Sister Sparrow: Gold Dust Woman
After taking a brief sabbatical from the road and giving birth to her first child, Sister Sparrow steps out with a new studio album that’s a bit more solo and perhaps a bit more pop, but still true to her beloved Dirty Birds.
Before the release of her fourth studio album, Gold, this past fall, Arleigh Kincheloe, the frontwoman of Brooklyn-based collective Sister Sparrow & The Dirty Birds, shared a Spotify playlist of tracks that made up what she called a “sonic reference palette” for the record. Considering Sister Sparrow & The Dirty Birds’ previous musical output, which centered around Arleigh’s earthy, soul-powerhouse vocals and her band’s gritty, horn- and harmonica-fueled blues attack, most of the songs on the playlist weren’t surprising—plenty of ‘70s funk, soul and R&B, with some newer stuff thrown in, including cuts from Aretha Franklin, Mavis Staples, Bill Withers, Joe Cocker, Sly & The Family Stone and even fellow Brooklynites Rubblebucket.
But then—Flo Rida?
And while it might seem like a left-field choice for inspiration, “My House,” from the Florida-based rapper’s 2015 EP of the same name (not to be confused with the bluesy “My House” from Sister Sparrow & The Dirty Birds’ 2010 self-titled debut LP), actually encapsulates a couple key elements of the mindset in which Sister Sparrow’s new album was brought to life. First of all, the lyrical theme of the song is similar to what Arleigh conveys on Gold’s closing track, “You’re My Party”—but more on that later. Secondly, the Flo Rida inspiration points to the new, more contemporary sonic approach that Arleigh wanted to take with this record, which happens to be the first one released under just the name Sister Sparrow, as opposed to Sister Sparrow & The Dirty Birds.
Naturally, some longtime fans of The Dirty Birds’ signature collaborative sound bristled at the idea of a “solo” Sister Sparrow album—especially after the release of single “Ghost,” whose modern-pop shimmer certainly marked a departure for Arleigh—but there was never really any reason to fret. While Gold is indeed more of a solo album for Arleigh than the band’s past efforts, The Dirty Birds make their presence known on these tracks—several of which would fit just fine on past Sister Sparrow albums—and the group’s live show remains as horn-soaked and boisterous as ever.
Lounging on a couch in Relix’s Manhattan office after performing a few stripped-down versions of Gold tracks with members of The Dirty Birds, Arleigh admits that trying something different—something more “solo”—was a thought that had lived in her mind for some time.
“I have always written the songs for the group, but we would arrange them together so they would change a lot,” says Arleigh, who is often referred to as Sister Sparrow. “And I was really happy for that to happen—I love working with these guys—but I always had that voice in my head saying, ‘What if it sounded like it did when I first wrote it?’ That was a dream of mine, to be able to do that at some point. I wanted to give myself a shot to try something new and go with my gut.”
Arleigh eventually got that opportunity, but not exactly in the way she might have envisioned.
“What really facilitated it was me getting pregnant and having to take all this time off the road,” she offers, noting that after some “light touring” with The Dirty Birds up until the fourth month of her pregnancy, she faced an extended period when she was “stuck in Brooklyn,” allowing her the creative space to begin work on Gold. To a certain extent, the “solo” aspect of the album was fueled by necessity—and geography—since it made more sense for the largely homebound Arleigh to develop these songs on her own as opposed to asking her bandmates to travel to her.
“When you’re pregnant, you don’t tell people right away because it’s one of those superstitious things,” Arleigh says. “But I had to let them in because I knew that all of our futures were about to change in this drastic way.”
Part of that pivot was immediate. Arleigh let The Dirty Birds know that this album process would be different and, frankly, they would be less involved in the song creation and recording of the tracks.
“They were really supportive,” Arleigh says. “They saw my life changing drastically in front of me—and it was an unexpected change—so it was like, ‘Oh, God—OK, this is happening!’ Everyone was really nice to the pregnant girl. I’d talked to a few of them in passing about my desire to do this at some point, and it just seemed like the skies opened and gave me this opportunity to do it.”
“It was definitely something that made sense,” Arleigh’s brother and Dirty Birds harmonica player Jackson Kincheloe offers. “Arleigh has always been the principal songwriter in the band, so I wasn’t surprised that she wanted to make an album where she had total control of how her songs were recorded.”
Although Gold is very much born of Arleigh’s own vision, the singer worked closely with producer Carter Matschullat on the album, including co-writing many of its tracks with him. The two first met at a planned songwriting session with another artist, and “Gold” was their first collaborative track.
“I had the melody, which I had written that morning, and I came in and explained my idea and what genre I wanted it to live in,” Arleigh recalls of her first meeting with Matschullat. “I remember saying, ‘Vintage, sort of ‘70s, dirty—but clean.’ I didn’t make any sense. But then Carter took that information, and also what I was singing, and he created this track. In the first 10 minutes, it was like, ‘That’s it!’ He just got what I was going for.”
The finished version of “Gold,” which was further developed during a later songwriting session with Matschullat and now kicks off the LP, is also one of its standout tracks, mixing The Dirty Birds’ classic, punchy horn lines with a bouncy piano riff—and Arleigh’s soaring vocals.
With her new sound in mind, Arleigh tapped Matschullat as Gold’s producer, sensing that he would be the one who could get her music to a place it hadn’t reached previously. “I wanted to do it with somebody who had their finger on a more modern sound and was not afraid of working with samples and some hip-hop elements,” she says. “He’s just open and has a lot of tricks up his sleeve—it was really fun to explore what he was capable of.”
When Arleigh and Matschullat eventually got to work on recording the album—at Brooklyn’s DØØM Studio—Arleigh’s son was two months old, and she was more than ready for a new recording experience.
“This one was wildly different than the other projects. It was a refreshing thing to go in and just have one person to talk to,” Arleigh reflects. “I love my band so much, but it’s sometimes hard to get something done when you have so many people who have an equal say.”
The Dirty Birds eventually got involved with the creative process, but their contributions were more through overdubbing, as opposed to the live-tracking that the band was used to. Arleigh says that she still strived for a live sound on more classic Sister Sparrow tracks like “Can’t Get You Off My Mind,” but her schedule—especially as a new mother—didn’t allow for much extended studio time where all the members of the group could set up and play together.
Even though the Gold sessions were markedly different from Arleigh’s past experiences, those changes seemed diminished when considering the more life-changing process of bringing another being into the world. And Arleigh says that her pregnancy and new-mother status affected not only her musical output, but also her view of the world at large.
“Some of the songs were inspired by the pregnancy, like ‘You’re My Party,’ which was inspired by being sober—like, ‘You’re my party now, baby!’” Arleigh explains. “In addition to your body being really weird and not your own body for a long time, having a kid changes your perspective of reality and of yourself, so I came at this album from a different place. I had more confidence in myself as a sole entity instead of as the leader of a band. I was always second guessing myself, and that’s why I leaned on the guys a lot for musical help. After having a kid, you’re like, ‘Well, I can do anything now.’ Also, and maybe this is just me, but I feel like I stopped taking bullshit. It was like, ‘I don’t got time for that, OK? I have a baby.’”
Going forward, Arleigh sees herself continuing to attack the songwriting portion of her creative process as she did with Gold, but she’d like to incorporate her bandmates more into the studio sessions to capture what she calls the “magic” of Sister Sparrow & The Dirty Birds’ collaborative approach.
“It’s a great thing because, sometimes, you need somebody else to say, ‘I have an idea for this.’ There’s so many of us—I refer to us as an eight-headed monster, in a beautiful way—and we create some really awesome things because we all pitch in and have our own weird ideas. I always want them to be in my life, but this was just something that I needed to do by myself. It felt really natural while I was doing it and now, listening back, I feel proud of it. It’s my other little baby.”
That’s good news for the band’s fans—despite the slight departure, Sister Sparrow doesn’t have any intention of flying completely solo and leaving her Dirty Birds behind. However, Arleigh does understand the reticence with which some of her admirers have approached Gold, at least early on.
“It’s been a little bit of a mixed bag,” she admits. “I think mostly positive, but I’m not at all shocked that some people weren’t into it. It’s fine. I think about artists I love and sometimes I’m like, ‘I wish they didn’t change so much.’ You love what you love, and I totally get that. But as an artist, if you don’t change and evolve and grow, then you’re going backward. You have to change, you have to push yourself, and you have to go out there and do something different and feel weird about it. Maybe people aren’t going to like it—and it’s really scary—but you have to do it.”
“While it’s sonically a little bit of a shift, I feel it’s a natural progression for the band,” Jackson agrees. “The last two studio albums have had more space, sonically and arrangement-wise, and Gold builds on that idea. We’ve played so many live shows that it’s sometimes easy to forget that our albums don’t have to sound exactly like what we do onstage. We’ve found a great balance between our studio sound and live energy.”
Sister Sparrow & The Dirty Birds have certainly experienced their share of evolutionary twists. Over nearly a decade, the group has undergone a few personnel changes, landing at the current lineup of Arleigh, Jackson, bassist Josh Myers, guitarist Mark Marshall, drummer Dan Boyden, keyboardist Nat Osborn and a horn section of trumpeter Phil Rodriguez and saxophonist Brian Graham. The Kincheloe siblings are the only remaining founding members, and while Arleigh speaks highly of the group’s musical progression as a whole, she especially beams when discussing Jackson’s growth.
“My brother’s evolution has been something really marvelous to watch—he works harder than anybody. He wouldn’t say this, but he basically taught himself how to rip on the harmonica,” she says, adding that Jackson has recently incorporated lap-steel guitar into his repertoire. “He’s crushing it. He just gets better and better. Every time I turn around, I’m like, ‘Man, you’re my brother! I’m so proud of you.’”
“It’s been a wild ride since Arleigh and I started playing music together on an out-of-tune piano in our childhood home,” Jackson adds. “I’ve learned a lot and I am constantly trying to grow and learn more. Watching Arleigh progress as a songwriter and vocalist has been so important to my approach to music, and playing with the guys in The Dirty Birds has been an endless source of inspiration. I’m constantly picking their brains for all my theory questions and trying to copy vocal runs that Arleigh does—usually to no avail.”
Arleigh also marvels at how far Sister Sparrow & The Dirty Birds have come as a collective, blossoming from a fledgling New York bar band to a force in the festival scene and beyond. It hasn’t always been a smooth or straight road but, as Arleigh’s experience with Gold shows, forging new paths that might be scary at first can lead to even deeper fulfillment.
“Watching us all grow up and grow into this even further—and watching people come and go—I’ve learned that this is a living, breathing thing, and you have to be OK with the changes, though you’re not always going to love them,” Arleigh says. “It’s been a crazy time. When I think back on those first shows—how different we are now, how different the music is—it’s great. I used to make the boys wear suits every night and none of them had suits that fit them, so they looked like they were in their grandfather’s clothes. And I was wearing high heels and vintage dresses from my mom. It’s amazing that we’ve come through all these weird little channels. The sound is still similar but it’s also evolved a lot, especially with this new record. I’m so grateful and happy that they’ve stuck it out and stayed with me and wanted to keep going even though it was different for them. They’re the best. We’re a big family.”
This article originally appears in the January/February 2019 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.