Over a decade into performing as Sister Sparrow, singer Arleigh Kincheloe and brass backing band the Dirty Birds have become experts at crafting soulful blues rock. That's clear on their latest record, Gold, as Kincheloe and the Dirty Birds impressively navigate when to clear the stage for her powerful voice and when to let the Dirty Birds jam to their hearts' content.
With the help of lauded producer Carter Matschullet, Gold not only delivers a much more dynamic sound than previous Sister Sparrow records, but it is their best, most polished release to date.
Ahead of their show at the Bluebird Theater, Kincheloe spoke to Westword about Sister Sparrow's evolution over the years, how motherhood has influenced her music, working with Matschullet to execute the exact artistic vision she had for Gold, and making lasting music she's proud of.
Westword: In the almost eleven years of being in Sister Sparrow, how do you feel like your music has evolved?
Arleigh Kincheloe: When I started the group I was basically a baby. I was about twenty, 21 years old. I think me growing up on the road, with this band — I think our music has evolved a lot. Obviously, songwriting has come a long way, and the band has a lot of members come and go. This current lineup has been pretty solid for the last five years or so, but yeah.
I think we’ve all kind of grown up together, as a band and as people, living in a van together on the road all the time. It’s been a great journey, but a long one, for sure [laughs].
Can you see and feel that growth and maturation on Gold? If so, can you give us some examples?
I think so. It definitely speaks to my personal experiences and journey. As a musician, definitely, but also, I just recently became a mother. That was a big learning milestone for me in my life. That happened right before I started making this record [in 2017], so I think this is definitely a reflection of me and my personal growth as a songwriter and also building some courage to step out and do something a little bit different.
Congratulations on motherhood! While listening to Gold, everything and everyone seems very polished and in control of their sound. It's a very lively record — did you always feel like you had that with this record, or did that realization come later on?
I think in the beginning stages of making this record, what really spoke to me was when I decided to work with producer Carter Matschullat. I feel like his vision for me, and also my vision that he interpreted, was so spot on. I think that the success of this project has been a lot about us communicating well and him understanding what I wanted and being able to really create that for me.
I think a lot of that strength and a lot of those sounds come from that relationship, and I think being able to convey that to the Dirty Birds band as well, when they were coming in [to work on the record]. There were very specific things that we were looking for and specific sounds that we had sought after.
I think it’s a bit of an interesting marriage between the band and the strength of the musicians and also the newfound relationship that I began with Carter on this project.
Going back to motherhood: How did that influence you while making this record?
The last song on the record, “You’re My Party” — that lyric is actually inspired by me being pregnant and thinking about the baby, and talking to the baby one day and saying, “You’re my party now, little man.”
Obviously before that, we lived life on the road and went to our fair share of parties and did our fair share of living, so I just remember thinking, "Well, you’re my party" [laughs]. I thought, oh, that’s a cute idea, and decided to write and flesh it out. It became less about a mother to a child and more about a woman to a man, woman to woman, or whomever, in a romantic sort of way.
That definitely spawned from motherhood. Also the courage and the gumption it took for me to step out and do this sort of project that I had always wanted to do but hadn’t had the push to do it.
Also the time — the physical time at home because of having the kid. That enabled me to go into the studio and work like we did. It all kind of fell into place.
That seems like a common theme among new parents: Having children really challenges people to get their priorities straight. When they’re working, it's very efficient work because it has to be. Did you experience anything like that?
Yeah, for sure. I started going into the studio when he was about two months old, and they’re real needy for a long time. I could only work for a few hours here and there. He did not really like to take a bottle, so it was always a struggle; I’d be at the studio pumping and hoping that he was eating while I was gone. If he wasn’t, I’d come home and he’d be angry [laughs].
I think that when you have a human life that’s dependent on you, obviously your priorities are completed shifted. The work that we did in the studio was very pointed. Sometimes it was a little meandering because I was a scatterbrained new mom, but I think ultimately we were as efficient as we could be. It’s funny to think back on it; it was kind of a shit show [laughs].
Sounds like you were juggling several things at once. Maybe not much sleep during that time?
Yeah, not much. But it’s weird how your body just becomes accustomed to whatever you put it through.
Do you feel like you’ve really figured out the formula for a good Sister Sparrow song at this point? Do you know what to focus on?
Yeah, I’ve actually been thinking a lot about this recently — about the songs that I’ve never brought to the band because it maybe doesn’t fit or something, and then sometimes I’ll bring a song to the band that I don’t think fits and then it fits great. I think you get kind of surprised by that sometimes.
Sometimes certain songs are really malleable, too. I think with the Gold record, there are a few songs completely out of my comfort zone, and they wouldn’t necessarily be great for our live show. But again, I think we should try everything and see what happens. It’s easy to be surprised by that sometimes.
One of the songs on the album, “Plastic Paradise,” is such a beautiful soundscape to me — it’s orchestral and has all these other elements. It would be hard to pull off live.
What’s your live setup like for this new tour?
There are eight of us on stage. We recently added piano, there’s two horns, and then my brother plays lap steel and then harmonica. He’s just picked up lap steel this past year, so that‘s been a fun addition.
We’re trying different things out. We were the same lineup and instrumentation for a really long time, and then after this record, I thought it’d be great to bring in piano, because the record is very piano-heavy. Some of the songs would be hard to figure out without that.
I also tend to write songs on piano, so it’s kind of a natural thing that I always wanted, but we never had it before. That’s also been a fun addition.
When writing, are you starting with a pretty stripped-down concept and then letting the band add on layers? Is it more collaborative than that? Less collaborative than that?
I will usually sit and write a song on piano and have a general sound of where I want to go, and then I’ll bring it to the guys. Some songs we have more of a group in a room, but those have been pretty few over the years.
For Gold, there were a ton of co-writes. A lot of the songs, I wrote as I went. I had the pleasure of working with and writing songs with Carter and a few of his closest writer friends.
That was a totally new experience, being in a room with three other people writing. That was fun and definitely a bit of an exercise. I’m used to being super self-conscious and vulnerable in a room with a piano, and this was the ripping the band-aid off and going, "Okay, be creative now!" [laughs]. It was a little hard, but it’s a good exercise for writing, for sure.
That sounds like a very challenging way to stretch yourself. Now that you’re a few months removed from Gold's release and people have had some time to digest it, have your feelings about the record evolved or changed? Anything new pop up that you didn’t previously realize?
It’s an interesting thing to put something out into the world. It’s not like having a baby, but it feels like something so close to your heart that it’s kind of like a creative baby [laughs]. It was a little scary at first, not knowing how people were going to react and knowing that we’d get some bands that would not like it, because you can’t please everybody, and because it is different [than our previous work].
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At first I was bracing myself for more of a backlash, but it hasn’t been that bad [laughs]. There’ve only been a few people I’ve heard about. I don’t know — maybe I’m a little sheltered. But again, I think mainly, I’m just happily…not surprised, but happily embracing people’s enjoyment of it. But I don’t know, I think it’s time for me to go back and listen to it again.
Especially now that we’re playing a bunch of the songs from the record live and we’ve kind of taken them — not into a new direction, but sort of into a live world, which does change the songs a bit. I think it’s always good to go back and listen to go okay, where were we here? Just a little memory jogger.
Maybe if I do that, I’ll think totally different things about it, but I’m really proud of it. Those feelings are still there.