See Lucius, Roger Waters Sing Lighthearted ‘Goodnight, Irene’
When Lucius’ Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig first sang with Roger Waters, the clouds above them parted and a giant rainbow stretched across the sky. Literally.
The two women were late additions to the singer-songwriter’s surprise appearance at the Newport Folk Festival in 2015, when he came out with My Morning Jacket for a set of solo cuts and Pink Floyd classics. He’d asked festival organizer Jay Sweet for some recommendations of female backup singers, and Sweet suggested Lucius. The women had achieved some indie success with their breakthrough album, 2013’s girl-group–influenced Wildewoman, and had showed off their ability to harmonize with other artists at previous Newport installments. When they finally made it to the stage with Waters that night, it became a pivotal moment for them. “It was such a tremendous experience,” Wolfe tells Rolling Stone. “It had been raining and the rainbow appeared during ‘Eclipse,’ and it was kind of stupid how awesome it was.” They subsequently became Waters’ backup singers of choice, accompanying him on last year’s Is This the Life We Really Want? LP and his ongoing Us + Them world tour.
Now the roles are reversed, and Waters is a special guest on Lucius’ recently released acoustic album, Nudes. For the final track of the set – which includes reworked songs from the band’s past, some new songs and a few covers – he joined the women to sing the blues standard “Goodnight, Irene,” popularized by Lead Belly and covered by everyone from Johnny Cash to Eric Clapton. The trio cut the tune in Electric Lady Studios’ vintage-style phone-booth recording setup with Waters playing acoustic guitar and singing the first verse, as the women added their voices on the chorus for a fun, loose rendition of the song. Video of the three musicians recording shows just how intimate the session was as they huddled around a small microphone.
“We had done the song with our own band many times, especially on the first few tours we did,” Wolfe says. “And then we got into the Roger camp, and he loves old blues tunes and late-night hangs. The acoustic guitar will come out and he’ll want to sing all these blues songs and we all chime in. One of the ones that he loves to do is ‘Goodnight, Irene.'”
“It’s always sort of the night closer,” Laessig interjects. “At the beginning of the tour it was like, ‘OK, “Goodnight, Irene” is the song that we’re doing at the end of the night when we’re drunk.’ It was kind of morbid, and it became a little bit of a tradition. Because we had known it previously, we did the verses the way we had done them with him. So when we were in the studio, we were like, ‘We should invite Roger to sing the song with us in the booth.'”
They cut the song twice on the machine, which spits out a vinyl copy of the song shortly after an artist finishes recording, because of a lyrical flub the first time. “We just wanted to do something really comforting, fun, laid back and easy,” Wolfe says. “He came in and was in the studio with us for 30, 45 minutes. We recorded it once or twice and that was it.”
So which singer gets to keep the insta-vinyl of the performance? “Because we did two,” Wolfe says, as Laessig joins her for a unison answer, “we each got one.” Laessig adds, “Actually, I think that is the reason we did two takes. Let’s be real.”
The recording was part of a marathon two-day session at the studio where the band performed nine other songs in a pared-down format. The main reason they wanted to do the recording was just to keep the Lucius name out there while they were “amidst this Roger Waters storm,” as Laessig says with a laugh, referring to the two-year Us + Them tour. For the album, they refigured the densely textured songs “Tempest” and “Until We Get There” from Wildewoman into gentle folk numbers, and the sprightly “Something About You” from 2016’s Good Grief into a uniquely optimistic roots rocker. For their rearrangement of “Million Dollar Secret,” a chilly, synth-y single they’d given to HBO’s Girls, they reached out to Wilco guitarist Nels Cline to join Lucius guitarist Peter Lalish for one of the more intricate reinterpretations on the album. “They’re both wildly creative guitarists,” Wolfe says. “We did maybe two or three takes, and [Cline’s] little puppy, Buttercup, was running around. You could hear the bells on her collar throughout the studio.”
They also cut covers of Gerry Rafferty’s “Right Down the Line” and Tame Impala’s “Eventually” for the release. “We wanted to include something contemporary,” Laessig says of the latter. “We tend to gravitate toward the classic, older songs, and we wanted to do something new to try to challenge ourselves to keep things fresh.” They also prepared three new songs for Nudes, which they’d written on everything from piano to Mellotron but felt sounded fine on acoustic guitar for this album. Although they struggle to explain the meanings behind the new songs – “We just got back from Australia yesterday so our brains are a little bit slow,” Wolfe says – a song like “Woman” deals with spending time apart from a loved one (“It’s a heavy one,” Wolfe says) and “Neighbors” is about a sense of paranoia and feeling out of place; “Feels Like a Curse,” which contains the refrain “Feels like a curse/Sounds like a dream/Don’t know what it means,” is “a bit more self-explanatory,” according to Wolfe.
“We’re better with lyrics,” Laessig jokes. “Can we write you a poem about what it’s about?”
“When we write, it’s sort of like Coffee Talk,” Wolfe says. “One of us can be going through something, and because we spend so much time together and because we’re such dear friends, we’re able to talk on behalf of the other person and can offer a different perspective. It’s unusual because you literally witness every moment of each other’s life. It makes for an interesting songwriting experience.”
Wolfe laughs when she thinks back on making the album over two days, which also included the photo shoot for the album packaging. “It was beautiful,” she says. “We were bound by the amount of time had, but I think that’s part of the magic of the record. We didn’t have the time to mull over and think over everything.”
“You can’t be too precious,” Laessig offers.
The women and their bandmates are rearranging several other Lucius songs for their current Nudes tour. “Some of it is already based off what we already do in our live experience, like ‘Dusty Trails’ and ‘Two of Us on the Run,’ which are already stripped back,” Wolfe says. “We’re just sticking to the palette we intended on when we were going into this project – two guitars and upright bass. People are gonna feel it. It’s going to be meaningful.
“There’s a lot of crazy stuff going on in the world right now and if in this hour and a half, if people can feel something – whatever they need to feel, it can be positive, negative, sadness or joy – but if they can take something positive and go into the world and share that feeling and pay it forward, I think that’s the ultimate,” she continues.
When it’s done, Wolfe and Laessig will be reuniting with Waters for a European leg of the Us + Them tour. “He’s family to us now,” Wolfe says. “I’m so honored to say that we’re such big fans of one another, and he treats us like his peers. He doesn’t treat us any less than family. You spend a lot of time with the people that you travel with on the road, and we’ve built a beautiful friendship.”
Lucius North American Tour Dates:
March 5 – Los Angeles, CA @ Largo at the Coronet Theatre
March 7 – Bozeman, MT @ The Rialto
March 8 – Salt Lake City, UT @ Utah State Capitol Rotunda (“KRCL Presents Amplifying Women’s Voices”)
March 8 – Salt Lake City, UT @ The State Room
March 9 – Fort Collins, CO @ Washington’s
March 10 – Boulder, CO @ Boulder Theatre
March 12 – Milwaukee, WI @ Pabst Theater
March 13 – Chicago, IL @ Thalia Hall
March 15 – Burlington, VT @ First Unitarian Church
March 16 – Portland, ME @ State Theatre
March 17 – Providence, RI @ Columbus Theatre
March 18 – Woodstock, NY @ Levon Helm Studios
March 20 – Philadelphia, PA @ First Unitarian Church
March 22 – New York, NY @ The Town Hall
March 23 – Washington, DC @ Lincoln Theatre
March 24 – Durham, NC @ Carolina Theatre
March 25 – Knoxville, TN @ Bijou Theatre/ Big Ears Festival
September 11 – Portland, OR @ Aladdin Theater
September 12 – Seattle, WA @ The Moore Theatre
September 14 – Austin, TX @ Paramount Theatre
September 15 – Dallas, TX @ The Texas Theatre
September 18 – Atlanta, GA @ Variety Playhouse
September 20 – Richmond, VA @ Classic Amphitheater*
September 22 – Forest Hills, NY @ Forest Hills Tennis Stadium*
* Supporting Portugal. The Man.