By Jim Morrison
Arleigh Kincheloe, the Sister Sparrow of Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds, has been the frontwoman for the raucous soul/rock/funk group since its inception in 2008, but it was only with their new record, “The Weather Below,” that she became its leader.
Kincheloe writes nearly all the group’s songs and then the band arranges them together. But it wasn’t until the sessions for the new album, three weeks in Bear Creek Studios where Eric Clapton, The Lumineers, and Brandi Carlile have recorded, that she took more control of the group’s sound. Ryan Hadlock (The Lumineers, Vance Joy) produced.
“I was little bit more outspoken making this record in what I wanted to hear personally,” she says from Denver where the band is rehearsing for a string of dates on Tour de Fat with New Belgium Beer, a celebration of biking, beer, and tunes. “I think I have grown up a lot so I was able to say, you know what, I really want to hear it this way and I put my foot down. In previous years, I was more timid and let the musicians do what they would rather do.”
“We arrange all the songs together. It is a huge collaboration. It’s not my way or the highway, but in this instance I really knew what I wanted. That was a good feeling,” she adds. “I felt like it was time. As a leader, it’s taken this many years to be able to stand up and say, I’m ready to do this.”
Kincheloe’s firm hand steers the group’s sound in an ever so slightly pop forward direction. Don’t worry. Not Katy Perry pop forward. Just towards a cleaner sound with more varied instrumentation, including keyboards in spots. But listen to “Sugar” or “Mama Knows” or the blusey “Cold Blooded” and it’s clear the band retains its edge. That’s thanks to both their energy and Kincheloe’s remarkable vocals, at turns dirty and bluesy and at others soulful and funky.
That sound comes to Harborfest on the afternoon of Saturday, June 6, another festival for a band that loves to play festivals. “You look out and realize everybody is there to just have a good time. They’re off work and chillin’, “she says. “”That’s a fun way to be able to play.”
They’ll be playing some new tunes from their third album. For the first time, a few of the songs were co-writes between Kincheloe and Los Angeles songwriter Neffu and between Kincheloe and guitarist Sasha Brown. ‘It’s a little bit of a different thing for us,” she says. “It’s been fun to branch out and see what other things can come when you try.”
Kincheloe had never written with someone before and wasn’t sure about it. She and Neffu spent the day just talking about their lives. In the end, “Sugar,” a story of a past relationship came out of that work. “When I came down to writing music, it didn’t feel like it was so strange,” she says . “What he was really able to get out of me was the story. Not that I don’t do that on my own, but I think he helped me write the story of something that really happened. I was a little shy to do that. ”
They worked together not only on lyrics, but melodies. “That was really cool,” she adds. “We were like, does this work or is this interesting? We bounced off each other. At the end of the day, we were cranking the song and dancing around. It was so fun to do. I think it really comes out with a playful vibe.”
The new album’s first single “Mama Knows,” a tribute to Kincheloe’s mother, who has long played in a band with her father in New York’s Catskills, came when she was visiting her sister in Los Angeles. .”I wanted to write about something that meant something to me and her and obviously for my mom, who was a huge influence and still is,” Kincheloe says. “She was a singer so musically she was my teacher. She and my father are my biggest influences.”
Her parents are why she’s a musician. They had — and still have — a cover band that plays everything from jazz to soul and rock. She grew up in a household that worshipped Bonnie Raitt and Little Feat and played everything from the classical her father loved to the country rock and folk her mother favored and nearly everything in between. “There was always music playing, no matter what time of day,” she says.
As she got older, she listened to the pop music her friends favored, but soon realized that was not for her. She delved deep into soul and blues — Etta James, Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday. Her father told war stories about life on the road. She began singing with her parents’ band at nine.She left home at 18 to move to New York and pursue the life. “As soon as I could, I just went after it,” she says.
She began writing at 18, collecting tunes. Some never made it on albums. But occasionally an old one like “Don’t Be Jealous,” which she says is about being on the road in a van with a bunch of dudes, finds it’s way back.
Some friends helped put the band together and then they nabbed a residence at the Rockwood Music Hall every Saturday night for five months in 2009 and things just took off. Soon, they were touring 150 shows a year to enthusiastic audiences pumped on the fiery mix of guitars, sax, drums, and bass.
Their first album was recorded in a 12-hour studio session while on the road. For “Below the Weather,” they had three weeks off the road. “”This was all we did. That was great. We were able to soak it in, marinate, think about everything,” she says. “That first record is really a Polaroid of who we were as a baby band, but you grow out of that. ”
Personnel has changed, but then the band has grown.” I think the sound has been growing since the beginning. I think we had to hone in on our individual and band sounds . That took some time, getting to work with one another, then getting in the rhythm of arranging the songs and solidifying that voice. By the second record, we were honed in on it.”
Kincheloe says the band is smarter on the road these days. She’s front and center, the only singer, so she has to take care of herself, especially her voice. “We want to do this a long time and we’ve learned how to do it sustainably,” she says. “We’ve gotten better about how to tour. Instead of everything balls-to-the-walls, we pick what makes sense. For me, personally, it’s really important. I have to be physically on top of my game every night so I need rest.”
Then she gets on stage and suddenly it’s all good. “It’s an energy give and take,” with the crowd, she says. “In festivals, the vibes are just flowing.”
Sister Sparrow & The Dirty Birds
3:30 PM, Free
Harborfest @ Town Point Park