When the Watson Twins sang for Jenny Lewis on her 2006 album Rabbit Fur Coat, they viewed it as simply doing a favor for a friend. Lewis was the Watsons’ neighbor in the Silver Lake neighborhood of L.A., and Chandra and Leigh Watson always liked an opportunity to jam.
Back in high school in Kentucky, the sisters could often be found at their friend’s Grateful Dead shop singing harmonies behind whoever had an acoustic guitar. To them, the Rilo Kiley bandleader’s project was no different.
“We thought Rilo Kiley was Jenny’s thing and this was just a one-off,” says Chandra. “But it took us around the world,” adds Leigh, “and changed our musical journey.”
The album exploded on the indie-pop scene and the Watsons were soon getting recognized. Writers and fans buzzed about these cool identical twins with the angelic voices. The record even prominently featured their name on the cover: Jenny Lewis With the Watson Twins, above a photo of the three women. But for all Rabbit Fur Coat’s success, Chandra and Leigh also came dangerously close to being defined as only background musicians.
“We’ve all seen 20 Feet From Stardom, and that was our story for a long time,” says Leigh, seated next to her sister on the patio of an East Nashville coffee shop. “I think people have just seen us as backup singers for so long.”
They blow up that notion on their new album, Holler. A concise, inspired collection of barroom country rave-ups (“Two Timin’”) and restorative ballads (“Never Be Another You”) that puts Chandra and Leigh squarely in the spotlight, it trumpets the Watson Twins as one of the must-see acts at this week’s AmericanaFest in Nashville. They’ll play the Kill Rock Stars Nashville and Bloodshot day party on Thursday at Estelle in East Nashville and will headline the Blue Room at Jack White’s Third Man Records on Friday night.
“When we sing background vocals for people, we get to be part of the fabric. We don’t have the magnifying glass on us,” says Leigh, “and there’s a freedom in that.”
“That timidness of spending time in the shadow of another performer allows you to write introspective, quiet songs that are very personal, but this time, we wanted to possess the performance,” Chandra says. “In writing Holler, we wrote songs that we wanted to sing at the front of the stage.”
Producer Butch Walker, who enlisted the Watsons to, yes, provide backup on his 2022 album Glenn, helped them find their inner frontperson. Chandra and Leigh sing each line of each song in unison, a sibling trick that doubles the energy and emotion when they’re in front of the mic. It’s like human stereo, making it a blast to listen to Holler beneath a pair of headphones.
“Growing up in church, we were singing in the choir, and I remember the first time harmonizing with somebody,” Leigh says. “When you harmonize the way that we do, and that connection that you have, that note is resonating inside your chest and it’s vibrating your heart chakra and your core. When you feel that sensation, that’s where you really start to understand the power of what doing something together can be.”
The title track to Holler is probably the best representation of what the Watsons are describing, both musically and socially. “Looking for an answer/How to live this life,” they harmonize on the lead-off song, before the inevitable rallying cry comes in: “Holler if you hear me!”
While they didn’t set out to write a protest song, “Holler,” composed shortly after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, trends that way.
“The intention of the record was to write very easily understood, very transparent messages that people could connect to and also have fun with,” Chandra says. “With ‘Holler,’ we wanted an anthemic song, but it started getting real depressing, real fast. And I was like, ‘Oops, we’re supposed to be writing a joyful song.’ But it was hard at that moment, because it felt like a dark time.”
Other times, high spirits were easy to find. “The Palace” is a boisterous rocker about Nashville’s best-kept-secret, the Nashville Palace, a bar located outside of the downtown tourist district. The Watsons spent more than a few nights there and, while at a writing session one morning after, came up with “The Palace.”
“The line ‘when I’m here, there’s a way to forget you’ clicked. It’s one of our favorite songs to sing,” Chandra says. “It’s about a woman who is queen of her domain, or in the song, the ‘queen of broken hearts.’” The video, shot at Mabel’s Smokehouse in Brooklyn, features a parade of Dolly Parton lookalikes to raise the joy factor. “It was electric in that room,” Leigh laughs.
Following their AmericanaFest showcases, the Watson Twins play the Pilgrimage Music and Cultural Festival in nearby Franklin, Tennessee, before hitting the road for a U.S. tour with Band of Heathens and, later, the Wood Brothers. All the while, they’ll be right next to the other, in the dressing room and at the mic. They even live around the block from each other in Nashville.
“My true voice is my voice with her,” Chandra says, gesturing at Leigh. “This sounds weird to say, but I don’t really like my voice alone.”
“The idea of the album is that we are stronger together,” Leigh adds, about to point out the obvious. “We’ve been collaborating since birth and we know this better than anyone: Two is better than one.”