SISTER SPARROW & THE DIRTY BIRDS
Known far and wide as the impossibly big voiced leader of acclaimed soul collective Sister Sparrow & The Dirty Birds, singer Arleigh Kincheloe has made an astonishing leap forward with Sister Sparrow’s new LP, GOLD. Produced by Carter Matschullat (Chef’Special, Secret Weapons), the album sees Sister Sparrow taking the classic brass-fueled Dirty Birds sound and turning it into something altogether new: a soul-blasted contemporary pop sound both timeless yet utterly now. Recorded mere months after Kincheloe became a new mother, songs like the evocative first single, “Ghost,” and the ebullient title track highlight Sister Sparrow’s strikingly strong vocals while also showcasing her growing muscle as an individualistic, communicative songwriter.
“It was uncharted waters for me in a lot of ways,” she says. “It’s a bit of a departure from what I’ve done before, it’s me really seeking my own personal sound. Like motherhood, making an album is a really personal thing.”
For nearly a decade, Sister Sparrow & The Dirty Birds have been hailed for their explosive brand of modern soul, equally celebrated for their three studio albums and electrifying live performances. Kincheloe grew up amongst an intensely musical family in upstate New York’s Catskill Mountains, co-founding Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds with her brother Jackson at just 18. The band based itself in Brooklyn and soon earned a rep as one of the hardest working outfits anywhere in the world, playing upwards of 150 shows each year including headline dates, sold out residencies, and top festivals. “Sister Sparrow, Arleigh Kincheloe’s nom de disque, is a soul queen,” raved The Washington Post, while The Baltimore Sun simply noted, “Arleigh Kincheloe has one of the biggest voices in the business. Prepare to be blown away.”
The Dirty Birds have since moved to other parts of the country, leaving Kincheloe as the last Brooklynite. The physical separation from her band provided the perfect catalyst for her long-gestating desire to push Sister Sparrow’s music into new shapes and styles.
“I wanted more control,” she says. ”I wanted to explore different sonic space, try things I’d never done before with the band. I wanted to push the needle towards something more universal.”
GOLD began to take shape when Kincheloe and Matschullat first met for a writing session in 2016. The two struck an instant kinship, crafting a nascent version of the LP’s title track mere moments after meeting.
“I walked in and we got right to work,” she says. “I told him I had this idea for a song, ‘Gold,’ and what sonic space I wanted it to live in. Within ten minutes Carter had created this world for me that was exactly what I was wanting. I don’t know how, but he understood my not-very-cohesive ramblings. He got it.”
Plans were made to continue their collaboration, plans which ultimately fell through for the very best of reasons: “I got pregnant,” Kincheloe says, “which kind of threw a monkey wrench into a lot of things.”
Their work together resumed in the fall, just a few short months after the August arrival of Kincheloe’s son, TK. The new mom worked a few days each week on the burgeoning project, writing and tracking demos with Matschullat at Greenpoint’s DØØM Studio. Their creative connection proved so successful that when time came to pick a producer, it only made sense for Matschullat to take the helm.
“It was perfect,” she says. “He lives right here in Brooklyn. Everything I needed to make this record came together – willingness and location and time. Our ideas are similar but different enough that he was able to bring a lot of stuff to the table. I just felt I was in really good hands with him and I’m just so proud of what we did together.”
GOLD – which features backing by members of The Dirty Birds, along with Matschullat and some of NYC’s leading session players – feels a remarkably natural progression from Sister Sparrow’s previous body of work, with flavors of folk, rock, and pop now fully fused with her traditional soul approach to create what is certainly the most sensual and emotionally diverse music of her career. Songs like “Gold” and “Bad Habit” reveal a striking new freedom as a songwriter, their heart-hitting melodies more than a match for her candid lyricism and vocal prowess.
“It’s still me,” she says. “The through line is always going to be me, my voice and my writing.”
As noted, “Gold” proved “the creative seedling” for everything that followed, the ideal bridge between Sister Sparrow’s much-loved past and her committed desire to impel her sound in new directions.
“There was something about the sonic world we created that was exactly what we wanted to shoot for on the rest of the record,” she says. “That was the baseline – this is it and we want to build off it from here. It became a guide track in a way.”
Songs like “Plastic Paradise” propelled Kincheloe far out of her comfort zone, its quirky island melody far outside the singer’s regular wheelhouse. But it is “Ghost” that perhaps signifies the LP’s greatest departure and quite possibly its high-water mark. Sister Sparrow tackles the song in an altogether new way, revealing her soprano for the first time in her career. Simultaneously immediate and intimate, Kincheloe animates “Ghost” with expert phrasing and a heretofore-unheard subtlety that actually serves to amplify her astonishing vocal power.
“That song is sung so delicately,” she says. “I was shocked. I’ve always had to belt to compete with the giant band behind me so that was a really interesting thing to find in myself. Exciting, too.”
With GOLD in her pocket, Sister Sparrow is now excited to return to the road, eager to introduce fans old and new to her expanded musical vision. The Dirty Birds will of course continue as her touring band, augmented by additional instruments to approximate the more diverse sounds on GOLD.
Rich with ingenuity, confidence, and deeply felt emotion, GOLD represents both a career milestone and thrilling new beginning for Sister Sparrow. Though she has been making music for most of her life, Arleigh Kincheloe is well aware that with GOLD she has finally created something unique, universal, and altogether her own.
“I’ve done interviews about other records where I’d say, ‘We tried to do this and that,’ but in my head I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, but we didn’t do it,’” says Sister Sparrow. “It’s a different reality now. This time it feels like I really achieved what I set out to do.”