10 Questions: Emily Miller of The Sweetback Sisters

The Sweetback Sisters

With their special blend of modern honky-tonk, The Sweetback Sisters released their first full-length record, Chicken Ain’t Chicken and have been touring the East Coast.

The morning after a show in Asheville, N.C., lead singer Emily Miller took some time to talk with us about the record, the best song topics and a newly discovered love of rhinestones.

Q: Can you give our readers a quick run-down of the band’s history?

A: The band started in Brooklyn with me and the other lead singer, we lived pretty close to each other in Brooklyn but now only about half the band lives there. The band is from lots of different places, we’ve got one West Virginian, our fiddle player Jesse; one Kansan, that’s me; the other lead singer Zara is from San Francisco and grew up in Massachusetts; Ross, our telecaster player is from western Massachusetts; and our drummer is from Vermont and our bass player’s from Iowa. We really are very spread out.

Zara and I were working in a choir, a world music choir, from Vermont called ‘Northern Harmony’ and we were on tour together and amidst all of our singing of Bulgarian folk songs we discovered a mutual love of country music. And it just so happened that I was moving a couple blocks from her as soon as the tour was done. So when we got back we started singing country duets and convincing this really awesome group of instrumentalists to join the band. At first just to play with us for one gig and that turned into a permanent band.

Q: What are some of your favorite tracks from the new album?

A: Definitely the big surprise on the album for us was “My Uncle Used to Love Me But She Died.” It’s a Roger Miller song that Zara had learned sitting around the house, it’s a really funny song, she loved it. It became this song with a life of its own. And it seems like it’s the one most radio stations are playing and it’s probably the most popular, well known song.

Other than that, my favorite track is probably the last one, it was written by our fiddle player and it’s a really funny song about leaving and coming back, hard living.

Q: Where were you the first time you heard yourself on the radio?

A: I still have never actually heard our stuff on the radio. Zara was driving in Massachusetts and she had had a CD in and she had just pressed the button to make the CD stop and turn it to the radio and suddenly she heard our song and she was pretty confused because she thought maybe she had pushed another CD or something. And Ross first heard us on his local NPR station affiliate, he was pretty excited about that. They were playing the cowgirl song. I guess I mostly listen to the news on NPR, I’m kind of addicted so I haven’t come across us on the radio.

Q: How did you go about picking the songs that would be on the record?

A: My background is in old country music and my mom has sung country music with me my whole life, she’s a great singer and teacher herself. So a lot of them are ones that I learned from my mom, the first track “I Want To Be A Real Cowboy Girl” in one that she sang in a band when she was about my age. She also taught me “The Sweetest Gift (A Mother’s Smile).”

Other than that I think it’s mostly songs that we learned because my mom or other country musicians that I know what have introduced me to those artists. George Jones, Ray Price, and of course The Carter Family.

If we hear a song about heartache it’s pretty much got a good head start for us and if it mentions drinking it’s often a pretty good song, too. And chickens are a total plus. We have at least two songs on the album that talk about chickens and more songs in our repertoire that we didn’t record.

Q: What else is in your suitcase besides the instruments?

A: We pack bathing suits, we spent two days on the beach on this tour. We pack coffee just in case we’re staying with people who don’t have any. There’s a lot of people who don’t drink coffee, it’s kind of shocking for us so we take that along.

On this tour I packed my Bedazzler, I was living in Nashville until the last couple of months and in Nashville they have a great appreciation for rhinestones and I inherited that, living there. So I had Bedazzled a guitar strap for our tour and I needed the Bedazzler just in case some rhinestones fell off along the way. It had a prominent place in our van.

Our cars are so small, they’re pretty much full of the bass and the drums and the guitars and anything else is just stuffed between.

Q: Did you go all out with the Bedazzles? What was the design?

A: I used the smallest size that came with the Bedazzler and I made up my own design so I wrote our name across the guitar strap and I’m working on some more little designs for the strap, I see a commercial opportunity here, a lot of people need rhinestone guitar straps.

Now that I’ve played with one I really appreciate the beauty of a little extra flash on stage. I think the personalized rhinestone guitar straps are really classy but also just like little designs.

Zara won’t let me Bedazzle our dresses yet, though. I’m getting there.

Q: So, who is your rhinestone inspiration?

A: I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of Manuel, he’s a designer from Nashville. His shop is amazing, there’s costumes that are just full rhinestone regalia. Emmylou Harris has some great rhinestone outfits. There are even some pictures of George Jones with some pretty classy rhinestone outfits.

I’m really partial to the designs that Manuel, being like his protege, has made for Marty Stuart. They’re really classy, a lot of long coats and really striking designs. But then I might have to go for Marty Robbins, he had really really really classy Nudie suits, he had about five different colors of the same design, it’s really really classy.

Q: What kinds of music do you listen to when you’re not listening to the news?

A: Basically, the iPod power goes to whoever is driving. When Ross is driving we listen to a lot of awesome singer songwriters from Philly, he’s really big into Genesis so we have a lot of Genesis on this tour.

Another favorite on the tour was, I don’t know what it’s called, but Ween’s country album. It’s a great album of really wacky country songs. Some are kind of offensive but they’re pretty interesting.

When Jesse’s driving, it’s all bluegrass all the time, a lot of Flatt & Scruggs and a lot of Red Allen. I love to listen to old country music, my last driving stint I put on Ray Price, he’s a phenomenal singer and pretty much anything that George Jones did I love and Roger Miller.

Q: If you could sit down and talk with any other musician, who would it be?

A: I would love to talk to Loretta Lynn, about her past. You know the “Coal Miner’s Daughter” movie gave us some version of her life but the thing that really struck me the most about her story was how she made her first single, sent it out personally to radio stations and then went on tour trying to sing and by the middle of her tour, her song had become a hit, it’d become a top 20 hit. I’d love to hear her take on what that was like, her early career, especially since she’s had such a long career.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

A: One thing that made me remember why I decided to sing country music was last night the show, there was tons and tons of dancing. It was amazing, Asheville knows how to have a good time but it made me remember that this music is totally about the dancing and about the rhythm that just gets you moving.

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