Posted January 31, 2022 by Jeff in Tunes

The Whitmore Sisters Remember Those They’ve Lost

Whitmore Sisters ZB Images
Whitmore Sisters ZB Images

Ghost Stories, the new album from Whitmore Sisters, a Los Angeles-based duo featuring sisters Bonnie and Eleanor Whitmore, benefits from the musical pedigrees of the siblings. Older sister Eleanor is half of the duo the Mastersons with her husband Chris, who produced this album and described it as “capturing blood harmony in a pandemic,” saying they worked in a Daniel Lanois type way, leaving their L.A. house as little as possible. 

Younger sister Bonnie is an accomplished solo artist as well as sidewomen.  She has played bass and sung with some of the biggest artists in the Americana genre—Hayes Carll, John Moreland, Eliza Gilkyson, Sunny Sweeney, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Butch Hancock, to name a few.

The album includes two covers—pal Aaron Lee Tasjan’s “Big Heart Sick Mind” and “On the Wings of a Nightingale” (written by Paul McCartney for iconic siblings The Everly Brothers).  The single “Learn To Fly” shows just how well they harmonize.

In a recent conference call, they talked about making the album together.

Did you grow up together?

Eleanor: We did. We’re five and a half years apart, so we weren’t super close growing up. It took us awhile into adulthood until we got really close.

Bonnie: With that kind of gap, Eleanor was always in a position of trying to take care of me so that didn’t really bond us.

And were you both into music while growing up?

Eleanor: I always laugh about that because I didn’t know how much of a choice we had. They just put instrumentz in our hands at a very young age. It was just part of our life. We had natural inclinations to go that way, but it’s been nice to make those choices for ourselves in adulthood.

What inspired the idea of doing this album together?

Eleanor: I think we always wanted to do it and talked about it for a long time. We didn’t get motivated to do it until the pandemic. We were a year into the pandemic almost, and Bonnie wanted to come out and have a break and enjoy our pod. Chris said, “She’s just not going to come out and sit on the couch. You should make a record together.”

Bonnie: He’s ever the taskmaster, but in the best way possible. We needed a little push to make it happen, and I’m glad we utilized our time wisely.

What made you want to pursue the ghost story concept?

Bonnie: I had the thought already in my head already. My last record was called Last Will & Testament. The first song we wrote was called “The Friends We Leave Behind.” We had this shared sense of loss. That’s a good place for inspiration, and that helped perpetuate quite a few of the songs on the record. We wanted it to be not in terms of something scary, but of stories of grief and songs about people we have lost.

Eleanor: We just had several friends we lost. Our friend Chris Porter, whom Bonnie dated for a while, was a close friend of ours. We wrote a song for him on our last record called “The Last Laugh.” “Sissy & Porter” on this record is also about him. It’s meant to be celebratory to remember someone’s life and carry on the memory of them. I would say “Friends We Leave Behind” is definitely the starting point for the record. That was for another friend of ours we lost. His name is George Reiff. He played bass on the first two Mastersons’ records. He was in Austin and played with Chris Robinson and Dixie Chicks and many other people. It was a big loss in our community in Austin. The songs aren’t meant to be sad so much as to celebrate someone who meant a lot to you.

Where did you record and what was that experience like?

Eleanor: Chris and I have a big studio set up at our house for all the all the acoustic instruments and vocals. Because of Covid, we went about the process a little differently. Traditionally, we’d go into the studio with the whole band and then go back and redo the vocals and other parts and do overdubs last. In this case, we got the vocals and guitar tracks first, which was a nice way to work because we had final vocals to listen to while we were tracking. We took that into a studio with Ryan Freeland who plays drums on the records, He plays with Shooter Jennings. Bonnie played bass. They tracked bass and drums live. That helped keep some of the liveness of the record. Bonnie and I were also singing the vocals live when we got those takes, so there is some of that energy of tracks going down together and the spontaneity of playing live.

Bonnie: We approached is a little backwards. You think the vocal performance is based on the track itself, but Eleanor is known as the pitch bitch and that helped with the live tracking. It still had the same thing. It’s not the chicken and the egg. If the performance is there, then the performance is there to add to it.

There’s a wide range of instrumentation. Who did you work with on the album?

Eleanor: In-house, Chris and I can do a lot of that. All the string parts are me. I play mandolin and tenor guitar. Most of the piano on the record is me. We did bring in some other players. We brought in Tyler Chester, who’s a producer and player who produced Madison Cunningham’s latest record. He plays bass and keys. He played a lot of the Mellotron and organ and piano. We also brought in Dirk Powell. He played accordion and triangle. We brought in Hattie Webb and had her play the harp on “Greek Tragedy.”

Bonnie: By “brought in,” we mean that they recorded in their spaces. It wasn’t like we were gathering together. Hattie is actually in the UK.

Eleanor: Getting Hattie was quite a coup. That was a funny coincidence. She happened to reach out when we were making the record to interview the two of us. She was doing something on Instagram to celebrate International Women’s Day, and we asked her to play harp. That was amazing. We had to send people the tracks and then have them send them back to us back, which is pretty common these days. It’s nice to include great players like that if you can’t work together in person. Jon Graboff plays the pedal steel. I left him out.

So Bonnie, what was it like having Chris [Masterson] produce the album?

Bonnie: He produced my first two records, so I worked with him in that capacity, and I played on his last record. It’s always been a joy.

“The Ballad of Sissy & Porter” is one of my favorites. Can you talk a little more about singer-songwriter Chris Porter? You noted he was the inspiration for that tune.

Bonnie: I wrote that one with Bonnie Montgomery a few years ago. We lost him in a tragic car accident, which is the kind of thing that happens when you’re touring. He and I had been in a relationship previous to that and were still friends after we broke up. I wanted to capture the essence of what our love for each other was, and the way that he missed his calling of being stand-up comedian just because he was so good at telling a story. Even if you were present when the story happened, you know there was a lot of truth but that never got in the way of him making you laugh to cry. He was a very talented singer-songwriter. He had finished a record that wasn’t released his last one, so we made sure that it got out in the world. We weren’t okay with him leaving us, and that’s why we wanted to put him in a song. It was to keep him alive.

Eleanor: For your reference, his last two albums were This Red Mountain and Don’t Go Baby, It’s Going to Get Weird Without You. Both were produced by Will Johnson.

Aaron Lee Tasjan‘s “Big Heart Sick Mind” is so perky and vibrant.

Eleanor: Both Bonnie and I have done some writing with Aaron in the past. We reached out to see if he wanted to do some writing for the record because we needed something with some tempo. He said, “Check out this song.” It was a fully fleshed out track that he just didn’t have room for on his last record. He just gave it to cut, which is very generous of him because I think it’s such a great song. It was so much fun to record it. A lot of production ideas were already in place from the version he sent us. When he heard our version, the meaning changed for him hearing it as a duet. Even though we took a lot from his own version, presenting it as a duet gave it a different perspective. It’s nice when the songwriter perceives the value you assign to it. He said, “Eleanor shows me more to the song. It never occurred to me that it should be a duet. It seems obvious to me now. Bonnie and Eleanor capture something definitive and timeless in their version.”

Bonnie: That says it all. I’ve always had a little bit of Aaron on the majority of my records, so it’s good to have him on this record as well.

What’s the story behind “On the Wings of a Nightingale“?

Eleanor: The demo that McCartney made of that tune was sent to me a number of years back by Will Rigby, who was playing with me and Chris with Steve Earle at the time. He has so much knowledge about these songs. He sent it to Chris and I a number of years ago because he thought we would like to cover it. We worked on it in soundcheck but we never cut it and kind of forgot about it. Aaron reminded me of the song and we went back and referenced the McCartney demo, which is just awesome. He’s singing in the style of the Everlys and it’s a simple demo of it but it’s McCartney. I’ve always loved the song. It’s kind of perfect for us to sing. It’s also a nod to the Everlys as well. Those are pretty key touchstones—McCartney and the Everlys.

Bonnie: Hearing the McCartney version definitely allowed us to approach it in a different way. Because of when it came out, the Everlys version had a dated ‘80s quality to it. The Paul McCartney version is reminiscent of “Blackbird.” It s’ just him and a guitar and getting the vocal arrangement.

You wrote “Greek Tragedy” for Justin Townes Earle. Talk about that song.

Eleanor: He was the catalyst behind this. It was losing him and having that be yet another person we lost. There were a couple of people we lost to overdose. It’s a common theme that keeps happening. Addiction is something that a lot of people can relate to whether it touches them personally or touches someone they love. Justin’s star was really bright. It’s sad to see somebody cross to the other side before their time. But we wanted it to be celebratory. When I was coming at and thinking about it, it’s not that you want to watch someone lose their struggle with it, at least they’re freed from the shackles that have been tying them down. It’s never something you wish upon anybody. When someone dies, I put overdose and suicide in a similar boat. It’s a coupling event. There’s a situation that makes it happen. My initial reaction when I was younger was to be very angry. I view it in different ways now. You don’t want someone to be suffering.

Bonnie: I felt it personally with Justin because of the history I have with him. I never wanted to have that phone call but I was also somewhat relieved knowing that he didn’t have to struggle anymore

Eleanor: That’s the only comfort you have left. I don’t know how you process something like that. You’re just grasping for answers.  

Think you’ll do another album together?

Bonnie: I hope so. I know the Redhouse would love us to do another record. I think that’s their plan.

Eleanor: I don’t see why not. Bonnie has more songs. We will be very busy touring behind this record, but we do have another song in the pile that we wrote quickly after we had already recorded this. It’s definitely something we’re thinking about, but we have a lot of irons in the fire.  

Photo: ZB Images courtesy Hello Wendy PR


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Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected].