Harmony is a beautiful thing, and The Living Sisters epitomize harmony beautifully. But while the trio’s sound is well-crafted, it started as a flight of fancy borne from a love of old country and gospel harmony groups such as The Louvin Brothers, The Delmore Brothers, The Andrew Sisters, and the one-time collaboration of Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, and Dolly Parton (for the album Trio).
The Living Sisters (left to right)—Becky Stark, Eleni Mandell, and Inara George.
Separately, singer/songwriters Inara George (The Bird and the Bee), Becky Stark (Lavender Diamond), and Eleni Mandell have made music for years. The Living Sisters is a low-pressure project the ladies worked on when they weren’t on tour with their other bands. “It was like us getting together having tea and maybe playing a show here and there,” George says.
George (daughter of Little Feat’s Lowell George) hopped onboard after Stark and Mandell had already put together most of the songs for The Living Sisters’ debut, Love to Live [Vanguard]. Mandell took the low harmonies, and Stark and George would alternate between middle and high harmonies. But because George joined the group last, writing her parts was a bit like a game of Tetris. “My parts are a little more complex because I’m singing really high and then I have to go low because I’m finding where they had not harmonized,” George says.
And not every song the ladies write works for the group. “Some songs sound better being harmonized than others,” George explains. “[For example], if you ever tried to harmonize on a Joni Mitchell song, it’s really difficult because the melody is so prominent. And some songs are so personal that it’s odd to have more than one person sing it.”
Producer Sheldon Gomberg started recording The Living Sisters on three mics, but scaled back. “I wanted it oldschool like the old bluegrass records, where there’s one mic and they just bob and weave and do the mixing themselves,” he says. “It was really great to watch and listen as they found their marks and figured out how much they had to come in and out and work the microphone. You get three microphones in the room, and you run into phase issues and imperfections. Here you’ve got one mic, and there’s no issue. It just sounds clear and in your face.”
The main mic was a Neumann U 47 through a Quad Eight Coronado console and a black face 1176 compressor. “Becky has a quieter voice than the other two, so she’d have to come in more, but Inara and Eleni would pretty much trigger their compression about the same, a 3:1 ratio,” Gomberg says. For reverb, Gomberg mainly used an EMT 140 Plate and sometimes lightly mixed in a D-Verb plug-in.
On Love to Live, instrumentation had the job of accompanying the vocals without intruding on their space. One of the Sisters played acoustic guitar, Gomberg played bass, and there were a handful of session musicians playing drums, electric guitar, Hammond B3, piano, and saxophone.
For the weepy, Santo & Johnnystyle guitar on “Ferris Wheel,” guitarist Jeremy Drake played Mandell’s Gibson ES-335 through an Ampeg Gemini II with a Coles 4038 mic and an 1176. Gomberg’s bass rig was a ’62 Fender P-Bass DI’d or through an Ampeg B15N through an RCA BA-6A limiting amplifier, and a 200-year-old upright Czech bass miked with a Neumann KM 84.
Drum mics included Neumann U 67 overheads, AKG D 112 for the kick, a Shure SM57 and AKG C 451 for the snare, and Pearlman TM-1, 451, and U 47 fet mics for the room. Acoustic guitar was a KM 254. Hammond B3 featured SM57s on top and a Beta 52 on the bottom. Piano was a pair of AKG C 414 EB mics. And saxophone was a Sony C-37A through the BA-6A. Other compressors included the Neve 2254e and dbx 160x.
Gomberg is conservative with EQ. “I’ll add a little bit in the highs for the vocal to cut through,” he says. “I dip out instruments that are building up around 250 or 300, and I’ll do highpass filters on stuff that’s rumbling down low, but other than that, I’m not a real drastic EQ guy.”
With his less-is-more approach, mixing is all about solving problems and stopping when he runs out of them. “It’s always odd when you’re mixing: You don’t know when you’re one step away, but as soon as you hit that step, you’re like, ‘I don’t know what else to do.’ When it feels done, it’s like, ‘Well let me get out of the way then.’”
Gomberg doesn’t go far beyond using reverb and compression when mixing. “You’ve got three girls with beautiful voices,” he says. “How much do you want to put in the way of that?”