It hasn't quite reached the point where Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig need to install Bat Phones in their New York City lairs, but they may soon have to. The two women's phones have been ringing off the hook with requests for their sisterly harmonies.
While other indie musicians languish in obscurity, the seraphic-toned singers — who also anchor the alterna-pop outfit Lucius — have gradually created a bustling side business in backing vocals, recruited by luminaries like The Rentals, San Fermin, David Byrne, Jeff Tweedy, and even Mavis Staples on several separate occasions. They're also chiming in on a new Dawes disc, plus a few other projects that are so big-name top-secret that they can't discuss them until the artists themselves announce their release.
"It's all been very serendipitous and random," says Wolfe, whose Brooklyn-based band has just released its third album, Good Grief. "None of our assignments are really connected to the other. One thing comes about because maybe somebody else told the performer about us. But mainly, it's just all been because of beautiful friendships and relationships, and being in the right place at the right time. We love singing with all these amazing people," she adds. "It gives us true joy."
As does the band's newest album, which was released in March on the trendy Mom + Pop label. Lilting Good Grief tracks like "Madness," "Gone Insane," and the synth-gospel mashup "Almost Makes Me Wish for Rain" have a sinister center beneath their colorful candy coating. Wolfe and Laessig are clearly on the same thematic page. They're both avid kitsch collectors and pop culture geeks, and they even dress alike onstage, in carefully coordinated outfits and wigs, completing the sibling-like effect of their vocals.
Last summer, through a mutual acquaintance, they were referred to Roger Waters. The Pink Floyd legend was a headliner at Rhode Island's Newport Folk Festival, backed by members of My Morning Jacket. He needed backup vocalists — would they be interested in doing a couple of Floyd classics with him for the show? As longtime fans, the two stylish singers were dutifully stunned and immediately jumped at the opportunity. They quickly learned the material, then researched other catalog chestnuts, just to be on the safe side. It was a wise move, they quickly learned at rehearsal.
"We got there and sang through the first song, "Mother," and Roger looked over to us while we were singing and definitely gave us the eye of approval," Wolfe recalls. "But after that, they ran through a song that we weren't supposed to be on, so we sat down and watched them play." One verse in, Waters halted the number, and motioned to the duo. "He goes, 'Man up! You're singing on every song.' And you would think that you would be scared shitless at such a moment — and part of us was. But that sign of approval from him, of inclusion, was just the greatest feeling."
Onstage at Newport, Waters blew adoring kisses to the Lucius ladies. And a few weeks ago, he surprised them by attending their band's club concert in Brooklyn.
"He watched our whole show from the balcony, and it was just so wild to look up and see him smiling," says Wolfe, who first started harmonizing with Laessig when they met at Berklee School of Music back in 2005.
"And you know, I think that's what is appealing to other people," she says of the duo's session clients. "Because we've been singing together for such a long time, we know exactly how we sound, and exactly how to lock in our vocals. So I think we save time for people, because we don't need to get to know each other's voices."
The two frontwomen also know how to complement each other's looks; most of their matching costumes would not look out of place in the stranger New Wave videos from the early MTV era.
"In the '70s and '80s, it wasn't odd — it was actually normal — to have a show, to have costumes, and to create a real visual experience for people," Wolfe says. "So we're trying to create an atmosphere for people to automatically connect our sound to, because we're singing together and creating this third instrument, this third monster, between us. And we want to play on that."