. It would take a whole lot of drama to damage those ties. But still, there were deep-seated feelings, little things that had been brewing beneath the surface for years, that finally bubbled up.
“We’re not hot-tempered at all,” Natalie Schepman (née Closner) says during a four-way call earlier this summer. “And to be honest, it’s rare that something boils over. But this was just a particularly deep problem and pain we had together that had kind of boiled over the last three years, or four at that point.”
When I ask the three women—Natalie and her twin sisters and bandmates, Meegan and Allison—what happened, they can’t decide where to begin.
“Meegan, you should tell it because I can’t remember,” Schepman says. “You did such a good job the last time.”
“The story of ‘Fighter?’” Meegan replies, referencing the song inspired by this story and lead single from the band’s new album Good Luck, Kid, out Friday, Sept. 13 on ATO Records.
Natalie’s response: “Yeah, like how it all kind of came crashing down, but how we decided to keep going.”
The band was completing a string of shows in their native Pacific Northwest when Meegan and Natalie got into a tift (the details of which they carefully avoided discussing), only to be interrupted by Allison’s intervention.
“We were driving down this back road and [Allison] gets flustered and she’s basically like, ‘You guys are both right! You both have really good sides to this. Just stop!’” Natalie says. “She’s driving, and all of a sudden we hear this big crash, and we realize that she had run into somebody’s large mirror that’s coming off the side in this tiny street. So we have a minor car accident, and to make matters more dramatic, I decided in that moment that I’m not gonna deal. We’re a few blocks away from our friend’s house where we’re staying, I open the car van and I run to the house and I hole myself away in a room that I know they won’t be in.”
But the heated moment eventually cooled: Their dad stepped in to mediate on the drive back to Portland, their hometown, and Meegan later returned to Natalie with an encouraging “Let’s do this.” Later that night, they played a local show at Revolution Hall, with just the three of them on stage, save for a choir who appeared for a few songs. Natalie sums up that evening best: “Honestly, it’s one of my favorite shows we’ve ever played, because there’s nothing like the feeling of having reconciled.”
“If you’ve ever experienced reconciliation, you’re more connected to that person than you’ve ever been,” she continues. “And then to add on top of that, now we’re going to use our vocal chords and these sounds to transmit emotion and feeling to this audience, people who are so happy to be here and so present with us. It’s just cosmic. It was huge. It was such a special night. So [“Fighter”] came out of that moment. When we were writing it, we weren’t really talking about the tensions. It was almost like the song really brought to the surface the stuff that we really needed to talk about because we kind of wrote it without saying what we meant. But then eventually it was like, ‘No, you need to come to the table and fight. We have to duke this out to get to the other side of what’s hurting.’”
And on the other side, Joseph are stronger than ever. Good Luck, Kid, the album that was 90% done before the “Fight” in “Fighter” occurred, is finally about to be out in the world, and it’s the biggest, boldest, most realized thing Joseph (who named their band after a small Oregon town after starting the project in 2014) have ever released. They pulled pop-minded producer Christian “Leggy” Langdon (Meg Myers, Charlotte OC) for the project, a far cry from the airy folk of their 2014 debut Cloudline. The hooks here are hookier, the choruses are louder and the energy is all-around more charged-up. It’s a formula that will serve them well at their already jubilant live shows.
“We love singing big belty songs, and we love singing the small quiet ones,” Allison says. “But a lot of times the big, belty rowdy ones are really fun to perform and tend to keep the audience and everybody up and engaged. So going into this, we all were like, ‘Okay, we really want this album to be grittier and bigger and still maintaining our presence and our sound.’ The highs are even higher, and the lows are even lower.”
What remains constant are their earth-shattering harmonies, vocal unions that are so pristine and intertwined they could only be sung by people who share the same blood. The highs are indeed loftier, and ever-present: “Fighter” is an emotionally charged pop anthem tingling with electronic production, “Presence” is a juicy indie-rock jam and “Enough In Your Eyes” is a groovy, sleek R&B love song. Good Luck, Kid is a high-energy pop effort with the searing Americana spirit of a Grace Potter record.
But the lows Allison was referring to peak out here and there, too. As Natalie says, “This album doesn’t shy away from what’s hard.” “Revolving Door,” the album’s literal and metaphorical centerpiece, is a gut-punch, the kind of emotional post-breakup piano saga Fiona Apple once specialized in. But this song has more raw feeling than feistiness: “I forgave you for your mistakes / Still I’m the one who paid,” the sisters sing in unison. “Don’t you know it’s such a letdown?”
“I could be wrong, but I think for the first time ever, we have a song that doesn’t have a happy ending or have an answer within it,” Natalie says of “Revolving Door.” “And it’s a vulnerable thing because the song just snapshots the moment of total brokenness, and it doesn’t have even a glimmer of hope in it. So hopefully it can nod to the hard things that other people are going through, but also [have] this vote of confidence and this hug around the neck. Like, ‘You can do it.’”
That encouraging energy is loudest on the title track, Good Luck, Kid’s intense, rocking thesis. Natalie wrote the song after a road trip epiphany, when she and her partner Chris were discussing what it feels like to grow up, enter your 30s and realize you’re completely lost, with no road map in sight.
“We were talking about all of this, and he’s like, ‘Yeah, it’s like the universe stopped the car, got out of the car, threw you the keys and said, ‘Good luck kid.’ And I was just like, ‘Whoa, that is it. That is the feeling.’”
It’s about a personal journey, but there’s no reason “Good Luck, Kid” can’t speak to the larger crises at hand, that looming sense of doom every American carries around in their hearts and minds these days.
“It’s always been crazy, but it’s never been more publicized,” Natalie says. “The craziness has never been more documented and in our face. And I personally feel like I’m constantly accosted with the horror of the world, so much more so than I ever have been in my life, and I feel like I’m not the only one who feels that way.”
Indeed, to be alive in 2019 is to be constantly dodging the shit that’s hitting the fan, and Natalie, Allison and Meegan are awake to that reality. Their truest intention with this album is for listeners to “feel believed in,” despite—and in the midst of—the chaos. When making the record, they also looked frequently to their “inner child,” that “kid” who’s now in the driver’s seat. Meegan dips out of the call for a prior engagement, so I take a moment to ask Allison and Natalie what their message to their younger selves would be.
“My younger self would be so blown away by who I am today,” Allison says. “I think I was so scared, and I didn’t think that I would ever be brave enough to do really anything. I remember my parents saying that when I went off to college, I went and stayed in the dorm and they were positive that I was going to call them within the first two weeks and ask to come home. And so I think looking back saying something [to] my younger self, I think I would just be like, ‘Just you wait.’”
When it’s Natalie’s turn, she says “I love your answer, Al,” before revealing her own teenage narrative.
“The fact that we went to a Christian school our whole growing-up, there was a lot in that that I felt like we’ve all had to undo, and part of me wants to say to that person, ‘Ask more questions,’” she says. “But when I really think about it, I don’t want to judge that person for being such a blind believer. Even though I don’t want that assurance and that certainty that I had at the time now, and I certainly don’t want the shame or the performance tactics, I do think having those very defined black-and-white, four-walls ideas created a sense of security at the time that I probably have confidence now because of that. So I guess I wouldn’t change it, because I would just say, ‘You’re doing your best.’”
Good Luck, Kid closes with the same message. “Room For You,” is a lullaby-like goodbye that shares a soul with Kacey Musgraves’ feel-good Golden Hour kicker “Rainbow,” or maybe Lee Ann Womack’s resilient country serenade “I Hope You Dance.” “I hope to God the world will make some room for you,” Joseph sings. “I hope you see in colors that world sees through / You know I’ll be right here holding this dream for you.”
When discussing the song, Natalie recalls holding a friend’s newborn baby for the first time and feeling “this overwhelming experience of, ‘I never want you to hurt.’” Of course, that baby will grow up and feel all kinds of pain and heartbreak, the same kind Meegan, Natalie and Allison sing about on this album. But as Natalie also said, “None of us asked to be here.” We’re all just figuring it out as we go along.
“I’ve been thinking so much about this inner child, for lack of a better term, when I had that sensation about him, I recognize that someone must’ve felt that way about me when I was born,” Natalie says. “[“Room For You”] is really a moment to recognize that we’re rooting you on. Be kind and compassionate to the fact that you just arrived here, and you’re doing your best.”
Watch Joseph perform a Riverview Session at South By Southwest in 2015: