At an early age, sisters Sarah Frances and Michelle Rose discovered they had a natural chemistry together as writers and performers, first as classical musicians and then as an alternative pop duo. After growing up in the Hudson Valley, the sisters moved to New York, quickly picked up a publishing deal with legendary publishing house Warner Chappell, and started forging their own sound, blending classical, grunge-rock, pop, and electronica. They showed friends and collaborators the unlikely lessons and inspiration that classical thinking can bring to rock ‘n’ roll.
That willingness to take chances while straddling two worlds also comes naturally since Sarah and Michelle are directly related to the House of Stathopoulo. Their great grandmother Elly was the youngest child of Anastasios Stathopoulo, a Greek instrument maker who founded the House of Stathopoulo, later known as the Epiphone Guitar Company. Elly had a family of her own while her wild brothers---Epi, Frixo, and Orphie were busy making guitars and enjoying the jazz age in Manhattan. Epiphone.com spoke with Sarah and Michelle as they were preparing new singles for what will eventually be their first full-length album. (Photo Courtesy of Eric Mooney)
Music runs strong in your family. Was it always your dream to be artists?
: We’ve been singing and playing music together all our lives. We are classically trained, as we I began Violin at age eight, and Michelle the cello.
: We used to play in high school for charity events for over 1,000 people. We’d sing, write, and harmonize together. When I went to college at Bennington, I decided I wanted to study music and theater. Sarah and I started writing together during my first spring break and that became our vision—“we are starting a band right now!”
The next spring she came to Bennington, and the year after that we decided to devote everything--100%--to a group. We got a place on the Lower East Side. A year later a publishing deal.
We signed to Warner Chappell in 2011 and that’s basically what solidified the band with guidance from Neon Gold Records.
After you got the publishing deal, how did that develop your writing voices
: We had more resources, and we were able to write with other writers from different genres. That was a big help. For a while, we took a break from playing out so we could be just in that writer’s world—doing a lot of sessions. Now we’re back out playing live as a band and that’s really fun. There are definitely different phases for the project—it’s all about honing, crafting, improving.
Some writers are not performers. You were doing both. How did your performances influence your writing?
: As our live performance grew, we started writing more—and doing more recording. As a live performer you learn what the audience engages in through their reaction. “Oh my God! They love that song!”
With our single “Dangerous,” people really liked that song and so the next Frances Rose single, “Read My Body” is in the same vein.
: In the studio world, you have a tendency to focus on structure. When you’re performing live, the immediate crowd response to the sound mix and structure can be surprising and really rewarding.
: With every performance, the emotions you feel while connecting with the audience inspires new songwriting. In the studio world, the more you record, the better an artist you become. You become more versed, more used to the sounds of your voice, and you get into different writing sessions with other people who have totally different musical styles, and then you realize there’s a special synergy. When collaborating with other producers and songwriters, we contribute something special as sisters. When I write with Michelle, we’re definitely open-minded and we like being thrown into a room of people we’ve never worked with before, as well as working with old friends.
: It’s interesting. I still whole-heartedly feel that the best songs sound good in raw form. No matter what kind of production you may be looking for—indie, pop, dance.
I play an Epiphone flat-top guitar from 1946 that is my main go-to songwriting instrument. I also play the piano, drums, ukulele, violin, but the guitar I have is really special. It has a really bright tone and it helps introduce people to our family history. If you can make a song sound good with just raw, stripped back guitar, and then you produce it and take it to the stage and it’s captivating, then you know it’s a great song.
: When you’re in a band you can really workshop things. It’s fun to create a catalog where you can pick and choose what’s right for the project.
(Photo Courtesy of Sophie Lenox)
For our next single “Read My Body”, there was a demo that was pitched to Britney Spears and a few other artists. Michelle wrote it with Larzz Principato (Warner Chappell) and Ally Crystal. It got passed around the Warner world. So here we are, a year and a half later, and since it didn’t get released, we get to record the song as our own. If you’re writing a song for yourself –and our songs comes so much from us-- you can’t help but feel connected to the lyrics.
It sounds like you’re fast writers—you seize on an idea and go for it.
Yes. Though it definitely depends on who’s in the session. I love co-writing sessions, but I also love writing alone. It’s a totally different process. If I’m sitting in Logic or Pro Tools and I’m by myself and trying to arrange something, I can take hours on end. But then when writing a pop song with a group of people, the whole thing can come out in twenty minutes.
: If I called Michelle and said, “Hey, we need to write a song. Be here in 10 minutes”
we could totally do it, and we do.
When you’re in the studio-- producing and arranging with other artists—did you find it hard to transition from classical to rock?
: I think it’s an easy to transition from classical to rock. It’s more difficult going the other way. There’s a lot of rock people who say: “I don’t want to learn how to read music”
Our classical training has only helped us and helped form our writing style because a lot of classical music is directly related to pop. There’s only eight notes in an octave. You can only go so many places—so many notes in that sense, so it has definitely helped us to be classically trained.
: I think I had to definitely unlearn things to simplify my musical brain for pop and rock. I played cello and then as a teenager I started picking up guitar and learning how to write songs. That’s when I realized I had created a strong foundation and work ethic,. When you play a classical instrument, you can’t really fudge it. You have to spend hours honing the skill. In general, classical music is a great foundation because you have to have such a passion for music at a young age to develop that level of focus. When you’re 11 or 12 practicing classical music for hours, you get to know music in its purest form. Then you start to understand the relationship between different genres and you get to be more open-minded in general. A lot of people grow into classical music later in life, but if you start with that, and you have a passion for classical as a child, you develop a different kind of listening and openness.
So you found that having a classical background helped in your pop sessions?
Yes. I’ve been able to collaborate with really interesting pop and electronic acts with Cello such as Seven Lions, Blood Orange, and Small Black. In terms of session work, the cello is closest to the human voice, so it definitely inspires me to develop interesting top lines and hear the voice in an abstract way.
Most of the time people ask: Can you do it by ear?
And they expect you to come up with your own parts. Which is amazing because, we have that ability. Everyone works so differently. There are a lot of composition rules, and voicing rules that are totally broken in pop music. Anything innovative goes in the world of new pop music.
How is work on the new music?
Good! Our next release will be on an amazing new singles label called 169 Music. We are currently playing live with Brando Kress, who also fronts the indie electronic outfit Chateau d’If. We had the exciting privilege to record vocals for our upcoming single “Read my Body” at Hyperballad studios in Brooklyn. The studio is owned by Jonathan Benedict. It’s a retro playground. They have a massive collection of analog synths, drum machines, as well as our favorite microphones, vintage Neumann U47 and U67 models in addition to a 80 Series Neve Console.
Tell us a bit about the Stathopoulo Family, which many modern Epiphone fans don’t know much about. (Photos Courtesy of the Cagianese family)
Anastasios brought his family, including our great grandmother Elly, to America from Greece in 1903. He was a Greek instrument maker who manufactured fiddles and lutes. Once in America, he started making mandolins, violins, and other string instruments. Elly’s eldest brother Epi took over the Epiphone company at age 22 after Anastasios’ death. He ran the company with Elly’s two older brothers Orphie and Frixo. Frixo had one daughter named Barbara, who is pictured playing a Stathopoulo stand up bass on a holiday card from 1949. They had a sincere talent for creating string instruments. They also had a showroom in Manhattan where Les Paul, the Gershwin Brothers, and the great guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli (still playing at 91 years old) would jam on the instruments they were making in the Epiphone factory.
Even though it was the Great Depression, they were selling instruments. It was a special time to be making music in New York. They were wild. They loved Les and they are every close with him, so much so they would give him the keys to the factory so he could work on his guitars late at night. This led to the prototype of the Log in 1940, which later became what we now know as the Les Paul.
They worked hard and played hard. But none of the brothers, except Frixo had children. They all died young. These hard times led to their competitors Gibson buying Epiphone in the early 50s after the company was moved to Philadelphia. Shortly after the move, the company was sold and merged with Gibson, their competitors. The Stathopoulo family were very competent, thoughtful, fascinating people.
Our Dad, Bob Cage is an accomplished guitarist as well. He’s an incredible violinist and music teacher and is heavily inspired by the Epiphone brothers and also Django Reinhardt. In addition to contributing violin arrangements on Pete Seeger Grammy Award winning album At 89
, his album Bob Cage Epiphone Flat-Top
is available through his website, bobcage.com
. The album was recorded with old Epiphone acoustic flat-tops to demonstrate guitar duets and how they would sound on early Epiphone guitars, a very romantic record with a relaxing sound. He has inspired us to continue the Epiphone legacy, which is an inspiration to guitarists and instrument craftsman alike. Our classical training and strong foundation in composition that our father instilled in us as children, has helped guide Frances Rose.
Frances Rose headlines the Swan Dive at SXSW in Austin, Texas on Wednesday, March 15th.