Pierce sisters have finally got a break – with
the help of a famous fan
2:01 AM on 15th May 2011
Sister Act: Allison (left) and Catherine
It”s hard to tell the Pierce sisters apart. Allison, the older of the American singing-songwriting duo, is dark-haired, while Catherine is blonde. Allison favours a predominantly black, Goth-lite look, while Catherine’s ensembles are more boho/Romany-inspired. And in conversation Allison alternately encourages and contradicts Catherine’s flights of fancy. Here’s a typical exchange, when they’re asked if the dark/blonde thing is a gimmick:
Catherine (abashed): ‘It’s not a gimmick at all! And I’m ready to go back to my natural brown. It sucks when you’re blonde and have a dumb moment, because everyone goes, “Oh, you’re such a blonde.” I was in a cloakroom recently and couldn’t get the tap to work. I was waving my hands under it like a madwoman, and this woman looked at me pityingly, and said, “You have to use the pedal under the sink. There’s a sign just there.”’
Allison (tickled): ‘And Cat was like, “I can’t read!”’ (Suddenly serious): ‘You’re no dummy.’
Catherine: ‘I have dumb moments!’
Allison (strongly): ‘Not that many.’
Catherine (after due consideration): ‘True.’
Musically, however, the Pierces’ differences disappear. Their voices blend together in plangent harmonies reminiscent of the Mamas and the Papas or Fleetwood Mac at their most poignant; as Allison adds a haunting counterpoint to Catherine’s lead vocal (or vice versa), a jaunty romantic country-pop number will be transformed into something much darker, hinting at storms or traumas past or imminent. You can hear this to great effect on their single ‘You’ll Be Mine’, a ringing slice of folk-rock with sentiments that seem I-want-you classic until you listen more closely and discern that the sisters are singing about casting spells on boys to make them fall in love with them.
‘We’re not practising witches,’ stresses Allison. ‘But we believe inthe power of words and thoughts and intentions. We think everyone hasthe power within them to create lots of scenarios for themselves. Youdon’t need cauldrons or black cats for that.’
Performing in London in February
‘It’s what’s in your mind that counts,’ agrees Catherine emphatically. ‘The witchy trappings are just rituals to help people tap into that power.’
The Alabama-born Pierces have needed that presence of mind over a decade of false starts in their musical career. Listening to the insanely catchy ‘You’ll Be Mine’, it’s hard to believe that they’ve thrown in the towel more than once. The first time was in 2008 after two indifferently received folky albums. A producer friend persuaded them to give it another go, and the result, Thirteen Tales of Love and Revenge, heralded their more mature, eclectic sound and should have been their breakthrough album, but the indie label that released it couldn’t give the Pierces the promotional support they needed.
Allison: ‘It was so dispiriting because we knew we’d done something good, but we couldn’t get it out there for people to hear. So we broke up again. And the very next day, we got a phone call.’
The call was from Coldplay’s bassist Guy Berryman, a long-time fan, who offered to produce their next record. ‘He said, “You girls can’t split up – you’ve got something special,”’ says Catherine. The result is You & I, which was recorded over the past nine months – ‘in Coldplay’s spare time’, according to Allison – and is finally earning the Pierces the plaudits they’ve long deserved. So the New York-based sisters are now embarking on a new and exciting phase in their odyssey. Do they believe in fate
Allison ponders the question. ‘I like to think of it this way,’ she says. ‘There’s a force that keeps the human body alive, and no one on earth can tell you what that force is. I believe that sort of intelligence could be on a larger scale, and could be navigating our lives in the same way it does our bodies.’
Catherine is nodding at her sister in a yeah-right kind of way. ‘It’s a mysterious power,’ she says, ‘something that’s
nudging us in the right direction.’
The cosmic turn in the conversation gives a clue to the sisters’ free-spirited upbringing. They were raised in Birmingham, Alabama, by a musician father and artist mother, who, says Catherine, ‘were hippies who sort of became born-again Christians, which is a weird combination. Birmingham is a very conservative town and I think the religion was a protective thing for us children, giving us some kind of structure in what had been quite an undisciplined household. Now I’d say they’re more spiritual than religious.’ They were home-schooled along with their elder stepbrother and stepsister, and a younger sister. The latter was in the band for a while, but ‘we kicked her out’, says Catherine, with a grin. ‘She was just boy crazy and didn’t want to write songs or rehearse. She didn’t talk to us for a while, but we’re all cool now’.
‘We were barefoot a lot growing up,’ says Allison. ‘But it wasn’t like we had to skin squirrels for dinner.’
‘We had a nice patch of woods behind the house and I’d bring home snakes,’ says Catherine. ‘But we had running water, all the luxuries.’
Allison and Catherine were always close as children. ‘But we were all fighting for attention,’
‘There were so many of us,’ puts in Allison.
They decline to reveal their ages, though late 20s to early 30sshould be near the mark. ‘I’m two and a half years younger thanAllison,’ offers Catherine.
Allison looks abashed. ‘You’ve thrown in that half!’
Catherine (defensively): ‘I’ve always said that!’
Allison(accusatory): ‘I’ve never heard you say it! Anyway,’ she continues witha shrug, ‘we’ve always had the sibling rivalry thing.’
Catherine:‘As a child, I would come out in a wig and funny outfit, doing a dance.Allison says it was for attention, but I just really loved to dress upand still have dress-up birthday parties.’
The sisters started singing together ‘as soon as we could talk – possibly before’, according to Catherine, egged on by their father, who would sit them down and accompany them on guitar as they ran through Simon and Garfunkel and Joni Mitchell classics. However, music wasn’t their only focus.
Catherine: ‘We were both really involved in dancing too – in fact, we both wanted to be ballet dancers. I went to New York in my late teens to attend the School of American Ballet’s summer programme, but it was so intense; I got burned out and didn’t want to give up my life for it.’
Allison, meanwhile, joined what sounds like a kind of ballet cult. ‘It was a group who wanted to heal the world through the power of dance,’ she says, a little sheepishly. ‘They’re still trying. They were good but a little religious and a little weird.’
Catherine: ‘I went to visit Allison to try to convince her to do music with me.’
Allison: ‘The second she suggested it, I was like, “Yes, of course.” It was a real lightbulb moment.’
Their closeness has sustained them through their subsequent ups and downs – as Allison points out, it’s a lot easier for musical siblings to get back together after break-ups. And it’s clear that the two have a deep bond.
‘We’re psychically linked in quite spooky ways,’ nods Catherine. ‘We know what each other is thinking, and we’ll finish each other’s sentences.’
‘And we’re attuned to each other’s musical language,’ adds Allison. ‘We write songs separately, but there’ll be times when I’ll have a great verse and no chorus, and Catherine will come along with one. It’s like being twins without quite being twins.’
‘There’s no leader,’ insists Catherine. ‘We each sing lead vocal on our songs. We make decisions together. People say to us, “What roles do you play Who’s the mean one Who’s the bossy one Who’s Scary Spice” But we don’t have girl-band roles.’
‘Human beings are more complex than that,’ prompts Allison.
‘Right!’ rejoins Catherine. ‘One day Allison will be the extrovert and the next day the roles are reversed.’
‘And sometimes it’s perfectly balanced,’ puts in Allison, with a sweet smile. ‘Our fights never last longer than a day. They blow over like tropical storms.’
‘There’s no sulking,’ agrees Catherine. ‘We usually finish fights via email or text. I’ll be furiously texting, “What did you mean when you said that”’
‘And I’ll email my response and yell at my pillow instead of her,’ laughs Allison.
They may soon be able to vent their disputes via good old-fashioned open windows – Catherine is planning to leave her apartment in New York’s East Village to become neighbours with Allison in Brooklyn. But one thing they profess never to fight about is men. ‘We both fancied the same guy once,’ admits Allison.
‘And we ended up both dating him at different points in time,’ says Catherine.
‘And so did our older sister!’ adds Allison.
In terms of celebrity boyfriends, however, Catherine is definitely in the lead, having been engaged for a couple of years in the mid-2000s to Albert Hammond Jr of the Strokes.
‘Would I recommend a celebrity fianc’ she ponders. ‘It depends where you’re at in your life.
I was 22 and we had an amazing time.’
‘It was pretty awesome,’ agrees Allison. ‘Even I got to feel the benefit of it.’
‘It was wonderful and horrible, but I don’t regret it,’ continues Catherine. ‘Albert was really cool about the whole fame thing. He took it in his stride.’
As to whether the come-hither spell of ‘You’ll Be Mine’ has worked out in practical terms for the sisters, both demur. ‘Actually, it did work for me, but I realised that the relationship it brought me wasn’t a healthy place to be,’ says Catherine. ‘So maybe you should never cast love spells – just let them come to you.’
‘At the moment work is my priority,’ asserts Allison. ‘I feel like we’ve been given another chance, but this time I don’t feel that compulsive need to grasp it. Before there was a whole desire/want/need thing mixed up in it. But now I’m just letting it flow and staying in the moment.’
‘We both want things to keep growing while retaining the freedom to do what we want,’ adds Catherine. ‘I think you can be successful without courting the madness like Lady Gaga, wearing her super-crazy outfits to the airport. She probably has no other life outside music.’
‘I’d want another life,’ says Allison.
‘Me too!’ proclaims Catherine. And they laugh in sisterly concord.
The Pierces’ single ‘Glorious’ will be released on 23 May and album You & I on 30 May (Polydor). They will tour the UK from 7 June, including Glastonbury; for more details visit thepiercesmusic.com
East of Eden by John Steinbeck and J R R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. I’m really into fantasy.
I love Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel. It has little magic spells in it and recipes for them.
Of all time Joni Mitchell and the Beatles. New band Fleet Foxes.
It depends on my mood. If I had to choose just one Rufus Wainwright. Oh, and Leonard Cohen. And Simon and Garfunkel. So three artists.
A long necklace is important. And a great pair of boots and big round earrings.
I’d concur — boots and hoops.
I adore make-up — I’d like my own line. The best things Yves Saint Laurent mascara and Lancme lipgloss.
Tom Ford perfume, especially Tobacco Vanille.
Kate Moss, Kate Bosworth, Cate Blanchett and Kate Hudson. All the Kates.
And Brigitte Bardot, before she turned into a right-wing dragon lady.
The same, with a nice big wardrobe.