By some bit of chance, I had just watched 20 Feet From Stardom the night before I was to talk with The Watson Twins. Chandra and Leigh Watson have had a great career of their own over the last decade, but they have also spent plenty of time backing up artists such as Jenny Lewis and, more recently, Jessie Baylin, with gorgeous results. The twin sisters have a sense of harmony that has gone unmatched and a growing reputation as the artists to call when you need perfect voices behind you. Their latest record, Pioneer Lane, is a slight departure from their norm, foregoing their darker folk songs for an album suited for the entire family. It should be noted that they’re also hilarious and an incredibly easy interview, but don’t admit to them that you’d root for the Kentucky Wildcats. These Louisville-Cards-For-Life girls take no prisoners on such matters.
: So tell me about the last year or so for you two.
Chandra Watson: It’s all been great. We released Pioneer Lane last fall. We haven’t done a lot of hardcore touring around it. The impetus for this record was that our distribution company had heard songs that we wrote that were structured more for family folk songs. They were a little bit lighter, really simple, lots of harmonies. [The distribution company] was like, “These are incredible. Will you do a whole record?” So that started us on this train and it’s been really fun to exercise a completely different trajectory to making a record. Leigh and I wrote differently for these songs and…
Leigh Watson: We figured out that we actually knew how to write happy songs. All this time, we’ve been writing depressing folk music! Now here we are writing some uplifting, harmony-driven songs about nature and love!
Chandra: Yeah, and strange enough, people like them. It’s so weird.
Leigh: We figured there’s too much darkness in the world, so now we’re going to try and write some happier songs. Nobody wants to hear the shoegazer, Debbie Downer folk.
: So it only took you two to your 30s to get out of your goth phase?
Chandra: I would say “transitioning from our goth phase.” It’s so funny, I was watching TV the other night and it was a Nirvana live performance from 1991 maybe, Halloween night in Seattle. I was transported back to my Louisville self, high school, and just being just so enthralled with this sort of grunge rock. And it was so funny because that’s what was happening in so much of the experimental music scene, and in Louisville, I had already been to shows where there were mosh pits. That was the norm, because we went to all of the punk rock shows and stuff. I remember seeing Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on TV for the first time and being like, “Oh my gosh! We’re not the weirdos anymore. Like, people are seeing this on TV. This is crazy.” So watching it, I was like, “That’s where it all started.” That angsty punk, for the Watson Twins, morphed into introspective folk music, but that’s what we grew up listening to in our teens. I was making the whole correlation of grunge, punk, into this introspective shoegazer, into this introspective folk.
: Yeah, eventually the weirdos did take over the world, and when that happened, you went folk. Finally, there was your chance, but instead, “yeah, we’ll just pick up these acoustic guitars.”
Chandra: But it’s been fun. It’s been fun to change gears. Leigh and I love singing harmonies together, and that’s something we’ve known since we were little kids. We’ve always enjoyed that, so it was really to, on this record go buck wild with the harmonies. Because a lot of times we actually try to hold it back, because we’re like, “Oh, we could do five different harmonies on this,” but that might be a little overkill. But we took off the reins on this one. Russ Pollard—my husband, he’s in Everest—he’s produced a bunch of our records and he was like, “Let’s have fun with it. Let’s do as many harmonies as we want.” It really created this melodic landscape that made it a really easy listen for anybody. It doesn’t tilt in one direction or the other. It’s not really kids’ music; it’s everyone music.
: With Russ producing it and you two being sisters, it’s a family record that’s made by a family.
Chandra: Yeah, and Russ and I moved to Nashville last year in April, and Leigh followed last fall, and we recorded the whole record right here at our new house. So that was fun, too. We recorded it at home and it’s this family folk record, so it all came full circle. It was really nice to work in such a comfortable atmosphere. It really allowed us to relax and take our time and experiment.
: When you’re writing those songs, and I don’t even know if you had it in mind that it was going to be this kind of record beforehand, but how do you make a family record without it turning into a kids’ record? Is it all just about the themes?
: Is it the goth coming back, is that what it is?
Leigh: You know what, I think it was like, not that we’re serious people—as you can tell we’ve been joking with you this entire interview—but I think for us, there’s just something about our level of where we can go with what we do and going to the songs about cooking baked beans on the campfire with the Jolly Green Giant, to make it more childlike in that way. Just the subject matter, we couldn’t really go there, but we saw these really simple pieces of life that are things like, when you first have that experience, that’s what comes to mind. For instance, “Sweet Summer Days” is about riding your bike with friends as a kid. That’s something we can all relate to and understand. It’s like writing a record for the experience that that person’s going through right now. So we tried to put ourselves in that perspective and seeing things for the very first time as a child.
Chandra: For Leigh and I, it was going back to what we grew up singing as children. Children’s music, when we grew up, was very different. It was “This Land Is Your Land.” It was folky, very simplistic messages. It was less…I don’t want to say obnoxious. It was music that was palatable for your parents or grandparents to sing with you and they could still feel like an adult. They didn’t have to be a kid with you, and you could sing it together. It almost goes back to that traditional folk music and that traditional gospel music. We went that angle with these songs as opposed to going the more childlike, playful, as if a child was writing it. We went from an adult perspective of a universal theme as opposed to just for kids.
: Yeah, before I was told that it was a “family record,” I had no clue. “Oh, it’s a nice song.” I had no clue.
Chandra: That’s good! We joked around, because neither of us have children, so we kind of joked that we made it for our friends who have kids, because they were like, “If I have to listen to the crazy song about this, this and this one more time, I’m going to jump off a bridge.” So I was like, okay, this is a record you can actually listen to with your kids and sing along and you don’t have to worry about language or message or whatever. It’s going to be positive, but you’re not going to feel like an idiot when you’re singing along.
Leigh: You know it’s funny when you look at it, a song that has taken over children’s music, or at least has for a lot of my friends, is Pharrell’s song “Happy.” I don’t think Pharrell was like, “I’m going to make a song for kids.” It’s a song that maybe was originally written for a specific scene of Despicable Me, but the idea is universal. Everybody wants to be happy. And kids don’t have to have that rhyming, “goo goo ga ga”-type sound. They will hear the message. If it’s simple enough, they will hear and understand that message. And that’s an amazing way to approach music with kids.
: So where does Pioneer Lane sit with you all? Is it your next album or your holdover project until your next album?
Chandra: Well, that’s a good question. Do you have any suggestions, Kyle?
Leigh: We’re both writing right now and we have material. We just had a birthday, and I said to Chandra, “Let’s do another record this year before our next birthday.” So that’s our goal. We moved to Nashville and that was a huge transition time, and then released Pioneer Lane, so yeah, it’s a transition record for us. Is it necessarily something that I think is a Watson Twins record? Yeah, it is, but it’s a different way than what we naturally and organically write.
Chandra: And I’ll say that I think that some of the tones that we touched on in Pioneer Lane, Leigh and I realized that there are parts of that type of writing and that type of singing that we really enjoy. So I would say that influentially that Pioneer Lane, there will be reflections of that in our next record, but we’re not planning on making another family folk record. We played a couple shows here and one show in Louisville. We sang with Jessie Baylin here in Nashville and opened for her. It was a really great night and we were able to play some new music and have been getting great response from our new songs, which is exciting. Right before we left L.A., we signed with Secret Road and have been working with them on writing for film and TV, and it’s been about all of these creative projects coming together, and it’s been really exciting to Leigh and I to be able to exercise creative muscles and how we initially started releasing music, which was make a record, release a record, tour a record, okay, now start over. In that last six years, that has evolved and taken shape into a lot of different ways. And that’s what we get excited about. Singing backups for different people, writing material in different ways, and our last few releases have been self-releases, so obviously it’s something that we’re really passionate about. We get behind our project, and we feel like there’s not really any rules. We can do with it however we want, you know? It’s the fun part of being creative in this time in music.
: You talk about singing backup, which is a really interesting way to have a career. The movie 20 Feet From Stardom—
Both: Loved it!
Chandra: I cried.
Leigh: I had chills the entire time.
: And you two live that. You have your solo careers, but there’s a lot of your time that you’re providing those harmonies for other people. Has it ever been a problem for you, where you say, “we do this because it’s a job, but we really want to do this”? Or is it all just one big thing, because you’re in a nice position where you’re allowed to do both.
Leigh: I think it’s hard; you know, in that movie, I identified with all those women and their paths of finding those people. One of them talks about that she doesn’t know how to explain singing with other people and what that does for her soul. And us growing up singing together, we always had somebody to harmonize with. We always had somebody to sing with. And that put us in this perfect position to be backup singers because we were always harmonizing with one another, so when we added that third part, we knew where to go. And all those women’s stories, it was “but their solo career never happened.” In my mind, they were successful regardless of being on the covers of magazines. They were still very successful women who did something that they loved for a long time and found their path. Yes, it’s a shame that some of them were taken advantage of and their voices used for lead singer’s voices and all that kind of stuff. We’ve never done anything like that! Luckily, Phil Spector was phased out by the time we came along. But I think that’s the sad part of it, that those people didn’t get credited the way that they should have. More than anything, I love the moment where she says, “I was in a house in Beverly Hills cleaning the bathroom and realized ‘that’s my voice on the radio.’” And you know, she walked away from that job and decided to start pursuing singing again. You know, for us it’s different, too, because when we leave our backup singing position, we go into the front of the stage, but we’re still a backup singer. Chandra is a backup singer for me and I’m a backup singer for her. We always have this kind of balance that we call the Twinergy. An energy that is because we have one another. I think that’s helped us to create our own career because we could rely on each other as opposed to most backup singers who are individual artists trying to make that jump to the front of the stage. We’ve been holding one another’s hand, pulling each other to the front of the stage.
: With that in mind, are you all singing with anyone else on any other records that we can listen for this year?
Leigh: We’ve got some things that we’re kicking around in the works. We’ve been fortunate enough to meet a producer named Butch Walker, who is part-time here in Nashville. He called us in for a session the other day, and who knows if we’ll make it to the final recordings, but it’s nice just to have people like him in town who respect us as artists, and who [give us] that call. We were with Jessie Baylin the other day and talking to her and really getting excited about singing together. We’re here right now opening another business, but music is getting a lot of our heart and souls.
Chandra: And we did some stuff on Jenny Lewis’s new record. Again, I haven’t heard the final product, so I’m not sure what made it and what didn’t, but we guested on a couple of those songs.
Leigh: Yeah, there’s projects out there with Watson Twins harmonies floating around.