She Keeps Bees
Interview by Rachel Ellison
Images and video by Jan Willem-Dikkers
“Andy and I were really fast friends.
You know when someone just allows you to be who you are?
—Jessica Larabee It was immediate with Andy.” — Jessica Larabee
She Keeps Bees
She Keeps Bees is a three-piece rock-and-roll band formed in Brooklyn, NY in 2006 by Jessica Larrabee and Andy LaPlant, with Adam Eisler joining later. Larabee is a singer-songwriter and guitarist and LaPlant is a recording engineer and producer. The two are now married, and have recorded four albums out of their Brooklyn apartment. Their newest album, Eight Houses, was released September 2014.
A Welsh alternative rock band made up of “Ritzy” Bryan, Rydian Dafydd, and Matthew James Thomas. Formed in 2007, Joy Formidable has released two albums and three EP’s and is currently based out of London.
Sharon Van Etten
A singer-songwriter and guitarist from Brooklyn, NY, whose plays and sings solo under her name, Sharon Van Etten. She has recorded four studio albums since 2009, and is known for the range of emotion covered by her vocals and poetic yet raw lyrics.
Stage name of Charlyn Mary Marshall, a singer-songwriter, musician, and sometimes actress and model, who adopted the name of her first band to refer to all of her music projects. Her sound has evolved from a mix of punk, folk and blues, to incorporate soul and eventually electronica.
When I meet Larrabee and her boys at our Silverlake office, it’s a hot Sunday afternoon and she is playful and warm, jokingly referring to herself as a diva as she hides in the car for a quick vocal warm up.
The two-turned-three piece band, made up of Jessica Larabee, Andy LaPlant, and newcomer Adam Eisler, began in 2006 after a serendipitous meeting of bartender and patron. Fresh out of college and new to Brooklyn, LaPlant was a regular at Larrabee’s bar, and when their conversations turned to music, the two uncovered an undeniable likeness. Fast-forward a few years and several drum-lessons from Larrabee, the duo quit their day jobs and set out for London to see where the bees could take them. Today, four albums later, the band has toured with Joy Formidable and Sharon Van Etten, and drawn numerous comparisons to the White Stripes and Cat Power, mixing rock and roll with blues. Their most recent release, Eight Houses, for which the group is currently on a cross-country tour, takes a softer direction with a slightly restrained version of Larrabee’s fiery vocals.
There is an air of melancholy within the band, though, namely between Larrabee and LaPlant, who have spent the last three years living with and caring for her recently deceased father. As they work through their grief, the band has found encouragement in some unlikely places – at their Seattle show, halfway through their tour and with a broken guitar, they were gifted one from a fan. It is on this guitar that we hear two singles off their latest album, Owl, and Feather Lighter. On the back in sharpie it reads, “Keep the bees a-buzzin dammit.”
Rachel Ellison: How has your tour been so far?
Jessica Larrabee: I just lost my dad. It’s been difficult. It’s so recent. So I’m like a little bit not knowing that I’m dealing with grief and I’m trying to tough-stuff it. My dad’s drum set is what we use so it gives me comfort, like he’s here with me. But it is strange.
RE: Did you consider calling off the tour?
JL: I don’t think so. He was a musician, that was his wish, and I think that he would’ve been sad if I had stopped doing what we worked so hard to do. But it’s kind of like the universe knows these things and let it happen all at once. So I’ve been sorting that out. I don’t mean to be so candid about it. That’s sort of what’s happening.
RE: So that’s how you first got started in music?
JL: Yeah totally, he was a drummer and we’d be dancing to stuff and he’d be playing drums, so it was always a musical family. [My mom] likes to say she is music. She’s like “Your father was a musician, I was music.” She was just a wild child. They both were living in D.C. for a long time but then he was in Nashville for a little bit too, playing drums in bands and stuff. And then in DC he was a session guy.
RE:When did you transition from drums to other instruments?
JL: I always sang and I didn’t realize that I could do both [drumming and singing]. So when I was 17 or 18 I was like, I’m going to learn guitar. I was in bands playing drums but that just happened very naturally in terms of rhythm.
RE:Do you still play drums?
JL: I do a little but not as much now that Andy does everything. I’m probably pretty bad nowadays. I haven’t done it in so long.
RE: When were you in your first serious band?
JL: I guess in college – that was a band, but it was very democratic. That was a good experience just to get to know how to play with other people and that kind of chemistry.
“It wasn’t until we
went to Europe for the
first time that we were
allowed to be like,
‘Ok we’re doing this.’”
— Jessica Larabee
RE: Where did you go to college?
JL: Drexel in Philadelphia. It was an engineering school but it also had an art program. And so I was studying film and all sorts of stuff. And then I moved to New York and that was more solo stuff, kind of going through a journey and finding my sound. When I was doing acoustic I was interested in the electric guitar because the electric allowed me to have more nuance and you could be real loud if you wanted to or hold off.
RE: How did you and Andy meet?
JL: I was bartending and he was an engineer. I found out about his music tastes and we both liked a lot of the same stuff. And when I found out he was an engineer I was like, oh good. We became friends really fast and, you know, you have to kind of keep things professional. You don’t want to get in trouble. Like, does this guy like me or is it just because he’s drunk.
RE: You taught him drums, right?
JL: Yeah, well he taught himself.
RE:What made you want to collaborate with him rather than an established drummer?
JL: I tried to reach out to some people and then it never really formed. One guy, he was super professional, and then he just went quiet on me and that sort of hurt my feelings and it made me a little shy to find people. It was definitely a Craigslist thing. Sometimes you’re just like, ah who am I meeting, what’s happening. So I was more like, ok I’ll just do this myself and if the right people come along then they will.
RE:You [and Andy] are married?
JL: Yeah. We were really fast friends. You know when someone just allows you to be who you are? It was immediate with Andy, even though he is a little younger than me, I felt completely at ease. And the more that we worked together musically I saw how much he would just support the music instead of “Watch how fast I can do this,” you know (laughs). He just wanted to support me completely. And it just grew from there. We both had day jobs and it wasn’t until we went to Europe for the first time that we were allowed to be like, “Ok we’re doing this.” And we stayed in London for four months.
RE:That’s when you committed to music as a career?
JL: Yeah, we had saved some money and got the plane tickets. It was great because over there we were more of an exotic bird. It was nice to feel appreciated. In New York there are a million other bands and [in London] they’re like, “Here’s your sandwiches” and we’re like “Oh my god we get sandwiches!” And the festivals over there are kind of amazing.
RE: How would you describe your music?
JL: I always say rock and roll. I think that it has definitely become more of a soul embodiment because of the way I sing, I like to sing from the depths. It’s not really a fashion thing for me, it’s like this medicine that I need. Music is definitely sacred and I feel like the community that it nurtures – it is really important for me to keep it not in a place of ego. I really want to generate feeling so I hope that that happens.
RE:Your latest album sounds different than your previous three. Can you talk about your mindset during the making of this album?
JL: Andy and I were like this two-headed monster and, with having a producer, it allowed us to get outside ourselves. And he would be like, these are all pretty aggressive songs, and so we would break down songs and build them back up. I definitely feel like it was sculpted and there was more refining happening with this album. We were making sure it was compressed to something that felt more, I guess mature. We were in the studio feeling very professional (laughs).
A singer-songwriter, composer and actor, with a trademark distinctive growl and a range of styles incorporating blues, jazz, and vaudeville, and often veering toward the experimental. He was nominated for an Academy Award for his work on film soundtracks, has won two Grammy Awards, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011.
RE: Do you write your songs all at once or do you wait for them to come to you?
JL: Yeah it’s good to wait. The more you push it becomes apparent. Sometimes songs will come up and Tom Waits says it’s like a potato that comes out of the ground fully formed, ready to go. And then other ones are more like, okay this piece and that piece and building them up and breaking them down. But as a whole they come when they come. I wish they’d come in one big batch.
RE:What is the songwriting process like, collaboratively?
Andy LaPlant: She does most of the songwriting and I just come in at the end and add whatever I can. Usually she’s pretty much finished by the time it comes to me.
JL: Andy helped me with the Groove Armada song. I was like, “What do I say here,” and he was like “How bout tonight?” And I’m like, you got it, ok. (Everyone laughs).
AL: That’s all I’m qualified to help with.
Adam Eisler: This burrito is fantastic.
RE:Who inspires you?
Born in 1933 in North Carolina, Nina Simone was a singer, songwriter and pianist. Though most associated with jazz, her music covered a range of styles, also including classical, blues, folk, R&B, gospel, and pop. She is also celebrated for her work as a civil rights activist from the 1960’s until her death in 2003.
Stage name of Ellas Otha Bates, Bo Diddley was an R&B musician. Known also as The Originator, Diddley is celebrated for his role in the transition between blues, rock and roll, and later rock music, which influenced many high-profile artists until today.
JL: I love Nina Simone. I love her presence and power and what she channeled. I think, well only the YouTubes I’ve seen of her, but you can feel it. Bo Diddley we love.
AL: We’ve got the SiriusXM in the car so we’ve been listening to a lot of things we wouldn’t normally seek out, but then you hear it and it’s nice. Oh yeah and we were listening to Crime and Punishment on tape.
JL: That got us through the long San Francisco to LA leg.
RE:Which do you prefer, tour or studio?
JL: It all has its beauty and tragic parts. I mean definitely in the studio we’d come home and be like, what are we doing this is so hard. And then sometimes the road can be a little aggressive with sleeping situations.
AL: We stayed at a hotel here, we decided to splurge. We had been staying with a friend the last few days in San Francisco
“I like to sing from the depths.
It’s not really a fashion thing for me,
it’s like this medicine that I need.
Music is definitely sacred.”
— Jessica Larabee
RE:What do you do outside of music?
Adam: I ride my bike. Skateboard sometimes.
RE:Do you still do anything film related?
JL: I really just liked helping my friends. It was kind of one of those things living in New York either I devote all my extra time to being in music or being in the film industry and so between working bartending jobs I was just focusing on music. But I think film was a really wonderful thing to focus on. I had all sorts of other art and design classes and god knows what, where I was like, “look I made a color wheel.”
AL: She likes to draw still.
JL: They’re just like coffee shop sketches. Bad coffee shop art, I don’t know. But mostly when Andy and I were home we were taking care of my dad. That was the main focus over the last three years, just helping my family. I was writing in the laundry room, it was the only room I had to myself. We were going back up to New York and playing shows so it came in different little spurts.
A musician from Brooklyn, NY, Adam Schatz has played saxaphone with Vampire Weekend, a rock band from NYC, and Man Man, an experimental band from Philidelphia, and also runs a jazz festival in New York. His main project, Landlady, is an indie-rock band Schatz formed in Brooklyn, later including Ian Chang, Mikey Freedom Hart, Ian Davis, and Booker Stardrum.
Born and raised in Michigan, Molly Donahue is a musician who has relocated to New York City. Her solo project, Metal Alvin, is a return to the softness of the woods and wildlife of her childhood home. Her other project, The Love Story, with Renn Cheadle and Jason Trammel, channels a more New York City-inspired rock.
RE:Will you talk to me about your collaborations?
JL: Our friend Adam Schatz played saxophone and he’s in the band Landlady and Man Man. They’re on tour right now. And my dear friend Molly [Donahue] who’s in the band called The Love Story and she has her solo stuff, which is Metal Alvin. She’s this incredible voice, like one of my favorite singers actually. Like talk about influences I’m like, yeah it’s my friend’s band who I love. I’m still like, why are you not famous? I don’t understand the world. And she added some really incredible tremolo vocals, I don’t know what she does, she’s like a bird. Even the album artwork, we had my friend collaborate, because usually I do all of that stuff.
RE:How did you meet Sharon Van Etten?
JL: we’ve been friends for years, Myspace friends. She wrote to me and I was like, oh yeah let me check out this lady, and I was like, oh my god she’s so amazing. So I wrote back and we became friends. Then we realized we were neighbors so we’d always go over to each other’s houses and work on songs and make dinner. And she just happened to be in town so she came in for a couple hours.
RE:How long have you three been playing together?
JL: three weeks.
AL: I met Adam at a party of a mutual friend and he played and I was really impressed by how well he sang and played guitar and then I went home and listened to his album online and I was blown away. So I kept him I the back of my mind as an option and it worked. For a while I was playing drums and guitar at the same time and it was not coming off as well as we wanted.
JL: It was cool.
AE: So I quit my job and sublet my apartment. I was selling rare Jewish books. I am a purveyor of the rare Judaic text. I’m welcome back any time. We sold a Passover ritual text to Stanford University for $7,000 but I don’t get profits. Capitalism.
AL: Right now we’re trying to make some money (laughs).
JL: Yeah, that’s right, we’re in the push right now.