Those harmonious T Sisters talk about their new album and how music has influenced their lives. From appearing on Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” to their upcoming tour with The Wood Brothers, the siblings had plenty to say when we called a few days before Christmas.
Chloe, Erika and Rachel Tietjen make up the T Sisters. Their self-titled sophomore album arrived in October and is filled with songs that show off the ladies’ wonderful vocal blends and intriguing songwriting chops.
We were also intrigued by the T Sisters’ wonderful covers, as evidenced by their treatment of a certain Paul Simon song.
Do songs like Paul Simon’s “American Tune” naturally lend themselves to three-part harmony?
Chloe: I think we tend to gravitate toward songs that have really poignant messages as well as interesting melodies. Whether or not there are harmonies originally in the tune, it can be a fun challenge. That song in particular, the melody kind of moves all over the place so we have to be really creative about the way we arrange the harmonies for that tune. We couldn’t keep the same stacking of harmonies throughout the song because the melody travels up and down.
Are there songs that have stumped the three of you? That no matter how you try to arrange our vocals, the end result isn’t what the three of you were looking for?
Rachel: The songs that we choose are often [for] part of these different types of shows. We will learn a cover tune to sing at a specific show, depending on the theme or whatever the event is about. For example, we just hosted the “Holiday Revue” at the Freight & Salvage and we learned Joni Mitchell’s “River” and Stevie Wonder’s “Love’s In Need Of Love Today.” We learned a Christmas song. We tried to come up with some songs that would be appropriate for that event and kind of put our own spin on it. If it’s a great song that we love, it will sometimes stick in our set.
What do the three of you like about your new album?
Chloe: We recorded this album with our touring band. We’ve been traveling all around the country with them and we’ve been really honing the arrangements of the songs. Also, I think we have a really great chemistry among our band members. We got in the studio and … basically the takes were live, everybody was playing at the same time. We recorded the vocals later but I think the album captures the chemistry of the live dynamic and performance while adding an extra sparkle with the incredible studio that we recorded in. That added an extra vibe. I think we feel confident and proud of our songwriting at this point. We’ve evolved a lot since we first started. As far as our arrangements and original songs, I think this album shows how far we’ve come.
(Please click on image for complete album cover)
How does the songwriting process begin for the T Sisters?
Rachel: It often comes from each of us writing individually and then bringing songs to the group. We’ll have a song mostly formed and bring it to the sister trio and work out the vocal harmonies and vocal arrangements. Once we feel pretty confident we’ll bring it to the band and get the instrumental arrangements together.
Occasionally we’ll do some co-writing. We’ve been experimenting more with that and try to do more of that. We definitely have distinct songwriting voices. Kind of like The Beatles. (laughs) I’m sort of kidding but I was talking about this recently. I think each of us does have a different songwriting voice. In a way it serves us to keep that part of the songwriting separate. I think we’re able to have a real diversity of songs and styles within our set and I think within this album you can definitely see that. We really do have different songwriting voices and what unifies the songs is the way we arrange them.
Has a single event or instance inspired the three of you to write separate songs about the same thing?
Chloe: I don’t think that has ever happened. I think we will sometimes find that we have used similar themes or that we’ve found a chord progression that we’ve accidently stolen from one of the other [sisters]. But I think that’s just a part of music. While we do share a lot of experiences together, the way we interpret them is so incredibly different. We spend so much time together, we live together, we play together, we work together. Each of us has a quite distinct personality so the way we internalize and interpret those experiences, they turn out to be quite different songs.
Starting with an idea and a melody, how do you turn it into a T Sisters song?
Rachel: I think it’s the vocal harmony collaboration and the vocal arrangement that gives it the T Sisters sound. That’s what takes it to that place. As far as how each of us takes the melodies and ideas in our heads and turn them into songs, there’s really no one way that happens. I think that’s probably true for a lot of songwriters. Each of us couldn’t necessarily say a song starts in a certain place. Sometimes it will start with a melody that you’re singing along with in the car. Sometimes it will start with a lyric idea and sometimes it will start on a guitar with some chords that sound nice next to each other. I think we all have a little bit of each of those in our songwriting process.
How did all of this begin?
Rachel: We grew up around a lot of music. Our dad’s been writing songs and playing piano and guitar … before we were born. Our mom was a dancer. We started as kids doing performing arts summer camps just for fun. It was never really forced on us. [Music] was always around us and it was always something we loved to do.
We started early with that and probably had a pretty big break in there when we were all getting excited about different things. We started singing again in high school. We were all in an a cappella class for one semester. That was where we first performed our first harmony arrangement. That was our first trio performance outside of our family. During college we all started working on a musical-theatre piece we were writing together just for fun over the summer. I was in arts school in Baltimore and I thought it would be awesome to put that musical on for my senior thesis. So we all collaborated on that after being in … different parts of the country.
Then we brought the show back to San Francisco and continued to collaborate and write songs together. We have a residency at Shotwell Studio in San Francisco where we put that show on. We had started to write more folk tunes and songs that were not musical theatre pieces. I think that was when we first performed those songs.
How did the T Sisters involvement with “A Prairie Home Companion?” happen?
Chloe: The person who was managing us at the time, she works with the California Honeydrops and they had been on “A Prairie Home Companion.” She met the producers and I think she handed them our CD and they were interested. I think it wasn’t such a stretch. Garrison [Keillor] loves harmony and female singers so it was kind of a natural fit. It was one of our greatest musical moments. They were doing the show in San Francisco that night, so that also worked out really well.
When working up your vocal arrangements, is there a fourth person who serves as kind of an ear to give you an audience perspective on the sound?
Chloe: I’d say, for the most part, we’re just kind of arrangeing, the three of us, and then sometimes the first feedback will come from when we get up on stage and sing. Also, especially when preparing for recording and for a couple of a cappella competitions, we’ve used this amazing vocal teacher in San Francisco [Colleen Donovan]. She has a very holistic approach to the whole thing and she also has an amazing ear. We’ve found ourselves working with her a lot … she was an ear and would give us suggestions if a harmony sounded a little funky or maybe we should try to change the tempo in a certain part … to enrich the arrangements of the songs and make them more interesting to the ear. It’s easy to fall into the same harmonies and not play around with rhythm, timing and stuff. I think she was a great person to have as another ear for that.
When performing live, do you have a preference between doing it naturally versus singing into microphones?
Rachel: I think that the microphone, like anything else, is a tool and an instrument that you can work with. Sometimes it works with you and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it can feel good and add a lot … dynamics to your performances. Sometimes it can be a headache, of course, like any tool or instrument. It’s also really nice to strip that all away but that only works in a smaller room environment because we [don’t have] the loudest of voices.
How do the three of you take care of your voices while touring?
Chloe: We try to not consume alcohol before a performance. Seems kind of obvious but in some of the places that we play it’s very tempting. Maybe it’s a challenging or stressful situation and it’s tempting to relax and have a beer. But we try not to do that. Additionally, sleep is incredibly important. Sometimes, it’s very hard to get that on tour. Occasionally we’ll have a gig somewhere and then we’ll have to drive a couple of hours in order to be close enough for a full drive the next day to the next gig. It can be really tricky on the road to get enough rest. The goal, obviously, is to keep playing better gigs [with] better routing. It gets better. We’re in a stage right now where that can be really challenging.
Also, we always have tea on our [concert] rider. Lots of tea. People always think “T Sisters” is maybe the beverage. We like to think “T” is in the letter, not in the beverage.
Have the three of you ever discussed doing an endorsement for one of the tea companies?
Chloe: We’d love to. We’ve kind of tried. We haven’t put a lot of energy into it. There are a couple of tea companies that we love. … We also love all kinds of different teas so it’s hard to nail one down as the tea we’ll forever drink.
We also love this spray, Barlean’s Olive Leaf extract. It has sage and peppermint in it. It’s very soothing and it’s good for your immune system for the back of your throat.
Rachel: Also, coconut oil. That’s an all-around fix for anything you can think of. We try to consume as much as possible.
Performing at The Chapel in San Francisco, Calif.
We’ve been talking about the T Sisters’ three-part harmonies but what does the band bring to the live sound?
Chloe: We have an upright bass player. He’s been with the band the longest. That’s Steve Height. He’s been with us for over three years. Andy Allen Fahlander plays the mandolin and electric guitar. The newest member is Marlon Aldana who is on the drums and sometimes will play the cajón.
The T Sisters are often described as an Americana act. Are the three of you comfortable seeing your music labeled, dissected and discussed?
Rachel: Sure. It’s always a struggle for us to categorize our music into one genre, which is why we’ve started to say “Americana.” By definition that encompasses a lot of American roots genres, which we feel is pretty accurate to represent all the different styles that we do. We’ve been called “folk” before as well. There’s elements of pop, R&B and soul. Americana encompasses a lot of that but I think people also have a specific idea of what it sounds like. It can be confusing, but I’m always curious to hear what people think and how they would categorize us.
Do you stay in touch with your fans through social media, backstage meet & greets, or photo ops?
Chloe: We are very connected with our fans. Definitely through social media. A lot of our fans become our friends. After shows, we will always go out to the merch table, we’ll always be there signing CDs, taking pictures and meeting the people who our music touches. It feels good to get out there and meet the folks who are really enjoying the music. It also helps us get our music to more people. I think people are more likely to come by the merch table and pick up a CD if they see us out there.
What are the challenges in building or presenting the visual, such as wardrobe, hairstyles and makeup?
Chloe: Shopping is really important. We love vintage shopping and fashion. Fashion is really fun for us. That part of it comes naturally. It’s nice to have an excuse to get something that’s sort of outrageous that you might not wear to a party or a bar but you can definitely wear on stage.
We’ve always loved to dress up since we were little kids, putting on little shows for our family and [wearing] stuff that was in our grandparents’ attic. We were always coming down in all kinds of outfits and clothes. So it’s a fun opportunity for us to do that.
As far as hair and makeup, we don’t know what we’re doing but we do our best. We love to use natural products whenever we can. Sometimes it’s hard to get the look. We’ve gone on photo shoots with the makeup and everything … but the look we prefer as far as hair and makeup is a little more on the natural side of things.
You’re going out with the Wood Brothers beginning in early February. Are you already working up a set for that?
Rachel: Yeah, we are. We’re going out as a trio. That changes a lot. No band, just the three of us. That was what they requested for the tour. They’re a three-piece band and I think it made more sense for their logistics. It’s a cool opportunity for us, to really hold down the instrumental part of the show and for us to bring some a cappella tunes into the set. We get to play some amazing rooms.
Chloe: And we have a lot of new songs. Since our album [was released], we’re always writing songs and we have a long que of songs that are ready to go.
Where do you hope the T sisters will be by the end of 2017?
Rachel: The Bay Area has been our home for most of our lives so it’s kind of hard to imagine not being here. There’s such an amazing art and music scene going on, there’s a lot to be thankful for in our community. I definitely see calling the Bay Area home for a long time. But we’re hoping to be traveling out of the country and around the country as well, continuing to be doing what we love and sharing it with more and more people.
Is there anything you’ve wanted to tell the world about the T Sisters but no one has asked you the right question?
Chloe: Songwriting is a really big part of what we do. … I think there’s some stuff to look into in the lyrics as well. There may be some hidden meanings and some deeper meanings in some songs and we would encourage people to listen on multiple levels.
Rachel: The T Sisters came to music via musical theatre, art, language and writing. I think all of us, at some point, hope to bring more of those aspects into the performance. … We see all kinds of great creative exploration in our future as we keep going. Right now we’ve been honing the musical side but we have a lot of fun, creative ideas that go beyond the musical side [that] in the future we hope to bring into the performance.
Chloe: We hope our fans are ready to grow with us because we didn’t necessarily come from any particular style. We grew up with folk music, a lot of soul and R&B, but we are constantly exploring new things and we hope people will come with us for the ride.
Presenting a hair-raising night at The Chapel in San Francisco.
Upcoming T Sisters shows:
Jan. 29 – Chico, Calif., Big Room
Feb. 2 – Philadelphia, Pa., Union Transfer
Feb. 3 – Albany, N.Y., Massry Center For The Arts
Feb. 4 – Portland, Maine, State Theatre
Feb. 6 – South Burlington, Vt., Higher Ground – Ballroom
Feb. 8 – Somerville, Mass., Somerville Theatre
Feb. 9 – Somerville, Mass., Somerville Theatre
Feb. 10 – New York, N.Y., Webster Hall
Feb. 11 – Washington, D.C., 9:30 Club
Feb. 12 – Rocky Mount, Va., Harvester Performance Center
Feb. 13 – Durham, N.C., Carolina Theatre
Feb. 14 – Charlotte, N.C., Neighborhood Theatre
Feb. 18 – Gilroy, Ca., House Concert
March 3 – Crystal Bay, Nev., Crystal Bay Club Casino
April 6 – Greer, S.C., Albino Skunk Music Farm (Albino Skunk Music Festival)
April 21 – Berkeley, Calif., Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse
July 26 – Floyd, Va., FloydFest (Floydfest)
Appearing with The Wood Brothers Feb. 2-14. Appearing with the California Honeydrops March 3.