In Conversation With Sister Sparrow
As you already know from listening to our exclusive premiere of their new album, The Weather Below, Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds know how to raise a gloriously soulful ruckus — and on these new songs, the band's sound is richer and rawer than ever.
We knew it was our duty to reach out and speak with Sister Sparrow herself — a.k.a. singer and co-founder Arleigh Kincheloe — about the band's journey to The Weather Below, and she joined us for a chat that covered everything from her musical youth to the financial realities of covering expenses on the road as an independent seven-piece band. The record industry is in a state of flux, but Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds prove that talented young artists are still slugging it out in the trenches, making live music — and a living — on their own terms. Kincheloe's answers here, like her band's music, come from the heart.
Let's start by talking about your upbringing, because I know you grew up with parents who were musicians, and there's been more and more discussion in recent years regarding the way music in the modern era has changed from something families used to make together into something many of us just listen to without ever believing we could create it on our own.
It's absolutely true. A lot of people come up to me after shows and say, "You're amazing, I wish I could sing" — and well, you can speak, right? You can do anything. You can make noise. It doesn't mean it's going to sound like one thing or another. But a great way to look at it is to just do whatever you can do, even just bongos or something.
We played this festival in North Carolina a week ago and there was a continuous drum circle that went on for like 13 hours. They have volunteers who facilitate the whole thing, and they had a guy in the middle of the circle talking about drumming — how you do it with your spirit, and you can drum for other people and raise awareness. It was the coolest thing; it was the first organized drum circle I had ever been in. Honestly, some people were just hitting, like, paint buckets — I was one of the people with a paint bucket — but it was really beautiful. Music is there for the whole world. It shouldn't be an exclusive club by any means.
We've done some things for kids. A couple School of Rock things here and there. We've done some talks at schools, and the guys in my band are really into that. I think that's amazing. There's not a lot of music education going on anymore, and it's really heartbreaking because that's how we got started — aside from the fact that my parents were playing. That was kind of a lucky thing for me.
You have a very unique, very powerful voice, but I've read you talk about the slow process of discovering that voice, which is interesting to me. No matter how prodigious an artist's gifts might be, there's always a difference between what you want to express and what you're physically capable of producing, and figuring out how to navigate that gap is always difficult. But that's where the spark is, right?
Right. Absolutely. That's the struggle, all the time. We're all trying to get better at that. Even though we're doing what we do, that doesn't mean that we're where we want to be. There are very few shows where any one of us comes off and says "Yeah! I nailed that one!" We almost never feel like that. Every one of us wants to be doing better. You know? I think it's ever growing, and ever learning, and having that open mind. That kind of goes back to your first question, too — even the people at the top of the top, they're all still driven, all still trying to get better. Anybody who's just starting out, or anybody who doesn't feel good enough, just remember: Everybody feels like that. At every level.
Here's something you probably hear a lot: I never would guessed you guys were based in Brooklyn when I listened to you. But more importantly, unlike a lot of acts that have this type of sound — whether you want to call it retro soul, or throwback funk, or whatever — the music sounds truly lived in. It's an extension of its influences instead of just an homage, and that's a really tricky thing to pull off.
That's awesome to hear. People say "You're from New Orleans, right?" [Laughs]
It goes back, for me, to listening to the music my parents listened to. I was surrounded with music as a child, and I fell in love with it — a lot of New Orleans, southern rock and soul. The Band. And then on my own, honestly, the first time I went to New Orleans, I was 20 — I went for Jazzfest, and that just opened my mind to music that I really loved and had already been craving in my life.
I think it comes down to being real without trying. Being authentically you and not trying to be something else. I'm not going to be authentically New Orleans or authentically Texas — I am what I am, and this is a window into what a person is. I am really happy that I have all the influences from growing up that I do. I feel really, really lucky.
How in the hell does a band this size manage to make things work financially on the road?
It's really hard — and actually, we used to have two more people in the band. When we first went out on the road we had two more horns, if you can believe that. It was even crazier. We still find it a struggle, but we've learned how to make it — and how to take care of each other. Money aside, it's really more about community. We are a community on wheels. Being able to support each other and not lose sight of that is one of the most important things we've learned over the last four years of touring. The first couple years, I think we were each personally just trying to get through it. You know? It was beautiful, but it took about a year and a half to get our sea legs.
Do other acts ever ask you for advice in terms of how to make this type of enterprise financially feasible? I've talked to plenty of veteran acts who have the advantage of touring behind a brand and a bunch of hits, and they still have to cut corners with personnel. It's almost enough to believe you're not supposed to be able to make music like this anymore.
Yeah, although on the other hand, we're not supposed to make music any other way.
I mean, you can't make a pop record unless you have half a million dollars to promote it. Thank God I don't want to be a pop star.
We try to make wise decisions and take care of ourselves as much as possible. We take a lot of chances, and we put a lot into it — each one of us is 100 percent into this, and its easier to make a financial decision because we're not putting ourselves first and saying, "Well, I need to make this much money." I think if you really want to do this, you have to sacrifice.
It was really easy for me to do. I didn't grow up with a lot of money, it's not a really huge thing to me. We just live a simple life and I feel really grateful for this experience. Before we went on tour, I was waiting tables in New York City and making a lot of money — I was miserable, but I had a really nice apartment, I had whatever I wanted, and it was boring to me, but it felt nice for awhile. And then giving that all up, I realized it was back to basics. Living out of a suitcase, you have one pair of shoes on your feet and they'd better be comfortable. Learn how to live in them. It's definitely not for everybody.
I read about some of the departures from the lineup, and it reminded me of Roomful of Blues — another big band that's always touring a lot, and always dealing with turnover as a result. The miles take their toll.
The first person to quit was really devastating to me because we had been in a band together for four years. It really ripped my heart out. I had a hard time with it. But I understood — I totally get it. I think I got used to it pretty quickly after that. To use a cliche: "That which does not kill you, makes you stronger" [Laughs] It's true. The band is really, really strong because we've gone through these things, and the other people that came in really knew what we were all about. We had an infrastructure. So I think letting our musicians know what to expect was really an important thing — and that was impossible the first couple of years, because we didn't know what to expect.
Let's talk about crowdfunding. You went through PledgeMusic to get The Weather Below financed, and that's an increasingly popular option for artists at all levels of success and experience. What went into that decision for you?
We did a Kickstarter a few years ago to get a new van because our original van broke down. We said, "We can't really tour and do the dates that we booked, so please help us." It was amazing and mind-blowing that strangers and friends and fans — they just gave us everything that they could and it was really heart-warming. It made me feel like, "Oh man, people actually believe in this!" And that, to me, as the creator of this band, that just fills me with so much joy and gratitude. It's sort of unbelievable to me sometimes how much belief and how much support I get. This thing that I hatched in my brain when I was 18 years old, you know? I really can't believe it and I'm grateful to everybody. I try not to forget that, ever.
We came to the decision to do this record on our own and get it out without being signed to a label, and then we got an offer from Thirty Tigers to distribute the record, and they're an amazing company so we partnered with them. We really couldn't do it without our loyal and wonderful fans. I think it was sort of a necessity, and I don't know if that's better or worse.
Maybe it's better, because we wouldn't ask if we really didn't need it. We couldn't wait any longer to put this music out and people didn't want to wait any longer, so that's awesome. I think it's a sign of the times, with all the free music out there and people that understand that, a lot of people are ready to step up to the plate and say "Hey, I believe in you guys — here's five dollars." I think it makes people feel a connection, and it certainly makes me feel connected to them. Absolutely.
How much of a thought process went into making vinyl part of this? I know there's a significant added cost, and you also have to build in a long lead time for pressing.
Yeah. It's pretty cool, the idea that they're backed up. But it was a no-brainer. We pressed vinyl for our second record and you know, we loved having it, and certain people really love having vinyl and ask for it. We've been sold out of that for so long. Even before we recorded it, it was already 100 percent yes. We just made it happen — it's absolutely a big extra cost, but I think if you are dedicated to leaving that sort of legacy, especially if you believe in the record that much, it makes sense. In my mind, a real record is so much more special. It makes me feel like, "How cool! our album is actually a record!"
I don't bother with the audiophile side of the argument, but I like that it makes listening a more of a physical thing, and forces you to pay attention a little more.
I remember that Tom Petty record Full Moon Fever, where in the middle of the record he stops and says, "Hello CD listeners...We'd like to take this time to pause before Side Two..." [Laughter] So badass. I love that.
And now it isn't even a disc at all! It's just a stream.
Yeah. Then again, I mean, I have my phone. I'm doing that same thing. I get it. Absolutely. I can't be mad at it. That way people from all over the world can listen to our music and appreciate it, hopefully.
Let's wrap up by talking about the sessions for The Weather Below. Again, a lot of albums that try to do this kind of thing end up sounding like museum pieces — self-conscious replications of sounds from an earlier era. This album really breathes; it sounds alive. What steps did you take to make that happen?
Not too many. [Laughter] We really did record a lot of it live. A bunch of my vocal tracks are live. We just dove in — and it was such a beautiful studio. The character of it, a big old horse barn. It's a beautiful place. I think that just the wood around us helped create that vibe. It was just very simple, and that's why it sounds like that. It was a really good choice by the band and also the producer, Ryan Hadlock, to do it that way. We didn't want to overthink it.
I think music can get a little sterile sometimes in the studio, and that's the last thing I want to be. Clearly, our live show is what we know, and we were trying to bring that same energy, but with a bit of a different take. I feel really good about it, and I'm glad the world can hear it now.