Self-Made (Wo)Men: A Conversation with Larkin Poe

Larkin Poe © Bree Marie Fish
Larkin Poe © Bree Marie Fish
Challenge them on their own success, but sing it all the same. Larkin Poe are self-made masters: The music says as much.
Stream: “She’s a Self Made Man” – Larkin Poe

I was regularly saying ‘we’re self-made men’ without necessarily realizing that we were gender qualifying success. Once I made that connection I had to write the song, and it served as a touchstone.

Megan and Rebecca Lovell are self-made men, through and through.

Woke concerns for gender-qualifying success only one sentence into this summary aside, the brain trust behind Larkin Poe embrace the irony of this statement on their record Self Made Man (released June 2020 via Tricki-Woo Records). Its cover features the sisters in a familiar pose; steel-faced and staring down the camera in a dare to consumers and connoisseurs alike.

You could challenge them on this possible faux-pas, but they sing it all the same. From Sister Rosetta Tharpe to Bonnie Raitt to Larkin Poe, a single axiom pierces through time. Blues women are self-made masters; gender has nothing to do with it.

Self Made Man - Larkin Poe
Self Made Man – Larkin Poe

The music says as much: “She’s A Self Made Man” is a firebrand whiskey, note for note. Its amalgam structure of modern- and Chicago-style blues altogether sets the table. Trifling horn melodies, punctual choirs and a production built for the largest roadhouse you could imagine make this track a keystone for the rest of the runtime.

Megan Lovell’s hands are a bandsaw stripping the varnish off the neck of her guitar. Rebecca Lovell’s voice rolls deep, a perfect mixture of power and soul. She goes for broke in the first stanza: “I was down and out, now I’m up again/ When I roll the dice, everybody wins/ Like a cannonball, moving down the track/ Baby’s on her way, she ain’t coming back.”

Often touted as the “little sisters of the Allman Brothers,” there’s some truth to the script. Larkin Poe found their love for music in much the same way as their forebears: through the live ritual of concert performance. BB King emboldened the brothers, a roots music festival instilled the sisters.

Larkin Poe © Robby Klein
Larkin Poe © Robby Klein

Also much like their forebears, they have recently released a live record, too. Unlike these forebears, they use the opportunity to expand their blues into a southern rock opera.

And that’s the last time I’ll use “forebears” in a sentence, promise. Paint the Roses runs just shy of thirty minutes and involves little crowd noise. It’s not expansive enough to encapsulate the special relationship between the sisters and their fans but the live sampler does feature the sisters handily acing their repertoire to Nu Deco Ensemble. They even dip their toes into a “Blue Sky” all their own.

Paint the Roses - Larkin Poe, Nu Deco Ensemble
Paint the Roses – Larkin Poe, Nu Deco Ensemble

Combined with Self Made Man, a motley covers curation and the founding of their new official fan club, Larkin Poe had more than enough to chew during the pandemic. When we had the chance to chat at last year’s resurrected Treefort Music Fest 9, the choice paralysis of where to start set in.

The sisters were gearing up for a set at the El Korah Shrine, one which they would go on to rock in a haze of red, blue, and purple mood lighting. Rebecca perused the audience with an incurable smile and Megan couldn’t help but smirk as she cruised the strings of her steel lap guitar.

As they ended the night with Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain,” something was reclaimed. But, if you asked the sisters, it was never lost in the first place. The roots were always there, waiting to be heard.

We wanted to write the next live record, which is a little bit funny, considering that Self Made Man was released into a year that had no touring.

Stream: ‘Paint the Roses (Live in Concert)’ – Larkin Poe, Nu Deco Ensemble


Paint the Roses - Larkin Poe, Nu Deco Ensemble

Atwood Magazine: I would ask you both what you've been listening to, but I feel like you've already made a cover of what have you been listening to by now. Whose idea was it to start doing the live covers?

Megan Lovell: It was kind of a group effort, four or five years ago?

Rebecca Lovell: No, five or six years ago.

Megan Lovell: I believe you started doing guitar covers because you were getting into lead guitars and I wanted to get in on that action because it’s great to keep your chops up when you’re off the road. We were using it more as a learning tool and then, just for fun, recording it and posting it.

Rebecca Lovell: It’s funny to think it’s been so long. But at this point, we’ve covered over 100 songs. And there’s still so many more that we have to do. Like that’s the beauty of having a wide range of records that you grew up listening to, because there’s always a perfect song for the mood that you’re feeling.

How long does it take you to learn each song?

Rebecca Lovell: At first, it took us a long time to learn the song. And now we can sit down and kind of knock it out and what 30 minutes.

Megan Lovell: It’s one of the gifts that keeps on giving. Not only does it keep you fresh and inspire you — sort of like you are what you eat, you are what you listen to — but also it informs a lot of our own voice as Larkin Poe, somewhat. Learning other people’s songs helps you know who you are a bit more as an artist and it’s something we enjoy doing together.

Covers keep you fresh and inspire you – sort of like you are what you eat, you are what you listen to.

Self Made Man was the blues/rock album of 2020. Did you go in with an idea of who or what you wanted this album to sound like? Or was it done from the ground up in the studio?

Megan Lovell: We had a pretty good idea of what we wanted because we spent so much of 2019 on the road. It was a big year for us. Not only in just the sheer amount of shows that we played but that was our first time experiencing the entire tour selling out and having people showing up and singing along and knowing all the songs. So that’s the energy that we put into the studio. We wanted to write the next live record, which is a little bit funny, considering that record was released into a year that had no touring.

You probably were just about to get on to tour when COVID hit.

Megan Lovell: Our tour got canceled the day before we left. It was very sudden and it took a big emotional readjustment. But we always like to look forward to the next thing and we ended up pivoting and did a lot of livestreams and looked to the internet to connect with people. We felt so lucky that we already have a fairly large online audience and have really enjoyed being able to form these special bonds with people via the internet.

Did the internet provide an adequate simulacrum for the live experience?

Rebecca Lovell: You connect with people differently. There’s nothing in the world that compares to a full room of people actively sharing in a musical ritual together. That’s the magic of live music. But you get a different connection that I think is equally special. We started KINSIDERS (our official fan club) in 2020 and we have a forum and a live streaming platform and we have formed a special bond where you feel that you get to know the people who are listening to your music and to understand the true power of community and celebrating in that connective tissue.

Megan Lovell: Not only between us and the fans, but also between the fans themselves.

Larkin Poe © Bree Marie Fish
Larkin Poe © Bree Marie Fish

How do you think this album has improved over the over the last ones?

Rebecca Lovell: “Improve” is an interesting word. Given the fact that we’re older and more established as artists, I think it’s a different record than we would have made four or five years ago. It’s trading in different currency. You just kind of change as an artist and you make different choices. I’m really proud of this album because it’s a very honest record. There’s some ballads that are straight-up story songs and having a good old-fashioned fling, but I do think that there there are songs on Self Made Man that are vulnerable lyrically and getting more to the true heart of who I am as a person.

Megan Lovell: We’re becoming more comfortable with being producers. Self Made Man is the third album that we self-produced, so it’s more comfortable stepping into that role.

To my ear, Self Made Man kind of sounds like Dreamboat Annie Blues.

Rebecca Lovell: That is such a huge compliment. Thank you.

I've always felt a female to female comparison of artists seems a bit lazy, though. What is a good comparison to you?

Rebecca Lovell: Comparisons are interesting. We all do them, right, when you’re trying to explain a record that you love or trying to like sell a band that you love to your friend. A good comparison relates to one, rhythm; two, lyrical content.

Gender would probably be pretty far down the list even as a singer. While there are many female fronted bands that I idolized from Joan Jett to Heart to Bonnie Raitt, most of my inspirations do happen to be male. I’m trying to sing like Ozzy or I’m trying to sing like Chris Whitley.

Megan Lovell: And we get compared a lot to male artists. The media even called us the Little Sisters of the Allman Brothers, and that’s a huge compliment to us.

Larkin Poe © 2022
Larkin Poe © 2022

Blues has classically been imagined as a man's genre. Who are some lesser known, female icons of the genre that you feel more people should know if they want to enter into blues. Who would you suggest?

Rebecca Lovell: First and foremost, Bonnie Raitt. She served an incredibly important link in the progression of blues music during the ‘60s and ‘70s. She has to be respected for the ways in which she championed blues music. Looking back down the line, there are so many underrated female blues artists from Bessie Jones, Bessie Smith, Sister Rosetta Thorpe. There’s a lot of guitar-playing blues musicians who also happened to be women that have been somewhat forgotten in history.

Megan Lovell: And they were the pop artists of the time. They were very successful.

Rebecca Lovell: Yeah, Elizabeth Cotton is one of the most badass guitar players imaginable. And the fact that she isn’t touted as one of the true foundational stones of what we perceive as “traditional blues music” is heartbreaking to me and frustrating. It’s something that we all have to continue to educate ourselves on such that the history isn’t just a flight of fancy but is actually based in reality.

The Blues of Sister Rosetta Thorpe's time are long gone and audio fidelity has improved exponentially since then. Do you think high fidelity compromises the rudimentary nature of the Blues or crystallizes it more perfectly?

Megan Lovell: It’s more of a barrier to entry. Because if you are unused to hearing older blues it can be probably a little bit shocking. It will take take some time to get used to, especially as like a young person.

Rebecca Lovell: In terms of being able to digest and have the patience to listen to traditional blues music records from the turn of the century, sure. In terms of the records that are being recorded now, our records, the Black Keys’, et cetera, you have to be willing to allow space for genres to grow and change and to move with the times because if you don’t allow space for evolution, or for pioneering, then then you’re stagnating.

We’re kind of the fruits down the line. The majority of the blues records that I spend my time listening to, they’re all from the Twenties and Thirties. The static and the low fidelity recording ceases to matter because you’re listening in a deeper way. That’s something that I would wish for all music consumers, particularly consumers of the Blues, to have that patience, to have that space to listen to recording that could really blow their mind.

Is this technological fidelity something you have to account for when you're writing and performing something rootsy?

Rebecca Lovell: There’s definitely smoke and mirrors in the studio where you’re pulling tricks, trying to create certain vibes and I don’t think it’s anything that falls outside the bounds of performing or creativity. Think about how many novels have been written. It’s not like the novelist is writing their life story. They’re wearing a character. When you make a record and you choose to create a sonic vibe to help support the story that you’re trying to tell, it’s just another aspect of performing.

Megan Lovell: We have actually taken on some of the beauty of the porch recording. We love that vibe and we have tried to incorporate it in an album, trying to leave some of the rawness in.

To go further into your guitar work, Megan, what turned you on to the steel lap guitar?

Megan Lovell: We started out playing violin and piano and then we went to a roots music festival for the first time in our early teens and we were just struck by the music. We decided that we wanted to pick up more like acoustic instruments. I tried out some fretted instruments like banjos, mandolins, guitar and it turns out I was looking for something fretless. I saw the Dobro being played and I just absolutely fell head over heels for it. The Dobro is the acoustic version of a lap steel, basically, but when we wanted to plug in the lap steel was just a really obvious choice for me. And turns out, that’s my true love. It’s just an amazing instrument that’s not very common, but it should be.

Is there a particular track off Self Made Man that you thought you hit the note just right?

Megan Lovell: I’m fairly proud of “Danger Angel.” Also “Every Bird That Flies” has a really cool, almost world music interlude that is very well suited to the slide.

One of my favorite side guitarists is Derek Trucks and he loves to take those Middle Eastern rhythms and throw them right in the middle of a song and build a dervish, essentially.

Megan Lovell: He kind of empowers one thing that I like to do to: sound a little bit like an opera singer. Because there’s something very vocal when he plays, this almost other worldly woman’s voice. And I try and bring some of that energy into my play.

You both are duetting with two different types of voices and that's where I pull the Dreamboat Annie blues from; Anne is singing, Nancy is using the guitar and they're both doing call and response with each other.

Megan Lovell: That’s one of my favorite things to do with Rebecca.

There you go! Rebecca, was there a lyrical theme off the album that you felt particularly proud of?

Rebecca Lovell: It’s got to be “She’s A Self Made Man” just because it pulls off the thing that I love in traditional blues lyric, which is pointing at something that’s very real, but doing it in kind of a tongue in cheek fashion. If you didn’t laugh, you’d cry type of a sentiment. I was regularly saying we’re self made men without necessarily realizing that we were gender qualifying success. Once I made that connection, it really kind of bothered me. So I had to write the song and… it served as a touchstone. I’m probably most proud of that one.

It surprised me when I first heard it, because it is a really great subversion of all the history that's involved in blues and rock being historically sexist. Sister Rosetta Thorpe, Larkin Poe? They're all ''self-made (wo)men'' as well.

Rebecca Lovell: You’re very well-spoken, side note.

What was the inspiration behind “Tears of Blue to Gold?”

Rebecca Lovell: We took a road trip… It was me and my husband, Tyler, and Megan and our front of house engineer, Brendan and we all went to Memphis. It was such a memorable weekend, getting to wander around Graceland, compounded with eating Memphis food, waking up in the morning and going to church and seeing Al Green preach a sermon.

On the drive home, I really got to thinking about Elvis Presley and the trajectory of his life. So I wrote a story that is… about a kid who lived next door to Elvis Presley and sort of the parallel lines that people can share on their journey through vice.

Like you had a Marc Cohn moment, “Walking in Memphis,” combined with Forrest Gump.

Larkin Poe: (both laugh)

— — — —

Paint the Roses - Larkin Poe, Nu Deco Ensemble

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