A True Reflection of Soul: Larkin Poe on Becoming The 'Self Made Man'

Rebecca and Megan Lovell, who together generate the dynamism behind Larkin Poe, have released their fifth studio album, which is also their third album on their own label, Tricky-Woo Records, titled Self Mad Man. The title of the new album has intentionally provoked plenty of discussion, but comes at a time when the idea behind the phrase has never been more relevant for Larkin Poe's self-built business. Coming off a very successful world tour in 2019, where many of their shows sold out, Rebecca and Megan have used that momentum to craft something even more musically concentrated and focused on the new album, something that might even define a new era for the band.

The sisters have been consistently active during lockdown, first doing a series of livestream concerts in connection with their previous tour, and now looking toward the future with an upcoming full band concert to support the release of Self Made Man, live from Brooklyn Bowl in Nashville, Tennessee, on Saturday, June 27th, at 3PM Central on Fans.com.

We're delighted that Rebecca and Megan joined Tower's PULSE! for an extensive interview that really captures this unique moment in their career, with a tremendous body of work behind them and tremendous growth in the "reflection of soul" they achieve in their music evident in Self Made Man. 

Hannah Means-Shannon: To start off with kind of a big question, I heard that you were on a massive tour, a world tour, in 2019. This would have been a downtime for you initially, but I imagine it’s a longer quiet period than you expected. How are you adapting from that frenetic time to spending so much time at home?

Rebecca Lovell: We spent the majority of 2018 and 2019 out on the road and were able to tour to places that we’d never been before. We played in Tokyo, in India, across the map. It was a unique experience, because as a lot of touring bands can attest to, you pretty much plan to tour at a deficit, and play some really tough gigs for many years until you start to achieve some growth. And I think that we were finally experiencing the growth after a good solid 8 or 9 years of touring. We were having shows sell out. We were on a 31 show tour in Europe where 29 sold out. It was so exciting.

So, we took some time off the road in late 2019 to make this new album. We worked pretty seriously on it through the winter of 2019. We were working under the gun because we’d be hitting the road again. At this time, we were already supposed to have been in Australia and Japan again, and all across Europe. So, it’s definitely been an adjustment period.

Long story short, we’ve actually been thinking outside of the box a bit more creatively, as I think a lot of artists are doing right now, in an effort to stay connected with fans and to create a lot more online content. It’s been kind of a different creative challenge; it’s been pretty rewarding. We’ve been loving continuing to stay in touch with people.

HMS: Thank you. Yes, I think we’ve been running some information on Tower’s PULSE! about the livestream concert sessions you’ve been doing.

Megan Lovell: Yes, we just finished up our first livestream series, which was called “Home Sweet Home”. We did 6 shows and we had different themes. It was really fun because it challenged us, we were learning a lot of new material, and it was keeping us fresh. But that tour is over now, so we’re going to be looking to the future and scheduling more livestreams.

HMS: That’s awesome. I’ll thank you on behalf of fans for doing that. Because I know it is really bringing some light, and some of the outer world in, for people at home right now.

Rebecca: Oh, me too! I miss going out to shows. Getting to sit at home and watch other bands, and how they are structuring their livestreams, has been quite a creative release to see other artists doing it as well.

HMS: Me too, I’ve been missing the live shows. But it’s been great to see not only the livestreams but the events that musicians have been involved in online and on TV bringing people together. That’s one possible good thing coming out of all this is seeing how important music has been to everybody.

Can you tell me a little bit about the journey that you two have been on together to become businesswomen, and to run your own label, making sure that the albums are created and presented in the way that you want them to be? How far back does that go for you, and what sort of things did you have to learn about or overcome to get where you are now?

Rebecca: We’ve been making music together since we were 15, 16 years old, so it’s definitely been a longstanding learning process, since we’re now 29, 30 years old. I feel the biggest shift is that idealism is such an important factor when you’re young. I think about us at 19, 20 years old, really being so focused on the music, and making records, and not really thinking about any of the bigger picture components that have to do with running a successful business.

When you’re young, I don’t think you actually process the fact that you are going to need food on your table, and you can’t tour on a deficit the rest of your lives. That requires some strategic thinking, some reflection of self, looking at the records you’re making and who you are appealing to.

That kind of growth has affected us both as individuals, having taken some extreme steps in recent years. We’ve always been do-it-your-selfers, but really taking a lot of that stuff in house, from starting our own record label in 2017, to producing all the records, even going so far as trying to record as many of the instruments as possible on the album ourselves---that has really pushed us to a territory that feels very vulnerable and very relatable to our fans in a good way.

Because when I think about what I look for from an artist, it’s really “truth”. And individual creative perspective. So what better way to facilitate that than trying to give people as true a reflection of your soul as possible? And that’s really been a goal, and it’s really served us well.

I think we’ve really been able to connect with a lot of people by taking these steps of independence that really serve the music, of making sure there aren’t a lot of opinions that are really watering down our vision or what we think. And I certainly would encourage other artists to do the same. That’s always been my underlying dream, to encourage other people to experience that self-reliance and the growth that will kick into high gear when you really start relying on yourself.

HMS: I imagine that there’s a relief in being heavily involved in all aspects of releasing the music, because then if fans or peers have something to say, you can speak to whatever you’re talking about. There’s never going to be a situation where someone questions a musical choice and you feel like you can’t answer because it was a corporate decision, I guess. Instead you’re actually very familiar with the choices you’ve made, and even if someone doesn’t like the choices you’ve made, you can explain yourself. You can take ownership.

Rebecca: Yes! I agree with that. As public figures online, you do open yourself up. If you have a Facebook page or an Instagram, like most people do in the world today, it’s really interesting to see the comments that people leave and have that immediate feedback of peoples’ reaction to the art and music. We’ve had so many comments over the years as we’ve transitioned through a pretty wide swath of genres, from having grown up playing Bluegrass as kids, to harder Rock records, making more acoustic pop records, to these days making Roots Rock records that feel very much at home to us.

We’re reading comments like, “Oh, you’re selling out!” And it’s like, “What are you talking about? We’re literally just experimenting, which is what artists are supposed to do.” But I feel there is a great strength in being able to take ownership for everything. We’ve always erred on the side of extreme do-it-yourself.

Megan: We definitely have a strong vision for what we wanted these records to sound like. We wanted them to be more stripped back and raw. And we felt like in order to get to that place, we needed to allow ourselves to experiment. Taking that in house and relying upon ourselves was a great way to feel empowered and to take the time to experiment without having somebody breathing down your neck or feeling like there’s somebody you have to answer to. The only people we have to answer to is ourselves.

HMS: Absolutely. Does that impact setting up schedules for albums, as well, so that you have more control over that? Or do you still have some deliverable deadlines you really need to hit? I suppose touring might affect that, if you know you’re touring too!

Rebecca: Yes, touring has always been the big thing for us. It’s something that, historically, takes the majority of our time. So we always play with studio time in between tour dates. But also, we should note that we have an incredibly supportive team, like a manager and an agent, and we’re very fortunate to have people who are helping us achieve our goal. Because it certainly takes a village.

We are fortunate to have people who help us achieve our vision but are hands-off with the creative, saying, “Follow your guts. We’ll figure it out.” It’s been quite a dream team to have the last five years.

HMS: That’s wonderful to hear. You touched on something a moment ago, mentioning the different genres that you’ve been associated with and fan reactions to that. I was familiar with three of your albums, and now I’ve heard the new one, however, I was still struck by the fact that your nominations and honors have been in a very straightforward Blues category. At what point did people really start using that category to describe your music, and was that surprising to you at all?

Megan: I would say that this started a few years ago, when we started delving further into the Blues. We’ve always been aware of the Blues, but wanted to go back and do our research, and really find out who were the forefathers of Rock ‘n Roll music. We grew up listening to classic Rock as kids, like The Allman Brothers, The Rolling Stones. And we wanted to find out who those people might have been listening to.

So we fell head over heels in love with Blues music and started covering some Blues music. That’s when people started tying us to Blues as well, which we love, and we have been very embraced by the Blues community, even though we are very fringe Blues. We have a lot of reverence for Blues musicians, particularly the turn-of-the-century folks who really created the genre. But our music is really only peppered with Blues. So we do feel a little bit surprised to be so embraced.

HMS: It’s awesome. Though I knew your music seemed to cross many genres, as a Blues fan myself, I just wondered how you felt about the use of that category. These days we use a lot of categories, too, and hyphenate. We have Rock-Blues, for instance.

Rebecca: I think having grown up playing Bluegrass, and at a young age developing such a strong affinity for Roots music, we’re very pleased by the association. Beneath the umbrella of Roots American music, you really do have all these music and shakers in Blues, Rockabilly, Classic Americana, Mountain Music. All of these genres really do blend together, and I love the use of hyphens in genre-typing music these days because it allows for such versatility.

I think that it’s been a big focus for us, as a band, not wanting to be pinned down into one single color of crayon, but being able to have access to the complete crayon box is so much more exciting when you’re making a record and writing songs. I think that having those parallels between Larkin Poe and Blues music is really an honor, because there are some really heavy weight artists, like Megan said, who we revere.

We certainly want to hearken back to the forefathers and the foremothers of Blues music because I think that’s part of our cultural legacy here that really needs to be championed and celebrated. Hopefully we can serve as a jumping-off point for the next generation to get a taste for this style of music. Hopefully they’ll also be inspired to dig deeper and do some research.

HMS: Actually, something you just said might explain, in my mind, why the Blues category has stuck: Because critics are realizing that you’re working with the entire box of crayons. And the only way to be able to do that is to be Blues, I think. Because you’re going back down to what’s underneath all these other genres. So maybe they are dignifying that.

Rebecca: Amen!

HMS: But you also have played older music live, as you mentioned. I think you played some Facebook livestreams some time ago that were Blues, or intentionally highlighting older music for fans.

Megan: More recently, one of our livestream shows was a tribute to Blues music, so we did a Classic Blues show. That was a lot of fun. It’s really inspirational to learn the music.

HMS: Regarding the music that you create, do you think that you build on the historical threads in these types of music that focus on struggle, that are about the way that previous generations lived? Do you think you pursue similar themes?

Rebecca: I think we are complete junkies for the historical context of music. I think that’s one of the biggest factors that really does draw us to the Blues. The content of Blues songs typically do revolve around questions of the soul, and questions of purpose, the experience of sorrow and hardship in life. To me, that is the enduring question of what it means to be a human. We are born in these organic bodies, and we have this very finite life stream, and that is very confusing to wrestle with. So I think focusing on those themes is really what ties us to the Blues in a lot of our songs. It’s my biggest question with art in general and I feel very fulfilled by making songs within those confines of the biggest questions of soul and self.

Megan: But also, I’d say that we ascribe to the idea that Blues music should not be a time capsule. There are certainly things that apply to us now that wouldn’t apply to people back in the 1930’s. And we like the idea of taking the traditional and sculpting songs to be applicable to us today.

For instance, on the record, we have “God Moves on the Water”, the Willie Johnson song, that was about the sinking of the Titanic, and Rebecca had the idea of taking that and making it applicable to us today by writing more lyrics. To be more global and talk about how we’re feeling now. And I think people back in the day would respect that because you see so many examples of borrowed choruses and little bits of songs that end up in a lot of different songs. It’s almost like an oral history that just passes from person to person.

HMS: That’s fabulous. Little riffs are often intentional allusions between one song and another, and certain traditions are recycled into new Rock songs, even. I only realized recently that some musicians do take very old, traditional, folk music, and update it by adding new lyrics interspersed. And that really reminds me of what you’re doing with “God Moves on the Water”. That’s an intricate thing to do. Could you comment a little more on how you made decisions when updating that song?

Rebecca: I think what initially drew us to “God Moves on the Water” was the slide parts, because Lap Steel is such a huge part of our sound. When Megan really shapes the Lap Steel, it really creates that core component in the records that we make. When I heard “God Moves on the Water”, it felt really reminiscent of something that I could have imagined us as having written. I was really blown away by his presentation, the texture of his voice, the unusual arrangement of the song. It definitely goes verse, after verse, after verse in the way that Blind Willy performed it, and it’s very hypnotic.

I thought, how could we pay tribute to Blind Willie while also, as Megan said, not treating his song as a time capsule? But move in in a very respectful way and kind of separate some of the fibers of the song and weave new stuff in. We kept to the original verse on the first verse, and wrote an additional three or four verses that ultimately come together in a reminder that when humans do pull together, we’re able to try to overcome extreme circumstances, be it flood, or famine, or fire. Or even a Pandemic.

When you reach out hands to people, and you pull together, you are able to overcome a lot. That’s kind of what I took from the song and I certainly hope that Blind Willy would approve. Maybe someday we’ll all be united, and we can play the song together and we’ll all see how we feel.

HMS: So, was there any struggle to get the sound of your lyrics right to fit in with his? Or because of everything you work with, musically, was it fairly easy?

Rebecca: It’s funny you say that, because I did push and pull with words to make it feel period in an appropriate way. I even used the state name, “Arkansas”, but I pronounced it, “Arkan-zass”.

HMS: Yes, I noticed that!

Rebecca: I can’t even tell you why I did that. It just felt right. Little things like that do feel somewhat instinctual. I feel like I’ve listened to so much traditional Blues music, just sitting down and listening to records end to end. Really obscure recordings, too. One time I was down in Memphis, and they have the Blues Museum down there. They have an incredible listening room that’s sound proof, and you have access to all these recordings that typically you wouldn’t be able to find anywhere else.

I’m definitely deep into loving listening to really cruddy recordings, where you can almost barely hear someone’s guitar and voice. It feels so mysterious and enigmatic and you know that it’s completely real. Somebody with no bells, no whistles, no artifice. Somebody with no recording studio, no autotune, just somebody sitting in front of a mike. And it’s their essence being captured.

Moving forward, that’s always been a goal, to be more transparent with our records. It’s a work in progress, but when you have references like Koko Taylor or Skip James, it’s easier to be reminded of where you want to go by listening to some bits and pieces of the past.

HMS: Oh, definitely. If nothing else, to be reminded how awesome these people were, and what it takes to get there. Do you prefer a more polished sound in your own recordings, or would you leave little things on a record that are less perfect in order to be more like those old recordings?

Megan: When we’ve been approaching our records, we’ve certainly wanted to err on the side of being reductionist. We try to take away rather than add. Going into this record-making process, we wanted to try to leave a lot of humanity on the tape. So we don’t do a lot of vocal processing. We try not to completely take away all of the mistakes. It’s really difficult to leave those in sometimes. Because you can make things perfect in the studio and create a Frankenstein version of yourself.

We definitely didn’t want to do that on Self Made Man. We wanted to leave it as raw as possible. We don’t want to complete perfect everything.

HMS: I think the new album has a very energetic feel, and it’s quite upbeat as well, though it deals occasionally with darker subjects. This album does feel like it’s reaching out to a community, and in a way, I think the energy is helpful right now with all the challenges we’re facing.

Rebecca: Thank you. I do think it’s taken us a long time to feel comfortable making optimistic art. When you’re striving to be badass, I think that apathy is an emotion that a lot of people connect with Rock ‘n Roll. Where you don’t care enough about your body to not abuse it. You have dysfunctional relationships because you don’t care about the relationship. It’s that kind of get out of jail free card to play whenever you’re trying to be badass.

But ultimately that’s not something that Megan and I specifically resonate with about Rock ‘N Roll. We are very much in favor of wholesome relationships, having appropriate boundaries, using optimism, and feeling positivity, light, and joy, laughing and smiling with people. And truly believing that art is the way that we can connect with people, and that that is one of the greatest gifts of music and of live performance.

So, having made this album, it does feel like we’ve definitely turned a page in our experience as writers and as recording artists. And we were hoping it was going to be on the live front, as well. But who knows when we’ll get back to that? Hopefully sooner rather than later.

But I am very grateful to have made this album with Megan, and I think it could be a really good companion for people right now, in these uncertain times, when so much is up in the air. Sometimes you need songs to listen to when your heart is breaking and you need to cry. And there are other times when you need to just put the sorrow down and listen to an anthem about healing, and rising up, and being true to yourself. That’s certainly what we were trying to make with this album.

HMS: Yes, that’s definitely true from an audience’s perspective. Let’s talk about the title of the album, and of course, it comes from one of the songs on the album. I can honestly say that I have never in my life heard the phrase “self made man” and realized how gendered it was.

Rebecca: Amen!

HMS: Or even realized that it was always applied to business-men, even when it has been used in my own family, about my own ancestors, with great approval. Until I saw your album title, I didn’t really think about it. Some people would call me a “bad feminist” for not realizing. So, what does the title mean to you all? What’s your perspective on that?

Megan: Heck yeah.

Rebecca: I find it so fascinating that you had that reaction, because that’s exactly the experience that I had leading into the writing of the song. Because I realized that I used “self made man” all the time and was not at all aware of how qualifying and gender qualifying the phrase was, until I used it to define myself. Then I said, “Yeah, I’m a self made man.”, to a male colleague. And he said, “You’re a self made woman.” I said, “No, that’s not how the phrase goes.”

It’s been so intriguing the amount of push-back we’ve gotten from people on having selected this for the album title. No one’s comfortable with it. Pretty much every interviewer that we’ve spoken with about the album title has had some little snarky comment, “Oh, but you’re girls. You’re women. You should have said ‘self made women’”.

But no, that’s the whole point, that there’s something wrong with the phrase, and we’re all desensitized to this phrase. And the fact that this phrase it literally qualifying success with gender. So, that is an issue. When you don’t even see it in yourself. Because I had certainly camouflaged over that in my heart. I was spitting it out left and right.

So, ultimately, whenever it occurred to me, it has kind of made my laugh, realizing how some inequalities can be so insidious. They’ll be there without you even having clocked that they are in the room with you. To be able to point at something and laugh at it immediately takes its power away.

So we kind of wanted to write this tongue in cheek piece of art. Obviously, we are  two women, and we are both married to men. We are feminists, and we are also supportive of men, and are supportive of women. But we can also very easily be self made men, because we say that we are.

HMS: [Laughs] I’m sure if you didn’t have so much influence over your label and your records, some PR person would’ve told you, “Don’t call it that! Don’t call it that! It’s too provocative.” But I think that’s the point, obviously. You want to provoke a reaction.

Rebecca: I have to give credit to our management because we have a male manager and a female manager, and when we brought it to them, they were like, “Come on! Let’s go!”

HMS: Amazing.

Rebecca: You’ve got to have good people in your corner who are encouraging you to make the ethical decisions, albeit not that extreme. Even fringe ethical decisions. Running with it, putting that message out there.

HMS: Yes, you should keep them forever now. That’s great.

When we look at the songs on the album, is there a specific relationship of the songs to each other in the order they are presented. Or are they more separate planets within this album?

Megan: I think we really take our sequencing seriously. We like to create a body of work, something that people can listen to from tip to tail, to tell a story. Rebecca is always writing our set-list. She loves to pore over our setlist so that it is cohesive and tells a story. And our albums are no different than our shows. We like to try and take people on a journey if we possibly can. We hope that people will listen to album as a body of work.

HMS: That is the more traditional way to think of the album as a kind of narrative or thematic arc. But it seems like that’s no longer an assumption. People don’t have to do that anymore if they don’t want to because of how digital music operates. But many musicians I speak to seem to prefer to tell one story. I could feel a connection between the different songs on the album so I assumed it was planned.

Are you all interested in physical media? Do you collect vinyl, or cassettes, or anything like that?

Rebecca: Megan is our vinyl head. She’s always hunting out different vinyl shops in the different cities we go to. I used to have a huge CD collection, but having moved a whole bunch, I have kind of let my physical musical collection wither away. Because I am such a book person. I really love physical books, and I have moved so many damn boxes of books that I can’t really justify hauling more than the physical books. But that may change. It’s also such a luxury to have access to Megan’s collection.

Megan: There’s something about it that’s so nice to hold in your hands.

HMS: Though records are surprisingly heavy in large numbers and they definitely take space. I can see both sides of that. A lot of musicians seem to be into digital because of the tremendous access it gives them to music out there they might not otherwise find.

Is there something that you’re grateful for learning about and focusing on in your past that helps you now as musicians?

Megan: I like this question. I feel very grateful for a Bluegrass background because I think it really taught us musicianship. That there’s such a high value placed on being a great musician within the Bluegrass community. You go to a Bluegrass festival and there are the most amazing musicians you’ve ever heard playing on stage. I feel really happy to have grown up in those surroundings, having people helping us learn how to play. I think that’s really done well for us.

Rebecca: I’m going to second that as well. Good one, Meg.

HMS: Was it difficult for you back then to push yourselves to become proficient?

Rebecca: It was definitely just a hobby. It was a thing that we did for fun. We were never big sports kids. We were always just focused on music and so it was definitely a labor of love. It all came together rather organically. We never intended to become lifers in music, but here we are. It’s come to a point where it continues to make sense. We are very grateful for that.

HMS: Our Tower Records motto is “No Music, No Life” or “Know Music, Know Life”. What does that phrase mean to you when you hear it?

Rebecca: Oh, I love that. I think that songwriting has ended up being one of those things in my life that has allowed me to be someone who I otherwise wouldn’t have been. Being able to have inner reflection, find a place within a song. It’s sort of like super-cheap therapy where you make up something and when you finish making it up, it’s there, sitting on the table in front of you, on the lyric sheet, with a melody in your head. And it makes you feel better. So I think for me it would definitely be both, “No Music”, and “Know Music”.

Megan: I like “Know Music”. Because I think that music is the universal language of the world and you can speak to a person on the other end of the world through music. I love that.

HMS: Great answers. Thank you so much. I hope you can get back on the road soon!

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