It’s hard to pin down exactly where Diamonds of Gold, the debut EP from Seattle duo SISTERS, fits into the great cladogram of musical genres. Hints of funk, dance-pop, folk, and indie ballads are sprinkled throughout, but as soon as you think you’ve got these guys read, they take a hard left turn that would leave you scratching your head if you weren’t too busy dancing along.
Ranging from the glittering falsetto and synths of the single, “Back 2 U,” to the quirky instrumentation of something like “Chickens Fatten,” the group manages to hit a pretty wide array of disparate sounds, and hit them well. Ambitious debut efforts such as this often seem to lack focus, but Diamonds of Gold gives the impression that Emily Westman and Andrew Vait just happened to find a bunch of different styles they were great at. I can say with a straight face that “Buzzard,” the expansive, cloud-parting closer, is one of my top ten favorite tracks of the year.
To get a better sense of where these guys were coming from, I talked with Emily and Andrew last week about their formal musical training, the semi-serendipity of their reunion in Seattle, and their varied but complementary influences. Complete with a little visit from Emily’s dog, Lenore, it provided an interesting glimpse into the workings of this eclectic duo.
TC: Tell me a little bit about your musical backgrounds. I know you both studied at the University of Miami, but can you talk about how you transitioned from that formal training to the projects you’ve been working on recently?
Andrew: Yeah, I went in as a saxophone major, so I was studying jazz saxophone and clarinet. Then I kind of changed gears around my junior year, and I ended up graduating with a degree in jazz voice. So I guess that’s my collegiate background. But in my senior year I sold my clarinet, bought an acoustic guitar, and started learning how to write… kinda shitty songs. Over time I think they might’ve gotten a little less shitty. I played piano forever, which I’ve integrated pretty exclusively into SISTERS. I mostly just play keys and sing now.
Emily: I was a classical composition and classical percussion major. But as I’ve been in Seattle for the last six years or so, I’ve realized how many more gigs there are for drum set and other instruments that aren’t necessarily classical in the band scene. So I’ve really jumped into that more. I’ve been writing songs since college, and this is the first time I’m really going for it.
Andrew: I had no idea she wrote songs until, like, November of last year.
E: I’ve been in other people’s bands this whole time [laughs].
A: I always knew Emily as sort of a side-man. We both moved to Seattle in 2007 and 2008, so right around the same time. She’d play in bands and I’d hear about what she was doing, like playing with Blunt Mechanic on Barsuk Records, and then finally in 2011 we came together through the Seattle Rock Orchestra. She was the resident drummer for the group, and I came in and auditioned for their tribute to Queen. So then we finally started converging and working closer and closer together.
E: …And then we moved in next door to each other.
A: Yeah, we’re both in West Seattle, which is basically a separate continent from Seattle proper.
E: People don’t want to come to West Seattle, and people in West Seattle don’t want to go back.
A: We’ve seceded from the union [laughs]. It’s much more rural.
E: It definitely feels like a small town.
A: I mean, we’re down the street from a Target.
TC: In listening through your solo work, it seems like you guys work in pretty distinct genres. SISTERS is a pretty big departure from both of your previous stuff, so what was the process of combining your styles and coming up with the new sound?
E: We just sort of go with the flow.
A: Yeah, we came together and agreed that we liked each other’s previous work, so there was already a lot of mutual respect. I knew that she played all the instruments, and I knew that I played all the other instruments, so we agreed that we’d be a duo, and we’d play all the instruments and make as much noise as possible [laughs]. I had written a few songs as Eternal Fair was working its way towards dissolution, and I remember thinking that they were songs that I could show to Emily and maybe we could do something with them. I think I was just going through a phase where I was writing things that were a bit more dance-y, a bit more soul throwback and groove-oriented, and Emily really grabbed onto what I was writing. That’s where “Back 2 U” came from.
E: Once we actually started playing together, everything happened really organically. Almost as if we just spit it out, and how it sounds on the recordings is how it really sounded when we first played together.
TC: Do you guys have any distinct influences you can point to for the style you ended up with?
E: Well, we both have different influences.
A: You could trace both of our influences back to the Beatles, and then from there they just branch out in wildly different directions. For me, I’ve been a big fan of My Morning Jacket, Pink Floyd. I love Prince and Michael Jackson. Emily and I just did a tribute to Michael Jackson with the Seattle Rock Orchestra back in March. Jeff Buckley’s been a big influence of mine, too, and I think that kind of brings me to the current stuff.
E: Just the Beatles for me. And Queen. The modern stuff I listen to is St. Vincent, that type of thing.
TC: In a similar vein, what’s on your iPods right now?
A: Well, right now, probably our own EP [laughs]. We just got it back, and we’re pretty happy about the way that it sounds. But, at any given time, I’d say in the car together we’ve been listening to Future Islands. I just rediscovered Antony and the Johnsons when I heard them on KEXP the other day, and it took me a while to figure out why I knew them. I knew it was a strange name and an interesting sound, and I just went back and started digging through those albums. And then anything that Arcade Fire does we’ll listen to, of course.
E: I’ve been listening to Sam Cooke. Lots of Sam Cooke. And Beethoven string quartets.
TC: Can you talk about your lyric writing for SISTERS? Is there a certain theme you go for as a group, or do you take it one track at a time?
A: We write separately, and then we bring our songs together and arrange them and compose them based on what’s needed after that initial stem has been created. At least that’s what we’ve done with my songs. A lot of Emily’s songs have existed for a couple of years now and she had already demoed them out, so it was more of a process of recreation. But one of my favorite things about Emily’s lyrical writing style is that it reminds me of some kind of Shel Silverstein, Dr. Seuss hybrid. I personally have gone through phases of writing kind of silly, esoteric lyrics like that, but for my current style I err more toward storytelling and fictional narratives, or sometimes more simplistic or minimalistic things.
TC: I was certainly a fan of the lyrics to Emily’s “Cuddle Mouse.”
E: [Laughs] It’s a true story.
TC: Is there more to it than the song, or is it literally just about a mouse that crawls into bed with you at night because it wants to cuddle?
E: It’s a pet name in my relationship. I have this vision in my mind of being this tiny mouse that is the big spoon on people after sneaking into their homes [laughs].
A: We played that song once as SISTERS, and eventually we want to collaborate with an artist to do some kind of starry night-themed animation to play behind us when we perform it live. You can imagine this little silhouetted mouse jumping along rooftops with the moon in the background.
TC: What’s the plan after the EP release? Are you heading out on tour or sticking around Seattle?
A: We just recently signed on with The Agency Group, so they’re working on some stuff for us for late 2014 and early 2015. And we’re kind of weighing out our options for releasing a full-length album, sooner rather than later. We’re working on it now, so that’ll be coming up in the near future.