As twin sisters, Chandra and Leigh Watson have shared nearly everything, from their hair color to the stages where they’ve sung in close harmony. But despite performing as a duo for more than 20 years, the Watson Twins had never written songs together. “I know that sounds completely insane,” Leigh tells Rolling Stone, “but I think that for both of us growing up as twins, you have to share everything, so our songwriting was always really personal to us.”
On their latest release Duo, the Watson Twins strayed from their previous approach of writing their songs separately and then singing them together. With no expectations, they wrote one as a team and deemed it successful enough to continue on with the process. Aiding them throughout was a commitment to keep their material simple: their last proper album, 2010’s Talking to You, Talking to Me, “was almost fussy in a way,” recalls Leigh. By contrast, Duo marks a return to the sisters’ folk beginnings.
Before they started performing as the Watson Twins, Chandra and Leigh Watson grew up in Louisville, Kentucky’s hardcore and punk rock scene. They went on to help found the Silver Lake band Sydell, immersing themselves in L.A.’s music scene.
When Rilo Kiley co-founder Jenny Lewis was starting work on her solo project, she enlisted the Watson Twins to be her backing vocalists. “She played us ‘Big Guns,’ and we all started singing together,” says Leigh. In 2006, they sang on Lewis’ Rabbit Fur Coat, prompting an unexpected, yet pivotal, moment for all of their careers. “[Jenny] was making it sound like [the album] wasn’t a big deal — all of a sudden it’s getting these accolades and people love this record, it was a big surprise to us,” says Chandra. “It was just a perfect storm.”
The sisters’ synergy with Lewis snowballed into their first credits as Watson Twins, as the success of Rabbit Fur Coat helped Chandra and Leigh write their own material and land other work as vocalists. That same year, they dropped their debut album Southern Manners as the Watson Twins.
Twelve years later, the sisters documented a period of transformation for the band. Both Leigh and Chandra relocated from California to Nashville — Leigh got married and they moved to be closer to their families. “We had enough of a reputation or people knew who we were here, but we didn’t know a lot of people in Nashville, so it was interesting to start rebuilding our musical family,” says Leigh. The backdrop of Nashville served as both inspiration and challenge for the Watsons, who also own the Music City event space the Cordelle.
More than anything else, the change helped them take stock of their ongoing collaboration. “We’ve spent the last two years focusing on being backup vocalists, and when we started to work on this record, we had this kind of epiphany of, ‘Wow, everybody hires us to be the Watson Twins. They want both of us. So why are we singularly writing material?’” says Leigh. Duo was an opportunity for them to work in a way they hadn’t before, as songwriting partners and as a true unit.
Recorded with their longtime producer Russ Pollard, Duo features contributions from My Morning Jacket’s Carl Broemel and Bo Koster, singer-songwriter Vanessa Carlton, harmonica player Mickey Raphael and fellow sibling duo the Cactus Blossoms. Inspired by the classic vinyl collected by Chandra’s husband, the sisters paid homage to the 1960s country sounds of Tammy Wynette and George Jones, aiming for a personal, but still-timeless feel.
In another way, Duo also nods to iconic musical duos like Sonny and Cher and Captain and Tennille, where both members played a crucial role and shared the responsibilities of singing equally. “One’s not a backup singer, one’s not a lead singer,” says Leigh. “They’re both singing.”
With the opening track of Duo, “Hustle and Shake,” the sisters directly address what they’ve learned from being behind the scenes, often playing a supporting part. “Outside of the spotlight, there’s a line of truth,” they sing. “That’s where we learned our truth,” says Chandra. “We weren’t in the spotlight, but we were seeing all these things and taking it all in, and that was part of our experience.” From the old-fashioned country song “Blue Night” to the starry-eyed California love letter “Down in the Valley,” the Watson Twins detail the experiences that led them to settle in Nashville.
“I think we needed that reflective time and space to be able to look back on what we’d previously done and say, ‘Now this is how we move forward,’” Leigh says, before noting the sisters’ indelible bond. “And there is a greater strength in the number two than there is in the number one.”