The experience of seeing Lucius perform can be a disorienting one. The tandem singing of frontwomen Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig — with almost no lead vocals or even trading off of lines within songs — offers few clues as to which voice is coming out of which singer. So it’s not surprising that, when they’re on the phone together from their home turf of Brooklyn, it’s a challenge to keep track of who’s who.
“Sometimes we’ll be recording something and we’ll listen back, and we can’t remember who sings what,” says someone who is either Laessig or Wolfe with a laugh. A voice explicitly identified as Laessig agrees (or possibly continues): “A lot of the time, people say they can’t tell us apart, and we say, ‘Well, we can’t tell us apart sometimes, either.’”
And with good reason. The singers typically eschew harmonies altogether, sharing unison lines instead. The two essentially sing as one, something that’s not lost on them.
“We sound really different when we sing alone, but then when we sing together, it’s like a different voice,” Laessig says. “It’s a sound that we like that can only be created when we’re singing together.” Adds Wolfe, “We’ve been singing together for so long and have gotten so comfortable singing together, sometimes it’s more difficult to sing apart than it is together. Actually, a lot of times.”
It’s a type of vocal alchemy that’s more often found in the genetic harmony of family acts like the Watson Twins or the Secret Sisters, but Wolfe and Laessig didn’t grow up molding their singing styles to each other. In fact, they’ve only known one another since their days as Berklee students.
A move to Brooklyn led to a four-story Victorian house in Ditmas Park that served as a hub for like-minded musicians, where Lucius (who play Great Scott on Valentine’s Day) eventually coalesced around a partnership with drummer/producer Danny Molad and guitarist Peter Lalish (both of Elizabeth & the Catapult) and guitarist Andrew Burri. The singers insist that there was never any particular plan in mind. Says Laessig, “We weren’t going into the studio to record a record. We just went in to record songs and just sort of experiment and see what happens.”
Wolfe concurs. “We’re really just open to whatever the song is calling for. We don’t have rules or guidelines for anything.”
That willingness to let the moment dictate how their songs will turn out has resulted in Lucius’s self-titled EP. It’s four songs long, played in four disparate styles, from openhearted alt-folk in the style of the aforementioned Watson Twins, to dark, handclap-hooked girl-group pop, to aching mountain soul to clattering indie-pop. Somehow, tied together with not just the distinctive sound of Wolfe and Laessig but a percussive clang that moves as if under steam power, it all works.
NPR’s Bob Boilen thinks he knows why. The All Songs Considered host invited Lucius to perform a Tiny Desk Concert (where artists are filmed playing at his desk for the Internet) and came away impressed by the way the whole exceeded the sum of its parts.
“As a group, they know how to be minimal and maximize what they’re doing at the same time. I love when bands are really, truly bands,” says Boilen. “They’re all good listeners and not just good players. You’re standing behind this desk, like eight square feet, so your volume level has to be pretty quiet and you have to be able to hear everything. You can’t have any particular egos in all of this. Everybody’s gotta be a part to make it happen.”
Even in a cramped office environment Wolfe and Laessig present their tangled voices with their logical visual complement: matching hair, outfits, and accessories. Expansion to a full stage can find the singers facing each other separated by their keyboards, creating the effect of a mirror between them.
Wolfe admits that that motif goes hand in hand with the band’s songs. “Visually, as an audience member, just to see that sort of echoing and that mirroring and that reflecting of one another, it’s very much a continuation of the music itself,” she says. “And just like you were saying earlier, Holly and I, when we sing together, you can’t tell who it is. It's just as important visually to us as it is musically.”
Even so, that unspoken connection between the two can sometimes run so deep that it rears its head without trying, as it did the previous evening.
“We ended up coordinating unintentionally,” says Wolfe. “I don't know. We do end up matching. We were wearing the same outfit last night. And even the accessories were matching. It was very strange.”