Ain’t Your Ordinary Sister Act: An Interview with the Watson Twins

Though I did resist asking which sister was the evil one, I couldn’t hold back some other, let’s say, more pertinent questions when I interviewed indie/folk goddesses Chandra and Leigh Watson, otherwise known as the musical group, the Watson Twins.

JM:  I read that you gals were born in Oklahoma and raised in Kentucky (and now live in Los Angeles).  How has living in Kentucky and/or the greater South influenced your music?

Chandra:  I think it definitely has…we grew up with the records our mom and older sister used to play: classic rock, country and folk along with us singing gospel music in our church choir.  As we got older we started going to local punk/experimental shows in Louisville and so our sound is a melting pot of all that we heard and experienced growing up.  It’s easier to identify with those influences when you live 3000 miles away, so I felt more connected to my home after moving away. Funny how that happens.

Leigh:  Growing up in Kentucky definitely had an influence, but different than what most might expect considering it is known for bluegrass.  That part of the country is a real melting pot of sounds and that influence allowed us to experiment and push boundaries with our own music.

JM:  You’ve put out five (five!) albums in under six years and I read from the bio on your website (www.thewatsontwins.com) that you have a forthcoming album due in 2012.  Incredibly ambitious is a phrase that definitely comes into my mind.  How do you keep each other motivated?

Chandra:  We try to help each other stay focused and positive…it’s strange, when one of us starts “losing steam” the other picks up the slack and pushes forward.  We are cheerleaders for one another and having that support helps us to keep making music and touring.  There’s also that “thing” inside everyone who HAS to write and create to stay sane…just when you think you’ve written your last song the creative spirit strikes.

Leigh:  Yes, definitely our own little cheerleading team.  I think we are both pretty encouraging to one another and also have a bit of competitiveness, if Chandra is working on music I know I should be too!  It’s the ying and the yang.

JM:  I was also surprised to see an additional sixth album sneak in there from 2009 called Live at Fingerprints. Can you offer a little more information about that one?

Chandra:  Fingerprints is an amazing Independent Record Store in Long Beach, CA.  Rand, who is the owner and champion of eclectic Indie music, asked us to do an instore and record it.  He then suggested that we release it and the rest is history. Always fun to release LIVE tunes as they are a very honest representation of the performer… for better or worse, ha!

JM:  How did you choose the tracks featured on your newest album of cover songs, Night Covers?

Chandra:  A few of them we’d been playing live: Bill Withers “Ain’t No Sunshine” and Sade “Sweetest Taboo” the others just sort of came along.  Listening to The Turtles on vinyl one night and “You Showed Me” came on…I thought what a great song, we should cover that…so we did.  The Black Keys “Tighten Up” was just more of a fun challenge, we are fans of the band and thought it would be fun to try and make it sound like a Watson Twins song…needless to say most folks don’t recognize it right off the bat.

Leigh:  The PJ Harvey song has such amazing lyrics and imagery.  She is one female artist who we have always admired.  “Here Comes The Rain Again” by the Eurythmics was a suggestion from my oldest nephew…little did he know we had been talking about it as well.  It had to be on the list.

JM: What is so great about Night Covers’ songs is that you completely make them your own, resulting in classics that actually sound like totally new songs.  Can you describe your process or mindset when setting out to reconstruct the songs that you chose?

Chandra:  Thanks for saying that…we do really try to make them our own as mentioned.  Much of our approach just has to do with the sound that we’ve created for the band over the years and now it’s just instinctual.

Leigh:  “Just Like Heaven” started our affinity for covers.  We had such a great experience with that song, arranging and recording the Night Covers record was a total guilty pleasure.

JM:  In the lyric credits for Fire Songs, I see that each of your names is next to different songs.  How much of your writing process is collaborative?

Chandra:  We usually write separately and then come together to work on harmonies, arrangement and production.  We’ve just collaborated for the first time writing a song for an indie film and are hoping to collaborate more on the writing side on the next record.

Leigh:  I feel like co-writing has been something we’ve been working towards.  We spent the last few records finding our individual styles and now are ready to make that step.  Our first collaboration went well and seems like that’s definitely part of our next recording.

JM: I think its safe to say that a lot of your songs include lyrics about relationships and/or love. Do you see these as connecting threads throughout all of your songs, and if not do you see any that have emerged?

Chandra:  Human emotion and our connection to others inspires me on many levels…all my songs stem from that, but some of those love stories are metaphors for other trials and experiences in our lives.

Leigh:  That subject pops into a lot of writing.  Love, heartbreak and relationships are things we can all understand.

JM:  Your style has been described in a number of ways: indie folk, Americana, alternative country, folk and so forth. Do you feel that within these comparable genres your music differs from that of your male counterparts (I’m thinking maybe Amos Lee, Iron & Wine, Elvis…)?

Chandra:  Wow, I never thought about it…I guess the big difference is that none of those fellas have a cool twin to sing sweet harmonies with. 🙂

Leigh:  I’m flattered to be listed along side those male counterparts.  The familial harmonies definitely are one thing that are distinctive to our sound.

JM:  You are playing Schubas in Chicago on September 20th.  Are you going to do anything extra fun while you’re here?

Chandra: We might just be cruising around sampling deep dish pizza…hard to say at this point, but we’ll keep you posted.

JM:  May I recommend Spacca Napoli?  It’s amazing.  And finally, if each of you could meet any singer/songwriter or artist who ever was or is, who would it be?

Chandra:  Another tough one, great questions btw…hummmm, I think it would have to be Dolly Parton.  I’ve always said over the years that she’s one person I’d like to have lunch with…her sense of humor is amazing I’m sure she’d have a story or two.

Leigh: Bob Dylan.

JM:  Thanks so much, gals and I’ll see you at the show!

Quick Watson Twins Album Info:
Southern Manners (2006)
Rabbit Fur Coat (2006)
Fire Songs (2008)
Live at Fingerprints (2009)
Talking to You, Talking to Me (2010)
Night Covers (2011)
? (2012)

For further information and tour dates, please visit The Watson Twins’ website at: www.thewatsontwins.com.

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Coffee Talk with Gretchen Jones

Okay, so we didn’t speak over coffee, but I did get clothing and jewelry designer Gretchen Jones to let me pick her brain a little.  As a refresher for those of you who haven’t yet had their morning or even afternoon caffeine, Jones is a designer who hails from the Colorado/Oregon regions and also happens to be the winner of Project Runway, Season 8.  She also has a kick-ass design aesthetic, which is derived from nature, a bend towards what I would label a good old-fashioned feminist spirit and a fire in her belly that must be derived from that Southwestern sun.

JM:  Let me begin by saying that I’ve seen every episode of every season of Project Runway and by far, you are one of my favorite designers. I really admired your unwavering confidence and you never, ever apologized for what you believed in. Now, you are designing and selling your own clothing and jewelry line. What do you attribute to your success?

GJ:  To be honest, really honest…I think what has made me ‘successful’ [cough, successful I do not think of as being where I am at.  I’m just getting started and have a LOT to do to be healthy- career wise and personally!] or what I would attribute my recent successes to, would truly be my persevering character.  Somewhere inside of me, a place/thing I could not describe feeds my ambition.  I just do what I do.  I don’t try to be successful, I just keep moving, as though there is no other option for me but to put my next foot forward.

JM:  Right now, as far as I can glean off the Internet, you design clothing, jewelry, run a website, a blog (which is full of amazing photos and art), promote your brand and I’m sure much more. How to you manage everything and do you still fit in Gretchen time?

GJ:  Good question, perhaps I should ask myself that?! I manage everything by taking things day by day [sometimes hour by hour.]  The fact of the matter is I have a lot on my plate and right now, I’m just starting my business and any entrepreneur can tell you, your business takes everything from you.  It’s important for me to understand that the industry has and will continue to change, connecting to your customer/demographic means not just making dresses, but creating a connection.  Creating a world people want to be a part of.  In order for me to successfully accomplish launching a label, I have to juggle all these things, I kind of have no choice.  I am a Creative Director, not just designer.  I have to manage the world according to Gretchen by painting the picture and then delegating out the work.  Trusting those around me and only surrounding myself with those I trust and love.  And…in the end, letting go.  I have to let go in the evenings, let go on the weekends and live the life Gretchen Jones wants to lead, not just the life of the Creative Director.  The world will not stop if I don’t send that last e-mail, or sign off on that last paper…and in the end, my label is about quality of life.  And I should first and foremost lead that, not just preach it!  I do yoga 3 times a week, I walk my dog Lilly early in the morning and at sunset around the park, I ride my bike as often as I can, I try to leave the city on the weekends on little adventures and…I try to surround myself with loving, funny friends who appreciate me as much as I appreciate them. Staying grounded when in this industry, this world is really all about those you share this experience with.

JM:  Do you think there is such a thing as a female design aesthetic and if so, does it affect how you design?

GJ:  Absolutely!  I heard a quote that YSL said to DVF once- “Female designers make clothes, male designers make costumes.”  And I totally agree with that.  I think female designers think about clothing in a different way, they connect to it from the inside out.  I make clothing because I want to give women the power of feeling pretty.  I think women have gotten away from that.  The feeling you get when you put on something that makes you feel feminine and unique, it gives you back your power.  Your day is better, you connect to others more intimately, you stand taller…I think, a female designer understands and taps into that more authentically.

JM: When you create, would you say that you do so from a feminine or alternately, masculine point of view?

GJ:  I think I start with a [my] female perspective, incorporating masculine elements for balance. Feminine = flow/drape/nuance.  Masculine = linear/architectural/tailoring.

JM:  When you design your clothing, do you think of a specific type of woman when doing so?

GJ:  I design for a type of woman sure, but in a broader sense.  I design for the 25-45 year old, the educated woman, the romantic at heart, the organic in nature and nurture, the thoughtful, the individual.  I make identity pieces that are timeless enough to integrate into your wardrobe for years, not months…I design for women who want to look as beautiful as they feel.

JM:  On your website (www.gretchenjonesnyc.com) you state that your inspiration is drawn from “…fashion, art, music, literature, architecture, and nature.” You list that with concerns to your current collection, such artists Kurt Cobain and Frida Kahlo influenced your work. Which writers and/or artists have influenced you in the past?

GJ:  Oh gosh!  I read at least one book at a time while designing each collection, using their words to inform my collections.  Barbara Kingsolver was heavily influential in my early work.  Tom Robbins always reminds me to be clever and satirical, not so serious.  More recently Carlos Castaneda and Jack Kerouac have taken me.

JM:  In your collection you use natural fibers, such as organic cotton, wool and wood. Why is it important to you to utilize natural materials?

GJ:  I grew up in the high plain valleys of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado.  The natural is inherent in how I see beauty.  Craft will always reign supreme.  I like working with these kinds of materials because they have been used for hundreds of years and have a soul.

JM:  For your Fall/Winter 2011 Collection, I read that a song that you listened to throughout the design process influenced you. Is this a common practice for you?

GJ:  Every collection is designed around [and titled after] a song/album that I listen to while designing it.  I like to incorporate both the lyrics/song and the literature I choose to read into my work.  It’s a way of giving you more a piece of me and my own story each season.  They typically have to do with what I am going through personally.  I like to think of it as a way for me to download my pieces with my process, loading it up with the love and labor it took to bring it to you.  After all, my work is my love and meant to be shared.

JM:  How can my readers purchase your clothing and jewelry? By the way, I will be rocking the prairie skirt as soon as I can get my mitts on it.

GJ:  My A/W 11′ collection will be available for purchase late August online at francesmay.com + tobi.com + stevenalan.com.   I too will be rocking the prairie skirt!

JM:  And finally, if you could meet any designer or artist who ever was or is, who would it be?

GJ:  Earlier in the 20th century I would have died to meet Georgia O’Keefe & Frida Kahlo, and if I could have a moment with Christo & Jean Claude I’d pee my pants with excitement!

JM:  Awesome.