Most bands use the time between releasing albums to recharge. But for two members of soulful Portland folk-rock sister trio Joseph, the break between 2016 sophomore breakout LP I’m Alone, No You’re Not, and the just-released Good Luck, Kid included a near-breakup and a questioning of faith in a higher power. One culminated in a reaffirmation and hope, while the other was as climactic a scene as you’ll find in a dramatic film.
In the lead-up, singer Meegan Closner, wavering in her commitment to twin Allison Closner and older sister Natalie Schepman, was holding up the band’s development and work. The friction was often with the 31-year-old Schepman, four years her elder, and her twin, Allison, 27, trying to calm both down. The scene, another major argument, played out as Allison was driving the trio to the house where the three were staying that night.
“This huge truck was there with a mirror sticking out, and she just drives straight into it and knocks it off,” Meegan Closner says. “So Alli runs right into the truck, and Natalie just gets out and starts running all the rest of the way to the house we were staying at.”
Joseph didn’t disband that night. In fact, the bitter argument led to “Fighter,” the track that leads off the band’s new album. The bold, percussion-led rocker recalls Florence and the Machine’s anthemic rock, far removed from the house shows the Closner sisters played as they were getting started with Schepman on guitar and the others backing her on tambourines.
Understanding the tumult within the band means getting inside the head of Meegan. When Schepman, who’d been a musician for years, originally asked her sisters to join, the twins assumed she was looking for back-up singers. Even with the success of 2016’s album, Meegan was not fully committed, she acknowledged. That, combined with a romantic relationship she described as “not good” created the internal storm that was causing the division with her sisters, who were ready for Joseph to take the next step.
“It all came to a head where I said something stupid. It had to happen, but it all came to the surface and blew up,” Meegan said. “It got to a point where Natalie was, like, ‘I can’t do this anymore! I can’t be in this band and do this if you’re not in. If you don’t want this, I can’t force you to do this, but I can’t put myself through this anymore.’”
Good Luck, Kid tells a story about the dissolution of a relationship. The relationship was also Meegan Closner’s, and it was pulling her away from her away from her sisters
“You can hear that on the record,” she says. “A lot of our healing really came from me getting out of that relationship.”
The album’s title track, a sizzling, driving track that has strains of Metric, has a special meaning to Meegan. The song, primarily written by Schepman, is about realizing that everyone controls his or her own destiny and isn’t required or expected to live by others’ rules.
“For me, the choice was to choose my sisters, health and wellness. You hear themes of working through all of the pains of that,” she says.
Following the truck crash and the group on the verge of break-up, Meegan Closner made a choice.
“I had to humble myself and be, like, ‘What the hell am I doing? I’m ruining this. What do I actually want?’” she said.
The second big change came in the form of an internal realization within Joseph’s eldest sister.
Schepman grew up in church, in a predominantly white city in a predominantly white state. Her memories from that time were mostly happy ones, but more recently she began to question what she was taught and came to realize that some of those teachings were not beliefs she shared.
The story comes out on another of the album’s standout performances—“Without You.” The group wrote the song with country singer-songwriter Thad Cockrell, who encouraged the trio to write in a stream of consciousness. Schepman said that the experience was scary but led to one of her most personal songs—which on first listen comes across as a love song but can actually be addressed to God.
“That song, for me, was [about] shedding the way that I believed in God,” she said. “It felt like home, and it felt like acceptance and love. The song, for me, is about never wanting to lose that despite changing the way I understand and believe in the divine.”
“Without You” crescendos in what is probably Joseph’s signature solo— Schepman’s guttural howl rising higher than ever before to declare, “I don’t want to be alone!”
“That very desperate loud cry out is just this really deep place in me [where] I feel grief for a lot of my experience with faith, but I also feel this deep desire for the things that I don’t know how to express that I do know are true,” she says. “There’s a lot about that I’ve looked back on and thought, ‘I don’t want to take that with me.’ Whether that’s fear-based thinking or being motivated by feeling shame, there’s many different things about the way … that that community taught you how to live that I don’t agree with anymore.”
All of the band members went through more mundane life changes over the past few years. Schepman and her husband moved to New York after the release of I’m Alone, No You’re Not but moved back to Portland just nine months later—a period they call their study abroad program—after he, a software engineer, got a job offer they couldn’t refuse from Apple.
But after the sisters’ brother bought a farm in Upstate New York, Allison Closner moved there for the time being, since the band will be touring for much of the next year, anyway.
The trio also embraced a bolder sound on the new record, influenced largely by two years of touring and the realization that it’s more fun to play loud rock songs. Christian “Leggy” Langdon, who has worked for years for Rick Rubin and more recently with Meg Myers, produced them.
As Joseph approaches the release of its new album and tour, Allison and Meegan Closner are preparing for their second ride down the rollercoaster better known as a “cycle.”
“When I was younger, I changed jobs so often that there was never really a moment like we have right now, where, like, we’ve done one album cycle, and there goes the second one,” Allison said.
On the last go-around, she said she was so nervous that she often had to turn off her emotions entirely to get through larger moments like TV appearances or huge crowds. She had to convince herself that everything happening was “normal.”
“This time I’ve been embracing the nerves and the weirdness of what our job is,” she said.
Meegan, meanwhile, has resolved to not push back against the experience.
“It’s a lot of work, obviously, to be touring 280 days a year. It takes a lot, and when you’re pushing back against it, it takes even more from you,” she says. “I feel drastically like a different person in a different state of mind.”
Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.