The Sweetback Sisters
Sweetback Sisters Emily Miller and Zara Bode may not be blood relations, but their precise, family-style harmonies recall the best of country music from the Everlys to The Judds, as well as the spirited rockabilly energy of Wanda Jackson, one of the band’s role models. Like the artists they admire, the Sweetbacks are concerned with the traditional subjects of heartbreak, revenge, remorse and staying strong in the face of relationships gone wrong, albeit with a contemporary sensibility. “We’re a renegade retro band that mixes up country, swing and honky tonk,” explains Bode. “Sometimes what we deliver is straight out of the 50s; other times it’s BR549 meets The B52s.”
The Sisters have been touring relentlessly since they released Chicken Ain’t Chicken in 2009. Their new CD, Looking For A Fight showcases the band’s razor sharp musicianship, complex arrangements and growing confidence as songwriters. "We tried to recreate the energy we get when we connect with an audience over the course of a song,” Bode says. “The basic tracks were all done live, and we recorded most of the vocals with Emily and I crowded around one microphone. It gave the tracks a certain intimacy.”
The songs were cut onto analogue tape to capture the classic touch the band brings to the music. “We weren't looking for perfection, just takes that truly felt good and really grooved,” Miller adds. “Tape gives the songs a warm texture, and we blended old techniques and equipment with modern ones to get the sound and feel we were going for. The RCA ribbon mic we used for the vocals once belonged to the old Columbia Studios. I'd bet a dime that Miles Davis and Johnny Cash played into the very same one.”
The band worked with producer Devin Greenwood to capture the sound of their favorite early country recordings. “We chose Devin because, although he’d never worked on anything as retro or countrified as The Sweetback Sisters, he has a very discerning ear and distinctive style,” says the band’s lead guitarist Ross Bellenoit. “He prepared by spending weeks immersed in the recording techniques and arrangements of the country records of the 50s and 60s. He put together the best gear and engineers for the job and managed to sculpt a timeless sound. He has an ability to hone in on the quality that makes a song great to help bring out our full potential on every track.”
Like their raucous stage show, Looking For A Fight balances yesterday’s hits with contributions from the band’s four songwriters, Bode, Miller, Bellenoit and fiddler Jesse Milnes. And while the music may be energetic and sassy, sentiments of heartache, loss and longing are dominant. “Those are the themes that make country songs resound with listeners,” Miller says. “We didn’t only want to make a classic sounding record, but a classic feeling record as well.”
The album opens with “Love Me, Honey, Do” a Patsy Cline hit from 1959 given a driving performance that features a spirited vocal from Bode, Stefan Amidon’s subtle percussion accents, Peter Bitenc’s bouncy, syncopated bass and a guitar solo from Bellenoit that channels both Bob Wills and Carl Perkins. Milnes’ “Thank You” is a more straightforward swing tune, with jaunty fiddling that completes this kiss-off to a no-good lover. Milnes also wrote the album’s title track, “Looking for a Fight,” a dark country rocker complete with spooky tremolo guitar and aggressive vocals from Bode and Miller that suggest the fighting isn’t a metaphor for anything but fisticuffs.
The Traveling Wilburys seem like an unlikely source for a cover tune, being an 80s singer/songwriter super group, but the Sisters bring “Rattled” back to the 50s with Bode’s reverb-drenched vocals and Bellenoit’s rockabilly guitar fills. Miller sings her self-penned scorcher, “Run Home and Cry,” a saucy reprimand of a two-timing lover, fueled by Jesse Milnes’ wild fiddling and Amidon’s double-time drumming. With a clever lyric conveying pangs of loss, longing and resignation, you could add Bellenoit’s “The Heart Of My Mind” to a playlist of old Willie Nelson and George Jones songs and no one would guess it was written only a year or so ago. Bode channels centuries of heartbreak into her restrained vocal, with Bellenoit’s shimmering guitar all but crying in the background.
Every track on Looking For a Fight includes a few subtle surprises - ensemble vocals a la The Sons of the Pioneers on “Cowboy Ham and Eggs,” honky tonk piano on “It Won’t Hurt When I Fall Down From This Bar Stool,” the raw passion of Bode’s vocal on Hazel Dickens’ old-time ballad “Don’t Put Her Down, You Helped Put Her There.” On Looking For a Fight, the Sisters and their talented brothers continue to forge their own sound by delivering arrangements that combine the soul of classic Nashville with an undeniably contemporary edge.
Meet The Sweetback Sisters
Emily Miller was born in Kansas and raised in Hong Kong, where her family band performed traditional American music on television shows and in shopping malls. “We were a wholesome American family that played banjos and fiddles. We got gigs because we were a real oddity over there.” Miller started fiddling at three and picked up guitar in her 20s, when her mother (a founding member of the all-woman old-time band The Any Old Time String Band) told her that a singer needs to be able to play the guitar. She also tried to broaden her musical taste beyond country music at an early age. “In my teens, I went to a singing summer camp that specialized in traditional music from around the world. It allowed me to tour and meet great musicians from all over the country and the world, including Zara and Stefan.
“After I graduated from college, I toured in Northern Harmony, the professional choral version of that singing camp, with Zara. We bonded over Hank Williams in some late-night singing sessions and, after the tour, I wound up living in Brooklyn, right down the street from her. It almost felt predestined.”
Zara Bode was born in San Francisco, and was immersed in the arts from an early age. Her father a comic artist and mother a dancer, both played music on the side and encouraged Bode to take lessons from a young age. “I played piano and clarinet as a kid, but the deeper I got into early swing and Jazz, the more I fantasized about singing in a big band a la Ella Fitzgerald.”
She attended a performing arts high school in Hadley, Massachusetts, where she met future Sweetback guitarist Ross Bellenoit. There her easygoing stage presence and powerhouse vocals had her singing with various groups including the Downbeat Award-winning a cappella group 5 Alone, and starring in most of the school’s theatrical productions.
With a unique versatility in her range of voices, a deep musicality and keen sense for harmonies, Zara continued to study various types of song, but admits it was rarely country. “Before I met Emily, I didn’t have much experience with country music apart from Western swing. I was however a big fan of the offbeat theatrics of Roger Miller, who penned one of the Sweetback Sisters first hits “My Uncle Used to Love me But she Died”. My Great Grandpa Joe used to blast his songs across the lake every chance he got.”
In Miller, Bode discovered a kindred spirit, one who shared her love of tight-knit harmonies heard on the 45s of yesteryear. “The vocal chemistry between us was immediately apparent,” Miller recalls. “It was a natural fit, and before you knew it we had some shows lined up. We needed some hot instrumentalists, so we called up Jesse, Ross and Stefan and The Sweetback Sisters were born.” Bode adds, "Our first gig was in this little tip jar joint in Brooklyn. It was hot, and the place was packed to the brim with friends, family, and country music lovers. There was a tangible energy in the air. It really felt like this was the beginning of something special.”
From that first night on, the crowds have gone wild for their close harmonies, charismatic stage presence and the crackling musicianship of their cohorts. But while the Sweetback Sisters formed due to their deep love of classic country music, their individual foundations are quite varied. “Stefan, Peter and Ross all have formal training in jazz and classical music,” Miller explains, “And now they play everything under the sun. On the other hand, Jesse was steeped in old-time music, learning tunes from his dad Gerry, a fiddler and folklorist. In the Sisters’ combined histories there’s not a lot of ground we don’t cover.” Bode concludes, “The tension between our various backgrounds gives the music something original and exciting, but in a way it’s also an homage to what country music used to be: a melting pot of rock, jazz, and traditional music.”