Real music comes from the heart, and that’s what you get from the three sisters of the Oregon band Jospeh. Twins Meegan and Allison Closner were thrown into a brand new world of music and touring when their older sister Natalie asked them to make a band, leading to an eye opening revelation of their musical potential, which shows to be extremely strong on their debut album Native Dreamer Kin. You would never guess that three voices and one guitar can become such a powerful force until you hear these three sisters together. MEB editor Emma had the chance to sit down with them in New York City the morning of one of their shows, ending in a conversation so in-depth and long that this article was two months in the making. Worth every second of reading, check out our chat with Joseph to learn about how they developed into the group they are today, and how they take their musical influences to make their own impactful music.
You guys are three sisters from Oregon, touring the country and playing music. I know, as the middle child of two sisters, that the last thing I’d be able to do with them is start a band. How did Joseph start for you three?
Natalie: I did music by myself for a while. I was on my second house show tour as a solo artist, playing the same songs and doing the same thing. Then a friend pulled me aside and was like, “I don’t think you really believe in this; why would you make art you wouldn’t think people needed? You should want to run it into people’s hands and be so excited.” So I had the idea to ask Meaghan and Allison to join me because it just struck me, so I texted them from Chicago on the way back and asked them to be in my band.
Meegan: Allison and I were just working at a grocery store, for me, and a bakery. We both quit college and had no idea what we were doing with our lives. Then, she asked us; at that time we had no idea what that commitment was but we said yes to it.
What was going through your mind when Natalie asked you to join the band?
Allison: We thought it was going to be some occasional backup singing in Portland or Seattle. We had no idea we would end up quitting our jobs and touring across the country – or writing songs for that matter. But going back to that sister thing, it was probably the best thing we’ve ever done. It’s one of the hardest things as well, because you actually have to do work. We’ve been being mean and nice to each other since the day we were born, so there were a lot of things to work through. I think we’ve all grown as humans more than I would have in any other experience. I feel like I’m a much better person because of these three humans.
Meegan: It’s a very concentrated experience; we spend almost every living moment together.
Yeah, when you guys are touring together, how do you manage to get along in such enclosed spaces?
Meegan: We travel in a minivan and learned how to communicate pretty well.
Natalie: I think we know the cues when somebody isn’t doing great, and then everyone knows we’re going to talk about something, whether it’s now or later. It’s just a matter of when, and then we will call out the person in the funk and say, “Let’s go there – What’s going on?”
Allison: I think what’s key, though, is we make sure to remind each other that we are a team. We’re on the same team and we’re not trying to pin ourselves against each other.
The group is from Oregon, but you’ve been travelling all over the country; when you come to a big city like New York, how do you handle the culture shock?
Natalie: It’s good. It’s interesting how each city has its own personality, even though it’s full of different cultures or people. I’d say it’s different going to a city for the first time versus going back to one. We have things that we know before we go to L.A.; L.A. doesn’t need anyone else to perform for it. L.A. needs people to tend the wounds and give them something. I think as a performance artist, especially in places like New York or L.A., I’d say people walk around and they really want an audience. They want to perform for you, so that city was always really hard for us, prior to having this mentality. It was hard when we’d go in and there would be a really thick sense of competition. One day when we were going in, we decided that we weren’t going to be beat by that again. It’s really negative and it feels really heavy. When we were driving in once time, somebody had this thought to act as nurses to these people. We’re not supposed to perform. We’re not looking for somebody to listen to us, but we need to go and give a gift, a balm to the weary souls.
It’s interesting; all of us are very big feelers and we absorb emotion that happening around us. I think that we have to be really conscious when we come into a new place and a new city about how we are going to respond to the things that we soak up. Even just walking down the streets, there’s a lot going on, especially on the New York subway. There are a lot of things happening and if you’re not careful, you can just absorb all of the emotions. You look around and you see stress, pain, or anguish and all of a sudden you become so heavy by all of thee things from other people, so you kind of need to make a game plan when you go into the city. That totally went in a different direction than what you were asking, but that is what made me think of the city. Besides, I think big cities just have more people and more people trying to accomplish bigger things, so you have to find out what your role is and what you’re going to bring to a place instead of what you want a place to give to you.
When it comes to writing, do you like doing it on the road because you are exposed to all of these different things?
Natalie: I get overloaded, honestly.
Allison: We’re learning how to write on the road. At first we didn’t have to at all and then we’d get back and realize we didn’t have any new songs for the next tour. It’s a process.
Meegan: Our one friend told us that it wasn’t an excuse. The Beatles could write on the road, so you can write on the road.
From what I’ve heard, a lot of bands can’t write on the road; it’s difficult to stay focused.
Natalie: I’ve read so many books about it, finding your muse, whether it comes when you show up everyday and do the work or it comes when the muse visits you. I particularly get really finicky. My friend asked me about writing the other day; it honestly just feels wind that occasionally you feel on your hand but most of the time you’re grasping for it and can never really pin it down. It’s not something you can plan, in my opinion, so it’s difficult to accomplish when you’re away but it something you have to be open to and wait for it to land on you.
Allison and Meaghan, you both said that coming into this band you weren’t even expecting to write songs. How has the process been for you guys?
Allison: It’s weird because as a human you find your own ways to process information and life; some people write in diaries and journals and others make music. It just never crossed my mind to process through song and poetry, so for me I have to shift my brain to work. My whole family is pretty good at writing, so my whole life I thought I was a bad writer, and it’s kind of ironic how half of my job in this band is to write music and be good at it. It’s really cool and such a challenge because it’s not a natural thing for me. I think the things that I come up with are fun and surprising and bad [laughs].
Natalie: And totally inspired at the same time. I think Meaghan and Allison have amazing instincts, and they bypass a lot of the cerebral approaches that I now take, because I’ve been working on it for a few years. I think once you start to learn systems and how something works for you, then you become trapped by it. They have really great, organic kind of way of expressing, and it’s been a huge asset.
I’ve seen on your YouTube channel that Joseph plays a lot of house shows, which is really cool. What is it like playing a house show and then touring to play clubs and venues?
Allison: It’s cool to start in house shows, because you build this community of people who feel like friends. The shows are a lot more intimate. You’re stepping into somebody else’s home or backyard and maybe sleeping in their beds, so you get to know these people on a different level, because you are on the same level. Sometimes when you start on a stage, you automatically get elevated in a weird way, literally and figuratively. It’s really interesting to start in these house then move to venues because it’s like, “look what we’re doing, friends!”
Natalie: It’s something that you share together, like a party. I always want to do house shows, because it’s so special to be together and it reminds me of why music exists at all. We’re together, we’re not alone. Somebody else is feeling the same thing that I’m feeling and that’s why I listen to and share music. House shows are really amazing opportunity for that, but it’s really fun to come back to a town where people have paid money to sit in their friend’s living room and finally be able to give them something, like a beautiful sound system and a cool space.
Allison: You get a lot of different people who come to house shows who either not go to venues or rarely go to venues, because everyone just invites their friends to fill the space. It’s cool because you get a bit of a different crowd of people; I like it, it’s fun.
I totally get a Florence + The Machine vibe from you guys and can totally see her as one of your inspirations when it comes to making music. Thinking more specifically, however, what is one song that emulates you as a musician?
Allison: I was thinking of this one song — I don’t even know what it’s called — but it’s a Paramore song (“All I Wanted”). So I never, ever wanted to sing, but there was this one Paramore song that has this one note in it where she [Haley Williams] goes SO high full-voicing it. So I was like, “I wonder if I can hit that”. Then my friends told me I should just try, so we had these crazy speakers at the time and turned the song up super loud, and when I hit it, I was like “Oh my gosh, I want to do this!”
There is also this band called Company of Thieves, and I got to see them perform once. Watching them also made me realize that this is what I want to do.
Meegan: I think a song that I’ve been loving and has been on repeat is a Shakey Graves song called “Roll The Bones”. There is this Audiotree session that he does and it is so freaking good! I don’t play an instrument at all, but the way he plays guitar and the melodies he chooses are just so interesting to me.
Natalie: It’s just hard to breathe when you are watching and listening to it because it’s so good.
Meegan: Before I saw that video, I didn’t really get his melodies or anything, but then I saw that and it made a lot more sense. It is really inspiring. I don’t know if this answered the question, but I feel like that song has been inspiring me a lot recently. I knew a song was written right after I listened to that.
Natalie: You can answer this question in so many ways! The song that’s coming to mind is “Empty” by Ray Lamontagne because it is some of the best lyrics ever written. “She lifts her skirt up to her knees / Walks through the garden rows with her bare feet, laughing”. My favorite part is when he’s like “lay your blouse across the chair / Let fall the flowers from your hair / And kiss me with that country mouth so plain / Outside the rain is tapping on the leaves / To me it sounds like they are applauding us / The quiet love we’ve made.” That’s just so mind blowing! I think I really like that song because the poetry is just so good and I’m always trying to write really beautifully but also really efficiently. Ben Gibbard from Death Cab For Cutie is one of my favorite lyricist because he says so few words but makes you feel so much, but I think I choose that song because of how beautiful it is and I can probably listen to it on repeat for the rest of my life and not get tired of it. I also think I can relate to both characters in the story, because the woman he’s describing is lighthearted and carefree, and he is dark and burdened and tortured, and I think I relate to both people in that. With that song, I feel in both my human self and my creative self as well.
How do these influences help you create your own music?
Natalie: I think it’s just in you, and when you’re trying to make sense of something, your well is just there and you draw from whatever you’ve collected. Although I will say, I have been listening from that Shakey Graves record a bunch because ever single time I listen to it I have a moment of inspiration.
Meegan: The first time you listen to it you connect with one song, then the next time you listen to it you’re like “What?! How did I not see this before?!” It’s so good. He’s brilliant.
Do you guys listen to a lot of music while your writing or do you feel that sometimes it can impede you from coming up with original ideas?
Natalie: I think that you should be mindful but not too mindful. I’m sure you’ve heard the quote “Good artists borrow, great artists steal.” It’s just kind of the way we patchwork everything that inspires us.
Allison: And if it sounds too similar hopefully one of us notices and we can change it a little bit.
When you guys were making your debut album, what were you surprised about coming up with in the studio? Especially since some of you have never written a song before.
Natalie: I think that four of the nine songs came while we were recording. I had written a bunch of different songs and thought I’d make them all for the record, but then Allison wrote one and Meegan wrote a couple, and it just happened as we were going, which I think was the surprising part.
Meegan: Yeah, I think the fact that I wrote a song at all was surprising (laughs), and the second fact that I even ended up on the record was even more surprising.
Natalie: We didn’t have the last song (“Eyes To The Sky”) at all. The last song came the night before our last day of recording. Our producer we working with told us we really needed a ninth song, and down to the wire we had a pizza party and wrote something. So just like that we went back to the house and wrote one of our favorite songs.
Allison: The other one that was surprising was “Coming Close” because we I had written the verses of it and Natalie had taken a chorus from a different song she had written and put it on it. Normally we’d just tweak it around, but we ended up getting rid of the chorus and adding on a completely different melody. That song was kind of ripped in two and put back together in a completely different way.
You’re performances are very simple as well: three voices and one guitar. By doing this, how are you trying to portray yourselves as musicians to audiences?
Meegan: It’s the most portable and the most like us. It’s what we, as the three of us, can give and I feel like we’ve perfected it in some ways. I also think it’s a good starting point to grow from there.
Natalie: I was actually having a conversation with my friend Alicia, who is touring with us and is a beautiful film photographer, and she was talking about how she sees people with all of this really expensive gear and how she sometimes feels like dwarfed by those things because she doesn’t have all of that. But it’s not about that; this is her expertise. She has her 35mm camera and photography is what she does well, and I think I really related to that feeling. Sometimes I see bands that have a bunch of instruments and high musicianship and that’s just not really what we do right now. I think at some point we will consider, if we find the right people, adding to the team, but for now it’s been a really cool thing to be able to say that what we bring on our own is enough.
It’s interesting to listen to Joseph at first; your voices are so powerful that you wouldn’t think that your performances are so simple. If you were to bring in more instruments or band members, how would you want that to affect your music in the future?
Natalie: More percussion; I think just bigger dynamics in general.
Allison: One thing we love about an artist, London Grammar, is that it’s very big sounding and so spacious. They could probably have like three instruments, and it’s so big, yet so spacious and simple at the same time. I think if we added those elements it would be used very specifically.
Natalie: When we were writing the last record, we talked a lot about how silence was the other instrument. What I think is exciting about adding a few instruments is that small things can be even smaller and our big things can be bigger because of the contrast. I think that, in life and in music, is everything — the contrast of things getting bigger and bigger until it explodes, and then it comes back down to this whispery thing.
What do you want listeners to take away from your album?
Allison: I think we write each other’s songs out of our own stories, feelings, and moments, and it’s one thing if somebody connects to our moment and thinks “That’s your moment! Cool!” – but it think it’s a whole other thing when somebody sees that moment and connects it to their own moments. I think that’s a cool thing when people come up to us after a show and say something like “This song connected to my story in this way and thanks so much for writing that because it helped me get through this moment”. I think that’s really cool, and it may not be a specific thing, but we can only do as much as we can with our story and hope it connects with others so it’s fun when it does.
Meegan: I think that I think about giving people new life, new air, fresh breath too breathe. It’s so awesome when someone comes up to me and says “I just want to write a song now!” It just gives them this new, fresh, wind. We’ve had people who have said “I was in a hospital bed listening to this song on repeat and it basically kept me alive”, which is insane, and obviously we didn’t do that. I wrote a song about a boy, and they took that and listened to it in the hospital, you know? That gave them new, fresh breath to breathe – new hope. I think that is what I hope people will take away from it: easy air to breathe.
Natalie: Wow – those were really great replies. I don’t think I’d have much to say but renewal in some sort of way, renewed belief and renewed hope. “Hope” is a really difficult word to say out loud because it means so much and it can be a really painful word. I heard someone say sometime that “hope is a bloody battle”. It’s not a light. Sometimes you think about hope and you think of an uninformed, naïve person because there is so much darkness in the world, like why would you hope? I really would say that when you are down in the dirt you are informed and you know living is a battle and you’re fighting everyday to live, and you hope. I think that would be what I want someone to walk away with: that bloody battle of hope that believes in something, knowing all of the facts and all the probabilities. That is what I want.
Those are some really meaningful responses. Now before we end this interview, what would you like to say to all of your listeners, fans, and supporters?
Natalie: It means so much. You feel like you’re not alone when somebody connects to what you’re saying.
Stream Joseph’s debut album Native Dreamer Kin here.