By the 1960s, American artist Mark Rothko had risen to prominence for his color field paintings, which featured two solid rectangles hovering just shy of the picture’s borders. With a small painting, the viewer is acutely aware that he is on the outside, looking in. Music was deeply important to Rothko, and with his color fields he sought to visually conjure a transcendental experience, one that evoked human emotions, just as a song does. Meanwhile, the musical climate around him was seeking to achieve the same all-encompassing effect. Record producer Phil Spector had begun using his signature “wall of sound” formula with groups like The Ronettes, The Crystals and The Beatles. Layering vocals and large ensemble instrumentals, he generated a huge sound that could overtake the listener.
More than 40 years later, vocalists Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig met at Boston’s Berklee School of Music and bonded over a shared interest in the aesthetic of the ’60s. When the two began to make music together, the eccentric producer was a natural inspiration.
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“Both of us wanted to be lead singers but we didn’t want to just do the traditional thing of trading verses,” Wolfe says. “We were really big fans of the late ’60s/early ’70s and Phil Spector’s wall of sound. And so we thought, ‘well a lot of those vocals are doubled. Why don’t we try that in a live situation?’”
The result was something special. Recruiting three other band members, the indie-pop quintet Lucius was formed. With catchy hooks and arresting melodies, Wolfe and Laessig’s powerful harmonies have driven the group’s sound for more than a decade. Singing in unison, the pair works hard to ensure that their combined voices are received as one. When performing live, they sing facing each other. Standing a few feet apart, with keyboards, drums and microphones set up to mirror one another. And then there are the costumes. From their ever- changing hair to their cat-eyed makeup and bold costumes, Wolfe and Laessig are identical in appearance.
“It’s really another dimension of the sound and I think when people see it, they immediately connect to what we’re trying to do when they see the two parts together, you know, the music—the voices—and the uniform,” Wolfe says. “And it’s fun. It’s another way to express ourselves as a unit. But really, it’s so that people look at us and hear us as one and I think it achieves that feeling.”
According to Wolfe, what began as her and Laessig buying “the weirdest thing at any sort of generic store and pairing it with another weird thing from another generic store and then making it a costume,” has morphed into a full-fledged operation, with a designer who makes their custom gear. These aren’t your run-of-the-mill looks. We’re talking bejeweled lemon-colored capes and fire orange updos accented by over-ear head shaves. This is 1960s mod from another dimension—one that you should want to be a part of. Like Rothko’s paintings or Spector’s wall of sound, Lucius crafts an enveloping environment. And in most cases, it translates easily for audiences. Crediting her favorite singing groups from the ’60s, Wolfe describes how sound and style go hand-in-hand when it comes to creating an experience for the crowd.
“They all had a very strong visual representation of the music,” she says. “I love the feeling of being transported somewhere or feeling like you can actually get lost.”
Lucius quickly climbed the ranks with the release of its debut album, Wildewoman, in 2013. After a year of touring that included only 20 days at home, Wolfe and Laessig were tired. Out earlier this year, the group’s sophomore album, Good Grief, deals with the burnout.
“We wrote the last album five or six years ago,” says Wolfe. “So there’s a lot of growth…natural growth as songwriters, as people, in relationships and such.”
Just as their two vocals combine to create a singular voice, their songwriting process follows suit.
“Either one of us will have a small idea, a lyric or a melody, and then the other will kind of finish the thought,” Wolfe says. “We’re coffee talking that way where we get together and add a perspective, you know. Or we start from scratch together.”
While Good Grief’s subject matter may be heavy, Wolfe and Laessig brought humor and upbeat arrangements.
“A lot of people have said, you know, that [Good Grief] is more pop-driven or something like that and I don’t really think about it like that,” Wolf says. “I think that the tone is sadder and darker and more, maybe more real…but at the same time, with the juxtaposition of these pop hooks. We always like playing around with the dark and the light, the juxtaposition of two feelings or two moods, with the duality of our voices and sort of the two as one motto that we’ve kind of lived by.”
Contact Desiré Moses at firstname.lastname@example.org.