There was a point each night during his recent world tour in which Leonard Cohen would look teasingly at his backing singers, Charley and Hattie Webb, as he sang the line, “And the white girls dancing” from ‘The Future’, and they would respond by cart wheeling in perfect synchronicity together backwards across the stage.

The Webb Sisters spent two and a half years with Cohen and played 246 shows with him between May 2008 and December 201o. They shared backing harmonies with his regular collaborator and songwriting partner Sharon Robinson over the three hour stage show on such songs as ‘So Long Marianne’, ‘Suzanne’ and ‘Sisters of Mercy’, and took lead vocals on the mournfully beautiful ‘If It Be Your Will’.

Charley (guitar, keyboards) and Hattie (harp, mandolin, keyboards) have written music and sung together since their childhood in Kent. They recorded their first album, ‘Piece of Mind’, in Nashville in 2000, and their second, ‘Daylight Crossing’, partially at Abbey Road Studios, in 2005 with producers Steve Lipson (Paul McCartney, Jeff Beck, the Pet Shop Boys) and Youth (Killing Joke, Paul McCartney, Edwyn Collins, the Verve).

For their latest album, ‘Savages’, they enlisted the services of veteran producer, Peter Asher, who was one half of the 60’s folk duo, Peter and Gordon, and has worked previously with James Taylor, Randy Newman and 10,000 Maniacs. Charley (born 1979) and Hattie (born 1981) co-produced ‘Savages’, which has been released on their own label, The Webb Sisters Records.

A live version of the Cohen song, ‘If It Be Your Will’ appears on the album. There also eleven of the sisters’ folk pop own compositions, which combine their razor sharp and glorious arrangements with their cascading and usually bittersweet vocal harmonies. A bonus song, ‘Yours Truly’, which in contrast to the rest of the album which features over ten musicians and has a more lush sound, was recorded acoustically and entirely live.

Pennyblackmusic spoke to Charley Webb both about ‘Savages’, and touring with Cohen.

PB: There was a five year gap between ‘Savages’ and the last album, ‘Daylight Crossing’. You were doing the Leonard Cohen tour for two and a half years of those years. How much of ‘Savages’ was recorded before the tour began, how much afterwards and how much actually during the tour?

CW: We recorded a few of the songs, and mostly the drums, guitar, bass and harp parts of probably about a third of the album before the tour began and then the rest during the tour. None of it was recorded after the tour.

Initially we thought that perhaps we would do our own gigs in between the Leonard Cohen dates, and that seemed like a really good idea, but once we got on the road and realised the rigours of the travel schedule, and the length of the concert and the energy levels that we would be giving out we realised that it wasn’t really possible to do concerts of our own.

We did, however, keep recording though. We would do things like have a concert with Leonard in Holland one day, and then have something like two days before we were due to be in Scotland. Whilst everyone else was having a day off, we would fly to London and have Melvin Duffy do his Weisenborn part or whatever, and then we would get up to Scotland as quickly as we could to meet up with everyone else there.

PB: You must have been absolutely exhausted by the end of it all.

CW: Some of it was really tiring, but at the same Leonard did look after everybody every well and made sure that we also took some rest days.

PB: How did you become involved with Peter Asher?

CW: We were introduced to Peter by a mutual friend, Jeff Allen Ross, in the summer of 2007. Jeff is a musician in California, and was also musical director to Peter and Gordon. He kept saying, “You must meet Peter,” and then it coincided that we were in the UK as the same time as Peter. When we did meet up, we immediately bonded over our musical sensibilities and decided straightaway to work together.

PB: What do you think he brought to the recording?

CW: Peter brought an enormous amount to it. He has a great amount of experience of putting musicians together in a room and creating an end result which sounds natural, but which everyone is comfortable and happy with.

Whilst we were recording, because we wanted to do a lot of it live, and wanted it to sound live, he would stand in the middle of the room and conduct wildly. We called him Simon Rattle from the end of the first day (Laughs).

He also has great intuition and, when it came to things like putting together the harmonies and the parts that we had written for it, he was good at going through things and telling us what was going to and not going to work. There were occasions as well when Peter would say, “I love this one, but it doesn’t fit anymore in the direction in which we are going.“ A year on in the production process, which was way longer than we had anticipated it would take, there were things that no longer fitted with what we were now writing, and which we had to put on the back burner. He played a big part in making sure that the record was cohesive.

PB: The album was also co-produced by you and Hattie. When did Peter’s production end and yours and Hattie’s begin?

CW: As Hattie and I had written the songs and played most of the instruments, there were times when we would get in the studio, and we would have a vision of what we wanted which we would discuss on some occasions and other times not discuss with Peter. There were times when he wasn’t able to be in the studio because of his other musical commitments, and on those occasions we would just put things down ourselves.

PB: The arrangements on ‘Savages’ are very precise and very powerful. How much of them were improvised in the studio and how much of them were recorded in advance?

CW: The nature in which Hattie and I write is improvisational as when we are writing melody parts it is sometimes not always clear at that stage who is on the lead or even if there is going to be a lead. The record was improvisational in the way that it was written, but not so much in the recording process. The framework was already there by the time we got around to recording the songs.

PB: How do you and Hattie write songs together? Do you begin with lyrics or a guitar or a harp line, or does it work in another way?

CW: Sometimes it is the guitar and harp or the music which happens first. Then we’ll work together on the lyrics, or one of us will find lyrics that we have written in our lyric book but which do not have a melody. We will then combine the melody and the music together with the lyrics. Sometimes one of us will write quite a lot of the song on our own, and then the other will come in and give a different perspective.

In the case of ‘Yours Truly’, however, we went through certain things independently of one other, and had somewhat similar experiences. Then when we talked about it, and started writing the song and wrote it all in one go. That for me is the most satisfying way of writing.

PB: You put ‘Yours Truly’ on at the end of the album rather than actually incorporating it into the album itself. Why did you do that?

CW: ‘Yours Truly’ has a different flow to it to the rest of the record. It still fits for us with the rest of the album because like a lot of the album it is about love and loss and longing. It was, however, recorded very quickly in contrast to the rest of the record and acoustically and live, and, while we wanted it to be on the record, we didn’t want to shoehorn it in amongst the track listing, so we decided to offer it as an extra.

PB: Why did you decide to call the album ‘Savages’?

CW: The song ‘Savages’ is very much about speaking up for yourself, and what you believe in and what you think is right, which is the other main running thread of the album.

PB: When you are writing do all your songs come out of personal experience or do they also come out of your imagination?

CW: They come from the imagination as well. There were a couple of occasions on this record in which one or other of our friends experienced something vivid and shared it with us, and that had had an impact on the songwriting. One friend, for example, had a situation with a relationship in which some very odd letters passed between him and his partner, and that story really hit home with us and tied in with some experiences that we had had ourselves. That combined with our imagination brought together a song.

We don’t feel confined to songs having to be from personal experience. Certainly it makes a more vivid picture for us when it does though, and most of the songs on this record are based around events in one form or the other that have happened to us.

PB: ‘If It Be Your Will’, the Leonard Cohen song, was recorded live. Was it recorded at a particular show?

CW: Yes, it was. It was recorded at the O2 in London in May 2008. It was not long after we had started performing that song in the show. It did stay relatively similar and had the same structure throughout the couple of years we were performing it on tour, but it was Leonard’s feeling that that night that it had had something special, and it was his influence that made us choose that particular recording.

PB: Did you put it on the album because you wanted to get something from the tour that rrepresented the two and half years that you were there?

CW: Yes. It was a song that we really enjoyed performing, and that particular recording really did seem to have something special. It was really as simple as that. We loved the recording and Leonard loved the recording, and we discussed putting it on the album and he agreed.

PB: When you were on the tour was that your set piece? Were there other points during the tour in which you were pushed to the front in that way?

CW: Not in the same way. That song was unique in that respect. There were other songs that Leonard stripped down for the tour such as ‘The Mati Hari Song’, ‘Sisters of Mercy’ and ‘Suzanne’, that featured Leonard and his guitar and keyboards, and Sharon Robinson and Hattie and I singing harmonies. That song was the only song during the years with Leonard in which he gave us a whole section to do our own interpretation though.

PB: How did you actually become part of that tour?

CW: At the beginning of 2008 Sharon Robinson, whom we had written with the year before and had got to know, called us up and said, “Leonard Cohen is looking for people to sing with him and, after our experiences writing together last year, I think we could do something together.”

At the time it was very unclear what that would mean. We didn’t know what Leonard’s tour would become, and how long he would go out for. There was talk of it being six months. We went along to the rehearsals and a couple of days after that Leonard Cohen and Roscoe Beck, his musical director, asked us to join the tour. It transpired over the next few months that it was going to continue, so we all adjusted.

PB: Where did the synchronised aerobics come from?

CW: (Laughs) The cartwheels? That was so funny. There is a moment in the song, ‘The Future’, in which the lyrics go, “And the white girls dancing,” and the line before is “The white man dancing.” In rehearsals, during that line about the white man dancing, Leonard and Roscoe would get their groove on and dance, and then it would get to the line about the white girls dancing, and he would look over at us as if to say, “Come on, what have you got?,” so we would do the Chicken and all these silly moves.

Then it transpired that he expected us to do that in the show, and that happened for a while and then I thought, “Hang on, I can’t be doing with this Chicken thing anymore,” so at one show I did a cartwheel as a kind of joke, and Leonard said, “That’s amazing. That has got to stay.” Hattie said, “There is no way you’re leaving me on the Chicken,” so she started doing cartwheels, and it is just useful that she is left handed and I am right handed because it meant that we could do them at the same time and not collide.

PB: You are touring Britain at the moment. What are your plans after that?

CW: We are both hoping that we will do some more dates though through the summer. We love festivals, and we are looking forward to playing the Haywood Festival and the Cambridge Folk Festival, but hopefully we will do some other dates after that as well. We will see what happens, but maybe later on the year we’ll take a couple of weeks off to get our breathe back.

PB: Thank you.

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