Joseph: Sister Act

November 18, 2019
Joseph: Sister Act

Burnt out and questioning their careers, the members of Joseph stepped away for a while after issuing their excellent ATO debut. Now, the family act have their sights set on a new path that they hope will take them into their 80s.

“We all grew up on a little farm outside the little town of Estacada, in Oregon. It was a dream our parents had always had,” says Natalie Closner Schepman. “They’re good at having dreams.” There’s reverence in her voice, a sweet nostalgia and an innate respect for people who know what they want—and work to make it real.

Natalie is in her mid-30s now, married and, by her own account, newly embracing adulthood. She’s also the older sister to twins—Allison and Meegan Closner—who double as her bandmates. Together, the trio is Joseph, a folk-rock act veering closer to rockand-roll with every album; their third LP, Good Luck, Kid, rattles and hums with anthemic energy and goosebump-raising, three-sister harmonies. They’re constantly on the road; they’ve played most major festivals and late-night TV shows. This life is, inarguably, a dream. But realizing that, and embracing it, was a long and winding road—one that the Closner sisters very nearly drove off of.

Right now, though, Natalie, Meegan and Allison aren’t having one of their deep talks. They’re in a rented car leaving Trader Joe’s on their way to an Airbnb in Silver Lake, Calif. There, they’ll pour each other red wine and share a few laughs, while Allison cooks up rice noodles with peanut ginger sauce.

“She’s really been talking up this meal,” Natalie chuckles.

It’s late summer; the band spent all day meeting with their label, ATO, about the imminent release of Good Luck, Kid. The finalized album cover shows the sisters in a car, Natalie’s hand on the wheel, with all six eyes gazing ahead in slightly different directions. That image isn’t an accident.

“Entering my 30s was a cosmic thing for me,” says Natalie. “Our lives are up to us now. We’re the adults. It’s the actual act of getting in the driver’s seat of your own life. And that’s what these songs are all about.”

The Closner sisters and their brother Ryan had as pastoral and free a childhood as one would expect from parents who sought out a secluded farm in the Pacific Northwest.

“Our dad was always very musical—he was in a jazz vocal band in college, and his friends would come over a lot and sing,” remembers Meegan. “The harmonies were insane. As a kid, I was so stunned.”

Natalie, who is four years older than her sisters, quickly latched on to her father’s knack for performance and embarked on her first low-key solo tour while Meegan and Allison quietly hummed along from the sidelines.

“Natalie would come home and sing her songs to us, and I’d have secret fantasies. I’d sing harmonies under my breath, thinking maybe she’d hear me,” says Meegan. “I was so, so shy.”

Allison adds, “When we’d sit and harmonize with her, I always hoped she thought I was cool. But I never thought ‘Oh, I wanna do what she’s doing.’”

Natalie did notice, of course—after all, she had two identical twin sisters lovingly mouthing the words to her songs.

“I heard them singing harmonies to country radio tunes around the farm—and Meegan was the lead in a production of Cinderella in our 100-person high school,” remembers Natalie.

By the time Allison and Meegan entered college, Natalie was still hustling to get her solo career started. All three sisters attended Seattle Pacific University; Allison was placed in the same exact dorm room where Natalie had lived four years earlier. Meegan lived just two floors above. The years passed by, and Natalie kept driving around the country, playing living rooms and coffee shops. Eventually, the slog of self-booked and under-promoted shows started to wear on her.

Meanwhile, Allison was working in a Seattle bakery; she’d quit her art-school studies because “I was totally terrified of having my art critiqued by other students,” she says. “I was trying to figure out my next step.”

Meegan had also left school and was dividing her time between nannying and working at an LA Fitness. And, by 2012, and all three sisters were their own version of stuck.

A turning point came one night after Natalie had just wrapped a show at a Johnny Carino’s restaurant in Kentucky. And, as sports blared from the TV monitors above her head, it was increasingly hard to tell if people were watching her or the score.

“A friend sat me down and said, ‘You don’t seem to love this or believe in what you’re doing. What would it take for you to get these songs into people’s hands?’” says Natalie. “That’s when I thought about my sisters. I was driving home from that show and I texted them: ‘Do you wanna be in a band with me?’ I knew they’d think I meant as background singers. But I knew somewhere, deep down, it’d be more than that.”

She drove home to Oregon, the thought dancing in her head. With little at stake, Allison and Natalie responded: “Sure, let’s sing.”

“The first time we all sang together, it was a song I’d written. I was totally held by their voices—this triad on either side. I hadn’t heard much like it. There was a sparkle in the air,” says Natalie. She booked their first living room show soon after, though it was unclear how much of a real band this was going to be.

The audience funneled into the kitchen and dining room, where they were treated to hors d’oeuvres and views of the Seattle skyline. “Hearing them sing. I knew something was happening and I knew they didn’t know. I knew I’d have to convince them to do it with me,” says Natalie. “My brain was spinning. How would I pull this off?”

Allison and Meegan enjoyed the show; they were happy to help move Natalie along toward her dream. But that doesn’t mean they were all in—at least not yet.

“I’d hear last-minute that we had a show, and I’d say I had plans; I wasn’t going to make it. You can do this one without me,” says Allison.

And, as the summer of 2013 rolled around, she started thinking about returning to school.

“I called Meegan and said: ‘We gotta make this the best summer of Allie’s life so she doesn’t leave the band,’” says Natalie.

The oldest sister nabbed tickets to see indie-rock act Eisley, “to show Meegan and Allie the vision of what we could be,” she says. “Over the next few months, we dipped our toes into being a real band. It really was a process.”

A road trip helped cement the trio. The sisters drove to the tiny city of Joseph, Ore., to attend a Native American ceremony honoring their grandfather, Jo.

“Our grandpa was really involved with the Native American community there, and they held a powwow for him,” says Meegan. “It was so spiritual and powerful—the dancing, the colors. The whole thing just moved us, and we thought, ‘How can we take that with us wherever we go?’”

The answer arrived in the studio while the sisters were recording their first LP, 2014’s Native Dreamer Kin. Before then, they’d been performing as Dearborn, named for a street in Seattle.

“Our producer didn’t think our name was strong enough for our songs,” says Meegan. “Allie said it immediately: ‘What if we called ourselves Joseph?’ It hit us in this magic wave. It was a gut punch. And our producer said, ‘OK, play me a song, Joseph.’ Everything changed.”

The album—filled with ghostly acoustic campfire songs and gorgeous harmonies— floated around labels and blogs. In no time, they were signed to ATO, with Mike Mogis of Bright Eyes ready to produce their next album. I’m Alone, No You’re Not arrived in 2016 and pushed Joseph into the national spotlight. Their single “White Flag” was a hit, and they graced the soundstages of Jimmy Fallon, Ellen DeGeneres and Conan O’Brien. There was no turning back; the dream was materializing.

And, that’s exactly when Meegan pumped the breaks. The tours, the nonstop movement, the rootlessness of a musician’s lifestyle were eating away at her. This was Natalie’s dream, sure, and she was in the driver’s seat. But the seatbelt on the passenger side was too tight, too constricting.

“It’s not that I had a different, specific dream, but that I suddenly felt really trapped,” says Meegan. “We’d say, ‘We have a real shot at this,’ but I didn’t even know what that meant. I felt like a victim, and that’s not a powerful feeling in life.”

She began receding into herself, unable to articulate that maybe, just maybe, being a rock star on the rise wasn’t what she wanted. Natalie saw it unfolding, but things were rolling along—and fast. The sudden fame mobilized anxiety and fear in Allison as well; she’d bury those feelings and truck on.

“I was so outside my comfort zone onstage. I realized months later that there are experiences early on I don’t remember having,” she says. “I was so scared of being scared that I blocked out whole shows.”

“I was pushing us. I pushed really hard,” says Natalie. “When you’re living this crazy, new life, you can go into autopilot. You need to be here, doing this, at this time—and you just say, ‘OK.’ We didn’t take time to rest or to think.”

All three sisters felt the tensions simmering; no one knew how to calm the waters. “I just thought this would be baggage we’d carry to Thanksgivings for the rest of our lives and never deal with,” Allison says.

Meegan has the date, March 23, 2018, marked in her phone. Joseph had packed up their gear after a Seattle show; Allison was driving them home. Natalie and Meegan began arguing; it was after midnight, and raining.

“It represented so many other fights: Natalie putting her all into our band and me just saying, ‘No,’” says Meegan. “Allie was driving down this tiny road, yelling for us to stop—and she drove straight into a truck’s huge sideview mirror. She stopped the car, and Natalie jumped out and ran the rest of the way home. I thought: ‘I’ve screwed this up long enough.’ It was my come-to-Jesus moment.’”

Joseph was at a crossroads, burnt out and exhausted. They took the summer to regroup, breathe and reconnect more as family than bandmates. Leaving time and space for real life to creep back in brought an understanding and clarity that they hadn’t felt in years.

“You can stay quiet and slowly die if you don’t come to the table and say what’s not working for you,” says Natalie. “You fight for it and do it in a way that works for everyone. That reconciliation is the best thing anyone can experience on the planet.”

The breakdown and slow rebuilding of these deep, lifelong relationships set all three sisters writing again. By October 2018, a new Joseph entered the studio—a band with three leaders and three songwriters, all communicating clearly, openly, lovingly. The songs tell the story.

With her sisters’ voices soaring behind her, Meegan sings on the pulsing, billowing “Fighter”: “We could just carry on/ Act like nothing’s wrong… Eyes wide/ I want a fighter.” On the quick, taut title track, Natalie admits, “There’s nothing left to lean on… No time for doubt/ Good luck, kid.”

Loaded up with cutting guitars, upper-cutting percussion and breathtaking harmonies, Good Luck, Kid tracks a family falling apart and reuniting, stronger than ever. In 2019, Natalie remains resolute that this road is theirs. And her sisters are right there with her.

“Everything we’re experiencing together, we’ll talk about it around the bingo table when we’re in our 80s,” laughs Natalie. “With your siblings, you have the role you expect them to play, the ways you expect them to hurt you. But now, we’re giving each other the chance not to.”

For Allison and Meegan, Joseph is no longer the life they were pushed toward. It’s the life they choose, every day anew.

“I wanna feel every moment of this. Even those shitty early mornings, singing on some show at 7 a.m. I want all those moments—to feel them in my bones. I don’t wanna miss a single thing,” says Allison. “It feels crazy to get to do this with my sisters. And that, this time, we feel exactly the same way.”

This article originally appeared in the October/November 2019 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more subscribe below.