Sister Sparrow — the nom du stage of Arleigh Kincheloe — wears the pants in the band. Literally. It wasn’t until the singer donned a pair of jeans that she came into full possession of the powers that now fuel her both onstage and in the studio with the six members of the Dirty Birds.
Calling on a gig day in Syracuse, New York, Kincheloe speaks frankly about her musical and personal evolution. She and harmonica-playing brother Jackson were raised in the Catskills, and though she was was singing onstage with their musician parents by the age of eight, confidently fronting her own six-piece funky soul band was a different story for Arleigh.
The now-revered Brooklyn-based lineup formed in 2008, although “the first couple years I was standing there in my mom’s vintage dress and high heels, and I wouldn’t even take the mic off the stand,” she remembers.
“I was a very different performer back then. In doing it over and over, and realizing that I had this other side of me that was really begging to come out…I know that sounds super-cliché,” she says, laughing self-consciously. “But I started letting it happen. And I put a pair of pants on instead of a miniskirt, and I was like, ‘Oooh, look what I can do now!’
“I know a lot of women who don’t feel that way, and they can get down in a dress and a skirt, and that’s great, but for some reason in my head…I don’t know, maybe that comes from my mom,” she muses. “Growing up, she was very prim and proper, and she was a singer, and the way she dressed and behaved onstage was very ladylike. I loved that, and that’s why I did that at first, because that’s what I grew up with and I felt like that’s what you did.”
And with the band’s third album — the lovely, grimy, and soulful The Weather Below, out May 18 — she’s come a long way, baby. Her laid-back but sweetly sultry delivery has an occasional Joplin-esque rasp, her demeanor at once classically old-fashioned yet current. “Onstage I’m not freaked out anymore. That’s really the one place I feel super-confident, like I’m in my element. Thank god it just came out of me at some point. I was like, ‘Wait a minute, this is so much more fun!’ For me, letting loose, and being more…relaxed, but maybe a little more masculine?” she wonders. “I find that there’s a lot of power in that. Maybe that sounds weird, but my dad is kinda cocky, so maybe it makes sense that I have the yin and yang of my parents in my head.”
On the next page: How an American Idol–maker helped them hone their sound[Her band family is also in her head — and her hotel room. The Dirty Birds — Jackson plus guitarist Sasha Brown, bassist Josh Myers, drummer Dan Boyden, saxophonist Brian Graham, and trumpet player Phil Rodriguez — and their “Sister” are together onstage and off-. She laughingly warns that any shouting in the background is “just the boys” in the band.
At the moment, it’s just the seven of them touring in a Sprinter van, all sharing duties and space, Kincheloe in her little “nest” with pillows, blankets, and a Kindle when she’s not on driving duty.
“We all have our little jobs,” she explains. “I deal with writing the setlists and scheduling for the week, and I book the hotels, which I’ve become well versed in doing.” On the nights when they get hotel rooms, she says, “Sometimes we split up into specific teams. I’m with the A Team.” She laughs. “Usually I’m with my brother, and depending on how many rooms, sometimes I get the horn section as well. We’ve gotten used to it. We get along really well.”
That sense of togetherness is explored in “Don’t Be Jealous,” a song written by Arleigh and Brown. “It’s the Dirty Birds anthem,” she explains. “It does tell the story of us on tour. Or a couple stories — it seems like it’s a never-ending story at this time! ‘I see you staring out the corner of your eye/Don’t be jealous/It’s just me and the fellas.’ It speaks to our vibe for me; the way I think about it is super-family-oriented.”
For the blood relations, “Mama Knows” was written for Kincheloe family matriarch Kate, while “Prison Cell” was for Arleigh’s older sister. Grammy Award–winning producer Ryan Hadlock (Lumineers, Blonde Redhead) helmed The Weather Below, which follows the 2013 EP Fight, produced by Randy Jackson. Yes, that Randy Jackson. The takeaway from the Idol-maker? “He mentored us a little bit, gave us tips about what we could improve on; what he saw from a ‘vision’ standpoint,” Kincheloe recalls. “He really helped us understand that every part of this band needs to have its own space, sonically….There are a lot of us, and everybody is such a good musician, so it’s hard to pull back on any element of it. But it makes so much more sense. I was a little concerned that he’d want to polish over the grit and the grime when he was producing, but no, he was all about the vibe and the feeling. If you lose that, you might as well just put this in the trash and make a pop record. So that was cool to get, from him, especially.”
A bit intimidated by Jackson, she said she was “slowly trying” to assert her opinion and give producing notes. So when it came time to record The Weather Below, “I’d coaxed myself into being more opinionated and being more of an actual bandleader. I am the songwriter and I do have a vision, but I was afraid of voicing that for a long time,” she confesses. “I didn’t feel like I knew enough about music to have a say, but then something clicked, and I was like, ‘That’s some bullshit. That’s crazy. I’m writing the songs. How do I not believe in them? In myself? That doesn’t make any sense, so you better step up your game and grow a pair.’ ”
The result was ten songs she’s “really, really, really happy with.” “It’s a sensation I’d not really experienced before, to be fully through-and-through proud of something,” she says. “As artists we are our own worst critics. I just thought that came with the territory. I’m sure as the years go on, I’ll hear things [I don’t like] in The Weather Below, but at this point, I’m really happy and I’m really proud.”
And with a little help from their crowdfunding fans, they made the record on their own. “We became our own record label — we have a distribution deal with Thirty Tigers,” Kincheloe says. “By hodgepodging all the elements you’d get with a label by ourselves and doing it on our own, we end up keeping all of our rights, and all of our music is ours.”
There was the pressing thought, she notes, with the band still cutting their teeth, “that [a label] might really push you…or they might put you on a shelf. Also,” she adds, laughing, “we didn’t have any amazing offers on the table. So there’s that. For me, I’m so much happier to do it this way. It seems smarter. So you might have to make game-time choices which might feel weird at the time because it’s not historically what people have done, but you gotta roll with it.”
Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds release The Weather Below on May 18, and will celebrate the record with a concert at Rough Trade NYC on May 20. For ticket info, click here.
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