She Keeps Bees – A Welcome Breath Of Old Air

“Sometimes you can get caught up in the push and not take stock of what has been done. I think that trips up a lot of people – focusing on what they don’t have yet instead of seeing all that is around them.” Siobhan Kane talks to Jessica Larrabee and Andy LaPlant of She Keeps Bees.

The way She Keeps Bees formed is really quite lovely – and almost sounds like the beginning of a joke – “a man walks into a bar….” but instead of a drink, he finds love, and a band. When Andy LaPlant went into the bar opposite his house in New York, he met Jessica Larrabee who was bartending, and after some gentle encouragement, the sound engineer started playing drums and making music with Larrabee, who was in the midst of recording some solo work, around 2006.

After self-releasing some EP’s and records, Domino signed them in 2010 and released their third full-length Dig On last year. Their sound is a coalescing of blues and rock, filtering a driving percussive element, and Larrabee’s vocal, which can be both soulful and fragile; a vocal which has been compared to Cat Power and PJ Harvey, but which is distinguished through a certain looseness that she brings to bear. This looseness is present in their live performances, bringing a sense of the primal, stripping things right back to their most basic impulse – to truly connect. LaPlant and Larrabee talk to Siobhán Kane.

Jessica was a bartender across the street from where you lived – there must have been a serendipity attached, didn’t she encourage you to come out from behind the scenes and play drums? She seems like a very nourishing kind of person.
Andy: Yes, Jess is magic and her enthusiasm is pretty contagious. It took a little bit of nudging to get me out of my shell, but she did, and now my life is so much richer as a result. I’m eternally grateful for knowing her.

You had moved to New York from New Orleans, Randy Newman has described the populace of New Orleans of having a “casual talent for music” – that it is inherent in the place – what is your relationship to the place?
Andy: I went to school there for four years and it was one of the experiences that really changed the trajectory of my life. I learned to engineer there, and without that skill I probably would have never thought about moving to New York. New Orleans is pretty much my favourite place in the world. Maybe it is cliche, but the place oozes music out of every crevice. The people there have an amazing spirit and even though I’m originally from Wisconsin, I feel like I’m home when I get to New Orleans. It leaves a mark on you that sticks.

I suppose in some ways that the organic aspect of She Keeps Bees perhaps didn’t seem strange to you, coming from a place where music lives everywhere.
Andy: I didn’t do a whole lot of music creation during school, I enjoyed being a facilitator of music. I worked at the Contemporary Arts Center as a sound and lighting assistant and got to see a lot of far-out jazz I never would have found on my own…I holed up in my closet and played guitar a lot, learning other peoples songs. I mostly just did it out of a need to record something…test out microphones, different techniques, and things. When I started working with Jess it was really natural…we work well together.

Jessica grew up more with the blues – what about you – do you think you bring quite contrasting musical reference points?
Andy: A few years before I met Jess, I was getting really into Delta blues…having mostly been into punk rock during my formative years, it was a welcome breath of old air. I really gravitated to it and I think I may have inadvertently affected Jess’ songwriting by playing it all the time. Her songs started to become more simple but also more aggressive…I honestly didn’t really recognise the blues influence until the reviews started coming in. I just feel like all good rock and roll should be rooted in the blues.

I like how you both gravitated to New York – Jessica coming from D.C. which, in a different way to New Orleans, contains such a strong musical history – not least the hardcore movement – I wonder if this in part inspires your sound?
Jess: Yes, I got to see really amazing bands in high school because the all-ages/DIY community was so strong in D.C. It gave me courage to make music on my own terms without worrying about what other people thought. I will always love D.C. for the knowledge it gave me growing up.

Again going back to both places – there is a huge sense of community within music in New Orleans and D.C. – what is the feeling like in New York – is there a real sense of community there? How are you finding living there?
Jess: We love it. The energy there has a pulse you can rely on. It keeps you on your toes — to be flexible and navigate with purpose. The music community is always shifting but we’ve kept our train rolling in and out of trends. It’s been beautiful to see our friends expand and grow – some are even shooting stars – it makes us happy to have been there from the beginning.

Where are some of your favourite places to play in America – and places to be in New York, more specifically?
Jess: Philadelphia, Savannah — we’re actually really excited to embark on our first tour of the entire country this August and September. I’m sure we’re going to fall in love with lots of places. We love Brooklyn — places like Death By Audio, a new place called Muchmore’s Cafe and the restaurant Roberta’s in Bushwick, which has a radio station in a shipping container in the back garden. It’s one of our favourite places to eat.

There seems to be an even greater move towards more instrumentation, particularly on your last record Dig On – what are your thoughts, and could you ever envisage swelling the two-piece to include more members live?
Jess: People seem to really like the a cappella songs we do live — I’d love to one day incorporate more percussion since we both play drums. We did have our friend Eoin [O’Ruainigh] play guitar with us during our 2011 summer tour after the release of Dig On. He is very talented and from Dublin originally. His band is based in London and is called Oh Ruin. It was great to have the extra punch and atmosphere he gave.

When you recorded Dig On in the Catskills – what was that period like? There seems to be a naturally sympathetic landscape for music there, not just the sadly recently passed Levon Helm and his Midnight Rambles in Woodstock, but Simone Felice, and several other musicians either originated from there, or are drawn to it – can you describe its specialness?
Andy: It’s really amazing to have such a place of tranquility so close to New York City. We were very lucky to find a house [log cabin] that was so suited to making a record. I started having anxiety attacks about how the electricity was wired a week or so before we left…but it ended up being perfect. I really want to go back there at some point in the future, because I’m sure it’s an amazing house to have a little time off. It didn’t even feel like work making a record there, we’d get up with the sun and go to bed when it got dark. The power got knocked out for a couple days by a tornado that came through and took out a few trees. Luckily there was a great diner a few miles down the road. The best part for me was how dead quiet it was outside. Nice for recording! We actually tried to record Burn outside on the deck, but it didn’t really work out.

Were there any artists, or sounds that specifically influenced you in the making of Dig On? Who do you find you often go back to?
Andy: During that time specifically, we listend to a lot of The Kinks and The Doors. I don’t know if they influenced any of the songs, but for me, I just mostly sat around wondering how I could make recordings that sounded that amazing.

In terms of artists working today who you admire – who instantly comes to mind? I know that you know Sharon Van Etten, who seems to pay things forward in terms of community, she is truly thankful for it, and believes in it – and ultimately, I think it is all that matters.
Jess: Yes, Sharon is amazing and we are so grateful to know her and call her a friend. She is so supportive of her friends – so open with her large heart – we’re so proud of her. Our dear friend Molly Donahue from the band The Love Story – easily one of my favourite bands ever – has a solo project called Metal Alvin that I absolutely love. She delves into emotion, story and sound. It is a complete journey — very intimate and close to the heart. Eddi Front is our friend and muse who I fall in love with every time I listen to her. She has incredible meter, melody and lyrics — she’s an amazing guitar player too. Other bands that come to mind that are reaching, furthering, and giving their entire heart are: Last Good Tooth, Slothrust, Ancient Sky, Oh Ruin, Peggy Sue.

How do you find performing live? It is so direct, raw, and tribal almost – have there been any epiphany moments, where you have seen other bands live and felt that was how it should be done?
Jess: Thank you for your kind words. We feel energised by performing live. The audience feeds us. We really enjoyed watching The Black Angels play End of the Road last year – we’d love to play with them one day.

What have been your highlights so far of the band? After six years of being in a band – you have achieved a lot.
Jess: That is also very kind of you to say. Highlights have been traveling to incredible places with my best friend and absorbing all that we can together. We get to meet great musicians and our wonderful fans who have been so supportive of us. It makes my heart full to think of all the like-minded visionaries we have had the pleasure of meeting. Specifically – Norway has been so breathtakingly beautiful. We just played in Tromso which is near the arctic circle and got to experience the midnight sun, and then playing in Slovakia, Hungary, Italy, France, Germany – its been a dream.

I guess my Venus in Virgo makes me a perfectionist in how I see my art. I think we will always strive for more growth and learning. I’m extremely proud of how much we have done. Sometimes you can get caught up in the push and not take stock of what has been done. I think that trips up a lot of people — focusing on what they don’t have yet instead of seeing all that is around them.

Are you working on your next record, and what direction do you think it might be going in?
Jess: We are working on some new songs — and building a record through touring out these new songs and planning to record in the winter. It is very different from how we’ve always done things in the past. I’m excited! The direction seems to be more social awareness — speaking in terms of micro to macro — all issues reflecting the environment they are in so I want to give strength to our community dealing with these times of toxic mimics.

You do everything yourselves, perhaps a legacy of your backgrounds, the DIY ethic – it is so important to retain that, particularly in these times, because if you believe in it, and people, you can never really forget yourself. What does DIY mean to you?
Andy: I think it keeps us more connected to our fans. We put a personalised thank you note in every order that goes out from our web store. It feels good to learn how to do new things like silk screen t-shirts and make record covers by hand. It always just felt really natural to do it ourselves.

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