When Beth and Jessa Callen take the stage together as The Callen Sisters, the sight of the two can cause some confusion. After all, it’s not every day you see a folk-rock duo with a harp that’s larger than the players onstage.
“A lot of people expect classical music,” Beth said, speaking from her home in Westchester County. “A lot of people haven’t really heard a harp before; they’ll say, ‘Oh, what a nice cello you have there.’ Once they hear it in context, though, they’re really pleasantly surprised. It blends very well.”
With a sound that combines elements of Fiona Apple, Crosby, Stills and Nash and even Nirvana, the duo — Beth, 24, on guitar and Jessa, 26, on harp — have been turning heads since self-releasing their debut album in 2007. With Cordless Records since September of last year, the Callen Sisters are poised to branch out beyond their native New York roots with their sophomore release, due out early next year.
Back to roots
In the meantime, the sisters are returning to their roots for a performance at Caffe Lena on Friday night . The two spent their teenage years in Saratoga Springs and attended many of Caffe Lena’s Thursday night open mikes.
The Callen Sisters
When:8 p.m. Friday
Where: Caffe Lena, 47 Phila St., Saratoga Springs
How Much: $14; $12 (members)
More Info: 583-0022, www.caffelena.org
“Our mother used to take us to open mike night, and that kind of got us our start performing, so it’s a special place for us to play,” Beth said.
The sisters have been making music together from an early age. Their honey-drenched vocal harmonies, best heard on “Lullaby” off the self-titled debut, suggest an ease and comfort that only family members experience together.
“We’ve been practicing harmonies together since we were little kids,” Beth said. “In fact, there’s a recording of us doing ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ with harmonies when we were 4.”
After graduating high school in Saratoga, the two attended the State University of New York in Purchase — Jessa earned her degree in music composition and harp performance, while Beth went on to study in London. Both continue to teach private music lessons.
A series of tragedies in the mid-2000s, including the deaths of their aunt, mother and grandmother in a three-year span, brought Beth and Jessa together as the Callen Sisters. Their debut album actually melded together songs the two had been working on separately.
“I think this was just always something that was supposed to happen,” Jessa said. “We started the record as separate projects, and then thought, ‘No, we should do this together; let’s make a real record.’ We had definitely performed together before we had this band, but it was nothing as serious; this is the first serious thing that we decided to do.”
The new album, which the duo just completed recording last week, will feature a more collaborative sound. As on the previous record, the sisters are backed by drummer Dave Gluck, bassist Chris Anderson and keyboardist Dan Castellani, the same band that will perform at Caffe Lena. The songs are more fleshed out instrumentally and vocally, according Beth.
“We hired some brass and string players, so there’s violins and cello; you’ll hear more harmonies — we wrote some three-, four-part harmonies,” she said. “These songs are a little bit — I don’t want to say gritty — they have more of a rock edge to them. The first album was very natural and sweet; this has more of a backbone, I guess you could say.”
Many of the songs on the first album focused on the recent deaths in the duo’s family. While some of the lyrics on the as-yet-untitled new album continue in this vein, the sisters say the album focuses more on relationships, while also tackling social issues.
“One song I wrote is about the beauty industry,” Jessa said. “Like, ‘Why do they think only one type of thing is beautiful,’ that sort of thing, and rejecting that; saying, ‘No, that’s wrong. We’re all beautiful.’ It’s sort of an uplifting message.”
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Categories: Life and Arts