It may be impossible to glean now, judging only by the interplay of three-part golden harmonies that maneuver between folk, pop, and 70’s AM radio hits, but the three sisters of Oregon’s Joseph were not always as close as they are today.
Natalie, Meegan and Allison Closner were separated too far by age. Singer-guitarist Natalie (29), who had been pursuing a solo music career, is four years older than the others (25), who are twins.
“We just missed each other in that age gap,” Meegan said August 25th, the day before the band Joseph released its sophomore album, I’m Alone, No You’re Not, on ATO Records and ahead of their headlining stop at Slim’s on Sept. 16. “She was in high school when we were in elementary, in college when we were in high school, and in normal life when we were in college.”
To the twins, Natalie was more of a mentor and role model than a friend. That began to change a few years ago. The older sister, stuck in a musical rut, made a monumental decision to ask Meegan and Allison to form a band with her, changing the lives of all three.
The sisters were born and raised southeast of Portland to artistic parents. Their dad was a jazz musician and their mother a theater teacher. Natalie began to pursue music seriously in college. She recorded and self-released an EP, and hit the road, playing in front of as many people as possible. Eventually, as the work became harder, one of her friends pulled her aside and told her that from the outside, her performances appeared uninspiring. She was reminded that to be successful, she had to believe in her own songs rather than simply hope others would like them. Somewhere along the line, Natalie had stopped believing. After the heart-to-heart conversation, she suddenly got the idea to invite her sisters to be in a band together.
“Once they joined, it was like something clicked that hadn’t been there before,” Natalie said. “I think there’s a very physical element of genetics. It’s kind of like cheating because the voices just have a similar make-up. It locks in a way that I’ve never experienced with any other singer. Also, there’s this element of shared experience. There’s something that’s a connection there that’s unique to a family.”
Allison and Meegan didn’t see it quite that way, not at first. They thought their older sister was asking them to be her backup singers, Allison said. After all, they don’t play any instruments. Neither one took the project seriously.
“For Natalie, this was something that she’d been dreaming about for a super-long time,” Allison said. “I was, like, ‘I’m never going to do music. Let Natalie sing.’”
Even Natalie wasn’t so sure it would work. She knew her sisters could sing, but she was well aware that a family band trope could be viewed as an ‘angle’ or a cliché. But as soon as the three sat down in a room to harmonize, everything changed for her, even if the others had yet to understand.
“It was so incredibly moving to me, personally,” Natalie said. “It felt so powerful. I knew in my gut that this was going to be important, and we were in for something.”
It took a while for the twins to feel ownership of what they’ve been able to accomplish together. Allison said that moment finally arrived when they changed their band name from one that originated with Natalie to Joseph, which was a shared creation. The name comes from a town in rural eastern Oregon, next to a lake, where the sisters used to go camping regularly with their grandfather, whose name is coincidentally Joe. The town and the lake are the most special places to the sisters in their home state.
The moment they changed their band name, the band stopped being only Natalie’s and started also being Meegan’s and Allison’s. Suddenly, the twins felt the desire to take on more responsibilities. Allison plays some keyboard and Meegan some percussion.
“If I had known what I was signing up for, I would be curious to know how I would respond,” Allison said. “I’m glad I got swept along in the journey of it all. It’s been the most incredible growing experience ever. I’m a completely different person because of it.”
Added Meegan, “It took a lot of work and dissecting family roles to build a friendship and equal relationship.”
The trio self-released a folky, stripped-down debut album, Native Dreamer Kin, in 2014. They went on tour together, though “tour” perhaps is a bit of an overstatement. They built a following playing backyards, basements and other informal shows that helped cultivate a devoted fan base. The album and fan reaction to the songs got the attention of ATO Records, which signed them the following year, and they got to work writing a follow-up.
Writing new songs proved to be much more difficult than they had imagined. Now that Joseph had fans, with expectations, the sisters battled impulses to give them what they wanted to hear rather than writing from their hearts. The tension in opposite perspectives and opposing truths ended up influencing the album.
Natalie first focuses on the Meegan-penned song “Honest,” from which the album got its name.
“It’s this idea where you feel so, so lonely, [but] you say out loud, ‘No, no you’re not.’ There’s a lot of those back-and-forths,” she said.
“Particularly, I think of Meegan’s song, ‘Honest,’ a line from [which] ended up being the title of the record,” Natalie said. “On ‘Sweet Dreams,’ as well, there’s this spot, where, [you say], ‘It’s nighttime. It’s really nighttime right now.’ And there’s an outside voice that says, ‘But you know what? The morning is coming.’ ‘Whirlwind’ is another song that encompasses the whole theme of the record, which is, ‘Wow, this thing is going to completely take me over, and I’m going to surrender to it.’ There’s a lot of tension and a lot of struggle involved. It’s hope versus despair.”
Unlike the debut album, which was written by the sisters along with friend Andrew Stonestreet, who Allison calls the “invisible fourth member of Joseph,” they chose to work in Los Angeles with several co-writers on I’m Alone, No You’re Not, learning different writing styles along the way. The production of the new record was also upped several notches with the addition of producer Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes, fellow sister act First Aid Kit).
“We were very inspired by his explosive creativity,” Natalie said. “On any record produced by Mike Mogis, he is responsible for 75 to 90 percent of the instruments represented. He just understood our vision. Mike’s contribution to this record is so incredibly collaborative and important. He was this other voice of the landscape of these songs.”
The new album is decidedly more “pop” than its predecessor, but the Closner sisters said that is the case because the songs they wrote lend themselves more to that sound and should not be taken to mean Joseph is now a pop band. Their first single, “White Flag,” is an up-tempo number that might fit into the pop country genre if not for its warm backing synths. The song coalesces around the sister’s rhythmic humming. Album opener “Canyon” channels Fleetwood Mac and First Aid Kit with 4/4 time and beautiful slide guitar. “SOS (Overboard)” approaches full-on dance pop.
“We realized you have to stumble into the songs that feel honest and real,” Natalie said. “I do sense that a lot of our audience prior to now is feeling a little unsettled by this move toward [pop]. However, I anticipate actually drawing it back again. I love pop music. [But] it does make me excited to continue on toward more stripped-down, vocally driven songs.”
Follow Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.