"I want the songs to be better. I just want to care more about them" Lily and Madeleine in conversation

Talented sisters Lily and Madeleine are two of our favourite acts of the last five years. We raved about Keep It Together, loved Fumes, and bigged up their self titled debut. Each album shows a staggering amount of musical growth from the duo. We caught up with them when they were in the UK recently to ask about their third album, and what’s next.

Lily: Is it okay if I do my make-up during this, is that weird?
Madeleine: As long as it doesn’t distract from the interview.

Hello! Last time I saw you guys was in The Social…
Madeleine and Lily: Oh my God!
Madeleine: It was so tiny.

Yeah, it’s the smallest place I’ve ever been.
Lily: Yeah. I was sixteen.
Madeleine: Were you? I remember sweating and the stage was so tiny that I couldn’t move…
Lily: That was so fun.
Madeleine: But the other guy who played on the bill that night was like…
Lily: I don’t remember. Oh I do! Yes! He was wearing a jersey.
Madeleine: He was a cool guy. I don’t remember what kind of music he did but I remember I liked it. Anyway. That was a while ago. [Ed - It was Conner Youngblood]

Yes, it was a while ago. One of the questions I was going to ask you guys is, you’ve had three albums in four years. That’s quite a lot of music to get out there, because most bands do one album every two, maybe three years. So how come you’re able to produce stuff that’s as good as it is as quickly as that?
Lily: I mean, all of our albums have been made for pretty cheap and pretty easily.
Madeleine: That’s true.
Lily: The same people, most of the time. And we write all the songs, so it’s not like we need to wait for anybody to give us hits, because…
Madeleine: That’s true, because we just write our own songs. [laughs] Yeah, usually we’ll just kind of bust out as many songs as we can in a time span, and then just record the ones that we like the best. That allows us to just put out as much as we can. I hate to say that, that’s too business-y. It’s art. [laughs]
Lily: Yeah. I want to take more time with the next record.
Madeleine: Me too.
Lily: Definitely. Because I want the songs to be better. Like, I just want to care more about them.
Madeleine: Oh absolutely, I want to care about them.
Lily: Not that I don’t care about the ones we already have, but you know what I mean.
Madeleine: And I want to have a ton or songs to choose from, and not feel like we’re throwing half-assed tracks on there.
Lily: Yeah, totally.
Madeleine: And I want to be able to collaborate on songs and really take our time…
Lily: And be ambitious.
Madeleine: Yeah, and be very ambitious with this next record.,

So how do you guys do songwriting then? What’s that process for you?
Lily: I like to do…well, before this most recent album we just wrote together.
Madeleine: We’d just sit down.
Lily: We’d sit down and be like, “today we’re going to write three songs”. But I don’t really like that, because…I don’t know.
Madeleine: It can be kind of limiting.
Lily: So now I just like to write whenever I feel like it. Usually separate from Madeleine, and then we come together and edit them together, and I like that better because then we both feel more attached to the songs and they’re more personal.
Madeleine: Yes, I agree, it’s cool to be able to get a little clip from Lily, a little voice memo from an app on the iPhone. And of something that she’s written, and then just apply my own writing style to it as well, until it’s a full complete song. That’s the way we’ve been doing it.

And so do you kind of each own certain songs then do you think, or kind of eventually meld so they’re just your song?
Lily: Well, personally we do, but as far as credits go, royalties, and money and what not, no, it’s equal credits. It would be way too much work. [laughs]
Madeleine: But yeah, with a lot of the songs on Keep It Together some are more like Madeleine songs and some are more Lily songs, even though we collaborated on all of them. Our specific kind of like lyrical voices shine through on specific tracks.

I mean, clearly you have to get on well to kind of do what you’re doing together.
Lily: We’re very different people, but we’re in this together is, what I always say. Like, we have each others’ backs in situations when we’re like meeting new people or travelling to a different country, we have to be watching out for each other the whole time. We don’t fight about music stuff.
Madeleine: If we fight it’s about something stupid like I used her make-up brush or something and she didn’t want me to.

I’m not familiar with Indianapolis. Is there much of a music scene that happens there? Is there something specific there that got you into writing music or creating music in the first place?
Lily: There’s a music scene. It’s definitely for older people, like you can’t go to pretty much any venue as an under twenty-one individual. Because of the liquor laws in Indy. So I never get to go to shows.
Madeleine: Yeah, there’s like a couple of different scenes. There’s like kind of a cool hip-hop scene that’s going on with Sirius Black and what not…
Lily: I love Sirius Black.
Madeleine: …and then there’s like the more punk scene, which I think is kind of mopey, [all laugh] personally I don’t like to…
Lily: And Margo and the Nuclear So and So’s is from Indy...
Madeleine: They’re probably the biggest thing that’s come out of Indy. They’re pretty cool. And John Mellencamp is from southern Indiana. So I mean it’s not maybe as significant, or like ground-breaking, as New York or L.A. or Nashville or something, the scenes aren’t massive, but there’s stuff going on. It’s just difficult when you’re this young, and you can’t get into all the venues, you know.

So what got you into it in the first place then? How did you start?
Madeleine: Well, I suppose we just kind of like created our own scene. We did choirs and stuff…
Lily: Our own scene!
Madeleine: “How are you not seen!”
Lily: That’s what I say.
Madeleine: And so we just did choirs and stuff in school, and I did a lot musicals in high school and middle school. We listened to a lot of female pop vocalists growing up, and folk artists as well, and that’s just kind of what developed our sound, I guess. Lily and I just like writing what is intuitive to us.

Obviously a lot of it’s based around the harmonising, because that’s where your strengths are. Is that something you just used to do growing up as kids and it just grew from there into you know, maybe we can do something with this?
Lily: Yeah, people always ask us if we have to practice and all that stuff, but we really don’t, because when I write a song I know that Madeleine is going to doing some harmony on top of it, so it’s just always in my mind.
Madeleine: It’s interesting, we write the harmonies as we write the song, it’s really the basis of the song writing. So if somebody were to ask, “which vocal part is the melody and which is the harmony?”, you just can’t really separate them from the foundation of the song.

Is that the starting point for all the songs then, the harmony, or do you start writing lyrics and things first, or do you come up with the theme of it, or…?
Madeleine: Depends.
Lily: I would say for me it’s melody first, and the idea of the song, the lyrics, are where I want it to go, what I want it to be about. I have a hard time still, trying to write a song and then envision it sounding different from me strumming my guitar. Because I obviously don’t want to release it that way, but I just feel like I haven’t had enough recording experience to be like, “oh, it might work well in this style”. So this is something that I’m working on right now.
Madeleine: I think that’s so funny that you can’t…
Lily: Well, I can…
Madeleine: That you have a hard time.
Lily: I just want to take it a step further and do something more creative. Because I can hear a song that I’m writing as a pop song, but I don’t necessarily want it to be like that…
Madeleine: Yeah, I get that.
Lily: That’s why we need a producer. Right now, at least. I think.

Have you found your recent record different? Because it’s got a fuller sound to it, because the early stuff was quite sort of stripped back, and a lot of it was all around the vocals. But there’s more meat to this record.
Lily: We wrote the songs together like always, but we arranged them with Kate Seeger who plays percussion on the album, and Shannon Hayden who we worked with on all our work, and she does cello and guitar and mandolin and whatever else we need her to do…
Madeleine: She does everything. [laughs]
Lily: So yeah, we arranged it with them before we went to the studio, and that allowed us to come up with perfect beat for the song, and we all put in references for each track to what we wanted it to sound like. So it’s cool.
Madeleine: Every track is very cohesive, like the whole record is one solid feel, whereas maybe our past records don’t have as tight of a feel. That’s not necessarily true, but I feel that for this most recent record.

How do you guys get on with a producer?
Lily: We’ve worked with the same person for all of the records. His name’s Paul Mahern, from Bloomington. He teaches at the university down there. But we want to use a new producer for this next record. And I don’t want to record it in Indiana, because we’ve recorded all of them in the same studio, and I want just…I want to separate from that a bit, because it’ll just make me have a different…
Madeleine: I agree. As much as I love that studio that we’ve been working in for years, it’s called Primary Sound, it’s an old church, and there’s a graveyard attached, a civil war-era graveyard. It’s absolutely gorgeous. I think it’s important to create somewhere else, because it will force us to have a different perspective, and probably the music will sound different. Which is what we want.

You think that’s sort of part of growing as an act then, trying different types of recording and working with different people and different places?
Lily: I feel like our career has been, like a lot of consistency which is great but I want to experiment more now and branch out. Definitely.

Has being signed to New West Records made a difference? Does that mean you’ve got more money to spend on videos and to tour with or is that not the reality?
Lily: Not the reality. I don’t mean I don’t want to talk shit, but…
Madeleine: Yeah, it’s just…
Lily: We’re small artists.

That’s the reason I ask, not to say is it any good or not, but because I’m really interested in the realities of touring on not much of a budget, you know, because it’s a tough life, right?
Madeleine: That’s the thing. With all the successes that we’ve had, that we’re very grateful for, we’re still growing, and we’re still trying to get to where we want to be, and we’re not there yet. So we’re working on it. And it’s difficult to when a roster…like our label’s roster is so large, sometimes you can get…
Lily: And so unrelated to us too, lots of like country music and stuff that we don’t really…I don’t know, we don’t really sound like them. We work, I mean, we fit on the label, but I don’t know...

You touched on it earlier in terms of your ages. Obviously you guys are still quite young. When you first started out, how did you kind of keep up with school stuff and have a relatively normal life?
Lily: When we came to London, when you saw us at The Social [in 2013], we just skipped two weeks of school, I was in high school at the time. And then I dropped out immediately after that, around Christmas, so that we could do this full time.
Madeleine: That’s true. I had just started college, and so I told my professors I was going on a trip, and I tried to get extensions for all my deadlines for my work, but it took a lot of work to catch up, and I was constantly thinking, “oh, I have a French paper to do…”
Lily: And you had a full schedule too.
Madeleine: It was just too much work so I was like, “I’m not doing this!” And I mean we’ve been working so hard on this, this is our life now, this is our career at the moment, and it’s definitely a popular thing in 2016, and the western world, to go to school, to go to college. That’s what everybody does, that’s what you’re supposed to do. But I think that a lot of people are realising that it’s not for everybody. It can be very, very expensive, especially in the States, and it’s not always super beneficial. And a lot of times kids will just waste their time at school, because they don’t know what they want yet and they’re paying for these classes that aren’t helping them, you know. So I think what Lily and I are doing has been really wonderful for us, and we can always return to school when we feel like it.
Lily: But also, there are some kids that we know that are also doing music but they don’t have the team that we have. So they probably shouldn’t have dropped out of school, because they’re kind of just floundering now.

Because it’s the same in the UK in terms of university; everybody goes...
Madeleine: Everybody’s going, yeah! And if you don’t go, you’re considered like some sort of a failure. Like a loser of something. Because you’re not smart enough to get into school. That’s not true at all! We’re doing our own thing. We’re learning, you know, on our own.
Lily: Also I don’t know how much university costs over here, but in the States it’s just unbelievable. Almost not worth it.
Madeleine: Like, crippling.

What advice would you have for somebody sort of in the position you were three years ago? What have you learned that you wish you’d known then?
Madeleine: I wish I had known all of the different outlets that are there in order to get into this business. Because being a performer is only one part of this business. You can work at a venue, you can be a band promoter, you can work in booking, you can work on a label, marketing on a label, you can do live sound, you can be a session musician and go into the studio…I mean there are so many ways to get into this business that I kind of… We’ve been successful in the performing route. But I wish I’d known about those other routes. So that’s what I always try to tell people, I feel like it’s very discouraging being a performer sometimes, because it’s kind of like, you put all of yourself out there, and if nobody pays attention, and then what else am I supposed to do? No no, there are so many other ways! There are so many other things for you to do in order to be in the music world. So that’s what I would say.
Lily: I guess, if I was talking to myself three years ago, I would just tell myself to relax and just write about stuff that I care about, and not be intimidated so easily by everybody else. And also to get people to stop talking about our age and our appearance, because I really feel like in a few years we’re not going to matter anymore, because literally all anyone cares about is how old we are. That’s how I feel.
Madeleine: Yeah, when we’re like twenty-seven and twenty-four, there’s going to be no story! [laughs]

This is a good point. Does that sort of stuff bug you then? Because it’s not particularly interesting how old you are necessarily, it’s the songs you’ve written.
Madeleine: It doesn’t really bug me as much anymore. Because I want to be able to show people what we are capable of.

You can follow Lily and Madeleine on various social media channels, like Facebook, Twitter, or https://www.youtube.com/user/lilyandmadeleine, or stream their albums from anywhere decent.

Tags folk, rock
Category Feature

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