On a journey in which the experience is as important as the various destinations, we interview a brother & sister duo whose musical blend of vocals and modest instrumentation brings a freshness to the Pop meets Folk genre. Please meet Max and Esmay Luck and their musical endeavour, The Luck.
We have read others’ opinions of your musical performance style, but what do *you* consider your musical lineage with regards to vocals, instruments and arrangements?
Max: Musical lineage – wow, let me think about this a second. That’s a pretty big question straight off the bat, but here goes:
OK, so I guess the whole vocal journey took place when I had just turned 10 years old. I went to audition for a choristership that would potentially pay my school fees, and it turned out that I had a timbre to my voice that the choir master really wanted to add to the blend of singers already there…so I found myself in a choir, having hours of vocal training per week picking out harmonies and learning to sight read. I developed my choral soprano singing on Decani. But it wasn’t until my voice broke that I landed on a tenor range, and found myself singing along to English folk artists like Nick Drake and John Martyn, developing a folk/singer-songwriter side. More recently, I have been working on getting my hair metal range in check. It’s going ok so far, but it has taken a long time to really extend my range in full voice.
In terms of instrumentation, my guitar playing has always focused on creating a technically-sound, rhythmical part. We have never had a full-time drummer we can write with, so we tend to write songs that communicate rhythm on the acoustic guitar. And if the song doesn’t stand up to us as just a guitar and a vocal, or a piano and a vocal, then it often needs more work.
So, at least in our last few releases, the guitar is the engine that drives the song forward. We then add a grounding bass that compliments the rhythm section – which is fairly typical. There may be additional electric guitar flourishes or string decoration, but when I’m putting together the song arrangements, I try and make sure that everything fits together nice and snug. It’s a bit like making your own jigsaw puzzle, as you hear parts in your head, you try things and think, “Hmm, how can I get that to all move together, to not only support the melodies and communicate the essence of the lyrics and the sentiment, but also carve a channel so that each and every element can shine through?”
I’m still trying to work out how to create a subtle arrangement that reinforces the message but stays out of the way. It is a craft and takes a lot of honing. Country music arrangements are often my go-to as a sort of rough guide. They also use a broad range of instruments that we like to use, with a major emphasis on the acoustic nature of the music. We don’t yet use synth sounds or manufactured beats, I’ve tried to keep everything live, so that all the different elements can be performed and retain their own unique identity – and hopefully mesh together to help make the record.
Esmay: I started singing solo and training my voice 5 and a half years ago – when I started writing songs with Max. I had also grown up singing in choirs but had never focused on the shape of my voice, apart from blending it with a chorus of other singers, both in terms of tone and timbre. In hindsight, this background came in handy when we wrote our first song, ‘Bricks’. And it definitely influenced our ‘sound’ – people always comment on the sibling blend of our voices.
We also grew up listening to The Cranberries and Fleetwood Mac, so when I started focusing on my vocal tone, I wanted to develop the same mix of power and vulnerability, purity and edge that I heard in Dolores and Stevie. I always admired the honey-like timbres of Alison Krauss and Eva Cassidy too. They have had a major impact on my singing.
Instrumentally, Max and I were always drawn to guitar-based music. Joni Mitchell, Garth Brooks, Simon and Garfunkel – they were always playing somewhere in the house or the car. And then we went through a bit of a pop punk phase in the 90s, so it seemed natural to write and perform on a guitar.
Our ‘duo’ live sound largely came out of a desire (and need) to travel with our music and as Max said, we’ve never had a band. So we would write songs that had to stand up on a rhythm guitar and vocal melody alone – because that’s all we had – and we could travel and perform our music and covers to earn some money performing residencies abroad. I eventually picked up a bass guitar, Max found a Porchboard stomp and a foot tambourine and we realized we could build out the live sound a little more.
Now and then we get to play with a drummer and second guitarist, both of whom bring so much to the music. And we have also started building arrangements for the recordings with electric guitars, drums and piano – Max will develop parts for these instruments over the song to create the flow and drive.
We also had the pleasure of working with a great composer and arranger called Jonathan Sadoff. He added the string arrangements for ‘Holding On’ and ‘Vertigo’ which lifted them to a different level. Max always says he learnt a lot from seeing how Jon crafted those parts.
What triggers your creativity as far as composing new songs? Are you relating your own experiences or are you channeling culture in general?
Max: I find it’s often a mood, a state of mind that I’ll fall in to that will trigger the start of a new song. Maybe I’ve woken up and the sun is shining and I’ll brew some coffee, sit down at the piano, or pick up a guitar, and start playing. I might write a riff, or a progression with part of a melody. And Esmay will say, “Hey, you know that’s vibey…makes me think of that story so and so was telling us…” and we’ll chat about the idea and/or the theme behind the song. It always comes down to a theme, though. A story. Because everyone always has a story to tell, something they are going through. And the more people we get to speak to, the more we understand that so many of us are going through the same kind of things – wondering about who we are, what we want and where we stand in this big world. At the moment, I feel like we are bombarded with so many messages every day, telling us we should be like this, we ought to do this, buy this, achieve this.
Esmay and I often get overwhelmed by it all, we feel lost in the noise, unsettled by the news. And we want to write songs that others can relate to, that can reassure them they are not alone, that there are other people in the world feeling the same things, trying to wrap their heads around their emotions and life in 2017. We are trying to give people some escape but also hope.
Esmay: Yes, and the themes we write about are always things that have had a major effect on us. Writing is a very cathartic process for me and it gives me a chance to get perspective on things. And part of being a songwriter is the hope that other people will also be able to hear the music and get some headspace. In terms of what triggers composing for me…well, so many things! Lyrically I am always writing – I don’t have a huge amount of control over when ideas, themes, phrases or full poems will pop into my head, so I keep a notes app on my phone. Chatting to my friends and trying to understand my emotions definitely inspires a lot of themes…but so do films and works of art. For example, a sculpture by Lynn Chadwick called ‘High Wind’ has inspired a song I’m writing right now called ‘Woman in the Wind’. And Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical drawings inspired our song ‘Muscles and Bones’ (as did something I said to a friend in the aftermath of a break up!) Musically, melodies usually come into my head just before I fall asleep or when I’m driving and I’ll think, “What’s that song I’m singing?” And I will suddenly realize it is a new song and that I best make a quick voice note. Playing guitar also brings out melodies…as does listening to other people’s music – for example the next song we are releasing called ‘Rise and Shine’ came about after I sat down to learn Pink Floyd’s ‘Comfortably Numb’ on the guitar. I went off on a tangent playing about with chord progressions, got up to make a cup of tea and there was a Kanye West song on the radio. It made me focus on what beat I wanted to run through the song and how I wanted the melodies to dance around it; about 5 minutes later I had the chords and melodies down. I mean, ‘Rise and Shine’ doesn’t sound like a Kanye-Floyd anthem, but I know it wouldn’t have come about without hearing them.
Moving from London to Los Angeles, working with new production people, expectations for future tours – is there a metamorphosis that must occur in order to succeed here in the States? OR…how are you going about preserving your identity and presentation so audiences here experience what makes you unique?
Max: Metamorphosis. To some extent, yes. I think we were both lucky to travel with our music a little before we came over here. We had seen the shows on television, heard about Hollywood and met some Americans back home, but nothing can prepare you for being on the ground in a new place 5,000 miles from home. I guess I learnt how important it is to go with the flow, to make the effort to fit in, but also enjoy wherever you are. Each place has its own identity, its pros and cons. We love the Californian weather, the food, the outlook on life, the beauty of the landscape. I love how easy it is to find a hiking trail somewhere and explore. And the mentality here is much more ‘can-do’ than back home. We found opportunities here that we just didn’t have at the time in England. But we both remember who we are, where we are from. We will always be Londoners, with our British accents, English humour, my love of ale…and we are Londoners on a journey, with a unique set of experiences that have helped us understand a little more about the world, the more we see.
Esmay: I don’t know if it’s something you have to do to succeed in the US, or whether it’s more universal, but we have really developed a sense of adventure and seizing every opportunity that comes along. We have met and worked with a lot of different people, played a lot of different shows and we just had to say, “Ok, let’s give it whack.” We also feel truly blessed to work with our producer, Paul Broucek (in Los Angeles), who has always said he wants to develop our sound whilst retaining the ‘essence’ of who we are and what he heard in our music when we met in London 3 years ago. But the word ‘metamorphosis’ is very poignant for us – when we came over to the US, we had been a band for just over 2 years – and that was from scratch; I had never written a song before, never sung a solo…I hadn’t played music for 10 years and had never learnt a chord-based instrument. We didn’t grow up in bands (although Max did have one called the Harmaniax) and it wasn’t until we were in our twenties that it dawned upon us that being a professional musician was a possibility and thus it became an ambition, a dream. So we had a lot of catching up to do; learning our instruments, honing our writing and exploring who we wanted to be as artists. The last 2 to 3 years have been mega-productive for us and I think we are communicating who we are in our music, now more than ever. Long way left to go, but it feels like a good start!
How did you both get started along this journey? What are the hurdles to becoming known and reaching your level in performance?
Max: We both left corporate jobs to pursue music. We had never written or sung together, and being musicians – or a band – or duo had never been a ‘dream’ growing up as Esmay mentioned. She was also really shy about her voice and never sang in public, let alone to me. But we always shared a similar taste in music and it bonded us in our teens. When it came to writing our first song, ‘Bricks’ together – which was totally by accident – it was sort of like, “Oh yeh, nice one.” We were in New York in the East Village back in May 2011, and we were writing a song for me, actually – I was a solo artist at the time and was staying in an apartment I had found on Craigslist. My flat mate, who was a super-talented creative studying at NYU came out of his room and said “Woah, I don’t know what you guys are working on but I just got goosebumps through the wall.” I think we knew there and then that we had something worth pursuing.
Esmay: It came out of the blue for me. As Max said, he had become a solo artist and would send me songs for feedback. I remember sitting at my desk in lunch breaks at work, listening and making lyric and structure suggestions. Then it turned into melody suggestions and full-on songwriting with ‘Bricks’. I had been frustrated in my job up until that point and was seeking something more creative career-wise, having shied away from going to art school when I was 18. ‘Bricks’ brought me back to the same fork in the road and I didn’t want to live to regret not ‘going for it’. Max really helped me with this – he booked us in to a studio on Avenue B to record the song, found a wonderful vocal trainer named Sonia Jones in London to help me get over the fear of singing in front of people, and helped me find the courage to get up on stage at his best friend’s wedding for my first performance.
Max: Yes it certainly wasn’t planned – it just popped up at a time when we were both going through a seismic shift in our lives. We both realized we had followed paths which didn’t make us particularly happy or fulfilled and we both said, “Yes, alright then, let’s give it a shot.” So it went from there, albeit slowly. Small steps forward. Sometimes even a step or two backwards, but then a few forwards. We had to go and learn how to play our instruments, sing and hone our writing. And we needed to make money.
We both worked part-time jobs but we also applied to play residencies in European ski resorts. It was almost impossible to make any money in the UK at the time as an unknown act. We managed to land a residency at a beautiful place in Zermatt, Switzerland called ‘The Cervo’, and the deal was they would pay us, give us food and somewhere to sleep and we would play music for a 3-4 hours in the afternoon in the snow. After a few of those we picked up other gigs, one of which was on a ship that sailed around the world. It paid enough for us to afford a trip to California – we had been told by so many people that our music would go down well over there and we finally made the trip overseas.
Esmay: And then some things fell into place – we had an incredibly generous offer of somewhere we could stay rent-free, we won a songwriting competition that helped us secure artist’s visas and we found a great place to street perform – Pier 39 in San Francisco. So we came out here, played as much as we could, worked on our performance, sound, writing and tried to get our music to as many people as possible. More recently we have started doing that on Twitch too.
Max: But there are hurdles everywhere. The number of times we have almost just thrown it all in and said we can’t deal with the uncertainty, the lack of salary, the unknown, all the time. We never know where we are going to be more than a couple of weeks out. It makes commitment to anything apart from music very tough. We left family, friends, everything in London, and here we have both found it rough in terms of relationships because we are always on the move. But I think commitment to music, focus, determination – those are what you have to reach for inside in order to give yourself a chance to succeed.
Where can our audience find your music?
Esmay: You can find our recorded music on Spotify and Apple Music as well as our website www.theluckmusic.com . We also perform live on Twitch five times a week – come say hi! You can find our streams and schedule here: www.twitch.tv/theluckmusic
Max: The reason we love Twitch is that we can chat with our followers whilst we perform. It’s sort of like street performing, but you can watch in the comfort of your own home!
Where can fans find you on the web?
All links are at our website http://www.theluckmusic.com
Here they are as well: