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Spotlight: Sister Sparrow & the Dirty Birds

Ryan Reed | December 09, 2013

Arleigh Kincheloe unofficially became Sister Sparrow around age 18, in the Catskill Mountains of New York. As a teenager, the petite but powerful singer had the neighborhood “party house,” and she’d entertain hoards of friends with her soulful, raspy croon. It wasn’t an actual stage, but it hardly mattered: Her rock star destiny had clearly been sealed.

Kincheloe busked her songs around the intimidating sprawl of New York City, occasionally sitting in with her brother Jackson’s band, The Ramblers. But she never struggled with her identity.

“I didn’t have to suffer through those years of, ‘I have a band, but we suck,’” Kincheloe says. “I guess I was driven. I knew if I was going to be in a band, I wanted it to be my band. I wanted it to be exactly how I wanted it to be. I didn’t want to settle.”

She had a particular vision for her music—a massive, malleable sound that required an equally massive and malleable band. So she formed The Dirty Birds in 2008, recruiting Jackson (harmonica), her cousin Bram (drums), and an army of musicians that now includes bassist Josh Myers, guitarist Sasha Brown, trombonist Ryan Snow, trumpeter Phil Rodriguez and saxophonist Brian Graham.

Deftly blending funk, hard rock and soul, The Dirty Birds quickly gained a devoted local following. And Kincheloe herself was, naturally, the center of attention—a commanding vocalist with a spitfire stage presence. They released two studio albums while maintaining a mind-numbing tour schedule. Averaging 130 gigs a year, the group made their name on stage, opening for bands like Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, Fitz & The Tantrums and Gov’t Mule.

But the group’s latest release, the Fight EP, is the most pivotal step in their career thus far. It is also the riskiest. Kincheloe and company found themselves working with a highly unexpected producer, R&B/pop veteran (and former American Idol judge) Randy Jackson, who fell in love with Kincheloe’s sultry style after watching a stripped-down piano version of the ballad “My House.”

“He wanted to consult things, mentor things,” Kincheloe says. “The shit that he’s been through is incredible, and for him to be so humble and cool and to work with a band that’s clearly up-and-coming, he’s taking a chance and being really fucking awesome about it. It was surprising, but it made me realize you can be that famous and that successful and you still don’t have to be a dick.”

Jackson lived up to his reputation as a studio craftsman, helping the band tweak their arrangements in that setting. But his first priority was capturing The Dirty Birds’ propulsive stage presence on record—a feat they hadn’t quite achieved up to that point.

“I think that’s one of the motivations—just trying to be truthful to who we are live,” Kincheloe notes. “That’s really where we shine. I think Randy had a big hand in that. I didn’t know if he was going to get really ‘produce-y.’ I had no idea what he was going to bring to the table, and it was really refreshing that what he wanted to bring to the table was us. He wasn’t wanting us to sound like American Idol. I was really relieved that he believed in who we are enough to just let it be us. In a strange way, it was very humbling that he didn’t want to mess with it.”

Working with a producer of Jackson’s caliber is certainly giving the band an image boost. But most important, Sister Sparrow & The Dirty Birds are continuing to mature musically. Check out “Crawdaddies,” which fluidly blends R&B and roots-rock, or the EP’s emotional title track, a break-up anthem,
which features a powerhouse vocal from Kincheloe.

“I was definitely inspired,” she says of “Fight.” “I definitely got my heart broken. That was one of those songs that was almost therapy for me. I was at this point where I really needed to get that out and write that down. And it helped me get over it. It’s so beautiful when that happens. I wrote it up in the Catskills on the same piano that I learned on—the piano’s been in my family since before I was born. It’s this shitty, old upright—all the keys are worn. I played it for my dad, and I remember he was such a proud dad, you know? I played it for him, and he was kinda silent.

“It was one of those moments that made me feel like songwriting was a really important part of me life,” Kincheloe continues. “Like it’s actually helping me.”