Bands made up of family members—especially siblings—carry a particular mystique for me. They live, love and fight together, and through all the challenges that either strengthen or threaten to destroy familial bonds, they create a deeply rooted language in the form of music. Perfect examples include the Beach Boys, timeless folk singers the Watersons, the retro R&B swing group Kitty, Daisy & Lewis, and folk-rock duo Kate & Anna McGarrigle of Montreal, who created otherworldly songs and were an inseparable music act until Kate's death in 2010.
This mystical bond also connects sisters Natalie, Allison and Meegan Closner who make up the Portland band Joseph. They've been a band only since 2014, but together they've authored an incredible collection of songs and gained notoriety among folk audiences for hypnotic live sets. Their trunk-tight harmonies make it sound like they've been singing together for centuries.
My introduction to Joseph was in early 2015, when the sisters were scheduled to play the annual Pickathon music festival in Happy Valley, Oregon. As a regular Pickathon festival-goer, I knew that it paid off to check out bands—most of them up-and-coming—ahead of time. Joseph already had some buzz, so I watched a clip of the sisters crooning "Wind" on some foggy rural road. It made a seismic impression on me, and I marked them off on my already ragged and filthy festival schedule. Days later, I caught two of their sweet and mesmerizing Pickathon sets. That's where I finally picked up a copy of Joseph's debut, Native Dreamer Kin, an album that quickly became a favorite and over time ended up on my most-played lists of 2015 and 2016.
The LP is an under-the-radar masterpiece of folk perfection. New York City folk singer Fred Neil described the songs of another folk legend, Karen Dalton, as "a letter from home," and that's exactly what Native Dreamer Kin feels like to me. Their music evokes the feeling of being miles away from home, in unfamiliar territory, and the perfect remedy is receiving a letter from home that is unexpectedly uplifting and comforting, that reminds you of the good in humanity. Some songs have the power to accomplish that simple reminder, and that's what Joseph does. Their stories touch on a wide range, from homey details of gardens and challenging relationships to, possibly, on "Cloudline," an acid trip. (Do tell, ladies!) Their three-part harmonies create a single instrument, and their performance is akin to prayer and spiritual awakening. The band's latest LP, 2016's I'm Alone, No You're Not, is the sound of a band swinging for the fences. The sisters teamed up with Bright Eyes member Mike Mogis, and the result is a solidly ambitious collection of songs. Critical response has been swift and positive: The album has been topping charts and the band has appeared on The Tonight Show, Ellen and Conan. Their hit song "White Flag" has received plenty of air time, including in Missoula, and their latest tour has racked up a series of sold-out shows. Judging from a distance—and the two sets I witnessed at Pickathon—the sister dynamic has fortified the band's focus and allowed Joseph to stake its claim as a relevant and authentic folk act. For now, the world is theirs. And I hope they keep those letters from home coming for all of us.
Joseph plays the Top Hat Tue., March 14. Doors at 8 PM, show at 9. $20 advance.