Lily & Madeleine interview: Sisters in sweet harmony finally ready to hit the road

Teenagers Lily & Madeleine honed their ethereal folk in their bedrooms. Now, after a sumptuous debut album, they’re touring the UK 

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The Independent Culture

“We’re in this transition age where Madeleine’s 19 and barely an adult, and I’m 17 and almost an adult and it’s hard having this real career,” maintains Lily Jurkiewicz, one half of sister act Lily & Madeleine just before the opening date of their first UK tour.

“We feel like adults, but we’re not.”

The teenage siblings from Indianapolis have had a giddy past 12 months. Their pared-down, uncomplicated brand of dreamy folk has garnered huge praise both here and in the US and no small amount of flowery language.

In the liner notes to their startlingly accomplished debut album, Lily & Madeleine, the Rolling Stone contributor Anthony DeCurtis quotes William Faulkner (“The past is never dead. It’s not even past”) and references the U2 track “Twilight” (“In the shadow, boy meets man”) from Boy and Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.

The sisters haven’t read Faulkner and aren’t aware of Boy. They’re an act in its infancy, they are still intent on finishing their schooling (“I definitely want to graduate,” says Lily; “I’d like to do anthropology,” claims Madeleine) and they’re all too aware that they need to evolve and expand their music.

“The album’s pretty and sweet, you can’t deny it, and the lyrics are not super-controversial,” admits Madeleine. “I do kind of want to break out of our pretty, sweet bubble but I don’t want it to be a Miley Cyrus kind of breakout.”

Their simple, undeniably sweet songs are a long way from Cyrus, and the sisters, who were brought up Catholic and are being chaperoned around the UK by their mother (who also sings and “really likes Shawn Colvin and Patty Griffin”), reference Simon and Garfunkel, Bob Dylan and fellow sister-act First Aid Kit as major influences. Madeleine, the more open and talkative of the two, asks for permission from Lily (who often appears on the verge of responding with a “duh”) before mentioning the latter’s impact on their own music.

“We were inspired by First Aid Kit early on and now we get to be compared to them quite a lot,” she admits. “But we don’t want to be them, we want to be Lily & Madeleine.”

There are similarities between the ethereal folk acts but there’s something – and without sounding too florid – other-worldly about Lily & Madeleine’s heavenly harmonies. They don’t indulge in vocal pyrotechnics or over-emoting. They’re the real deal and could sing a list of postcodes and make it sound sumptuous.

It’s little wonder that Sufjan Stevens snapped them up to his hip independent label, Asthmatic Kitty, and the likes of Paul Mahern (who’s worked with John Mellencamp and Iggy Pop) is producing and the talented lyricist Kenny Childers of Indiana outfit Gentleman Caller is co-writing.

At a headline performance at the intimate Sneaky Pete’s in Edinburgh you could hear a pin drop during their strongest tracks, most notably “Devil We Know”, “Spirited Away” (on which they sing “Like the ancients we are spirited away”) and “Come to Me”.

Lyrically they’re at their best when they focus on longing and regret such as on “Paradise” where they lament “How can it be that nothing’s yours, and nothing’s mine”. Similarly on “In the Middle”, the track that shot them to prominence and garnered millions of YouTube hits, they posit “All of the years I have spent here, I have never wandered.” Their second single, “I’ve Got Freedom”, is slightly perkier and they both balk (and they rarely balk) somewhat at the suggestion that they major in sad songs.

“When our EP [The Weight of the Globe] came out last year, people said we wrote such sad songs and we’re always frowning, but we didn’t mean to write sad songs and the album is a lot more upbeat,” claims Lily.

It’s not KC and the Sunshine Band upbeat, however. The pair’s gentle harmonies are naturally melancholic and their music would seamlessly fit on to the soundtrack for the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis. It’s not hard to foresee the likes of T Bone Burnett producing for them sometime soon. But, for now, the charming pair are already working on a second record. Do they feel the pressure?

“It’s not pressure though, it’s more like drive,” says Lily. But do they feel under any pressure to repeat the same formula?

“ I do feel so confined sometimes because I’m a 17-year-old girl and I sound like a 17-year-old girl,” admits Lily. “I think it just comes easily for us do this kind of music and in the future we’re planning to change a little bit. It’s easy to tour with two people but it would be fun to tour with a whole band.”

Does Madeleine, the more confident of the two, feel the same?

“We’re so crazy about this, we both love music so much and it was what we were born to do,” Madeleine gushes. “I never thought we’d do a six-date UK tour with our own material. I wouldn’t have dreamed of that. And it’s all happened really fast. It’s so great, but it’s almost like ‘oh my god, what’s going on?’”

The duo trust their management (“they have our backs”) and are fully aware of the backlash and unwarranted barbs female artists receive in the music industry.

“Being a woman in the record industry, especially a young beautiful woman such as Taylor Swift, has its pros and cons,” claims Madeleine. “Every criticism she gets has something to do with her age and that she’s a woman.”

That’s about as outspoken as these two studiously polite souls get. They’re courteous, don’t appear to drink or swear, seem genuinely amazed that the audience are mouthing back lyrics they wrote “in our bedroom” and they don’t have a bad word to say for anyone.

It will be fascinating to see how they evolve and whether they’ll retain their level-headedness and control.

“We’re in control of our music but it’s all so overwhelming,” says Lily. “It’s all happened so fast.”

Lily & Madeleine’s debut album, ‘Lily & Madeleine’, is out now