Brandi Carlile already knew the women of L.A.’s Lucius were special when she brought them along to Joni Mitchell’s place in Bel-Air one night not long ago.
“Whatever that intangible thing is that a singer has that can grab you by the nostrils and make you pay attention — they’ve got it,” the Grammy-winning folk-rock star says of Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig, who’ve performed with Carlile many times over the last few years, including just this month at the Recording Academy’s MusiCares Person of the Year gala honoring Mitchell in Las Vegas.
Still, it didn’t hurt that evening at Mitchell’s — where Lucius was taking part in one of the private all-star “Joni Jams” she’s held occasionally since recovering from a 2015 aneurysm — to have her feelings confirmed by one Paul McCartney.
“We’d heard Paul might drop in, and he did,” Carlile remembers. “Just in preparation the girls had learned a deep cut: ‘Goodbye,’ a song Paul wrote for Mary Hopkin. And after having backed up everyone else vocally all night, they step out and they sing this song, which prompted Paul to go into a 15-minute speech about how good he feels about where music is headed because of people like them.
“There’s just moments that Lucius have facilitated that I’ll never forget,” she adds.
Now Carlile is hoping to spread the word beyond Mitchell’s A-list circle with “Second Nature,” a dazzling new Lucius album she produced alongside her regular collaborator Dave Cobb. Released last week, it’s the duo’s fourth studio LP and follows work they’ve done as in-demand background singers with everyone from Roger Waters and Ozzy Osbourne to Harry Styles and the War on Drugs.
Yet unlike their rootsy earlier stuff — including 2018’s “Nudes,” with acoustic covers of “Goodnight, Irene” and Gerry Rafferty’s “Right Down the Line” — “Second Nature” mines an ’80s-pop sound with lush synths and sleek disco grooves under the women’s laser-guided vocals. Many of the album’s 10 songs address Wolfe’s recent divorce from Dan Molad, who plays drums in the Lucius band; some of them ponder the isolation of the pandemic. But the effect throughout is a kind of plaintive uplift — “like dancing with a broken heart,” as they put it in the opening title track.
“We wanted to be able to turn something dark into something joyful,” says Wolfe, 37, as she and Laessig, 36, hang out on the deck of Wolfe’s airy Silver Lake home. “Give me something to move to. Give me something that makes me feel like we’re gonna be together again.”
As tasty as the throwback arrangements can be — many a funky bass line here — it’s Lucius’ singing that gives the music its emotional wallop. Wolfe and Laessig, who met in the mid-aughts as students at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, intertwine their voices with almost-telepathic precision; they can do complex harmonies but they often sing in a striking unison that, especially when deployed in tandem with their matching stage outfits, lends the songs an otherworldly voice-from-above quality.
“It’s astounding to me that they’ve never lost their ability to preach,” says Carlile. “Usually you’re the preacher or the choir, and I’ve always been so conscientious of that. Too much background singing, too much harmony singing — I think it sometimes takes away some of the conviction in an artist.
“I keep waiting for that to happen with Lucius, but it hasn’t. Their conviction is fully intact.”
The collaboration with Carlile and Cobb grew out of a Lucius gig the two took in a couple of years ago during Carlile’s Girls Just Wanna Weekend festival in Mexico.
“We were standing on a balcony watching them, and Dave was like, ‘That’s the best band that nobody knows about,’” Carlile recalls. Cobb, a fellow Grammy winner for his work with Carlile and Chris Stapleton, told Carlile that he thought they could help the duo make a killer disco album, which intrigued Lucius when word later reached them.
“That didn’t sound like something they’d do,” Laessig says with a laugh. “Talk about outside their comfort zone.”
She and Wolfe had started writing songs in Nashville, working for the first time with pro co-writers such as Trent Dabbs and Lori McKenna. This was pre-COVID — barely. “The lockdown was announced while we were writing in Sheryl Crow’s barn,” Wolfe says. “I remember someone had their phone and was like, ‘Oh s—.’”
Back in L.A. to quarantine — and off the road for the longest stretch in ages — Wolfe says she came to face the truth she’d been avoiding about her and Molad’s broken marriage. She reckons she and Laessig wrote 80 songs together and with others over Zoom. “And probably 65 of those were about my divorce,” she says. (Add “Second Nature” to the long list of recent divorce-inspired LPs that also includes Adele’s “30,” Kacey Musgraves’ “Star-Crossed” and Carly Pearce’s “29: Written in Stone.”)
To record the album, Lucius returned to Nashville and set up shop for three weeks in Cobb’s beloved RCA Studio A, where Dolly Parton famously cut “Jolene,” as Wolfe points out. Cobb talked about channeling ABBA, Donna Summer and the Bee Gees; Carlile invoked the music of what she calls her “adolescent immersion into gay drama: Elton John and Erasure and Janet Jackson.” The idea was dance music played by hand, with a strong dose of nostalgia meant to “feel like a hug for people after lockdown,” Laessig says.
Carlile notes that amid all the sparkle and flash, the women “wanted to keep some reverence on those vocals — to keep being this twin Sinead O’Connor tidal-wave thing.” In the studio she guided their performances toward maximum payoff.
“I think one of the places you can see my thumbprint is that basically every final chorus goes through the ceiling,” Carlile says. “Those girls can blow. Nobody can out-sing them. So it’s hard not to use those tools when you have them.” In the throbbing “Dance Around It,” about “all the little white lies just keeping up the good times,” Carlile and Crow step into a Lucius-like role behind Wolfe and Laessig; the result has some serious “VH1 Divas Live” energy.
Choosing to concentrate on their own music didn’t come without a cost for Lucius, who spent much of 2017 and 2018 earning steady pay as background singers on Waters’ massive Us + Them world tour.
“We were living very comfortably,” Wolfe says of the top-flight amenities of a road show that rang up more than $220 million in ticket sales, according to Pollstar. “Anything you could ever want from catering, including like 20 different kinds of dessert every night.” Sitting out the Pink Floyd co-founder’s upcoming tour, “we’re gonna have some FOMO for sure,” Wolfe admits. “But it’s time to turn the page and focus on getting ourselves out there again.”
Wolfe and Laessig say Waters supports their decision, though they laugh as they recall explaining “Second Nature‘s” concept to him. “He was like, ‘Disco?’” Wolfe says. “So we said, ‘Well, you know, some of your songs make us want to dance — “Another Brick in the Wall” or “Money.” Is there any song that makes you think you want to dance?’ He was like, ‘I guess “Tennessee Waltz” by that redhead woman that plays guitar.’
“Bonnie Raitt?” Wolfe recalls clarifying in amazement. “It’s not even a dance-y ballad! But OK.”
Asked whether any of their dozens of background gigs were unhappier than their experience with Waters, the women share a quick look before saying they think they were unfairly denied a feature credit on Styles’ song “Treat People with Kindness,” from the English heartthrob’s smash 2019 album “Fine Line.”
According to Lucius, they’d been in the studio with Styles working on a different song they didn’t end up completing when he asked them to sing on what would become “Treat People with Kindness.” “We were like, ‘Yeah, of course,’” Wolfe says. “If it’s just ‘oohs’ and ‘aaahs,’ it’s not a big deal. And it’s a good opportunity for us. But we started singing and we were singing the whole chorus.”
“We thought he was gonna add on top after and that we’d be in the background,” Laessig adds.
“Two weeks later, they sent us the track,” Wolfe continues. “And it was literally us. We start the song, we sing every chorus, just us. We trade off the bridge. It is us and Harry Styles. Harry Styles and us.” Yet Styles — who has never officially featured any artist on an album — declined to list Lucius as a featured act or even to tag the duo on Spotify so that Styles’ millions of fans might easily find the rest of their music.
“It just hurt,” Wolfe says. “Here was an opportunity to spread the love a little bit, which he purports to do all the time. And it could’ve really helped us. I’ve been to Harry shows and he’s always been very charming and kind. We’ve sung live with him,” including at Styles’ “Fine Line” album-release concert at the Forum in 2019. “The fun part for me is that I don’t sing on the chorus,” he said that night while introducing “Treat People with Kindness.”
Would they perform with Styles again, for example if he asked them to open for him on tour? “Yeah, we would,” Wolfe says. “But I don’t know if that’s gonna happen.” (A representative for Styles declined to comment.)
What is happening is Lucius’ own tour, which is set to kick off at the end of April, as well as a handful of dates opening for Carlile, including a June 24 show at the Greek Theatre in L.A. Along for the ride will be Wolfe’s ex-husband-slash-bandmate — “We’re in rehearsals now, and it feels more comfortable than I thought it would,” she says — and the 1-year-old son Laessig shares with her husband. Of launching a new album while caring for an infant, Laessig says: “It’s great. I mean, it’s a lot. It’s a lot of greatness. And a lot of tiredness.”
Yet the songs on “Second Nature” could be just what she needs.
“I can’t not dance to it, and I do not dance,” Carlile says of the album. “I’m like the awkward lesbian. But my friends and I, we put it on and we go apes—.”
©2022 Los Angeles Times. Visit at latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.