Georgia-born sisters Megan and Rebecca Lovell have American roots music in their blood, spending the majority of their lives exploring the foundation of rock ’n’ roll through a well-versed catalogue of traditional stylings.
Their band Larkin Poe opens Savannah Stopover Music Festival on March 8, in an all-Georgia lineup that includes Savannah’s Payne Bridges and Atlanta’s Ruby Velle & The Soulphonics.
The Lovells' parents were both book and music lovers, whose homeschooling education imbued the sisters early on with an expansive library of literature and musical influences. They began studying music at a young age, taking violin and piano lessons at ages 3 and 4. In their teens, they were introduced to bluegrass. Along with their older sister, Jessica, they formed the Lovell Sisters, an all-string bluegrass outfit that garnered success early on.
The Lovell Sisters released three albums and played Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” the Grand Ole Opry and Bonnaroo Music Festival. However, Jessica phased out of the project in 2009 and from there, Megan and Rebecca formed Larkin Poe — taking the name from their great-great-great-grandfather, the first cousin of famed writer Edgar Allan Poe.
Over the years, the sisters have explored many facets of rock ’n’ roll music, always finding themselves back at roots music and more recently infatuated with the blues.
“Having grown up in the south and being Southerners and identifying with being Georgia peaches, I think the source music of the south really finds its way into your blood,” Rebecca said. “That’s something we’ve found fascinating over the years, because we’ve been musically schizophrenic. We’ve been all over the place and had many identities. From acoustic pop to pretty heavy rock and everything in between.”
On their last album, “Peach,” the sisters Lovell explored the gamut of roots music, paying homage to Delta blues legend Robert Johnson with “Come On in My Kitchen” to open the album, followed by a haunting cover of Blind Willie Johnson’s “John the Revelator” and a blistering rendition of Leadbelly’s “Black Betty.”
“The thing that has endured over all of that exploration has definitely been roots music,” Rebecca continued. “Be it bluegrass, the Delta blues or blues from down in Louisiana. That is the thing that continues to echo in our heads and we always want to try and find a way to express.”
Rebecca fronts the band with blazing guitar riffs, topped by her commanding vocals. Megan’s delicate yet powerful approach to the lap steel concretes the entire project firmly in the roots realm. When the sisters were getting into bluegrass, Megan attempted to play guitar, mandolin, and banjo, but struggled to fit into those instruments. She saw someone play a dobro, the standard resonator guitar often used in blues and roots music, which led her to the lap steel.
“When we transitioned into Larkin Poe, that’s when I picked up the lap steel,” Megan said. “I think it’s a really under-utilized instrument, especially in rock music. I think it’s fantastic. So vocal. I think there’s a different side to note choice, but also how you emote. Which you can play the same line a thousand different ways with the ability to slide to it and vibrato and all of that. I think it’s really fascinating in that way.”
“If I can step in with an asterisk on Megan’s playing as well,” Rebecca interjected. “That is one thing that totally blows my mind. I’ll sing little lines and then she’ll sing them back to me on the lap steel. It’s a lot of times how we end up arranging different sections of songs. It’s spooky. It’s hard to describe sometimes. It’s almost like Megan is using witchcraft to transform into her instrument. You feel like it's her voice coming through.”
A primary part of their musical education has come from being a backing band for greats like Elvis Costello, Kristian Bush, Jackson Brown and Don Henley. They’ve played with Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons, Jim James of My Morning Jacket and Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes as well. Through the years and tours, playing with stalwarts of rock ’n’ roll has given the sisters an education in songwriting and performing.
“Playing with someone like Elvis Costello and watching how he commands the audience and the way he writes, and the way he listens to music and speaks about music; the breadth of his knowledge, it’s hugely inspiring and has had a huge effect on us,” Rebecca said.
“We’ve always said, the best way to learn is to put yourself in situations where you feel uncomfortable and feel pushed,” Megan added. “That was the way it was the first time we played with Elvis. It was absolutely terrifying. Over the years, it’s been terrifying in different ways.”
With an education in place, the sisters have continued their search for substance and authenticity in music. Much like Robert Johnson, their music emerges from a crossroads. The connection between their pedigree (relation to Poe) and Southern gothic stylings, has played a role in the direction their music takes.
“I think it’s a cross-section of intentionality and sort of the way things are,” Rebecca said. “We were free-range readers. That’s funny. I’ve never said that. I like that. So we grew up reading really old stuff. We were into Dickens and Shakespeare and Poe, of course. For us, whenever we started writing lyrics, we were very serious kids. We would always take ourselves very serious. We started creating these dark and brooding songs. I felt perplexed by it, but we just ran with it. The dark imagery. The questions of the soul. All of that kind of, to me, stems back to the Southern gothic.”
“Rebecca is definitely, sort of, obsessed with death,” Megan added with a laugh. “I think it’s a healthy thing. I think it’s a way of getting it out of you. I think the blues guys always talked about it to get it out of them. They didn’t want it to be a vibe.”
“It is kind of the root of human suffering,” Rebecca added. “The idea that we are finite. That our time on Earth is very limited and oftentimes we don’t know why we’re here. What the purpose is, and why we have such a capability for suffering.
"One thing that has been a huge influence for Megan and I over the last year and a half specifically has been delving deep into the blues and trying to educate ourselves, specifically about different greats of blues legend and lore. All of their lyrics, is one thing. You listen to all of these guys that were asking all of the same questions we’re asking now. That human condition sort of floats on and on and we keep asking the same questions. That’s sort of bad-ass to be part of that tradition.”