Larkin Poetic: Megan and Rebecca Lovell Get to the Heart of Elvis Costello

The possibilities are endless for musicians who refuse to play by the rules. If a London lad born as Declan Patrick MacManus wants to become Elvis Costello and morph from a snotty, defiant New Wave hell-raiser into a distinguished gentleman worthy of a King of America coronation, it's totally conceivable.

Likewise, two lovely American teenage girls strumming a mandolin and dobro in a southern roots family trio can turn their sweet sister act named the Lovell Sisters into an amped-up guitar heroine duo of desire, reborn to rock as Larkin Poe.

Even more remarkable is when those two acts with an age difference of more than 30 years can come together on the same stage for scores of appearances, bridging a generation gap as wide as the ocean separating their homelands.

Getting to perform on each side of such a progressive thinker, mover and shaker as 61-year-old Elvis Costello, Megan and Rebecca Lovell are young apprentices on track to become the Mothers of Reinvention.

"It's been a really, really amazing relationship to develop over the years," Larkin Poe lead singer and kid sister (by 20 months) Rebecca Lovell, 25, was saying from home during a call with Megan, 27, on St. Patrick's Day, doing interviews instead of running a celebratory green light. "We respect him so deeply. ... In terms of a role model, he's one of the top artists, in our minds, at least. Just in terms of all the types of records that he's made over the years. ... He's done so much with his musical expression. So for us, it's been such an honor to work with him alongside. And he's really become such a mentor to us, so we don't take it lightly."

Atlanta-based Larkin Poe, a name they chose in tribute to their family ancestry, continue to evolve after the release of Kin in 2014, a year when the record landed the duo on my list of favorite artists.

Through the encouragement of Universal and Vertigo in Germany, the record is getting a makeover with the April 15 U.S. release by RH Music of Reskinned, which will include five new songs in addition to remastered versions of some of the best cuts from their full-length debut album such as "Jailbreak" and "Sugar High."

"Both Megan and I, we've definitely pulled out some more distortion pedals, we've cranked up our guitar amplifiers, we're learning how to rock. And we've been writing a lot," Rebecca Lovell said, coming off a whirlwind trip with her sister to Nashville that included making a music video for their new single "Trouble in Mind" and recording some tracks with T Bone Burnett and Steven Tyler.

Now, though, they are preparing to reunite with the man they call E.C.

Larkin Poe's Rebecca Lovell (left) and Megan Lovell with their guitars.

Taking another Detour
Since meeting Costello at MerleFest in 2007, where the three Lovell Sisters harmonized with him on "Angel Band," Megan and Rebecca say they are "closing in on hundreds" of appearances with the 2003 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee who unleashed his rebellious nature on the American public during an infamous Saturday Night Live performance in 1977, 14 years before Rebecca was born.

Yet the thought of collaborating again with Costello never gets old for Larkin Poe, who embark on the U.S. leg of the Detour tour with him Tuesday (March 29) in Santa Rosa, Calif., after completing a successful series of European dates in the fall of 2015.

Opening the show with their own songs in a 30- to 45-minute set, the Lovells will then join Costello past the midway point of his solo set during which he plays acoustic and electric guitars and piano. They accompany him instrumentally while adding beautiful harmonies to several of his classic numbers such as "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," "Blame It on Cain and "Brilliant Mistake," the latter kicking off his country-tinged 1986 album King of America that was produced by T Bone Burnett.

"He created this really elaborate set and he tells really amazing ... the story arc of the show is just incredible," Rebecca said, adding that the audience will be treated to a few twists and turns.

The master of improvisation also has been know to surprise his gifted sidekicks.

"He likes to keep it fresh," Rebecca said. "I think that people on the tour can expect the show to kind of change a little bit from night to night, especially our portion with him. He's always pulling out new songs for us to try. ... He'll go on big tangents and expect Megan and I to follow along. And generally speaking, we're able to."

Road runners
The life experiences and fundamental tips they've picked up offstage throughout what Larkin Poe call their "natural evolution" have been equally enlightening.

There was the reverential visit with Costello to Johann Sebastian Bach's grave at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, Germany, that Megan called a "spiritual moment for all of us," especially since the sisters grew up loving and learning to play classical music. "And I think E.C. felt it as well," she added.

Also inspirational has been the developing pen pal relationship Rebecca shared over the past few years with Costello, who recently added autobiographer to his long list of job titles.

"I think oftentimes these prolific writers, songwriters that end up creating books to kind of tally up their life experiences, sometimes they're good, sometimes they're not, but I would say that Elvis Costello's book (2015's Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink) is an incredible body of work," Rebecca offered. "But for me at this point in time to read through his entire book and become so familiar with his writing voice, it was really surreal. It was as if I was reading an email from Elvis but it happened to be a hardcover book that I bought at Barnes & Noble."

The fact that the rock 'n' roll's grand ambassador and two tenacious twenty-somethings could form such a durable musical bond during his various projects (the Imposters, the Sugarcanes, The New Basement Tapes) shouldn't be that astonishing.

He's a cool crooner, hopeless romantic, rascally raconteur and in-touch tunesmith with a great Brit wit and a way with wordplay. While Larkin Poe's vocal treatment brings a fresh approach to his tried and true, they also have brains, beauty and the beat, with the guitar-shredding abilities to electric shock and awe their audience.

That the Lovells are willing to heed his advice and continue to transform makes them that more endearing.

Megan said Costello "is probably the most knowledgeable person I've ever known about music. He's listened to everyone from songs from many, many years ago to the latest stuff. He's stayed relevant. And I think that's just because he researches it. He takes it really seriously and is intensely interested in music. And I think that he's really encouraged us to kind of be the same way."

Rebecca said they've had countless conversations during catered meals with the crew where he's imparted his wisdom. The message that sticks with her is to not be "too concerned as an artist with putting yourself in a genre box" while dealing with record label executives, managers or others trying to compartmentalize what they do for a living.

"And he's given us advice in the past to not listen or not to feel too much pressure to know exactly what it is that you are," she added. "That all you really need to be is undeniable. That in the end all the really matters is how you move someone's heart, not necessarily how to define what it is that you do."

Elvis Costello with Larkin Poe's Rebecca Lovell (left) and Megan Lovell.

Show and tell
Those moments generally are kept private, but the Lovells are excited while joking about "being immortalized" as part of a concert experience with Costello that they can now share with the masses.

For those eager to know what to expect when this tour hits the U.S., the show has been captured on DVD and Blu-ray by Eagle Rock Entertainment, which released Costello's Detour Live at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall in February. (See the trailer below.)

During a concert filmed on June 15, 2015, Larkin Poe are prominently featured on nine of the 27 numbers (four are bonus tracks) during Costello's captivating tour de force through a sumptuous songbook, with an encore that includes some of Megan's favorite moments. Consider this your SPOILER ALERT.

"I always think that's magical because we're all just singing around one mic," Megan said of the grand finale. "And it's just amazing to have that kind of close harmony with him and feel that comfortable as well singing with him. Because it takes time to learn how somebody sings, to kind of learn what their language is inside of music. And I feel like we've gotten to that point with him where we can really understand where he's going and what he's going to do."

Rebecca cherishes the first time just a couple of years ago that they sang "Alison" with Costello. While knowing his signature tune, it wasn't on the list they worked out in advance.

"Out of the blue, he looked over at Megan and I and said, 'Hey, let's go into "Alison" in the key of A. Let's go.' And then kicked right in," she recalled. "And that was a really exhilarating moment because there was so much trust in him being willing to go out on that tangent and go out on that limb and trust us to follow him. And that for me was a really cool turning moment in the relationship that we have because he, I guess, had enough faith stored up to just throw it on us and just trust that we could do it. And we did and it sounded great!"

Saying Costello gives them a lot of license to choose which of his songs they want to perform, Larkin Poe believe they know most of his "lifetime repertoire inside and out" at this point. They each choose different tunes as their personal favorites.

While becoming a devoted lap steel player after starting out principally on the dobro, Megan likes "Pads, Paws and Claws." Usually their opening number with him, she gets the chance "to kind of just go nuts" during an instrumental solo, Rebecca said proudly of her sister.

Meanwhile, Rebecca's powerful pipes are evident even as a backup vocalist while -- at least in previous stints -- she has stuck to playing the mandolin on golden oldies from My Aim is True and This Year's Model.

"But some of my favorites have actually ended up being some of the more obscure tracks," added Rebecca, who also plays guitar and violin. "Even off some of the records that he did with the Sugarcanes in the last couple of years. There's some really beautiful country ballads. There's this song (from 2010's National Ransom) called 'That's Not the Part of Him You're Leaving' (included on the DVD) that's really kind of gospel. ... That's such a fun one to sing."

Getting Reskinned
Perhaps Rebecca will get a chance show off her "new love" in electric guitars -- a Fender Shawbucker Strat -- and launch her vocal power this time around if Larkin Poe can convince Costello to sing along to one of their songs.

"That would be a great thing," Rebecca said, lighting up at the suggestion. "We've never gone there, actually, at an Elvis show. But that would be a really fun turn of events."

After all, Larkin Poe's new material is starting to stack up, too. With this latest project, released in Germany earlier in March, Megan said, "There were dozens and dozens of songs we had to choose from," and the five selected for the record were Georgia peach fresh, just like they are.

"We were still writing lyrics as we finished cutting them," Rebecca said of the tunes written late last summer. "For us to be able to literally have these songs released within about six months of when they were written, it feels like such success."

Like other prominent co-writers, Larkin Poe's methods vary.

"Oh, it's never one way," Megan said. "We may write together, we may write separately or sometimes I'll have written a verse and she'll write the chorus, finish it out. ... Regardless of if it was her who wrote a verse or I write the chorus, one of us and both of us are present in each of the songs. It always ends up being a group effort."

"Trouble in Mind," a mid-tempo rocker featuring Rebecca's booming voice, was written and recorded in one day, Megan pointed out, adding, "The new songs are a little more raw, a little bit more rocking," compared to their previous material. "And I think that they all fit together. There's still the Larkin Poe that threads its way through everything but I think that we are in kind of in love with the new songs."

Numbers such as "Sucker Puncher" and "P-R-O-B-L-E-M" are bona fide blasts of energy while "When God Closes a Door" and "Blunt" dig into deeper ground.

"Lyrically, ('Blunt') to me is a very important to have written," Rebecca said. "I think as a 25-year-old in today's political and economical and cultural setting, it's very easy at times to become very cynical. Looking at the state of affairs in the world, it's sometimes very easy to see just the negative. You turn on your TV and literally all you see is bad news that's been sensationalized. ...

"And It's really hard sometimes to maintain a sense of optimism. Or even a sense of ... an ability to change or to affect any kind of positive change in the world. Even just based on how many of us there are crammed on to this planet. ...

"So for me 'Blunt' is a bit of a commentary on that. Not politically, necessarily. But just in terms of raising a question and hoping to remind people that we can affect change and it all is in your mind on how you choose to look at the world and choose to see your fellow man. Be kind to the person who's checking you out at McDonald's. Why not?"

Indeed. There's no telling who that cashier at the drive-through window is destined to become. Maybe even the head of rock 'n' roll's next royal family.

Publicity photo courtesy of the artist. Elvis Costello tour photo with Larkin Poe by York Tillyer. See the trailer for Elvis Costello's Detour Live at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall featuring Larkin Poe.